Winter-Spring 2004

Closing the Books on ACORN — Well, Almost

This was the year for winding up the legal remains of what was once the Akron Regional Free-Net (ARFN). The project is alive and well, having become ACORN, part of the Akron-Summit County Public Library. It had started with the incorporation of ARFN as an Ohio nonprofit corporation, accompanied by a 501(c)3 application for federal tax-exempt status. Eventually we'd amended the corporate articles to reflect the name change to Akron Community Online Resource Network (ACORN). But by 2000 the Library had agreed to take on the responsibility and financial support of ACORN. A benefit to the Library was the ability to channel all of its Internet traffic through ACORN, including signatures of parents for the accounts of minors.

The amended articles had also included language that the organization (ACORN.NET) would educate the public about the common good of community networks. However, on the night shift, we never had time to do this, so last April we three remaining trustees decided to dissolve the corporation.

When I took out ACORN's legal file folder, I was struck by how skinny it was. I remembered taking four or five big boxes of material from my former office at the University of Akron Law Library to the Akron-Summit County Public Library. Those boxes contained the real history of ACORN, the history of the early Free-Net movement, and the efforts of a fantastic group of community volunteers who worked hard on the night shift for at least four years before the system came online in 1995.

In 1991 I met Tom Grundner, the architect of the Cleveland Free-Net. I had been taken by a newsletter he was putting out--Letters from the Fourth World. At that point the Cleveland Free-Net was blossoming, the Youngstown and Medina Free-Nets were up, and Tom wanted to see Akron join the mix. "Sure," I said, "I'll get on it." Always the optimist, always charging in when maybe I should have started thinking first. Didn't I recall how it was I'd gotten to be a foster parent? Well, as it turned out, building a Free-Net was actually easier than being a foster parent.

Since I was working at a university, I started in academia. I found that Debra Keller at the University of Akron along with Bill Dorsey, Millie Keyser and Dick DePew at the Northeastern Ohio Universities College of Medicine (NEOUCOM) had already kicked the idea around a bit. They were great techies, but we needed a few more folks to help with the non-techie angles of the community networking biz. Sheila Szudjeko from WEAO-WNEO Public Television in Kent, Everett Prentice from Summit County government, David Jennings and Dana Beezley-Kwasnicka of the Akron-Summit County Public Library were the mainstays, although a number of others came, went and helped out during the course of the project.

There were funding efforts, proposals and budgets that alone filled a box. We never got funding from PBS or TIAAP, but we did get funding from The GAR Foundation of Akron. In those ancient days a decade ago, we had to build a network. We owned computers, routers, modems and other assorted tech items. I'm sure that another box contained all of the early community contacts correspondence from folks that signed on as soon as we first came online. At that point we were an ISP, a role that only now is ACORN relinquishing since there are other free email services available.

There must have been another box full of minutes from the years of meetings it took to build the system and enlarge it. I wrote most of them, and I'd found that if I didn't do them right away, I'd forget large chunks of what happened. We laugh now about the winter that a large, outspoken fellow came to the meetings with the agenda of tying us to a computer business that he was running. I think I only saw David Jennings angry once, and that was at one of those meetings. Finally the fellow went away, and we returned to peaceful networking.

Those were good years and good people for me. I was working at a job that had little room for creativity, and ACORN allowed me to get out there and use the creativity that went untapped on the day shift. I should also mention Rich Kovach, tax law professor at the University of Akron School of Law, who graciously answered tons of questions about the 501(c)3 application and much else.

The other lesson that stands out from those years is the importance of physical community. It's what Tom Grundner called "the radius." I live in Cleveland Heights, about thirty-five miles from Akron. With the exception of building ACORN, my community involvement was in my home community of Cleveland Heights. As silly as it may seem, I sometimes felt homesick in Akron, a visitor in a community that I could never be truly a part of. I don't know that everyone reacts to community that way, but I think that community networkers might. We may build something online that is open to the world, but we build it for a geographic community that we call home.

Needless to say, there had to be one legal hitch in winding up ACORN. The Ohio Secretary of State's office noticed that the notary hadn't dated her signature on my affidavit. Not only did they send the four-page certificate of dissolution back to me with the uncashed check for $50.00, they lined through every page so that I'd have to do it over again. This seriously annoyed me, to the extent that I tossed the paperwork into the "To Do Now!" folder, assuring that it would not surface for a considerable period. Gradually it dawned on me that when it's time to file the next Certificate of Continued Existence, I will do nothing. Then the Secretary of State's office will revoke the charter at no charge. Creativity--that's what the night shift is about!

Anne S. McFarland is Research and Reference Librarian for the Cleveland Law Library Association and a regular columnist for the Community Technology Review. [Editors' note: Tom Grundner's final 1996 "Letter to the Fourth World" that includes reference to "the radius" is archived by the Los Angeles Free-Net.]

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