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Work in Progress 

From a tiny ACORN springs a big tree in the Ninth Ward

On a recent Saturday in the Lower Ninth ward, I join a group of 15 men and women in matching red shirts gathered on the neutral ground of Caffin Avenue near St. Claude. Armed with rakes, garbage bags and green rubber gloves, we work in tall grass just 25 yards away from Fats Domino's battered home. The smell of gasoline strums the air as an older man fills the tank of an electric weed whacker and the mid-morning sun burns hot overhead. A light breeze flutters a stack of yellow flyers laid near a crate of water bottles: "ACORN Clean Up: Let's take back the Lower 9!" In Sharpie marker scrawled next to the printed words, a stronger message jumps out, "DEMAND WATER SERVICE FOR THE NORTH SIDE ... MAYOR NAGIN WILL BE THERE." I help two women hang a hand-painted banner -- one that's been in rotation since early September -- from the stop sign. A pick-up truck grumbles by and the driver stops to look on.

"Welcome home!" calls one of the women.

The driver nods, "I'm tryin' to. I'm tryin' to get home myself."

Around 10:30 a.m., Mayor Ray Nagin appears, smiling and greeting folks in a crisp white T-shirt. He makes the rounds, passing by a hand-drawn poster staked to the ground, detailing which areas of the Ninth Ward still lack basic water service. Gradually, the group of ACORN members, friends, and fellow residents put down their tools and form a tightening circle around their visitor. When are we getting water? they ask. Weeks? Months? What about the debris that still covers the streets? Nagin holds up his hands and tells the crowd he's working on it. They move in closer, touching shoulder to identical shoulder, the back of each shirt proclaiming in white print: "I'm From 'Dat Nine, And You Ain't Takin' Mine!"

THE ASSOCIATION OF COMMUNITY Organizations for Reform Now, or ACORN, was founded in Arkansas in the mid-1960s. Now 80-plus cities strong, its national offices have called New Orleans home for almost as long, housed in one main building and a smaller annex (the former home of A Confederacy of Dunces author John Kennedy Toole). A constituency-based low- to moderate-income community group, ACORN's grassroots structure means power comes from the bottom-up. In every local chapter, dues-paying members make decisions, elect leadership, and mobilize on issues of safe housing, better neighborhoods, crime, wages, health care and more, supported by paid local organizers and national staff. Pre-Katrina, New Orleans ACORN had some powerful numbers -- 9,000 member families, many of them homeowners in what would become the most heavily affected flood zones.

At least that's how you'd describe ACORN before Aug. 29, 2005. Now, more than eight months after Katrina, New Orleans ACORN has grown, learned and, above all, become very flexible in defining its role in the rebuilding process. As with much of the social infrastructure here, people have moved away and new people have come to take their places. A living example of the latter group, I find myself a transplant to both a city and an organization in transition.

Full disclosure: with my plan to move to New Orleans the last week of August 2005 temporarily put off, I spent a few weeks holed up with family in Buffalo, N.Y., surfing the Web for news, rumors, and any information about plans to rebuild my intended community. What I found was ACORN, and within a few weeks, I'd hopped a plane to Houston to fill a vacancy in the communications department of their temporary national offices.

My first week on the job, I boarded a bus with more than 30 displaced ACORN members and their gracious Texan hosts for an action in Tom DeLay's Sugar Land, Texas, office. I stood in the back of the crowded room as the members pressed inside demanding compensation for the people who had given them shelter after the storm. One woman's utility bill had skyrocketed from the strain of her guests -- and her power was about to be cut off that day. Another had hosted more than 17 evacuated friends and family members over the course of a few weeks. The group left with a promise for a future meeting with DeLay after everyone had submitted their names and addresses to be personally called back about their individual situations.

"But we're not the only ones," said one elderly woman. "We're here for all the folks who can't be here today and put their name on that paper. What about them?"

Representing a larger group through concentrated public actions is a strategy that became even more important in the weeks directly following the storm, with communication made difficult and members hard to locate. Any New Orleans resident can attest to the difficulty of finding a friend, family member, or neighbor during the weeks and months following Katrina. Multiply that effort by 9,000, and you have the task faced by New Orleans ACORN. With almost all 504 landlines and cell networks still inoperable, head organizer Steve Bradberry turned to the next best thing: text messaging.

"We sent a basic message: This is ACORN, tell us where you are and if you're alright," Bradberry said at an Organizer's Forum dialogue on technology and organizing this spring. "We had a lot of cell phone numbers for our members -- not everyone -- but a good amount and we were able to get through to people that way when phones didn't work."

This kind of flexibility was key in dealing with the short-term problems of how to find people and how to set-up a temporary office while the storm-damaged roof was repaired back in New Orleans. It also proved valuable in long-term staffing shifts as leaders like Tanya Harris, part of an ACORN member family for many years, stepped up and became paid organizing staff.

"Oh, it was quite a transition," she laughs in a rare free moment outside of the now-restored main offices on Elysian Fields. As staff, she works long hours on campaigns and actions from "conception to roll-out," while the members have more control and say in terms of what they want to see done. "But it's still the same fight. And it's the same things we were fighting for all along."

Those things -- job opportunities and safe housing, among others -- are now at the forefront as the city grapples with how to provide services and infrastructure for a diminished population. In terms of ACORN's work, Harris says the only thing that has changed is the heightened awareness of these issues.

"We were always on lead remediation, and now we have an opportunity to do some hardcore work around it. In essence, what has changed is a sense of urgency and awareness on these things that ACORN has always been talking about."

Pre-Katrina, Harris worked as a site director for STAIR, an enrichment program that operated 24 tutoring sites for nearly 350 elementary students from Orleans and Jefferson parishes. While she says she misses working with youth, she doesn't see the work she does full time with ACORN now as separate from the issues she saw with her students. "I mean, if your momma can get a living wage from one job instead of two or three, well then you might get the attention you need to do well in school. It's all connected."

BACK ON CAFFIN AVENUE, THE RAL- lied members are still peppering Nagin with questions.

"Here's the problem," says Tracy Flores, an ACORN member and resident of the Lower Ninth, "I'm looking across my street, just across the street, and those houses [in St. Bernard Parish] have street lights, water, everything. Now can you explain that?"

Nagin says the city is doing the best it can.

"It's taking too long," says Harris from the periphery of the circle. "We need some sort of timeline, we need a commitment. Are we talking weeks, months?"

"I can't tell you that," the mayor says. "We're working on it though, we are making progress."

After a few more minutes, someone calls to get back to work, and the circle starts to lose shape as people take up their rakes and brooms and shovels, and the mayor says goodbye.

FRUSTRATION HAS BEEN A COMMON feeling for many trying to rebuild their communities in New Orleans, but it helped inspire one of ACORN's most innovative programs last December. The clumsily named Home Clean-Out Demonstration Program was launched with the goal of cleaning 1,000 homes by March, proving to policymakers that residents in low- and moderate-income neighborhoods wanted to return and helping those same residents by providing the service for free.

Similar plans have been adopted by many local and national relief organizations to help otherwise neglected populations in New Orleans, but it's the first time ACORN has ever been involved in this kind of direct service. As Wade Rathke, longtime New Orleans resident and chief organizer of ACORN says, "Listening to the members, it looked like their needs were huge in trying to come back and trying to keep housing capacity." Responding to that need is what created the program, but what got and kept it going was the outpouring of support from out-of-state volunteers.

"There was this huge, overwhelming feeling that people wanted to help, and they could contact ACORN as a vehicle to do that," says Rathke. "Having thousands of people come in to what is fundamentally a community organization is not something we've ever done, but we responded to the generosity of people everywhere and have been able to facilitate some real work."

People like Vince Sellen, a 66-year-old retired school teacher from Washington state who came down to volunteer with his wife, Gretchen, for six weeks this past winter. Sellen's sister runs the Bywater Bed and Breakfast and he and Gretchen have visited several times over the years. After watching the coverage on television, they knew it wouldn't be enough to simply donate money to the city they so knew and loved.

"The first two houses I worked on were owned by reluctantly retired schoolteachers," he wrote me in an email in early April. "It is so moving to realize that you are shoveling up a lifetime -- if not generations -- of memories and family history." That emotional connection to the homeowner has spurred many volunteers on, despite the intense working conditions. Sellen says the work was exhausting, and the enormity and complexity of the damage was overwhelming at times. "The individuals, businesses, and infrastructure are so damaged and interconnected that it became obvious that there were no simple answers," he says. "All one could do is help one house at a time."

IT'S NOW NEARING NOON OVER IN THE Lower Nine, and we're working steadily: trimming, raking, sweeping and bagging as residents drive by, some stopping to wave or come pitch in. At the time, no one seems surprised by the lack of commitment from the Mayor's Office -- disappointed and fed-up, sure, but not surprised. (Fortunately, water service was restored last week to the area north of North Derbigny Street -- the last section of the Lower Nine to get water.)

Tanya Harris surveys the neatly trimmed grass and trees. "Now this is starting to look like somewhere you might actually want to live," she beams, "instead of like, yecck." I put down my rake to look at the three-block stretch and have to agree, happy to be away from my keyboard and the press releases and emails of daily staff tasks, feeling the sweat and burgeoning blisters of the real work of rebuilding. I ask her where the members plan to go from here.

"Today is just the start," she says. "We'll keep it going, house by house, block by block. We'll get there."

click to enlarge "In essence, what has changed is a sense of urgency and - awareness on these things that ACORN has always been - talking about."  -- Tanya Harris, New Orleans ACORN - organizer - DAVID LEE SIMMONS
  • David Lee Simmons
  • "In essence, what has changed is a sense of urgency and awareness on these things that ACORN has always been talking about." -- Tanya Harris, New Orleans ACORN organizer
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