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Nola.com: 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.”

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ACORN International’s Work with the Hawkers

Another major constituency with whom ACORN India is undertaking an initiative is the hawkers. Hawkers are street vendors who sell stuff from portable carts. A large chunk of the population of India still buys daily food, and even clothes, books, newspapers from these street vendors. Hence the emergence of big retail stores like Reliance and others is a direct assault on the livelihoods of the hawkers.

With the advent of the New Economic Policy in 1991, the face of urban India is slowly but surely changing. In this era of globalization, privatization and market forces, big corporate retailers are becoming the vogue of the day and are often called the new face of the shining India. The brunt of this rampant corporatism and the big private business mentality is being borne directly by the hawkers.

Hawkers are one of the most important social and economic service providers in India. On the one hand they provide affordable services to the urban population; one the other hand they give the small scale and home based industries a platform for survival as these hawkers are the only selling source for these industries.

Hawkers also play a very important role in the overall urban economy. They are the second larges workforce in the unorganized sector. The total turnover of hawkers in Mumbai is Rupees 120 billion (USD 2.4 billion), in Delhi Rupees 100 billion (USD 2.0 billion) and in Kolkata Rupees 88 billion (USD 1.8 billion). Despite such tremendous contribution towards the economy, the 10- million odd street vendors, or hawkers, in India—a large number of them working and living in major urban centers like Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata—face a serious threat to their livelihood from the corporate retailers. This in turn further endangers the livelihoods of million of others connected from informal sector of the economy.

Retail trade is the single largest component of the services sector in terms of contribution to the gross domestic product (GDP) of India. It amounts to 14 per cent of the service sector. The total number of retail outlets (both food and non-food) was 8.5 million in 1996 and 12 million in 2003.

In the past couple of years, big corporate firms such as Subhiksha, Reliance, Aditya Birla Group, Spencers, Big Apple etc. have entered the Indian retail market. According to estimates for every one job generated by corporate retail companies about 15 existing informal sector jobs will get destroyed. Thus an estimated 40 million of workers including street vendors, hawkers and small shop owners stand to lose their livelihood if the expansion of corporate firms is allowed to go unchecked. The situation is going to be grave if the government allows FDI in retail paving the way for predatory firms like Wal-Mart to directly enter India.

ACORN India in the process of forming Hawkers’ Union in Mumbai. Under the banner of this Hawkers’ Union, ACORN India recently organized a well-attended meeting in Mumbai. On 29th September 2008, hundreds of hawkers under the banner of National Hawkers Federation, a national partner of India FDI Watch, held a demonstration in front of the Metro Shop in Kolkata. The shop is yet to become operational.

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CURRENTLY IN BUENOS AIRES, COMING SOON IN LIMA, DOMINICAN REPUBLIC, MEXICO CITY AND TIJUANA!!!!

CONTACT AT rossiacorn@gmail.com and esahores@gmail.com

ACORN International is currently running a community education center that provides free after school homework support, English, art, theatre, and dance classes to children and young adults from the low-income southern cone neighborhoods of Buenos Aires, Argentina.   The center is entirely run and funded by ACORN members (families in surrounding neighborhoods) and volunteers. Every day, there are anywhere between 20 and 50 children and 5 to 8 volunteer teachers and helpers at the center. 

Not only does the center function as a “safe space” where kids can attain useful skills, expand creatively, and work on their schoolwork provided, but it also does something unique that not many other educational programs provide—it provides a space where parents, children, and other neighborhood residents collaborate on projects that benefit the overall community.  ACORN members who are working on ACORN Campaigns—for example our campaign to increase communication and trust between residents living in dangerous areas and local police —bring their children to the ACORN Center, where, amongst other things, they make colorful posters pertaining to the campaign that can be used as visuals in meetings or other actions.   In this way, the children feel like they can contribute to an important project that their parents, and other members of the community, are also involved with. 

    

 

Centro de Comunidad y Proyecto de Desarrollado de La Boca 

Información Para Nuevos Voluntarios 

¿Quiénes Somos?Somos… Club ACORN Argentina, un centro comunitario de La Boca. Ofrecemos clases, proyectos y eventos para niños, jóvenes y adultos de los Barrios de La Boca y Barracas.  Intentamos dar a la comunidad local un lugar seguro y educativo y al mismo tiempo enseñar a nuestros estudiantes el valor de la comunicación, respeto y buena relación con los demás y con ellos mismos.  Las clases son gratuitas con la colaboración de los voluntarios y participantes de Club ACORN. 

 ¿Qué Ofrecemos? Clases de lunes a viernes para niños, incluyendo Apoyo Escolar, Ingles, Arte (Arte Terapia), Teatro, Danza, Nutrición y Gimnasia. También tenemos juegos y proyectos que cambian día a día. Para adultos, ofrecemos clases de Alfabetización y clases de Inglés.  

¿Qué tenés que tener para ser Voluntario? Ganas…de aprender, de dar tiempo para ayudar a los demás, de enseñar, de compartir momentos y de colaborar. 

¿Cuál es el rol del Voluntario?Hoy más que nunca los voluntarios son la base de casi todas actividades de ACORN, ayudando a realizar con éxito nuestros proyectos y brindando asistencia y contención a las personas que lo necesitan.  

Horario:Lunes: 14-17Martes: 16-19; clases para adultos 19-21Miércoles: 14-17Jueves: 16-19Viernes: 16-19 

Dirección:Avenida Regimiento Patricios 566Ubicado en la Boca y conectado con la ciudad con varias líneas de colectivos (39,74,10,93 y 29,24,22) Para Participar:Si te interesa participar conéctate con nosotros por mail: rossiacorn@gmail.comesahores@gmail.com,clubacorn@gmail.com y confirma una reserva para tu entrevista en la Oficina de ACORN: Moreno 428 – Piso 10B (entre las calles Defensa y Bolívar). Te estamos esperando!!!!

 


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