Detroit As a special treat for the members, we had made the decision to bring in a play from New York called “Collard Greens and Plantanos,” sort of a hip-hop thing that was a little edgy, funny, and drove a hard message about African-Americans and Latino relationships. This was going to be the first official event of the ACORN Convention in Cobo Hall to get the whole show going.
Maude Hurd, ACORN’s long-time President, stood on the stage and welcomed the crowd to the Convention. I was sitting fairly close to the front with the some of the Louisiana and New York members.
All of a sudden to my surprise I heard Maude saying my name. For an ACORN leader to say the name of an organizer in any kind of speech to the members is about as unusual as one of them standing up to curse in church. In ACORN culture, this is simply not done. Never! At least not on my watch, and perhaps that was the point. Maude was announcing to the more than 1500 members that were in the hall, that after 38 years I was stepping down as Chief Organizer of ACORN.
In her graceful way she said the following, “ACORN celebrated our 38th birthday this past Wednesday. And we’ve grown incredibly in the past 38 years from our start as a spirited band of welfare mothers in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1970. ACORN is now the nation’s largest grassroots community organization with more than 400,000 member families. With that growth, it has become increasingly difficult for one person to effectively manage our operations. The ACORN board has made a decision to transfer administrative duties from a single head organizer to a staff and leadership management team. Our founder, Wade Rathke, has given 38 years of dedicated serve to ACORN and helped spur our growth. He’s moving on to spend his time on a range of projects in the United States and internationally in the fight for empowerment and against poverty. He has committed his life to this service. We appreciate his dedication and service to ACORN and wish him well.”
I stood up, turned and faced the sea of members and took off my ACORN ball cap and waved it in the air, acknowledging the members applause. To my shock, waves of members near me and then farther back to the right and to the left began rising while they applauded until there was a standing ovation that moved me to my soul, as I stood there in embarrassment and kept waving my cap until finally I sat down. Maude though started talking again and this time was calling my name. Calling me to the stage for something to my surprise! I staggered up there unsure what I was doing or why. She walked over and gave me a big hug, and I whispered in her ear how much I appreciated her over all of these years. She then announced that she was giving me a plaque and read the inscription that it was an “award for lifetime achievement in organizing to ACORN Founder and Chief Organizer — Wade Rathke” and the date June 21, 2008. I was speechless, then she and other people on the stage and the members were yelling, “Speech!” “Speech!” Unbelievable!
I didn’t know what I could say that would fully express what I felt about these members I had served for 38 years. I simply spit something out about being an organizer means being in the background, so I wasn’t ready to start giving speeches from the podium at an ACORN convention. I said, “This was the way I rolled in, and this is the way I’ll roll out!” I then stepped away from the mike to the front of the stage and chanted, “ACORN, ACORN, ACORN!” “The Members Shall Rule!” “The Members Shall Rule!”
It’s hard to step aside. There were many days when I thought there would be dirt on my face before I stepped down as Chief Organizer for ACORN, but the time seems right now to have a different way of seeing my job and future with the organization.
Over recent years we have gone through an intensive external evaluation by consultants reviewing our capacity building, our succession planning, and similar issues. The Board had created a succession committee which was now meeting and moving forward. The staff was almost six months into a process of looking at how to improve the internal process of the organization so we were more prepared for the future. Redefining my work in such a way that these efforts were able to mature and reach fruition made sense now.
Increasingly as a friend said to me recently, maybe my “plate was getting too full.” Looking at the issue dispassionately over recent weeks there seemed to be a real case for the truth of that analysis. There were too many issues where one thing seemed to be trading with another, rather than complimenting the whole. Stepping aside from day to day management of ACORN would let me do what was necessary to expand and move ACORN International to stable footing and to realize its huge potential to contribute to a global movement. We were winning more and more in our campaigns against Wal-Mart in the United States and India, and I needed to give the expansion into California markets more time. Local 100 SEIU was still rebuilding after Katrina and growing among low wage workers and finally seeing real membership growth so it needed more time and push to get to where it needed to be again. I was still using Sunday mornings to revise my book about ACORN and the rebuilding of New Orleans so that Verso could publish it quickly this year, and I had already signed a contract to deliver a book on “Citizen Wealth” the day after Labor Day. Realistically, it was time for me to make my contribution another way and focus more intensely on the these projects to get them where they needed to be, rather than “big ACORN” as we call it here.
Personally this also seemed like a good time for closure. I am two months away from being 60 years old. My dad died recently which always makes you think about the balance of your life and how you are handling (usually badly!) the tradeoffs between work, travel, and family. My children were back in New Orleans and to my huge pride working with various parts of ACORN and making real contributions, so that was a treat, and I wanted to enjoy that and help them do more while I can, and while they are living nearby.
These are emotional times. I think back at all of the victories and some of the defeats. Some organizers and leaders ask me, “what lessons have I learned?” and I wonder? I once read an interview with the CEO of some huge business, who was asked about decision making. He replied that to succeed he had to make the right decision, “3 out of every 5 times.” In organizing we really are not given that kind of leeway. We start from such a deficit as we try to match numbers against entrenched power and virulent opposition. Persistence and staying the course perhaps got me farther than “right” decisions. I knew my job, as I understood it, and I stood for the principles and values that went with the work, as I knew it, and over everything else, I served and protected the organization so we could out run all of the bad decisions that I made, probably on a daily basis, and sometimes in retrospect so bad that they could have been crippling. I wasn’t perfect, but I was very, very good, and when wrong, fortunately, I was lucky, so the organization was able to survive and fight another day. Did I make mistakes? Sure — some whoppers. Did I always get it right? No. Would I do some things differently, if I could do some things over? Absolutely. But, I went to work every day and did the best I could, and as I move forward I will have to continue to ask the hard questions to make sure that I do not make the same mistakes in the future that I have made in the past.
Barack Obama has a great passage in his book, “Dreams from My Father,” where he noted, “Through organizing, through shared sacrifice, membership had been earned. And because membership was earned — because this community I imagined was still in the making, built on the promise that the larger American community, black, white, and brown, could somehow redefine itself — I believed that it might, over time, admit the uniqueness of my own life. That was my idea of organizing. It was a promise of redemption.” I believe that as well, and it is my best consolation for all of the wrong decisions I made along the way over the last 38 years. Uniquely in this work, there is the “promise of redemption.”
ACORN is in my blood and once all of these changes settle in for everyone, I hope that I will be able to continue to provide service to all of the leaders and members I love that are the heart and soul of the organization. An organizer is a special tool, and I have been well utilized by the organization. But, I recognize that though I may be a hammer, not every problem is a nail. There needs to be a time for the organization after all of these years with me sucking up so much air and space in the room to stretch out and muscle up in a different way for the future. I have lots to do.
As an organizer, I have always taught and repeated incessantly that no one in an organization is essential or irreplaceable, and that’s true for me with ACORN in the United States as well. There is every reason to believe that the organization’s greatest strength and success still lies ahead. Every day I have worked at ACORN, I have thought we were just at the ground floor in building a spectacular tomorrow. I still believe that totally. I also believe as fully that it is time for me to play a different role in the future of the organization.
Seeing the members jumping up in shouts and applause is the rarest of thanks and a special gift for my time with ACORN. Believing that the ACORN slogan that the “people shall rule,” translates into meaning all of our members, makes me feel that my time was well spent here and excites me about all of the work left for me to do in the future.
Stepping out and stepping up to the next chapter!