A community organiser, a self-appointed role he adopted at nineteen years old, today and 40 years later he is helping ordinary people to change swathes of societies the world over.
Founder of ACORN International, this unique individual focuses on what he calls ‘citizen wealth’ with an astounding optimism and immediacy that works for, and often achieves, transformational results. He never doubts any citizen’s capacity to make a difference, despite the battle scars earned along the way. “The fight for change is progress itself,” he told the Network.
Activists in Scotland, no matter what their campaign, can learn from this experienced veteran who advocates less talk, more listening, direct action and being clear about the issues as key components for kick-starting change.
ACORN is the Association of Community Organisations for Reform Now. Wade resigned from that board in 2008 after 38 years as a founding member. He is now ‘chief organizer’ for ACORN International, built on similar lines. His latest book Citizen Wealth: Winning the Campaign to Save Working Families, documents his journey with enthralling stories.
Rathke is known globally as the premier organizer of low and medium income labour and community groups and an inspiration to change makers who recognise that “a personal problem becomes a political issue”. It was on an ACORN project in Chicago that Barrack Obama cut his political teeth, a process he proudly documents in his biographies and has since staunchly defended against sometimes vicious attacks.
Sharing the story
IN May 2013 Wade Rathke visited Scotland for the first time in his long career. He was invited and hosted by several organisers of Edinburgh Private Tenants Action Group (Eptag). The enterprising, entrepreneurial young people who have founded this already influential organisation set up a day-school workshop in Edinburgh University’s Teviot building. It was well attended by committed activists from Glasgow, Edinburgh and other parts of Scotland.
The goal was to seriously consider starting another ‘affiliate’ or outpost of ACORN International. The buzz in the room became palpable as Wade’s direct style identified doable campaigns, an organising committee, weekly meetings and achievable goals. He clearly enjoyed moving away from “litanies of despair” to tongue-in-cheek reminders that “community organisers don’t stutter”. He engaged keenly with his audience and you could see the light of vision in his eye.
Since 2008 Rathke has travelled globally to help ordinary people do extraordinary things. Canada, Peru, South Korea, Czech Republic, Dominican Republic, Kenya and Mexico are some of the affiliates of the global group mushrooming globally at grassroots level. Ordinary people are learning how to organise and mobilize. Their mentor focuses on pragmatism, encouraging ‘winnable’ campaigns that drive people out of a sense of political hopelessness into a can-do state of mind.
“Justice is just-us” said Wade whose blog at chieforganizer.org daily records, probes and supports the struggles that working people face against minimum wage abuse, inequality and injustice both in his home state of Louisiana (rebuilding New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina), across the United States and the world over.
“Individuals alone don’t have the capacity for resolving long-standing grievances,” he said. “The process is messy, it’s difficult and it can be a fight. You need to identify and organise your constituencies, you need strong organisations to achieve the change you believe must happen to protect and empower ordinary people.”
Expect to pay up front
UNIQUE to ACORN is the payment of ‘dues’ or membership fees, a concept that Wade says does not initially sit comfortably in some cultures, but creates a strong and vital sense of accountability. This fundamental principle is crucial to project success, and ironically, he notes, it is the lower income members amongst diverse constituencies who pay most willingly. At the same time, it is more often the organisers who stumble over asking.
“The key issue is the asking, not the getting,” says Wade. “Often it’s the organisers who need to change their approach as lower income people find it incredible that anyone else would fund their fight for change. They expect to pay dues and it is the poorest who pay most consistently and continuously.
“But with those fees comes a ‘testing’ from the members as they decide if you are making their case. You should expect that testing, another reason to set winnable goals that are achievable within a reasonable time-frame. Members will gauge success and develop confidence with that good feeling from wins, even though those achievements are small and incremental. ”
At the peak of its success ACORN had 500,000 members, all paying dues, and subsidiary partners amounting to 168 corporations within the “family”. “We got big,” says Wade, “Perhaps too big and it became more difficult to manage such a big organisation.” He admits that he has learned from some of the past experiences. “ACORN International is built out of the US experience,” he says.
He looks back to Little Rock Arkansas in May 1970 where the National Welfare Rights Organisation (NWRO) had sent him as an organizer. It was here that ACORN began and his first campaign was to help welfare recipients gain their basic needs. It was the starting point from which all the rest has unfolded. As a young man already dedicated to ‘Adequate Income Now’ he knew that “people have to come together to generate change” and that mantra still drives him today. He emphasizes the importance and power of “playing in teams” referring to Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam’s book of the last decade on this subject, listed below.
Our society can learn a lot from all of this in the fluid state of change that is Scotland today. This article only scratches the surface of the achievements in the life and times of the political force that is Wade Rathke. Further investigation may take your own activism to new and better levels. To learn more, follow the links below.
- To view the You Tube video Citizen Wealth Kickstarter film click here: http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/joeycarey/citizen-wealth
- To read Wade’s very contemporary blog click here: chieforganizer.org
- To access the quarterly magazine ‘Social Policy: Organising for Social and Economic Justice’ published by Rathke click here: http://www.socialpolicy.org/
- To learn more about Eptag click here: http://eptag.org.uk/
- Also see Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (2000) New York, Simon & Schuster.
Reprint of Article on National Network of Change for Change and Community