SF ACORN: Working Locally and Nationally to Build Community Power

by Lorraine Sanders on August 5, 2004

The word “community” gets bandied about these days like the latest slang. If you can isolate a particular group from the masses for almost any reason whatsoever, you can call them a community. Bound by common interests and circumstances, people have fought and won many battles from cohesive, well-organized community efforts. But how do concerned neighbors unite their communities and rally around specific actions?

In five low-to-moderate income San Francisco neighborhoods, the local chapter of a national organization hits city streets every day to knock on doors, talk with residents, gauge their concerns and suggest feasible ways to effect change. San Francisco Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), which is part of a national network of community organizers, tackles corporate giants like Bank of America and Wells Fargo for unfair loan practices but also addresses community-specific issues like traffic calming, living wage laws, rent control and loitering.

“Most of our campaigns are about accountability, pushing for more resources or policy changes,” said John Eller, head organizer for San Francisco ACORN.

That could mean urging liquor stores owners in low-income neighborhoods to curb their inventory of dirt-cheap alcohol. It could also mean pressing city departments to repair streets or helping a neighborhood organize youth recreational activities where there previously were none.

San Francisco ACORN currently counts over 850 member families living in Visitacion Valley, Bay View, the Excelsior, Ingleside and the Mission. What’s more, the grassroots organization has only four staff members. Even with its small staff, identifying community needs is hardly a problem. According to Eller, each neighborhood group has its own agenda.

“Since they already know what they want, it’s about coming together to push for more resources,” Eller said.

Connecting community members can sometimes be as simple as scheduling a meeting. But language barriers can make it difficult for people living in the same neighborhoods to communicate. In addition to that, interest groups often remain focused on singular issues and, consequently, are not ready to widen their focus to include several community issues at once.

“San Francisco is a tough place because there are so many groups that are entrenched. We’re about working through those barriers,” Eller said.

To that end, Eller says he and other organizers work to hold meetings in multiple languages and promote collaboration among different groups. A large part of the process can be simply finding the correct avenues to pursue a particular change, and then teaching community members how to progress down those avenues.

With rent control, for example, San Francisco ACORN knew that real change could only come with help from Sacramento. Eller and his colleagues helped local residents form alliances with other city groups like the Tenants Union and the Tenderloin Housing Clinic. Together, this local coalition can better communicate with leaders at the state level.

One of San Francisco ACORN’s most prominent victories came with last fall’s passage of Proposition L, the minimum wage ballot measure. ACORN led the local signature-gathering drive and played a central role in qualifying the measure for the ballot.

ACORN has been fighting for living wages in cities and states across the country, and spearheaded the recent campaign to raise the minimum wage in New York from $5.15 to $7.10 by 2007 (the Governor’s veto of the increase is expected to be overridden). Florida ACORN collected 975,000 signatures to qualify a measure for the November ballot to raise the statewide minimum wage to $6.15, in a contest that is expected to boost turnout of low-income voters for the Presidential race.

On a national level, ACORN has successfully challenged Bank of America’s loan practices. As a result of the campaign, ACORN member families get a point off interest rates from Bank of America loans. Eller said the campaign actually helped the bank in the long run.

“Across the country, they realized that they need to figure out a better loan product and now they’re more successful,” he said.

At present, ACORN is waging a new war against another bank, Wells Fargo. For several years, ACORN has been fighting what it describes as predatory loan practices, or loans that trap borrowers into unfair home ownership loans by capitalizing on the average person’s inability to understand complex transactions, as well as through deception and highly aggressive sales tactics. In many low-to-moderate income neighborhoods nationwide, a variety of loan options is rare, and many homeowners get suckered into deals that end in the loss of equity, skyrocketing debts and even foreclosure.

In addition to backing living wage laws and promoting transparent home ownership loan practices, ACORN is currently conducting nationwide campaigns to improve schools, increase the availability of affordable housing, encourage banks to reinvest in low- and moderate- income communities and adjust delayed payment procedures for utility bills.

ACORN is also playing a key role in voter registration drives in swing states, and is among the many independent groups who the Kerry-Edward campaign is counting upon to bring record voter turnout in November.

You can reach Lorraine Sanders at lorraine@lorrainesanders.com.

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