New Orleans Lake Charles is a middle-sized Louisiana city better known for oil refineries, chemical plants, and the fact that the city is home to the closest casinos to the Texas border. Depending on the traffic through Baton Rouge crossing the Mississippi River and the amount of construction on the great east-west highway, Interstate 10, running from the Atlantic to the Pacific, it can take a driver about four hours to roll from New Orleans to the city.
About this time of year for a pile of years, Louisiana ACORN and now ACORN’s affiliate, A Community Voice (ACV), holds what they call a “bank fair,” which for almost as long was an ACORN staple, originally debuted in Philadelphia under the masterful direction of the inspired leaders there. Louisiana leaders and organizers have kept the flame alive and developed a model that has consistently produced great results in Lake Charles.
The concept is straightforward. Banks, financial service organizations, and others are recruited to offer booths and an on-the-spot application process for families trying to navigate the mysterious process of loan applications for home purchases and repairs among other things. The organization in a time-tested system of phone, flyer, and direct outreach turns out a crowd, and, weather permitting, it’s a big one. As the bank fair model has developed over the years, they have attracted all kinds of different organizations to participate from credit unions to social service agencies and others. Organizational participants pay for a booth, so the organization does well at the event, too, and usually signs up a pile on new members to boot.
On the road, here and abroad, I’m usually asked about the sustainability of community organizations following the ACORN model. Often NIC-ACORN on the largely African-American north side of Lake Charles crosses my mind. NIC stands for Neighborhood Improvement Coalition, I think, even though it’s not a coalition, but the leaders probably liked the way, “NIC” sounded. The local group is now celebrating its 40th anniversary this year. Originally, supported by an organizer driving back and forth from New Orleans who recruited a local Catholic church as the meeting place then and its priest as an active volunteer for years, the group has stayed steadfast over the years. Briefly once upon a time an organizer staffed the group, but for almost all of the forty years NIC-ACORN has been meeting, taking action, and running their annual bank fair, the leaders and members have carried the whole weight of the work with regular phone calls and visits, shipments of flyers, the ACORN News, and whatever else they needed from New Orleans. Sometimes they had an office, most times not. NIC is not the only forty-plus-year group. There are others in the 9th Ward of New Orleans and in the other legacy organization in Arkansas, both in Pine Bluff and Little Rock.
The members have kept these groups alive and cooking through hurricanes, tornadoes, and the world of attacks from their opponents, but to the question of whether they are sustainable, the answer must be another question: what could kill them?