Category Archives: ACORN

In the Lower 9th Ward

New Orleans     Living in New Orleans one becomes myopic perhaps?  Day to day one counts small, sometimes very small, things as great progress:  a store opens, houses cleaned, a stoplight working, or a streetlight coming on.   Perhaps we are counting trees and are lost to the forest?

It was impossible for me to say “no” to grabbing a seat and helping narrate four vans full of SEIU leaders along with Rosa Hines from SEIU Local 100, Steve Bradberry of New Orleans ACORN, and others when they wanted to go to really see the now famous Lower 9th Ward, especially after having asked Tanya Harris and her mother and grandmother to meet them there and show them their houses in the very far northern corner of the lower 9th hard on the border between Orleans and St. Bernard Parish.

Crossing the large bridge over the Industrial Canal, the van driver slowed down so that people could look at the work being done by giant canes inserting steel “backbones” into the levee breaches.  We drove around the potholes and piles of rubble that had been homes and lives.  We saw where the barge had finished its journey into the neighborhood and then been dismantled.  It was hard to explain 8 months on the difference between piles of haphazard trash that meant “clean-up,” rather than the equally random debris that still spoke to the storm.

Block after block without street signs and in a numbing sameness of houses leaning, crushed, or crumpled hither and yon, cars in grotesque shapes and sorts under and around what was trees and streets, made all of us lost.  As guides we lost our bearings, and it more than once thought of abandoning the search of the slip of a street near Dorgenois that the Harris family called home.  We were not as lost as the passengers though who were muted in silence at the scenes.

Tanya is now an organizer with New Orleans ACORN.  She stood in the driveway and tried to let the gaggle of SEIU big-whoops see through her eyes at the progress and hope she felt possible in the neighborhood, even as one could tell it was hard for them to understand why there was no water yet and not much else.  The family led people through her sister’s house which had been cleaned to the studs and floors.  She told the story of how hard it was for her sister to get someone to handle the mold abatement in the house who could truck their own water onto the site. 

Speaking from the trenches, one felt one could see the enemy as almost personal and the progress felt palpable.  Later though as SEIU leaders talked, many in anger, one heard more clearly the disappointment that they felt seeing so little changed after 8 months. 

Andy Stern, International President of SEIU, spoke of shame.  The shame of being an American unable to explain why the mail doesn’t work in New Orleans yet and why there was so little activity in the lower 9th.   Where were the trucks and clean-up crews?  Where was the bustle of activity in the neighborhood? 

Having been there before does not mesh with a reality of expectation different than hope, since despite the fact that the lower 9th was cleaner and more alive, Andy was also right.  None of us could really explain why there wasn’t more, other than that this was all that we could win and the best that we had been able to do.

How does one really say that on the dark side of America, it really is very, very dark and lonely, and that one really does not curse the light, but in fact mainly we try to develop a vision that allows us to work and walk by whatever stars sparkle in this night?

April 20, 2006

Andy Stern and Anna Burger, SEIU’s top officers in front of ACORN Organizer Tanya Harris’s House in the Lower 9th Ward
Andy Stern, President of SEIU, and Chirrie Harris, ACORN Member and mother to ACORN organizer Tanya Harris
Rose Hines, SEIU Local 100 Head Organizer, points out the work done to Mary Kay Henry, SEIU ex-vice President

Hola, Arkansas!

Little Rock    I was visiting with Neil Sealy, long time head organizer of Arkansas ACORN.  We were talking about the changing accents of Arkansas as more and more Latino immigrants have made a home in the state.  ACORN and KABF, our long time non-commercial radio station, have been playing a critical role in this growing community, so it made sense to get up to date.

Three of ACORN’s Little Rock community organizations in the southwestern part of the city are largely Spanish speaking now.  I could remember the early drives there 30 years ago in what used to be moderate income white turf with leaders like Billie Jo and Houston Humphries and Wilandra Dean, who served several terms on the Pulaski County Quorum Court.  Neil updated me through the transition of the area to majority African-American and now mixed with Latino with 4-5 Spanish groceries and a host of restaurants.  We now do a monthly home counseling session in Spanish to service the membership demand for housing and home ownership. 

Sitting around us in the office were large signs touting the tax preparation and EITC outreach partnership of ACORN and the Clinton Foundation in several of the rooms.  Not surprisingly, given Neil’s briefing, much of the material was in both Spanish and English. 

In the wake of the giant immigration marches in recent weeks, I was curious what role — if any — KABF was playing as a community radio station.  I was pleasantly surprised to find out that in fact our little 100,000 watt KABF has been voted the most popular station for several years running because of its Spanish language programming and had a large listenership.  This was exciting!  Turned out one of primary KABF DJ’s and board members, Lucho Reyes, a Chilean exile, had in fact been the moderator at the giant 2-3000 person rally in front of the capitol a week ago.

As if on cue a tall, distinguished gentleman and his vivacious partner peeked through the door and greeted Neil.  I was introduced and they left us a stack of papers from their Spanish language paper in DeQueen, Arkansas.  Cesar Compadre was on his way upstairs to host a KABF show.   He also runs a non-profit social service operation in DeQueen.   Pupita Chavarria was the editor of  the paper.  I could see pictures of Arkansas ACORN and its banners taken from the Little Rock rally.

Reading the paper, it said they there had been a similar rally of 600 people in DeQueen.  How could this be possible?  DeQueen was (is?) a sleepy little town of hardly 5000 people, as I remembered it, a little bit north (maybe 30 miles according to my brother-in-law, Jimmy, who goes there frequently, of Texarkana in the southwestern part of the state.   Jimmy helped fill in the gaps for me.  Seems in the 2000 census that DeQueen showed up at 39% Hispanic — recorded! — so it could be close to a majority Latino at this point.  Maybe even at that point?  Jimmy says the level of the eating options has also improved mightily!

Why?  Well, what brings this tide of immigration — and Jimmy — to DeQueen is Poulan chainsaws.  In 2005 Poulan made 2,000,000 chainsaws in DeQueen, giving it an arguable claim to being the chainsaw capitol of the world with more made there than anywhere else.  Across from their big plant is a chicken plant as well, so a trickle becomes a tide.

But, 600 people rallying for immigrant rights and citizenship says something very, very powerful in this Republican district within a stone’s throw of the Oklahoma border and a short ride from Texas.  Maybe we need to get a translator built near Hope somewhere so we can be heard down to the border, we could continue to play the role we are pioneering in Arkansas.

Adapting to change is essential to relevance — and, survival!  I left about 6 PM.  It was Good Friday, technically a holiday, but I could hear Neil switching from English to Spanish to handle a phone call coming into the office.

April 15, 2006

Dequeen, AR