Listening Shows Me the Way Wade Rathke's life is centered on taking action: organizing people into unions and advocacy groups. But he believes that one of his most valuable skills is decidedly less action-oriented: listening.
NPR logo

Listening Shows Me the Way

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Listening Shows Me the Way

Listening Shows Me the Way

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

Unidentified Man #1: I believe in figuring out my own way to do things.

Unidentified Woman #1: I believe in the power of numbers.

Unidentified Man #2: I believe in barbecue.

Unidentified Woman #2: Oh, I believe in friendliness.

Unidentified Man #3: I believe in mankind.

Unidentified Man #4: This I Believe.


On Mondays, NPR brings you our series This I Believe. And our essay today comes from the founder of ACORN. It's a national organization that helps low and moderate income people lobby for changes in their communities. Wade Rathke has been a professional organizer for 35 years, working now from his home base of New Orleans. And he sent this essay to our series curator, Jay Allison.

JAY ALLISON: In writing for our series, essayists sometimes say they have to peel an onion of belief to get to the center. That's what Wade Rathke told us too. He wrote first of his belief in organizing. But eventually he found his way to the layer of belief that underlies that. Here's Wade Rathke with his essay for This I Believe

Mr. WADE RATHKE (Founder, ACORN): I believe in listening, even if that's not the typical image of an organizer. Movies provide the scenes: the organizer climbs on the soapbox to make the speech that turns the crowd, calls the strike and galvanizes the community into action. I've done all that, but none of that is the heart of organizing — at least to me.

I started doing this work when I was a teenager. What did I know about being a mother on welfare? What did I know about housing, education and jobs? Nothing. But I found out quickly that if I listened, really listened, to what people were telling me about their lives and their problems, then I did know something. I knew what they knew.

Any morning of the week, for the price of a cup of coffee, Max Allison held court at the Walgreen's on Main Street in Little Rock. Allison, the political wizard behind a dozen Arkansas politicians, would lecture me on what he called the equation — how politics really worked. I listened. On long phone calls late at night, Mamie Ruth Williams taught me everything she had learned about dealing with the press from the 1957 school desegregation fights. I listened.

The more people talked and the more I listened, it became almost inevitable, maybe even irresistible, for us to organize and do something effective. I was just a young kid filled with rage, fear, and passion who wanted to make a difference, who wanted to be part of the sweeping changes all around me. Thirty-five years later, this is still how I feel.

When Hurricane Katrina happened, none of us knew up from down. We worried that New Orleans had become a biohazard zone, that houses would have to be demolished, that it would be irresponsible to help people to return. I was at a loss about what to do, how to organize.

So I listened hard to our members who were dislocated and relocated. Long-time ACORN leader Paul Fernandez was fighting to prevent foreclosure on his flooded home in the Lower Ninth Ward. He taught me that protecting that right, the right to return, was what our organization's role should be. I had been lost, but listening showed me the way.

Listening is good for everyone. When people have to explain something to me, it helps them understand their own needs better. We can decide together what needs to be done and then take action. Listening strengthens all of our beliefs.

Mr. ALLISON: Wade Rathke with his essay for This I Believe. Rathke is busy with is listening and organizing these days. He's on the road about two-thirds of the year. We welcome all statements of personal belief for our series. You can submit yours and find out what others have written at our Web site,

For This I Believe, I'm Jay Allison.

INSKEEP: "This I Believe" continues next Monday on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED when we will meet a nurse who believes in the importance of grieving.

(Soundbite of music)


Copyright © 2007 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.