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Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Interview With Wade Rathke II

Earlier today, I had round two with former ACORN Chief Organizer and current head of Community Organizations International, Wade Rathke. This interview was a lot more sweeping. It ranged from Rathke's philosophy, his philosophy on organizing, his views on the tea parties, to all sorts of issues surrounding ACORN.

1)What do you think of the tea parties?

It's important to note that I wasn't asking about political philosophy or personal preference, but rather as an organizing philosophy.

Rathke is impressed by their ability to organize. As an organizing phenomenon, the tea parties are effective and, as an organizer, Wade Rathke believes they took advantage of a vacuum, stepped in, and filled a void that the president never saw coming. Rathke once referred to the tea party movement as "tea baggers". He did this only once. He never really took any pot shots at them besides this and so I don't know that this was a deliberate dig.

Rathke did, however, also point out that often the tea parties fail basic organizing principles. Far too often, screen shots, photos, and videos show angry people, people yelling, and faces that portray meanness. That's not the image you want in organizing. As Rathke told me, "the more angry you are, the calmer you have to look". In organizing, Rathke is always very aware of how a crowd will appear in newspapers, on television, and in photos. This is something he stresses at all times in organizing protests. Portraying anger, in his opinion, turns off more people than it attracts.

Conservatives can dismiss this criticism but they'll do it at their peril. I processed this as Rathke, not the political opponent, but Rathke the schooled community organizer offering an opinion based on experience. There is a lot of anger portrayed at tea party rallies and that's what often winds up on television. Image is everything and Rathke, the organizer, understands this.

2) What do you think of conservatives demonizing the SEIU protests of the American Banking Association while lionizing the tea parties?

This is something I have found peculiar myself. When I thought this question up, I thought it was a red meat question for Rathke. He didn't necessarily react quite as ideologically as I thought.

Rathke simply said that protests are totally legitimate. He said that SEIU has been criticizing the banks for a while. The latest protest was no different than protests they've done before. Rathke didn't take the bait to take a series of potshots at his political opponents to exploit the hypocrisy of folks that lionize one set of protests while demonizing another set of protests. Protests are something that Rathke has engaged in his entire career and he told me that he has no problem with anyone conducting a protest for any issue as that's something he's done his whole life.

3) What do you think of conservatives attacking Saul Alinsky all while using his tactics?

Rathke told me he often receives "strange emails" both from folks he knows and doesn't know that brag about how they have used one Alinsky tactic or another on LIBERALS. This he finds to be delicious irony.

On the issue of Saul Alinsky, he told me that all organizers owe at least some inspiration to Saul Alinsky. Saul Alinsky was able to drive imagination for idealistic youth. He showed people like Wade Rathke that community organizing can be a profession, a calling, and a way of life. It wasn't something his high school guidance counselor ever told him was possible. Far more than anything he did as an organizer, Saul Alinsky inspired with words, speeches, and several books.

4) How do you build rapport as a white guy in a place like the Dominican Republic, India, etc. Wade Rathke now runs Community Organizations International, a world organizing organization.

I was curious about this because I thought that he goes through a long and arduous process in acclimating himself to new cultures and customs. Instead, I got an education in Rathke's experience, confidence, and skill as an organizer.

He told me that building rapport, for him, in India, the D.R, or any foreign land is no different than building rapport as a young organizer in the African American neighborhoods of Massachusetts. Wade Rathke is a six foot white guy and that won't change, but when he goes into any neighborhood he offers the community a "set of skills to build their voice". He seeks leaders. Most importantly, "it's not about me, it's about finding leaders in the community".

5)What advice would you give current ACORN leadership?

Rathke wanted to stay away from giving advice to the current leadership. He didn't want to be one of those folks that sat on the sidelines and told his former organizing how to run things. In a broad sense, he told that me that ACORN needs to "deeply embed yourself in the community". Show the community "why you're valuable". ACORN is most effective as the grassroots organization that is able to get on the street, build rapport with the community, and identify their problems. In short, go back to the basics of organizing.

6)Did he, in leading ACORN, follow the philosophy of Cloward/Piven and how does this philosophy differ from his Maximum effective participation strategy?

This was suggested to me be a fellow reporter. In fact, I wasn't totally familiar with either and to be totally frank, Rathke went above my head.

Rathke told me that Cloward/Piven was a strategy for a time and place, the late 1960's. It focused on welfare rights. It was focused an myopic. As the world has evolved, the strategy has become outdated. At the time, the federal government spent a lot more resources on urban renewal. There's no more race riots.

His own maximum effective participation strategy is much more expansive and in his opinion follows for the times.

In fact, Rathke was being very diplomatic in his description of Cloward/Piven. I spoke with several individuals involved in organizing following the interview. Cloward/Piven is in fact, at least according to them, a way of organizing welfare recipients to demand more and more entitlements until the capitalistic system breaks. What it really is, is a way of reaching the poor. It's important that without poor there are no rich. Everything is relative. Poor are given all sorts of reasons for why they have a station in life. In this philosophy, the system is blamed for their station in life and you attack the system.

In the view of one, Rathke is more expansive in that he wants to apply a similar philosophy to the world.

On this note, Wade Rathke told me that he's never met, never known, and has had no contact with Bill Ayers. There are all sorts of rumors, internet and otherwise, that put the two of them together in the 1960's and the present. Rathke told me categorically that he doesn't know William Ayers.

6) Did he feel any responsibility for the current travails of ACORN?

Rathke really didn't feel any personal responsibility for the current problems at ACORN. To put it in Rathke's words, "if this happened 30 days after I left that would be one thing, but this happened a year and a half later". He told me he worries about ACORN often. He is saddened and disturbed by their disintegration but he doesn't necessarily feel any personal responsibility for their current problems.

7) Are the attacks on ACORN legitimate or mostly ideologically based?

He said that without question ACORN has brought many of its problems on itself. He wasn't going to pretend as though they'd done nothing wrong and that the attackers had no legitimate claims to make. That said there was a certain "neo McCarthyist" streak to the attacks. In his mind, there's no question that ACORN was being singled out because, "ACORN is the single most effective community organization that works on behalf of the poor and middle class in the country".

For this, I followed up with another question?

8)If it is ideological, how do you process the likes of former ACORN employee Greg Hall and the ACORN 8 making the sam claims. Both Hall and ACORN 8 believe in ACORN's mission. Surely, you can't dismiss their criticism to ideology.

Rathke first dealt with Greg Hall. He said he doesn't know who he is. (Hall is a former ACORN organizer) At any given time, ACORN will send out between six and twelve thousand W2's in a given year. So, if one individual is unhappy, that's not something he can speak to.

As for ACORN 8, he told me that within the ACORN board, two factions began to form. There was the "administrative party". That was lead by Maude Hurd, current President of ACORN. Then, there was the "dissident faction". That was lead by Marcel Reid and Karen Inman (for full disclosure, I've interviewed both), both currently in ACORN 8. The dissidents were caught in a philosophical battle with the administrative wing that started in 2007 and even 2006. They saw the direction of ACORN differently from the administrative wing. In his view, their disagreements are rooted in these philosophical battles.

It was at this point of the interview that I was most exhilarated. The answer was brilliant both in its genius and in its diabolical nature. I knew exactly what Rathke was attempting to do and I was still impressed even as he was doing it. In his own smooth silky manner, Rathke painted the ACORN 8 as ideologues. They aren't conservative ideologues that see ACORN as bad. Rather they are philosophical ideologues that see the direction of ACORN as wrong and thus their disagreements are rooted in that philosophical split.

Of course, several members of ACORN 8 I spoke with afterwards found this to be, well, hog wash. One said, "what about the embezzlement"...alluding to the million dollar embezzlement of Wade's brother Dale. Another said that if they are "ideologues", it's ideologues that want to see ACORN return to its original mission of helping the poor. If there was a philosophical split, it's as both told me that they believed that ACORN was no longer helping the poor. It's the corruption that they saw that was the philosophical split.


Without speaking to Rathke, it's really impossible to describe just how pleasant he is. That's the best description for his demeanor and manner. This is extremely important. His pleasant nature is almost hypnotic. After speaking to him, there's absolutely no doubt why he's so effective. It's damn near impossible to not like Wade Rathke after speaking to him for more than an hour. That makes him effective and also potentially very dangerous, depending on his intentions. It also makes him a lot more complicated than his political opponents would like to turn him into. He's not anything like the political caricature that opponents like Michelle Malkin make of him. One individual described him to me as "diabolical" and that's why I thought of the word when he was answering my question, and if that's really so, he's also dangerous. He is under no circumstances to be underestimated. Whatever Wade Rathke is, one thing is for sure and that is that he is newsworthy.

Wade Rathke would like to turn his organizing philosophy into an organization that organizes throughout the world. At one time, his organization was an organization of one, Wade Rathke. He grew that organization into a political, organizing, media, and cultural force that has become a polarizing organization in large part because of its effectiveness. Make no mistake, he is capable of doing it. If he does it right, the Michelle Malkin's of the world will criticize. If he does it wrong, it will unleash a web of corruption that will interlock the globe and span continents. That makes what Wade Rathke will do going a forward a story that everyone should follow.

Finally, here's the first interview. Here's the third part of the interview.

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