Community activist will practice what he preaches at New Orleans coffeehouse Community activist will practice what he preaches at New Orleans coffeehouse

As Wade Rathke, the New Orleans-born community organizer who founded ACORN, prepared to turn 63 this month, he was at a crossroads. The U.S. branch of the activist organization he turned into a powerhouse and a punching bag for the political right was dead, a victim of internal and external strife. 

John McCusker, The Times-Picayune’Had this been a regular coffee shop, I probably would have just kept on walking,’ Wade Rathke says of his decision to buy Fair Grinds coffeehouse.

Although Rathke has kept busy traveling to the 12 countries that are partners in ACORN International, he wanted something that would let him do some organizing in New Orleans.

So he bought a coffee shop.

It isn’t just any coffee shop. It is the Fair Grinds Coffeehouse, a two-story Ponce de Leon Street establishment whose name is a play on the name of the nearby racetrack.

Though coffee shops have become synonymous with bourgeois excess, the Fair Grinds is in some ways a natural place for a veteran rabble-rouser to land. The ground-floor interior, where flecks of paint peel off the dark-green beaded-pine walls, looks like one of the last outposts of the 1960s, with fliers touting yoga, concerts and meditation groups. 

There are, however, some modern touches: Casually clad customers commune with laptops and smartphones, and the walls and front window display advertisements for vegan cuisine and gourmet cupcakes.

But, Rathke said, what drew him to buy the business from Robert Thompson and his wife, Elizabeth Herod, wasn’t just the opportunity to sell coffee and pastries, although he envisions the shop as an ideal market for fair-trade coffee made by a co-op of Honduran women with whom he works.

“The attraction here is the space we’re in right now,” Rathke said.

Rathke, who will take over in mid-October, was sitting with Thompson in a big, empty room upstairs, a space that has been used for years by art groups, meditation groups and boards of nonprofit organizations.

“You name it, and it probably met here at some time or another,” Rathke said. “Had this been a regular coffee shop, I probably would have just kept on walking, but the chance of combining what I know about building a community from 40 years of being a community organizer and the role that this coffee house has in this community was just too good to pass up.

“I’m excited about the fact that there are 300 or more people who come in here every day, and we’ll have a chance to talk to them. God knows what we’ll say. God knows what we’ll hear. I’m very much looking forward to the dialogue that a cup of coffee can help make happen.”

Rathke, who paid about $500,000 for the building, is no stranger to the coffee culture. A graduate of Benjamin Franklin High School, he got a job as a shipping clerk at Luzianne Coffee Co. after dropping out of Williams College, where he had organized draft resisters and welfare recipients.

At Luzianne, Rathke was introduced to coffee and chicory in the company cafeteria, and he frequently was given a 1-pound bag at the end of a week’s work.

“I liked coffee after that,” he said.

At Fair Grinds, Rathke said one of his priorities will be to educate people about fair-trade coffee, a category of coffee that may cost more because, Rathke said, its producers are getting paid adequately.

“People should get the reward of their labor,” he said. “The organizing I do, which is the broadest way I express my commitment to people and the justice they deserve as part of their lives, will also be meted out here at this coffeehouse.”

The Rathke regime will carry on a tradition that Thompson and Herod established when they opened the business in 2002.

“If we’re absorbing a penny or more in the cost per cup, so be it,” Thompson said. “We feel better about the cup of coffee we’re drinking.”

The two men’s apparel espoused the coffeehouse’s laid-back vibe. Thompson wore a Fair Grinds T-shirt, shorts and Crocs. Rathke wore a light blue shirt, jeans and sandals, and he carried a tote bulging with copies of his two books on community organizing.

His latest book, “The Battle for the Ninth Ward,” will debut Monday, the sixth anniversary ofHurricane Katrina, with a party at 6 p.m. at Light City Church, 6117 St. Claude Ave.

Rathke also is the editor in chief and publisher of Social Policy, a quarterly magazine.

Even though Rathke will be the Fair Grinds’ owner, he won’t be a regular fixture at the counter. He’s still busy, traveling to countries where he is ACORN International’s chief organizer.

In the United States, ACORN, which had been one of the country’s biggest community-organizing groups, disbanded last year after allegations of criminal conduct — an investigation found none — and the revelation in 2008 that Rathke’s brother, Dale, who also worked there, had embezzled nearly $1 million from ACORN and some affiliated organizations in 1999 and 2000.

The matter was kept quiet for years. Dale Rathke was ousted on June 2, 2008, shortly after the news became public, and Wade Rathke stepped down as ACORN’s chief organizer the same day.

Dale Rathke, who lives in New Orleans, had paid the money back before 2008, his brother said.

“He had his problems,” Wade Rathke said. “Obviously, it was very unfortunate. He made a big mistake; he paid back the money. That is a legal response. We could have thrown him in front of the bus, but we wouldn’t have gotten the money back.

“We weighed between getting restitution and having retribution, and restitution seemed like the wise course, and that’s the one we chose. The majority of ACORN’s members and leaders were OK with that.”

Even though there is no longer an ACORN structure in the United States, Rathke has plans for the coffeehouse as a nexus of activism.

“We’ll run it as a social-venture operation,” he said. “The work will directly support change, both out of the gross revenue and whatever the net profit is. Those monies will be expended to try to make sure that people in developing countries like where we get the coffee are able to come together, organize collectively, improve their livelihoods, build power. That’s where the resources will go.

“These things all integrate together, and I think the Fair Grinds Coffeehouse is a natural place to put more of these pieces together.”