Wade Rathke (1948–)

Wade Rathke is a longtime community organizer and the founder of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN). He was living in Arkansas when he started an organization that would evolve in 1970 into ACORN. His efforts to achieve social justice were highlighted in a 2017 documentary film titled The Organizer.

Stephen Wade Rathke was born on August 5, 1948, in Laramie, Wyoming, to Edmann J. Rathke and Cornelia Ratliff Rathke. He was raised in Colorado and New Orleans, Louisiana, and graduated from Benjamin Franklin High School in New Orleans in 1966. He then headed to Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts, which he attended from 1966 to 1968.

Dropping out of Williams in 1968, Rathke began his organizing career with the National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO) in Springfield, Massachusetts, where he worked under well-known organizer George Wiley. He soon moved to Arkansas, where he started an organization in Little Rock (Pulaski County) that he based in the community at large, not limited to welfare recipients. That organization would morph in 1970 into ACORN, which became the largest organization of lower-income working families in the United States, with more than half a million dues-paying members spread among over 100 cities by 2008. In addition to being the founder, Rathke served as the chief organizer of the organization from 1970 to 2008. ACORN gained a heightened public profile during the 2008 presidential campaign when opponents of Barack Obama sought to portray the organization as a radical group that posed a threat to American democracy. That same year, Rathke was forced to resign as chief organizer after it was discovered that not only had his younger brother, Dale Rathke, embezzled almost $1 million eight years before, but that Wade Rathke had been involved in an effort to cover it up.

Rathke’s resignation as chief organizer and the revelations concerning the embezzlement and cover-up marked a stunning turn of events, especially given his central role in an organization whose stated mission was to win “a bigger voice and a fairer share for low and moderate income families.” ACORN dissolved in the United States in 2010, although Rathke continued as chief organizer for ACORN International, Inc.

Under Rathke’s leadership, ACORN had expanded its reach in the country, establishing a network of organizations, including non-commercial radio stations operated by the Affiliated Media Foundation Movement in Little Rock and New Orleans, as well as publications and housing developments. All these organizations are aimed at facilitating ACORN’s organizing and issue campaigns. Rathke stated that the radio stations have been an effective means of getting the word out, often serving as an equalizer against well-financed opposition forces.

Rathke’s organizing efforts included more than his many years with ACORN. In 1980, Rathke was the founder and chief organizer of Local 100, Service Employees International Union (SEIU), which had members in Louisiana, Texas, and Arkansas. As an off-shoot of his union organizing work, he served three terms as secretary-treasurer of the Greater New Orleans AFL-CIO, as well as serving as president and co-founder of the SEIU Southern Conference. He was also a member of the International Executive Board of the SEIU for eight years. He was a founding board member the Tides Foundation, a public charity and fiscal sponsor that works to advance progressive policy goals on issues including the environment, labor, healthcare, and human rights. Rathke became a senior advisor to the organization and also served as the board chair of the Tides Center, which helps provide management services to both new and existing non-profits that work toward social change.

Rathke became actively involved in fostering the development of other organizers, serving as the chair of the Organizers Forum. A project of the Tides Center, the group brings together labor and community organizers for two dialogues, one domestic and one international, each year.

Rathke is the author of a number of books, including Citizen Wealth: Winning the Campaign to Save Working Families (2009), The Battle for the Ninth Ward: ACORN, Rebuilding New Orleans, and the Lessons of Disaster (2011), and Nuts & Bolts: The ACORN Fundamentals of Organizing (2018). In addition, he has published articles on subjects ranging from organizing to direct-action tactics to the revival of the union movement, and his work has appeared in publications including the Boston Review of Books and the Nation. He is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Social Policy, a quarterly publication for scholars and activists. His writing also appears regularly in the New Labor Forum, and he contributed essays to There Is No Such Thing as a Natural Disaster, a volume edited by Gregory Squire and Chester Hartman.

Wade Rathke and his partner, Beth Butler, live in New Orleans.

For additional information:
Atlas, John. Seeds of Change: The Story of ACORN, America’s Most Controversial Antipoverty Community Organizing Group. Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt University Press, 2010.

Delgado, Gary. Organizing the Movement: The Roots and Growth of ACORN. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1986.

Fisher, Robert, ed. The People Shall Rule: ACORN, Community Organizing, and the Struggle for Economic Justice. Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt University Press, 2009.

Horowitz, Carl. “ACORN Admits to Embezzlement Scandal; Founder Steps Down.” National Legal and Policy Center, July 28, 2008. http://nlpc.org/2008/07/28/acorn-admits-embezzlement-scandal-founder-steps-down/ (accessed February 20, 2019).

Kaminer, Wendy. “ACORN: A Cautionary Tale.” The Atlantic, September 24, 2009. Online at https://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2009/09/acorn-a-cautionary-tale/27216/ (accessed February 20, 2019).

Lybarger, Dan. “69-Year-Old Community Activist with Arkansas Roots Is Focus of New Documentary.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, May 11, 2018. Online at https://www.arkansasonline.com/news/2018/may/11/organizer-wade-rathke-still-job-arkansas-roots/ (accessed February 20, 2019).

Wade Rathke: Chief Organizer Blog. http://chieforganizer.org/ (accessed February 20, 2019).

William H. Pruden III
Ravenscroft School

Last Updated: 02/20/2019