ACORN marches with 3 women, a man, and a boyBy Bill Silverfarb
Last Thursday a small group of protesters marched the streets of the Belle Air neighborhood in San Bruno to demand traffic calming devices because, as the group says, motorists disregard the law and put children at risk.
Three women marched with signs and a man and a boy were hoisting flags as they marched toward Sixth and San Bruno avenues -- an intersection the group says is in need of a traffic light. The signs read, "Safer streets now" and "We want safer streets." A third sign in Spanish read, "Queremos calles mas seguras." Each of the signs and the two flags had the word ACORN emblazoned on them featuring a logo of, well, an acorn.
I had never seen this logo before or heard of the group.
ACORN stands for the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now. It is an international nonprofit that touts itself as the nation's largest community organization of low- and moderate-income families. The group works toward social justice and stronger communities, according to its Web site.
A new chapter recently formed in San Bruno and its president is Sixth Avenue resident Rosa Fuentes.
The group is seeking new membership and ACORN's head organizer in San Mateo County, David Sharples, appears to be busy recruiting new members. The Belle Air neighborhood, filled with plenty of low- and moderate-income families, is a perfect spot.
Sharples directed last week's march but apparently refused to speak with San Bruno City Manager Connie Jackson, who attended the protest to hear the group out.
Sharples also refused to talk to me.
I just had a few basic questions to ask Sharples. Essentially, I wanted to know why the group chose to march and protest and get the newspapers involved before going to City Hall, the City Council or the police department to raise their concerns -- a seemingly logical first step.
At last week's protest, Jackson told the Daily Journal's Erik Oeverndiek she was not aware of any previous requests for speed bumps or traffic lights in the neighborhood.
The protest seemed to take everyone by surprise.
For longtime Belle Air neighborhood resident and activist Alice Barnes, the group seems more interested in recruiting new members than actually trying to improve the community.
"They are not interested in getting things accomplished that need to be done in this community. The intention, I think, is that they are just after newspaper clippings to further the membership drive," Barnes told me Wednesday.
Barnes has been active in the community for years. She is a key member of the San Bruno Belle Air Residents for Truth, founded in 1995, and frequently addresses the City Council on areas of need for her neighborhood.
She heard about ACORN through a flier found on her doorstep, attended a meeting and calls herself an associate member.
She is not a full member, because that would mean she would have to pay ACORN approximately $120 a year in membership fees.
"I'm a member without paying," she said.
Although Barnes is not opposed to ACORN -- she thinks the group does do some good work -- she views the membership recruiting drive with suspicion.
"People in this neighborhood cannot afford the membership fees. David Sharples doesn't live in San Bruno. He's trying to take advantage of the neighborhood," Barnes said.
For Councilman Rico Medina, fostering change can be a simple act.
"It doesn't take a march or protest to get things done," he said. "If I receive a letter about a crack in the sidewalk, and you give your phone number, I'll call you."
The most effective way to get things done is for citizens to have face-to-face talks with their elected officials or city staff, Medina said. Language shouldn't be an obstacle either, since there are plenty of city staff members who are bilingual, he told me Thursday.
Medina has lived in San Bruno his entire life, worked for the city for 13 years and served on committees that fostered change in San Bruno. Medina even helped create a graffiti abatement program as a concerned citizen before being elected to the council, so he knows what it takes to get things done as a private citizen -- and it is not a march and protest.
Although an ACORN has fallen on the heads of Belle Air neighborhood residents, it doesn't mean the sky is falling.
I would guess concerned residents in that neighborhood do not need to join an international nonprofit group that charges members $120 a year to foster real change. A simple phone call to City Hall might be all it takes.
Copyright ©2006 San Mateo Daily Journal. Published 09/29/2006.