Wade Rathke began his career in activism by organizing against the Vietnam draft with the group Students for a Democratic Society, while he attended college in Williamstown, Massachusetts in the late sixties. In 1970, he founded the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), which represents the interests of lower-income communities across the United States. He stepped down from his position as ACORN’s chief organizer in June 2008. Last week, the U.S. Census Bureau announced its disaffiliation from the group after two employees were caught on camera offering business advice to two individuals who were masquerading as a pimp and a prostitute. Rathke spoke at Concordia’s Samuel Bronfman Building Tuesday evening, promoting his new book, Citizen Wealth.
McGill Daily: Why did you found ACORN and what is its political mandate?
Wade Rathke: ACORN is a membership organization of lower-income working families that began in the United States, largely because there wasn’t an organized voice for such families and neighbourhoods. People started coming together and trying to build some power to address [issues like] housing or income or wage or health issues.
MD: Do you see the recent scandal – the U.S. Census Bureau’s disaffiliation from ACORN – as a deliberate attempt to smear the organization?
WR: After being there for 38 years, it’s very saddening and painful for me to see the Republicans and right wing try to target ACORN because of its association with President Obama, and because they really don’t want poor people to have an organized voice. The census thing is a manufactured issue. [ACORN] was simply telling people they ought to be willing to be counted in low-income neighbourhoods, which is actually a huge problem in the census. So it doesn’t hurt ACORN per se, but this new McCarthyism [that] is raging in the United States – I think that is a very frightening thing for any organized group – labour or community or anything else – that’s [otherwise] allowed to continue unabated and to succeed.
MD: Why do you think ACORN has become the scapegoat of the right wing press?
WR: I’ll be damned if I know but I think it comes down to a frighteningly simple thing. One, it is poor people, and they believe that it’s easier to bully them, and they don’t like the fact that they’re standing up. And secondly, the organization is largely minority-led; the majority of its membership are African-Americans and Latinos. Clearly, you can watch these pictures of the town halls and these ruddy-faced overweight people yelling at the top of their lungs; that’s not the ACORN constituency.
MD: ACORN has been active for a number of years in fighting predatory lending and more recently, it has encouraged people facing foreclosure to stay in their own homes.
WR: Yes, while I was there, ACORN was very involved in trying to stop predatory practices of subprime lending that were essentially luring people into loans that – [when] they qualified for regular mortgage rates – were putting them in disadvantaged situations. So we got agreements with Countrywide, which at that time was not owned by Bank of America and was the biggest [mortgage bank], to try and stop some of these activities. [Currently] the foreclosure crisis is spreading and it’s very difficult for many families to navigate their way out of this. While I was there the government kept announcing programs to help people facing foreclosures but there’s no progress. I have read that there have been a number of efforts – and ACORN’s is one of them, but there are many of them – where people are saying “stay in your homes” until the government finally does succeed in getting the servicers to agree to modify mortgages.
MD: In recent years the liberal media has been paying closer attention to how private lobbies have managed to alter legislation. Do you see ACORN as an organization that needs to work within the lobby system or do you see that system as being inimical to its interests?
WR: Well, I don’t think it’s a system we can work in. The kind of system you’re talking about – the private lobbies – is really pernicious. It’s amazing, for instance, the bailouts of Wall Street, and all the money people got and what they gave away. [Yet] Wall Street lobbyists and bank lobbyists were still all over Congress afterward, preventing real regulation from coming in to correct those problems in the future. I think any membership organization is certainly not a lobby; you have to represent your members, and ACORN and similar organizations and unions have been very aggressive in standing up and communicating – not privately and in smoke-filled rooms and behind closed doors – but very publicly saying, “this is not the way you can do business.”
– Compiled by Niko Block