[As a courtesy to our guests, please keep comments to the book and be respectful of dissenting opinions. Please take other conversations to a previous thread. - bev]
In what may be the most poignant expression of populist ideals, Anne Frank, on the eve of extermination, wrote that after all she’d been through she still believed that people are basically good. Thankfully, many of us are simply wired, against all odds, to think that way. Count Wade Rathke, the author of Global Grassroots, among them. While writing a book about ACORN, I got to know Wade, spending dozens of hours hanging out with him, interviewing him, e-mailing back and forth, interviewing friends and enemies, and literally following Rathke as he worked. In an age of stylish cynicism, whatever else you might say about Wade, he believes in the basic goodness of people, our capacity for empathy, kindness, and caring. These traits are expressed not only through individual acts with his family and friends; but also with strangers, especially those who inhabit the squalid urban communities across the globe–the people ignored by the public officials and exploited by the rich and powerful.
What makes Wade unusual is the tireless way he translates that compassion for the exploited and poor into action. He respects them too much to limit his time and money to charity, the classic form of do-gooder noblesse oblige. Instead he seeks to build movements and organizations that might empower and give voice to the poor so they can help lift themselves out of poverty.
And while many of us hope that poverty can be reduced, discrimination ended, affordable housing built, families strengthened, and that we’ll be protected from reckless greedy corporate CEOs, reckless politicians, and uncaring bureaucrats, Wade understands that wishing it so won’t make it happen.
That requires a plan—a plan to build movements and organizations that live and breathe optimism and trans formative action. That is what Wade Rathke does for a living.
He founded ACORN in 1970. It would become the most effective anti-poverty organization in the US, arguably the most important post 1960s progressive group, and an inspiration to the thousands of people touched by the ACORN experience. He showed how ordinary people can improve their own lives while making their country a more livable society by mustering what he considers poor people’s most important source of power—the poor themselves. Thousands of nonprofit groups around the world help the poor. Some provide charity and social services. Others advocate on behalf of the poor, but without input from the poor themselves. And some, like ACORN, organized the poor to fight for themselves. Among the thousands of community groups in the US, ACORN stood almost alone as a national force, with the ability to win major reforms at the neighborhood, city, state, and national levels.
Although ACORN never had a well-known leader or personality, Wade’s stewardship defined its fundamental strategy and was vital while the organization got off the ground.
After ACORN was destroyed by a ferocious and unscrupulous attack by the leaders of the Republican Party, News Corp and other corporations that hated ACORN because it actually threatened their profits and power, they hoped Rathke would go away.
He didn’t. His new book tells what he’s been up to. Using the knowledge he gained from the rise and fall of ACORN, he not only continues the fight for social justice in the US, but he’s supporting organizations and movements around the world that are trying to give voice and power to the poor. Before its demise more and more ACORN members were third world immigrants from the Dominican Republic, Peru, Mexico and elsewhere, and Wade was encouraged by them to help their families who remained abroad.
Based on this experience and what Wade thought was a compelling case for US based groups to be linking up with the global community; “[T]he world of our people is inextricably connected whether through the board rooms or the migration routes or internet, fast planes, and Skype,” Wade began ACORN International. At the same time he recognizes the enormity of the problem—billions living in slums and on less than a dollar or two a day, a daunting reality, which would deter most normal people from a mission to make a big difference. Undaunted, as he did with ACORN, he began building ACORN International one step at a time. He started with one city and quickly built a federation in ten different countries largely in Latin America, Canada, Kenya and India.
In Global Grassroots Rathke does an impressive job pulling together vast amounts of information and introducing us to organizers around the globe, some in the international ACORN federation, who are engaged in a myriad of diffuse grassroots efforts. The organizers and staffers, who stepped outside their usual, private life to become public citizens, speaking in their own voice, take us behind the scenes, providing both the hope and the plans. “[Their stories are] a reminder to the powers that be,” says Wade, “ that noble sentiments, celebrity visits, and large governmental aid grants do not create local empowerment or lasting change.”
In several stories we can witness first hand the hard-fought tenants rights and living wage campaigns in Canada and England, education reform in France, and displacement struggles in Eritrea and Turkey. In its battle against slumlords ACORN Toronto used a variety of tactics, including a Cockroach Derby press event in front of the worst buildings, to push the city to enforce its housing codes. Eventually they won a huge victory amounting to $321,300 in savings for tenants. Of course when it comes to organizing there are no Cinderella endings. When the tenants received a twenty percent refund on the rents they paid for their rundown apartments, some thirty percent of the tenants who participated in the action had moved out without tasting the fruits of victory. And to this day the worst buildings are still run-down.
“It is inspirational to read the histories of these organizations,” Wade writes, “and disturbing to reckon with current challenges they face.”
Rathke argues that there are three big challenges facing community organizing (and I’d add the progressive movement.) One is convincing the public that the working poor, with help, have the capacity to design solutions to their own problems. With education and training they can collectively tackle forces that would overwhelm an individual acting alone.
Secondly, we need to “solve the puzzle of sustainability and self sufficiency for the work.” By which Wade means community organizing must gain independence from “[t]he donor community…rich countries in North America, Europe, Scandinavia…and huge NGOs (nongovernmental organizations…).” His harshest criticism goes to those donors who do things like paying people for attending meetings and compensating so-called community leaders who have not organized a base. Sounding like a conservative critic of America’s welfare state, Rathke criticizes this and other paternal practices claiming that “donor cynicism has created a cycle of dependence even among activists and organizers.”
Related to the issue of self-sufficiency is the issue of scale. “Until we are able to achieve greater sustainability that allows grassroots organizations and the leaders that emerge from them to achieve sufficient scale to wield power…” success will have serious limits. He warns us to be “resistant to the donor-based culture that both shrinks the autonomy of the organization and its program and inserts a culture based on external favor and resources that is crippling to the long term future of an organizing project.”
Of course, this is a lesson that needs to be learned by anti-poverty and other groups in the US who rely too heavily on foundations, corporations and the Democratic Party for their existence.
His caveat reminds me of one lesson I draw from my book on ACORN, Seeds of Change. When ACORN was under attack most of the leaders of left and liberal foundations fled to the hills rather than defend ACORN. Afraid of losing funding or being attacked by the right, they, at best, gave lip service in their defense of ACORN. In addition to this disgraceful behavior, for the past three-decades numerous groups, with HQs inside the DC beltway and no active dues paying members outside it, have had very little ability to influence change because they were not truly independent of the Democratic Party or foundation funding. Although they never figured out how to become financially independent, staffers did have access to close advisors to Obama, and thought that was real power and influence. But the truth is that they didn’t have a large enough base outside the Democratic Party that could push Obama to initiate major economic reforms. The staff mistook access to power for real power. But it’s just access.
When it comes to empowering the working poor and winning victories against powerful corporations and politicians, few groups in the last four decades have made the kind of difference ACORN has. Its well-documented success suggests that when Rathke talks and writes, progressives should listen.