Memories and milestones

by Wade Rathke

October 4, 2020

Jesuit seminarian John R . Macnamara huddles with college students helping him combat inflated property contract in Lawndale. 

Pearl River   Tenants all over the world are facing a huge crisis as the dual scourges of the pandemic and economic depression confront them daily. In some industrialized countries, eviction moratoria have staved off some of the pending crisis, but millions still face the problem and more millions are on the move as they run from informal evictions and pending rent payments, they are unable to make. In recent days, I was in Atlanta working with organizers and activists to begin the work of launching the ACORN Tenants Union in the United States following our experience doing so in Canada, Scotland, England, Wales, Ireland, and France.

The work is made of such milestones noted in passing in the hurly-burly of life and work. Milestones are coupled with memories. I took a call while driving from Atlanta back towards home along the interstate from a former staff attorney for ACORN. He continues to be an advocate for important causes, but he called to share the fact that he was in the process of writing a memoir on the milestones and memories of his life. He asked me if I felt that the work that we did had changed the world? My standard response is that I do the work every day, and I let the work speak for itself. I have certainly learned in organizing for more than fifty years both in the United States and around the globe that the world is a big place; the fight is as important as the accomplishments; and, victory is possible, but certainly not inevitable.

In recent weeks, this has come to mind for several reasons.

Jack Macnamara passed away in Chicago at 83 years old. Jack as a young, Jesuit seminarian had helped found the seminal Contract Buyers’ League in 1968 that fought against the predatory practices of lease-to-purchase. He had been a mentor and inspiration to some of my boon comrades like Mike Gallagher and Mark Splain, who have been part of my life’s work, so I had heard of Jack and CBL for decades. Several years ago, I joined Mike and Mark for a meeting with Jack one wintry December weekend in a half-abandoned rectory in Chicago to strategize on the reemergence of different forms of rent-to-buy exploitation. Out of the conversations and Jack’s encouragement came ACORN’s Home Savers Campaign in a half-dozen cities against Vision Property Management and other companies. It was an honor to get to meet Jack after all of those years and finally have our paths cross. He may not have been a priest long, but he was a freedom fighter all of life.

Joe Fagan passed away around the same time at 80, and was another ex-priest who found a future in community organizing as a primary sparkplug behind the Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement (Iowa CCI), long a fixture of the organizing community in that state from 1975 to 2010. I never worked closely with Joe, but talked to him several times over the years. The organization was a bulwark of National Peoples’ Action and always feisty in a fight. We always took Joe and Iowa CCI seriously, even when we were sharing the same cities and turf.

I missed the Zoom celebration for Lew Finfer, commemorating fifty years as a community organizer and a constant fixture and measuring stick for any progress in the Boston area over the last number of decades with various organizations, so had to send best wishes via email. Lew and I have crossed paths more often over the years, both at home and abroad, and he’s written for Social Policy several times. The celebration was not a retirement party. Another milestone.

Our work always stands on the shoulders of others and, thankfully, many put their shoulder to the wheel in communities like Boston, Chicago, and Des Moines to advance it forward. Day after day, years after year. Emmylou Harris has a great song called “Red Dirt Girl.” She sings about her friend’s passing, “ But there won’t be a mention in the news of the world about the life and the death of a red dirt girl.” Memories and milestones, quietly accumulated behind the scenes in the vineyards of our work, earn and deserve respect, even if “there won’t be a mention in the news of the world….”

Wade Rathke is founder and chief organizer of ACORN and ACORN International. You can find Wade’s recent past posts here Chief Organizer Reports. And you can link to his website here Chief Organizer ACORN/ACORN International.


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