Activist, Organizer, Mentor, Educator
Send her thanks, for ALL she does.
Sonja Merchant-Jones' voice rises and she talks a bit faster when discussing community development, outreach and social activism. "People have to be about it, not just talk about it," Sonja says. "Not enough people are out there doing it. At the end of the day, they forget there are problems because they are not where they live."
Sonja, a 49-year-old mother of four adult children, is "about it" – the "it" being community outreach. Having long been involved in local development and grassroots activism, in 2002, Sonja joined Baltimore’s Waverly neighborhood chapter of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN). Since that time she has served in numerous board positions on district and state levels for ACORN. She is currently ACORN’s Waverly chapter chair and co-chair of the state ACORN board.
ACORN’s neighborhood chapters work on improving housing conditions for the economically disadvantaged, increasing community safety, securing living wages for all workers and improving the quality of local schools. Since 1970, ACORN has established more than 175,000 member families, organized in 850 neighborhood chapters in 75 cities across the United States and in cities in Canada, the Dominican Republic and Peru.
BGE utility rate hikes
The latest fight for Sonja’s chapter of ACORN is the utility price surge expected to hit homeowners in the Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. (BGE) service area this summer. For more than 1 million BGE customers, prices are set to go up 72 percent because rate caps that were part of the state’s electricity deregulation plan will expire.
ACORN joined Public Citizen and other groups recently in filing a petition with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission asking the commission to investigate and rule on whether the rates BGE charges are “just and reasonable,” a legal standard used to determine if rates are fair.
“The BGE rate hike is mind-boggling,” Sonja says. “The conditions families have to meet to receive help with their utilities are so hard to meet, nobody benefits.”
Sonja plans to organize educational outreach campaigns to inform her neighbors about the proposed rate hike so they will become more involved in the public opposition to the proposal.
Other activist activities
The dramatic utility rate increases are not the only project on Sonja’s plate. She also is involved in mentoring neighborhood youths, which she believes deters crime. Through experience gained as an ACORN leader, Sonja has initiated an outreach program to youth in the Waverly neighborhood.
Sonja routinely meets with neighborhood youth, advising them on education issues, and she serves as a mentor to youth in the community.
“There must be somewhere for children to go,” Sonja says. “People don’t have the nerve to actually have a dialogue with kids. It is easy to lock people up, but if you stop to have a conversation, you get to the core of what is really going on.”
While Sonja’s community involvement varies greatly, her interest and passion for activism are rooted in her real-life knowledge and experience as a parent.
“You don’t have to have a Ph.D. to fight for improvements in your community,” she says. “My experience comes from being a mother for 30 years.”
Sonja is profiled by Valerie Collins, the communications assistant in Public Citizen’s Communications Office.