Wade Rathke

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Wade Rathke
Born Stephen Wade Rathke
(1948-08-05) August 5, 1948 (age 69)
New Orleans, Louisiana
Residence New Orleans, Louisiana
Alma mater Williams College
Occupation Organizer
Known for Founder of ACORN
Partner(s) Beth Butler
Website WadeRathke.com

Stephen Wade Rathke (born August 5, 1948) is a community and labor activist who founded the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) in 1970 and Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 100 in 1980. He was ACORN's chief organizer from its founding in 1970 until June 2, 2008, and continues to organize for the international arm.[1] He is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Social Policy, a quarterly magazine for scholars and activists. The magazine's publishing arm has published three of his books.

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


Wade Rathke was born in New Orleans, Louisiana, where he attended local schools and graduated from Benjamin Franklin High School.[2] He attended Williams College, a private liberal arts college in Williamstown, Massachusetts, from 1966 to 1968.[3] While there, Wade organized draft resistance for Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and later organized welfare recipients in Springfield and Boston, Massachusetts for the National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO).[4]

Founding of ACORN[edit]

Rathke began his career as an organizer for the National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO) in Springfield, Massachusetts. After working with the NWRO, he left for Little Rock, Arkansas to found a new organization designed to unite poor and working-class families around a common agenda. As founder and chief organizer of ACORN, Rathke first hired Gary Delgado, among many notable community and labor organizers over the years. They developed a replicable model of "forming membership organizations and developing leaders in low-income neighborhoods -- relying substantially on young middle-class staff working for subsistence wages."[5]

This community organizing initiative in Arkansas eventually developed as the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), the largest organization of lower income and working families in the United States, with 175,000 dues-paying families spread across about eighty-two staffed offices in American cities. The Institute for Social Justice has been developed to serve as ACORN's training arm.[5]

The ACORN family of organizations includes radio stations (KNON and KABF), publications, housing development and ownership (ACORN Housing), and a variety of other supports for direct organizing and issue campaigns, such as Project Vote and the Living Wage Resource Center. In the 21st century, ACORN International has recently opened staffed offices in Lima, Peru, and Toronto and Vancouver, Canada; and 11 other countries including India, Kenya, and Italy.

Departure from ACORN[edit]

The New York Times reported on July 9, 2008, that Dale Rathke, the brother of ACORN's founder Wade Rathke, was found to have embezzled $948,607.50 from the group and affiliated charitable organizations in 1999 and 2000. Wade learned of the problem when an employee of Citizens Consulting, the accounting firm for ACORN, told him an investigation uncovered inappropriate charges that led to his brother. "Clearly, this was an uncomfortable, conflicting and humiliating situation as far as my family and I were concerned," Wade said, "and so the real decisions on how to handle it had to be made by others."[1] ACORN executives decided to handle it as an internal matter, and did not inform some of the board members, staff or law enforcement. They signed an enforceable restitution agreement with the Rathke family to repay the amount of the embezzlement. After the Rathke family had repaid $210,000, in $30,000 installments, a friend of Wade Rathke, Drummond Pike, purchased the promissory note thereby repaying the remaining debt for Dale Rathke.[6][7] According to the Times, Wade Rathke "said the decision to keep the matter secret was not made to protect his brother but because word of the embezzlement would have put a 'weapon' into the hands of enemies of Acorn, a liberal group that is a frequent target of conservatives who object to ACORN's often strident advocacy on behalf of low- and moderate-income families and workers." A whistleblower revealed the embezzlement in 2008. On June 2, 2008, Dale Rathke was dismissed, and Wade resigned that same day as ACORN's chief organizer. He continues as chief organizer for Acorn International L.L.C.[1]

Founding Service Employees International Union Local 100[edit]

Rathke is also founder and Chief Organizer of Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 100, which is headquartered in New Orleans and also has chapters in Texas. Founded in 1980 in New Orleans as an independent union of Hyatt employees, the union became part of SEIU in 1984. SEIU Local 100 organizes public sector public workers, including school employees, Head Start, and health care workers, as well as lower-wage private sector workers in the hospitality, janitorial, and other service industries.

Rathke's work in the labor movement includes three terms as Secretary-Treasurer of the Greater New Orleans AFL-CIO. Rathke is the president and co-founder of the SEIU Southern Conference; a member of the International Executive Board of SEIU; and Chief Organizer of the Hotel and Restaurant Organizing Committee (HOTROC) a multi-union organizing project for hospitality workers in New Orleans sponsored by the AFL-CIO and its president, John Sweeney.

Other projects[edit]

In 2000, Rathke created the Organizers' Forum, which brings together senior organizers in labor and community organizations in dialogues about challenges faced by constituency-based organizations, such as tactical development, organizing new immigrants, using technology, using capital strategies and corporate campaign techniques, or understanding the effects and organizing challenges of globalization.[8] The Organizers' Forum international dialogues have involved more than 300 organizers over the last 10 years. Through visits to Brazil, India, South Africa, Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, Turkey, Russia, Australia, and Egypt, they have helped create a global network of union and community organizers.

In 2011 Rathke purchased the Fair Grinds Coffeehouse in New Orleans. For the previous decade, it had been the only 100% fair trade coffeehouse in the city and was the coffeehouse voted #1 in New Orleans in the readers poll of the weekly Gambit Magazine. Rathke set up the ownership as a low-profit limited liability corporation (L3C) to operate as a "social venture" business, donating profits and available gross revenues to support organizing in developing countries, including South and Central America, from where the coffee is imported. Fair Grinds under Rathke now imports the coffee beans directly from the Port of New Orleans, to benefit local jobs and union workers, and roasts locally as well.[9]


  • Citizen Wealth: Winning the Campaign to Save Working Families (2009).[10]
  • The Battle for the Ninth Ward: ACORN, Rebuilding New Orleans, and the Lessons of Disaster (2011)[11]
  • Edited Global Grassroots: Perspectives on International Organizing (2011)[12][13]


  1. ^ a b c Strom, Stephanie (July 9, 2008). "Funds Misappropriated at 2 Nonprofit Groups". New York Times. Retrieved 2011-03-23. 
  2. ^ Nolan, Bruce (2009-09-20). "ACORN goes on the defensive as it battles a string of scandals". The Times-Picayune. Retrieved 2009-09-20. 
  3. ^ Rathke, Wade. "Wade Rathke, Chief Organizer at ACORN". LinkedIn. Retrieved 2008-10-09. 
  4. ^ Wade Rathke Executive Profile, American City Business Journals[dead link]
  5. ^ a b "Power to the People: Thirty-five Years of Community Organizing", Updated from The Workbook, Summer 1994, pp. 52-55, hosted at David Wall's page, Sonoma State University, accessed 25 February 2015
  6. ^ Strom, Stephanie (August 16, 2008). "Head of Foundation Bailed Out Nonprofit Group After Its Funds Were Embezzled". New York Times. Retrieved 2011-03-23. 
  7. ^ "For ACORN, Video Is Only Latest Crisis". The Washington Post. September 20, 2009. Retrieved 2011-03-22. 
  8. ^ http://organizersforum.org/history/
  9. ^ John Pope, "Community Activist Will Practice What He Preaches at New Orleans Coffeehouse," The Times-Picayune, 28 August 2011.
  10. ^ Wade Rathke (2009). Citizen Wealth. Berrett-Koehler Publishers. ISBN 978-1-57675-862-5. 
  11. ^ Wade Rathke (2011). The Battle for the Ninth Ward. Social Policy Press. ISBN 978-0-615-52501-3. 
  12. ^ Wade Rathke, ed. (2011). Global Grassroots. Social Policy Press. ISBN 978-0-615-50588-6. 
  13. ^ "Our Products". Social Policy Press. Retrieved 2012-05-14. 

External links[edit]