This summer, instead of celebrities preaching through their TV screens, Cincinnati ACORN, a local organization mostly comprised of low- to moderate-income citizens, will be on the streets to educate working-class folks about the issues that concern their communities. The effort is part of an intensive grassroots voter registration drive in preparation for city council elections on Nov. 6.
Cincinnati's chapter of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) was founded four years ago in response to the pressing issues facing some of the city's poorer neighborhoods. The local chapter is one of more than 850 spread across 100 U.S. cities and in other countries. ACORN emphasizes community involvement and action.
Formed in 1970, ACORN began as a small activist group in Little Rock, Ark., and steadily expanded into a network with a membership of more than 350,000 people.
One of the other hallmarks of ACORN throughout its history has been its leadership, which is always elected from within the organization. Amy Teitelman, head organizer for Cincinnati ACORN, says the association "is run by members and its decisions are made by members" and described the chapter's deliberations and actions as being "democratic and transparent."
Evidence of this democratic approach is James Moreland, board chair for ACORN's Cincinnati chapter and Avondale branch. Moreland, a retired Avondale resident, wasn't involved in community activism until Teitelman showed up at his door one evening while canvassing his neighborhood.
After a discussion of the issues ACORN focuses on, Moreland realized the group's potential importance to the welfare of his community and signed on that night. Two years later he's the "face" of Cincinnati ACORN.
The goal for the summer campaign is to register 5,000 low-income and minority people "in a non-partisan manner," Teitelman says. It might not seem to be a giant surge of new voters, but that type of attitude is exactly what Moreland and Cincinnati ACORN want to avoid.
"We've got to get people away from the mind frame of 'My vote doesn't count,' " Moreland says.
But that's not to say that ACORN thinks small. Teitelman points to the 2006 elections to show that votes cast by ACORN members and voters they registered do count.
"Without ACORN, the Minimum Wage Act wouldn't have passed," she says. "We were the group out there getting signatures and knocking on doors before the election."
The number of voters registered, however, isn't as important to Cincinnati ACORN as the impact of developing political and social awareness in the neighborhoods it targets. The voter registration drive will focus on Over-the-Rhine, Avondale, Northside, West End, Fairmount and Price Hill. The effort will rely on ACORN precinct action leaders and an internship program that gives college students course credits.
Members of the registration team will spend the summer canvassing door-to-door, registering voters and informing them of the important issues in the 2007 city election. Cincinnati ACORN is also planning candidate forums for September and October, when members will be able to ask city council hopefuls and incumbents about "what candidates will do about the big issues that we always care about," Teitelman says.
The main issues for the group this year involve predatory lending, living wages, the proposed Hamilton County jail tax, The Banks and crime. To wrap it all up, Cincinnati ACORN will compile an informational pamphlet for voters.
ACORN has had trouble in the past with voter registration. Former Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell unsuccessfully tried to bar the group from registering voters.
"There is a great hunger for excuses to keep low- and moderate-income people from the polls, but we will win because we're organized and won't stop," Teitelman says.
Michael Margolis, a professor of political science at the University of Cincinnati, echoed her sentiments.
"The people who turn out for elections are proportionally middle class," he says. "There are some general disincentives to register the poor and not well-off."
This summer, Cincinnati ACORN hopes to try to balance those disincentives with their active campaign to get out the vote among poor and working people. To join their registration drive, call 513-221-1737 or write email@example.com.