ACORN strives to be a voice for social change

Organization says it has `matured' in its plight to help the poor


On a steamy afternoon this month, 30 ACORN members rode a school bus to a South Baltimore park where they joined members of other groups in a demonstration against Wal-Mart.

Sonja Merchant-Jones, co-chairwoman of the state chapter of ACORN, gave a speech accusing the corporate giant of exploiting workers by failing to provide adequate health care benefits. After skewering Wal-Mart, Jones finished her speech with a plug for ACORN: "If you want to make a difference, join ACORN."

The Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now boasts of being the nation's largest antipoverty group with chapters in more than 100 cities and 37 states and a membership of about 200,000.

Since the group set up shop in Maryland six years ago, it has become one of the state's loudest voices for social change, averaging at least one protest a month, and gaining 1,000 members each year, according to its leaders.

ACORN is "energizing the grass-roots movement," said Maryland Democratic Party Chairman Terry Lierman.

Earlier this year, Maryland ACORN was at the forefront of the battle against the BGE rate increase. ACORN's vocal opposition caught the ear of Mayo A. Shattuck III, chief executive officer of Constellation Energy, parent of BGE, who called for a meeting with the group's leaders.

Wal-Mart has been a target for ACORN chapters across the nation. ACORN has clashed with Wal-Mart on many issues, including wages, health benefits, labor practices and expansion of stores.

Maryland ACORN claims 6,000 members, most in Baltimore where the group has been busy registering voters for the coming elections.

The organization also has been critical of the city Police Department, which it accuses of harassing citizens by making unnecessary arrests. Substandard housing and predatory lending practices are other areas of concerns.

The organization came to Maryland in 1999 and began with "no members," said Mitchell Klein. Klein moved from Arkansas, ACORN's birthplace, to spearhead the state chapters.

The national office works with a $37.5 million budget, while locally, ACORN operates on about $850,000.

ACORN, the group's local and national leaders say, is moving away from some of the publicity stunts it's been known for over the years. In 2000, it focused on trash in city neighborhoods and issued a failing grade to the city's efforts to keep the city clean. To highlight the problem, the group dumped a beat-up sofa on the steps of City Hall.

ACORN has also paraded one of its members around in a rat costume to highlight rodent problems in the city.

"As an organization, we've matured, and our actions have actually changed," Klein said. "I'm not saying we don't do direct actions, but we've gotten a lot smarter in how we influence them and not just yelling from the outside any more. We're trying to also have relationships from the inside."

With the primary election next month and the general election in November, ACORN's Baltimore chapter has interviewed candidates and plans to issue endorsements.

Backing will go to office-seekers who are sympathetic to the organization's local and national goals, which include pushing for a higher minimum wage, affordable housing for low-income residents and health care for the uninsured.

Helping the disenfranchised, raising social issues and galvanizing opinions on controversial topics are what advocacy groups such as ACORN do best, according to Arthur Murphy, a Baltimore political consultant.

However, history shows that advocacy groups such as ACORN have not lived up to expectation when it comes to tipping elections, Murphy added.

Klein, who is leaving the area to take a leadership position at the national headquarters in New Orleans, expects ACORN to hit 5 million members within 10 years.

"I know that sounds crazy," Klein said. "But believe it or not, almost every day, somebody joins on the Internet in Maryland."

ACORN, though, is not without its problems.

Former staff workers have logged complaints against the organization, saying ACORN fails to pay in a timely manner, if at all. Most complaints have come from temporary workers ACORN hired to register voters.

ACORN also lost a recent $7,000 court judgment to a landlord who rented space to the group in Hyattsville. Critics say these incidents are indicative of a problem in ACORN leadership: disorganization.

Merchant-Jones, 49, says ACORN workers are paid out of the organization's national headquarters. The lingering effects of Hurricane Katrina might have been part of the reason why some locally were not paid in a timely manner, she said.

"Because things happened in New Orleans, you can't control that here," she said. "That whole office had to be restaffed."

As Merchant-Jones talked in the local ACORN headquarters on 25th Street, others around her continued preparations for the annual banquet. It figures to be one of ACORN's biggest fundraisers of the year, and the work put into it is as extensive as any other campaign.

"With us," Merchant-Jones said, "there is always something going on."

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