In a year that would change America forever, my life took a drastic turn that would lead me to DC 3 months after September 11, 2001. In December of 2001 I arrived at the Baltimore Washington International Airport amid armed National Guardsmen to begin an internship with the American Bar Association's Central European and Eurasian Law Initiative (ABA/CEELI). As a committed student of history, I was fascinated with Eastern Europe and the post Soviet world; and as an African American woman from Alabama, I saw this as a chance to change the direction of my life. I wanted to serve my country and DC seemed to call me like a sirens song. I LOVED this city. Everything that mattered happened here.
Reality-ever the constant companion-did not let me revel in my fantasies for too long. The internship was unpaid, full time and in one of the most expensive cities to live in America. My indoctrination as a community organizer began during this time. I attended meetings with brilliant legal minds at day, and after losing my housing, walked the crime laden streets in the worst parts of DC at night. I never felt sorry for myself and was determined to make things work, at this point there was little that could affect my idealism.
On weekends, I talked to moms who struggled to keep their kids from crime and drugs, teenagers who were bused to clinics for Aids medication every day, homeless people, my people. I was never really afraid of meeting people because their stories inspired something in me. I would later come to express these feelings in my artwork.
In 2002, I traveled overseas as a short term election observer for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), but my heart was now in the community. After returning to Alabama, I longed to come back to DC. Not all of my experiences here were good and some down right traumatizing, but I refused to believe that the current state of the poor in DC was fixed.
Fast forward to 2005 and I am having a phone interview with Nathan Henderson James of ACORN Political Operations. I explain my DC experience and how the disparities between the two worlds I existed in, seemed manufactured and unfair. He praised my credentials and said that with my experience that I could negotiate a higher salary with ACORN then the standard $25,500. I had just been promoted to T-Mobile corporate in Maryland at a much higher salary, but decided to take a chance on ACORN.
Upon arriving at the ACORN office on Barracks Row in Capitol Hill, the first thing I was told was that I would work for an organization called Project Vote. This was confusing to me since during the interview Nathan sold me on the ACORN principles and I had attended an ACORN group interview a year earlier and had never heard of Project Vote.
Over the next few months, I realized that I should not have worried. ACORN and Project Vote were one in the same. I attended the 2005 YEYB in Houston (Katrina moved us from New Orleans) and my education in the ways of ACORN had begun.
As a novice it was easy to turn a blind eye to things or claim ignorance, but as my responsibilities grew and I began taking Nonprofit classes at the Foundation Center, several things became glaringly obvious.
As Development Associate for the Strategic Writing and Research Department (SWORD) I conducted surveys of election officials for information on provisional voting and voter fraud. On the Project Vote side, I began making the deposit forms for all grant transactions in 2006. A small nonprofit is not like other businesses, you wear many hats, and at times, I was the only Project Vote employee in the DC office. This unprecedented access to files from old offices, files found on the old computers I kept getting, combined with my intense desire to learn about the organization so that I could move up and work with the people; led to my discovery of ACORN's questionable practices.
The veil of my idealism was totally gone by early 2007. While pregnant, I suffered through having to apply for WIC and Medical Assistance because my ACORN pay of $25,500 (never got that raise) left me with little to live on and inadequate insurance. The company provided insurance was a joke and the doctors were hard to find or no longer in the program. Claims were often approved for coverage, but then denied resulting in high medical debt that helped lower my credit score. My paychecks were frequently late or missing, so much that CCI payroll recognized me by name at the annual report to staff. Late paychecks resulted in overdraft fees, late rent and eventually a 11 day hold on all deposits by my bank. Working for ACORN was never easy, but I used to think it was worth it.
In mid 2007 after receiving an email about an EAC grant, I called the people behind www.rottenacorn.org and tried to let them know that something was terribly wrong. The man warned me that the fight would not be easy and I needed to find other employment for myself and then call back. I was not strong enough then and I would live to regret not leaving ACORN then. I needed the paycheck and I put my misgivings on the back burner and tried to change ACORN from within. I contacted senior management including Zach Polett about proper training, diversity hiring and promotion programs. I wrote a guideline for diversity and presented it in November of 2007 and talked personally with Zach about the problems that existed across the board in ACORN. ACORN is not an organization that you can survive working in once you have a family and through it all - like my experience as an intern - my low income situation caused havoc in my personal life.
After being thrown out of a complex for complaining to the health department about mold, I told Nathan how tenants in month to month leases had no rights in Maryland and as usual the true plight of the people like me who we serve was ignored. I ended up with a 5 month old in a rat infested house in Baltimore. Upon moving in I asked the landlord about pests and the slum lord replied “Why do you see any?” I was desperate and took the place, within 3 months, I realized that Baltimore had a problem with large sewer rats, that held me hostage as they ran around the house at night. They were so big that I actually went to Wal-Mart to buy a pellet gun in case they attacked me or my daughter.
Commuting back and forth from Baltimore in an SUV with gas prices at $4.50 plus was not ideal and 2007 turned out to be a year that would bring about my darkest times. At night I watched over my daughter and during the day, I was a wreck at work, I had to move. I needed cash for a deposit and first months rent, but still needed to live. I began using a Project Vote credit card for food, diapers, formula etc. and saving the money. I made a $500 payment and a staffer called me about and I told him that I was paying for it. I didn't tell him the truth about why I was using it, I just said that I would pay.
After being fired in January of 2008, I never hated ACORN and I kept attending rallies and fighting the fight, until the true nature of the Carlye campaign was exposed to me. At that time, I told the head organizer that I would not get involved or be seen at events. I knew what they were doing and it honestly scared me. I realized the true nature of ACORN and this time I decided to fight. In doing so, I have placed myself and my family at great personal, and financial risk. I have said it before, and I state it again, I will deal with all of my mistakes and actions in order to expose something bigger than me.
ACORN's mob like tactics, including intimidation and threats, have gotten them farther than any major crime family. They have come into communities across the nation and stood on the backs of the poor in order to fill their coffers. The top down management style and the absolute control the Rathke family held over ACORN and its organizations are reminiscent of the Gambino crime family. I watched as major banks bowed before ACORN and candidates fought to curry favor with its constituencies. Newspapers buried stories and the long arm of the union SEIU secured their financial survival. Becoming an ACORN whistle blower, is a lot like taking on the mob (without the federal protection).
ACORN and others have many friends on the Hill and they have won several victories as of late. Their partnership with the Census is disturbing, but so are their tentacles over in healthcare, foreclosures, volunteer service and education should put every American on alert. If ACORN has access to untold amounts of taxpayer funds and their people managing your health, education and counseling you on your home loan; the absolute power of this group will help control American politics for decades to come.
The road has been rocky and some say not worth the risk, but as they continue to make money off the poor, they are a dozen ACORN employees like me, who had to choose rent or food. I just hope that they don't make the same bad choices I made. A paycheck is not worth your dignity, principles or morals. I checked mine at the door once to continue working for ACORN and I refuse to do it again.
ACORN employees, members and even the now reviled ACORN 8 were drawn to ACORN under their pretense of caring. We were taught that they were building power, but they were taking it away. We have all been deceived and only through our speaking the truth can we seek justice.