ACORNs hit San Bruno streetsBy Michael Manekin
When city residents want streets cleaned or traffic lights installed or speeding cars slowed down, they either complain and do nothing - or they complain and take action.
Most residents take the road most traveled - by phoning City Hall themselves or perhaps through a neighborhood association.
But members of ACORN (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now) have their own strategy for taking action. And it can run the gamut, from marches to pickets to sit-ins to blocking streets.
"We're not a group that's going to have lots of meetings and talks about things, and then nothing ever gets done," said Peninsula ACORN organizer David Sharples. "We do direct action."
Last month, ACORN staged a "direct action" in San Bruno to clean up the trash that collected by the Caltrain tracks alongside First Avenue. The technique? ACORN invited city and Caltrain officials to meet with a dozen angry residents - and the news media. The officials were asked to publicly sign poster-sized "contracts" pledging to clean the tracks on a regular basis.
It was the first of many actions that the San Bruno chapter of ACORN plans to implement in their quest to improve local neighborhoods, and was designed to serve as an announcement: ACORN has arrived on the Peninsula.
ACORN is a conglomerate of autonomous neighborhood associations representing low- and moderate-income families. Individually, the groups work to strengthen their communities and fight for social justice.
In most ACORN communities, that means campaigning to improve housing, schools, neighborhood safety, health care and job conditions, among other things. Individual chapters can also focus on national and statewide campaigns devoted to increasing the minimum wage and providing tax relief for low- and moderate-income families.
There are over 850 ACORN chapters in 75 cities in the U.S. There are also chapters in Canada and in such far-flung locations as the Dominican Republic and Peru. Individual neighborhood groups - or chapters - earn money from membership dues, foundation grants and other donations. Here in California, ACORN's 27,000 members - in 13 cities, including San Francisco and Oakland - provide for roughly one-third of an income totaling nearly $2 million.
After launching this summer, the San Bruno ACORN chapter - which represents the low- and moderate-income neighborhoods east of El Camino Real - has swelled to 140 members. The initial focus of the group, members say, will be to improve traffic safety and keeping the neighborhood clean.
The San Bruno chapter's methods, however, have already rankled some of those who could help them most.
At the "direct action" against Caltrain and the city last month, officials from both entities said that they felt "ambushed" by ACORN. The group could have accomplished its goal better if it had only bothered to register a complaint ahead of time, the officials said.
This Thursday, ACORN plans to meet in another "direct action" with City Manager Connie Jackson and members of the City Council. This time, the issue is traffic improvements. ACORN wants a traffic signal at Sixth and San Bruno avenues and speed bumps along Third Avenue.
But the group already has managed to miff Jackson, who said that though she has accepted ACORN's invitation, she has received scant details regarding the group's complaint.
Jackson said the city's Traffic Safety and Parking Committee is a "very workable forum for residents to bring forward issues in their neighborhood," and that's she bothered by the lack of communication from ACORN.
"I'm actually a little surprised with the manner in which ACORN appears to be developing issues and presenting them," she said. "We really haven't had an opportunity to understand what the neighborhood is concerned with or address it in any legitimate manner.
"Our city organization has a philosophy of responsiveness to the community," she said. "My opinion is that this not a very effective means to work with the city."
ACORN has also managed to alienate some of the city's longtime neighborhood organizers.
After attending an ACORN community meeting last month, Alice Bisson-Barnes left skeptical.
"Here comes this group that's zeroing in on low-income families and getting them all fired up to get things done, and I know for a fact they're not going about it correctly," said Bisson-Barnes.
Bisson-Barnes, who has been active in her neighborhood-watch group for more than a decade, said that her successes - including 21 "curb cuts" to provide easier access for wheelchairs and strollers - are the result of cooperative action with the city government.
Tactical differences aside, Bisson-Barnes is also upset that the group charges monthly membership dues.
"They're going to get the same results that they could have gotten for free if they called neighborhood watch or City Hall," she said.
Nonetheless, Sharples defends the $10 membership fee, saying that the modest charge pays for fliers, mailings, phone bills and the other administrative costs of activism.
Why has ACORN attracted so much interest from residents?
Sharples hints that the attention attests to the city's inability to meet residents' needs.
"In the past, a lot of people in San Bruno have called the city government about issues that they're concerned about, and nothing's been done. So now they're getting involved with ACORN in order to get power in numbers - in order to get results."
For her part, Rosa Fuentes, chairwoman of the new San Bruno chapter, was thrilled that ACORN came to town.
In her native El Salvador, Fuentes was a community organizer. But after seven years in San Bruno, the only community organization she had found to her liking was her church.
Now Fuentes, who says in Spanish that she loves to "stand in front of people and help a good cause," is more than happy to sign up with a nationally recognized organization such as ACORN.
"I do this without getting paid," she said. "I don't speak perfect English, but I still go around from house to house ... and we've already heard thousands of complaints, because the people always have something they want improved in their neighborhood."
"If only I go to City Hall, then no one listens," she said. "But if the group's is big enough, then they listen."
Copyright ©2006 San Mateo County Times. Published 09/18/2006.