New Orleans Drummond Pike is the founder and CEO of Tides, which includes the Tides Foundation, Tides Center, and a host of other “water” named and great organizations. He has been a boon comrade of mine for four decades, and it is not surprising to see that he posted up something on his blog last night having read mine from yesterday. It’s a little too long for Nicole to simply paste in as a comment, but in true Drummond style, beautifully written. It makes me blush to read it, but it’s worth a look nonetheless.
Saul….time to step aside
Wade Rathke has done something some would never have predicted. Resigned as ACORN’s Chief Organizer. Who ever would have imagined?
I met Wade in 1972, as best I can recall. Marge Tabankin and I were running the Youth Project (she was my boss) and had developed a bit of a competition to find the most impressive new organizers “out there.” The YP, begun in the Center for Community Change’s basement, was an operation to leverage foundation $$ into community organizing that involved young people — an attempt to bring the national movements of the day down into the everyday lives of disenfranchised communities. I came up with Mike Miller from Organize, Inc. in SF — a skilled, talented follower of Saul Alinsky’s Industrial Areas Foundation approach: parish based, working class organizing. Alinsky had defined the field in many ways and his Rules for Radicals was found on the shelves of an entire college generation at the time. Margie’s choice was this kid named Wade Rathke.
Rathke was this ornery, young red head in Little Rock, Arkansas that was a couple of years into what would become ACORN as we know it today. He’d dropped out of Williams College to work with the anti-draft movement, but ended up working with George Wiley on the National Welfare Rights Organization. He built an edgy, confrontational group in Springfield, MA and learned on the job how to push for a better break for welfare mothers. His yearning to return to the south led him to convince Wiley to back his hair-brained scheme to build a new kind of organization that expanded the range — low AND moderate income folks, but stretched organizationally beyond one city into a statewide, and ultimately national, approach where there were more levers of power.
So, when I showed up in Little Rock on that hot, humid day in 1972, I found something I hadn’t expected. New thinking, new ambition, new methods. Later, on a whim, I invited Wade up to train some organizers in Montana at the Northern Plains Resource Council. What I saw then truly convinced me that this was a special person — able to find common ground between welfare moms in Springfield, aggrieved neighbors displaced by a freeway being built through their Little Rock neighborhood, and land-rich ranchers in eastern Montana fighting coal strip-mining. What they all faced was an imbalance of power, and they were swimming upstream. He imparted wisdom, practical advice on strategy and tactics, and an invitation to think of themselves in a larger context.
I was deeply impressed, and when I started up Tides several years later, he was my first call to recruit for the Board. Over the 32 ensuing years, he’s been a font of wisdom and advice on how to build an organization. I’ve felt often as though I were sitting at the foot of a master, and I think I was. He built ACORN on the premise that old models were meant to be challenged, and that’s something we at Tides have absorbed as well.
Later, when he started what became Local 100 of the SEIU, he pulled off a similar “defying gravity” move: he started a new union in a “right-to-work” state whose laws were extremely hostile to any effort to organize workers. Once again turning convention on its head, he figured out that workers consigned to minimum wage jobs had issues, an instinct to make their efforts collective, and a willingness to give the intense Rathke a chance to show them a new way. Now getting contracts signed with employers in right-to-work states is challenging in the extreme, but judging by the hostile monitoring they got during the Bush 1 years, they must have been doing something right.
I am convinced that the light of history will shine on Rathke quite brilliantly. In his 38 years at the helm of ACORN, he achieved what few have ever done working with poor people. He showed them that, through their own devices, and when collected in significant numbers and willing, on occasion, to be “impolite,” they can win real, tangible victories. If you have ever attended a national convention of ACORN, you will know what I mean. And if you ever need testimony, just talk to one of the leaders of ACORN like Maude Hurd and before her, Steve McDonald, or any of the others. 400,000 families are members, and it is hardly surprising to see progressive national candidates for public office come and address the throng. America will never be the same for the ACORN he helped build from scratch.
There is a paragraph in his blog about moving on that talks about the things that didn’t go well. I know about this from my own experience with Tides. You make decisions. You care. You do what you think is right. And, inevitably, some things you get wrong. How we are able to move forward directly depends on how we see the things that don’t go well and whether we learn from them. As Amory Lovins once famously invoked, “Systems without feedback loops are inherently stupid.” You can say the same about organizers and managers. The thing that many who meet Wade in other circumstances may miss is that he has always maintained the most important of feedback loops — those with the members and leaders. The respect he always shows, the deeply human connection between organizer and members he always honors, are incredible to behold.
I once traveled to Peru with Wade during the time leading up to the launching of ACORN Peru, I saw this same deep respect, combined with an understanding of the circumstances in which folks were organizing. I also saw him meet an equal, recognize and respect it, and establish a real understanding about the power of organizing in changing lives. This fellow, pictured on the right, ran an amazing organization that could produce thousands of people on the street on very short notice. I actually believe Wade was a bit jealous!
As Wade so eloquently says, he is moving on to work with “the weak” links in the ACORN network — the international ACORN’s and Local 100 which is recovering still from Katrina. He’s unlikely to call them “weak” in a year. Why? Because he’s our generation’s great organizer.