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Mae Stephens, of ACORN

A discussion about ACORN's mission to help low-income and working-class families organize around social justice goals for their neighborhoods.


Mae Stephens, rallying in Raleigh on Nov. 17 - PHOTO BY BOB GEARY

ACORN's mission—as the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now—is helping low-income and working-class families organize around social justice goals for their neighborhoods. The group claims 850 chapters in 100 cities with a total of 350,000 member families. The College Park chapter in Southeast Raleigh is newly reorganized and recently elected Mae Stephens, a working mother and nursing student, as its chair. Chapter members marched on Tarboro Road between Saint Augustine's College and New Bern Avenue one Saturday in November to draw attention to community issues. We asked Stephens to tell us what they are.

What prompted the demonstration on Tarboro Road?

Our College Park ACORN chapter identified four primary, long-term issues that need to be dealt with in the community: drugs, prostitution, gangs and, finally, the lack of recreational and educational facilities and programs for the youth in our area. The march on Tarboro Road was intended to address the first three, with a call for safer streets. We chose Tarboro because of the recent murder there and because of its central location and the high volume—and speed—of the traffic there.

Specifically, what is ACORN asking the city to do?

We're asking for an increased police presence, and to use the boarded-up house near the corner of New Bern Avenue as a youth center. We want the city to initiate more programs for the youth in the area, and to build or renovate one of the old houses into a police substation. We also want trash bins installed on the light poles or at the bus stops, and we want our neighborhood put on the city's traffic calming program—whatever else happens, the streets won't be safe for kids until the cars slow down.

There's a city recreation facility right next door to that boarded-up house, with a gym and a social hall. Why can't the kids use that?

They can, and they do. But in comparison to some of the other recreational centers in Raleigh, the Tarboro Road Community Center is out of date and really inadequate. Also, this is a large community, and there are only two other very small parks in the area—our children need something decent to play on, and there needs to be more programs offered for the youth. For example, five other community centers in Raleigh have TOPs (teen outreach programs) designed to keep the youth off the streets, but the Tarboro Road center does not. We think TOPs here would greatly benefit our youth.

Have you had any response from the city yet?

We've contacted the city about some of these issues and they've responded, but it's early in the process and we're waiting to hear whether they've made any decisions.

As you've tried to recruit neighbors to join ACORN, what's been their response? Are people hopeful? Fearful? Tuned out?

All of the above. Some are hopeful and want to be part of a change in their community; some are fearful of repercussions by the city or other powers; and some don't care about what is going on in the neighborhood, or if they do care, are too jaded to want to try to change things.

College Park is just a few blocks away from the so-called downtown "renaissance." Is there a fear in your neighborhood about gentrification eliminating all the working-class and lower-income folk?

Yes, a very big fear. Revitalization is coming to the neighborhood, and if the neighborhood doesn't band together and make sure the city takes into account the wants of the people, then the faces in this neighborhood will no longer be the same.

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