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Defenders of the disadvantaged find toehold

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By ROBERT TRIGAUX, Times Business Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published December 1, 2002


Not long out of a liberal arts college in Maine and still weirded out by our short-sleeve holiday season, 24-year-old New Englander Josh Myles might seem a bit out of place in St. Petersburg's lower-income neighborhoods.

But here he is. Knocking on doors. Building trust and relationships. Showing people who rarely feel empowered that there's a new organization in town that would like to help. Myles is St. Petersburg's chief recruiter for the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now. Better known as Acorn, it claims to be the nation's oldest and largest grassroots organization of low- and moderate-income people.

Its mission? To show folks how to stand up for themselves. To encourage people turned off by politics to get out and vote. To educate residents who often are targets of predatory lenders, who often lack health insurance, who lack affordable housing, who can't find work at a living wage, who want better schools or simply can't get a city's attention to improve poor lighting on the local streets.

Nationwide, Acorn boasts more than 100,000 members -- people who join for $10 a month -- in 600 neighborhood chapters in 45 cities. In St. Petersburg, since Acorn opened its strip-mall office in October last year at 1830 49th St. S, Myles has helped attract 150 dues-paying members, mostly in the Childs Park neighborhood. It's a small local foothold, but the start of what Myles and Acorn leaders expect will become a broader outreach across the Tampa Bay area.

This area got a brief taste of Acorn's occasional in-your-face style in May 2001. Busloads of lower-income members from New Orleans and Miami arrived in Brandon to demonstrate outside the annual meeting of subprime lending giant Household International. Protesters held signs, shouted "Predatory lender, criminal offender!" and awarded Household its (loan) shark of the year award. Nationally, Acorn targeted Household with other protests and legal challenges. The company, amid other pressures, later agreed to a predatory lending settlement and is now expected to be acquired by HSBC Holdings.

"Florida is not a great state for the rights of the poor," Myles says. His local Acorn office works closely with the area Service Employees International Union, which represents service workers from nurses to bus drivers. "There are a lot of issues that members can rally around."

Acorn is no flash in the pan. The group got its start 32 years ago in the wake of the 1960s welfare-rights movement in Arkansas. It has spread, unevenly at times, over the decades to more than 26 states, mostly in the Northeast, industrial Midwest, Southwest and the Pacific coast states.

But expansion in Florida is one of Acorn's top priorities. Pat McCoy, Acorn's statewide director in Florida, says the state's lower-income population historically has been underserved and needs more grassroots organizers like Acorn. Besides, Florida is fast-growing, a political swing state and demographically, by age and race, represents the future of the United States. Those all are good reason for a solid Acorn presence, he says.

"Florida is one of those states we are looking at closely as a bellwether in setting a direction for where we are going," says McCoy, 48, an Acorn veteran who left to practice death penalty law in North Carolina before rejoining the group three years ago. In Florida, McCoy's statewide responsibilities will soon be assumed by Brian Kettenring, Acorn's chief in Sacramento, Calif.

Acorn opened its first office in Miami in the late 1970s, then later closed it. It reopened in the mid-1990s, when Acorn enjoyed a resurgence during the Clinton administration, and added St. Petersburg last year. Acorn also has had a presence in Fort Lauderdale and Jacksonville, and hopes to re-staff those cities soon. Tallahassee, the state capital, is also on Acorn's radar screen.

For Myles, who majored in political theory, joining Acorn (where new staffers earn about $20,000 a year) was the opportunity to cast aside academics and get out on the streets. He started in Boston, a labor-friendly city where Acorn is well established. It was there that Myles had a chance to meet, work alongside and be inspired by Acorn's president for 12 years, Maude Hurd.

* * *

As a business writer, I first began to notice Acorn and Hurd back in the mid-1980s. Acorn was one of the rare but consistent voices speaking up for the country's lower-income communities.

When huge banks announced mergers, Acorn would press federal and state regulators to make sure the resulting bigger bank would not ignore poor neighborhoods. When the federal Community Reinvestment Act was passed, Acorn used the law's extra clout to win funding commitments from lending institutions for affordable housing and community projects.

And when mortgage lenders were required in the 1980s to provide details about which customers, by race and income level, were approved or denied loans, Acorn made a point of publicizing the consistently inequitable results. The studies show minority applicants, then and now, are less likely to get a home loan, even if they make more money than white applicants.

Last week was no exception. Acorn, as it has done in past years, issued an analysis of federal data showing that in 2001 blacks were 4.4 times more likely, and Latinos 2.2 times more likely, to receive a subprime (that is, more expensive) loan than whites. Acorn dubbed its new report "Separate and Unequal."

Since the Nov. 5 elections, Acorn has a new worry: that the increasingly pro-business federal government will seek to wipe away all of the group's efforts by pre-empting hard-earned state and local laws that cracked down on predatory lending.

Acorn was already a dozen years old when, in 1982, an organizer knocked on Hurd's front door in Dorchester, Mass. What, Hurd was asked, are your concerns about your neighborhood? She had never been asked before. She soon learned Acorn had growing clout, represented by the growing number of low- and moderate-income members who were politically active. She signed up.

Eight years later, Hurd ran for and won the nonpaying post of national president of Acorn. She still keeps her full-time job with a medical foundation helping at-risk youth with substance abuse. Acorn followers call 59-year-old Hurd friendly and charming but a keen negotiator with tough adversaries: big-buck corporations that profit from, and sometimes prey upon, poor customers, or government officials who won't live up to the letter or spirit of the law.

In 1995, for example, 500 Acorn protesters burst into the Washington Hilton seeking to confront House Speaker Newt Gingrich over cuts in federal programs for the poor. The group disrupted a luncheon and forced cancellation of Gingrich's appearance.

Early this year, Acorn and other advocacy groups for low-income people rallied in Washington against President Bush's proposals to overhaul the 1996 welfare law. "This is not compassionate conservatism," Hurd said. "Let's call it what it is -- an attack on poor families with children in America."

For Acorn, supported by membership dues and foundation money, its typical grassroots strategies are less confrontational. Last month, Florida voters approved a referendum requiring smaller class sizes in public schools. In St. Petersburg, Acorn and the SEIU ran the largest call center in the state urging voters to support it.

For all his youthful vigor, Myles knows Acorn has an uphill battle to make an impact in Florida. The state, along with its re-elected administration, is not friendly to labor unions or groups that befriend them. And for all its size as the nation's fourth most populated state, Florida has, at best, a weak and transient history of organizations supporting the causes of lower-income people.

But Myles belongs to a supportive organization that's learned over three decades to be patient. If the nation's political drift continues to discourage government programs to help the poor and moderate-income households, Acorn may very well benefit by recruiting more of the disenfranchised.

That makes the odds increasingly likely the Tampa Bay area and all of Florida will be hearing more from Acorn.

-- Robert Trigaux can be reached at trigaux@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8405.

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