From dishing out fries to getting out the vote

ACORN organizer leaves the world of fast food to give the poor a voice in public policy

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Tony Tye, Post-GazetteDenise Johnson comes to community organizing with the persistence of someone who can't bear losing ground.

Tooling about in a car she apologizes for, knocking on door after door, Denise Johnson is compelled by the possibility that her neighbors will unite to pull Homewood out of the ditch. Her belief might seem quixotic if it weren't so inspired.

She was recruited from a $5-an-hour job at McDonald's last winter to become a community organizer for ACORN at $8 an hour. The Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now employs four full-time organizers whose ranks swell to 20 in the weeks before elections.

"I want people to know they can do something to make a change," she said. For starters, "I want them to vote. Politicians only work for people who vote."

During her door-knocking -- as many as 50 doors a day -- she asks everyone who answers, "Are you registered?"

If she gets an off-hand "yeah," she cocks her head and says, "Are you? Did you vote in the last election? Are you voting this time?"

Yeah, yeah, yeah.

"OK," she challenges, "I'll be looking for you at the polls."

ACORN is a network of chapters in 118 U.S. cities and several countries. It was founded in Arkansas in 1970 on the principle that people in poor neighborhoods have as much right to assert their will on public policy as do power brokers and their minions.

Members own the association through dues; the group also holds fund-raisers. Maryellen Hayden started Allegheny County's current chapter in 2001. The local association counts 2,500 members today, 400 of them active volunteers, and six full-time staff. The offices are in East Liberty.

Rallying residents
ACORN has rallied for minimum-wage increases and holds neighborhood cleanups. Its staff advises residents on topics from predatory lending to crime prevention. IRS-trained staffers prepare members' taxes at no cost. Commercial development and crime prevention lead the list of its members' goals.

Last month, ACORN assembled a cast of public officials at a meeting that 100 area residents attended at Homewood's Carnegie Library.

Mayor Luke Ravenstahl served up a challenge: "Bring your agendas forward and hold us accountable." He said the city "needs to do a better job of focusing our energies on low-income neighborhoods."

At ACORN's urging, the city recently boarded 10 abandoned properties. State Sen. Jim Ferlo, a board member of the Urban Redevelopment Authority, said he is willing to meet with ACORN to develop a strategic plan for addressing vacant and abandoned properties and discuss opportunities for new or renovated housing that really is affordable and commercial development to go with it. Crime, real and perceived, is the sticking point, he said, "and we're not going to solve public safety issues unless the people in the neighborhoods get involved in the solution. I'm trying to project some optimism."

Born leader
Ms. Johnson, 47, has a husky voice that cuts out on her sometimes, and she winced at being singled out for a story. Nobody at ACORN is more important than anybody else, she said. But when people appear in their doorways and stare at her, she plows right in, ebullient with spiel, one part practiced, one part win-'em-over.

"Our goals are going to be met," she said. "We're going to do this thing with everybody's help."

She came to community organizing with the persistence of someone who can't bear losing ground. A Homewood native with six children between the ages of 8 and 19, she attended Schenley High School and earned her GED in 1977. A licensed manicurist, she worked in hotel housekeeping before taking the job at McDonald's.

"I believe there's a born leader in everyone," she said. "This is the first job I've ever really loved, that I felt God sent to me. And I think Homewood is a beautiful place because it believed in me. I want to show my kids my strength."

One of her favorite questions to people she meets is, "If Ed Rendell was standing at your door, what would you tell him?" The answer, invariably, is, "Do something about all the guns."

"I tell kids [on the streets] that guns don't make them men. God gives us choices and consequences. You have to do the next right thing. The system does not have to adjust to you; you have to adjust to it. It's uncomfortable, but it's a beautiful world out there, and I want everyone to get it."

On a chilly and tranquil afternoon, Edward Blair answered the door of a ship-shape home with flower beds around the edges of the postage stamp yard he tends. Across the street, a row of abandoned houses stares back.

He stood on his porch and listened kindly to Ms. Johnson before shaking his head, saying he's been there. "I started in block clubs when I was 25. I used to be secretary of the Young Colored Democrats of Allegheny County. We fought those fights, when they were redlining and the city ran people out of the Hill.

"Now parents aren't educating their kids. We've lost two generations and I don't know how we're going to get the next one going."

"Do you vote?" she asked.

"On time, every time," he said.

At her urging for his involvement, Mr. Blair said, "I'm 78 and I'm tired."

"Then show me the way to go," she said.

"Today, I don't even know the road."

Back in the car, Ms. Johnson repeated some of Mr. Blair's statements and said with grudging admiration, "He kept it real, didn't he?" She chuckled. "'I've done that, it's your turn.'"

She had better luck with Joe Glenn, an old friend she persuaded to join in August.

"It didn't take me long to say yes," he said, "because she is very adamant. ACORN has rekindled a spirit in me that was there when I was a young man in the '60s."

Wanted: activists
As Ms. Johnson drives Homewood's streets, she comments on rows of abandoned homes and what used to be businesses. She visited Dorsey's Record Store, which Cornelius Dorsey established in 1946.

His son, Neil Dorsey, said he can't make it by selling CDs alone. "We went back to service," he said. "We've been repairing computers."

After they discussed the decline of urban civilization, Ms. Johnson said, "You talk like a natural leader, and you're makin' it. You could have an influence on young brothers."

"How much can one person do?" he asked. "Everybody's got to buy into the solution."

"I can only do it with you," she said. "I know what it could be like, and so do you. If we all come out the house and work together, we can have our neighborhood be like other neighborhoods."

The same afternoon, she summoned a stoic and wary Lawrence Horton to his doorway. He stood rod-straight and listened to the woman in the red ball cap try to convince him Homewood's issues can be resolved if he gets involved.

"I hear what you're saying," he said softly. "I don't know the answer, though."

"Mister Larry, I work for you," she said. "Do you believe there's power in numbers?"

He granted her a shrug. "What do you want me to do?"

"We do the footwork together," she said. "It's not good for us to stay in our houses. We gotta come out."

"I know," he said, nodding.

"We take the first step by voting."

He gave her his number and took an ACORN pamphlet.

"OK," she said, "me and you are going to set up another visit, OK? We've got to stay connected. And if you know anyone who's not registered to vote, tell 'em they gotta be in line."

For more information about ACORN, call 412-441-6551. Diana Nelson Jones can be reached at or 412-263-1626.


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