THIS TIME, VOTE FOR WHAT YOU BELIEVE IN
I met Sheila Ison when we were both sixteen, on the beach at Ocean City, Maryland — a big high-school hangout place — right after the school year ended.
She is the daughter of Appalachian Southern Baptists. Her parents were from Harlan and Letcher counties, Kentucky — coal-mining families. When I first met them, I immediately thought of the song “Two Different Worlds.” They were half my parents’ age and completely different from them. Her grandfather, who was visiting when I first came to their home, even said after I left, “He is a nice boy, but he is a Jew. You wouldn’t want to marry him.”
But we were married just after turning nineteen. Sheila had been at the University of Kentucky, and I was at the University of North Carolina. I told my parents in December that I was very unhappy separated from Sheila and that I wanted to marry her. Almost everyone was opposed for obvious reasons, but not my father. As usual, he could see ahead. We were married August 24, 1963.
Chapel Hill, North Carolina, was a great place to be a student. The civil rights movement was exploding all around me. At first, I was hesitant to get involved, because of time. I was married, competing as a wrestler, taking an overload of classes (I graduated a year early), working, and a father at age twenty. There was no time for political activism.
Direct action is powerful. Sheila and I saw the sit-ins — men and women, black and white, young and old, asking to be served in restaurants and instead being beaten and arrested by police. It made you think. And it made you act. I found a way to be a foot soldier in this movement — not a hero, like my present colleague John Lewis from Georgia. But we helped out in whatever ways we could and became a small part of many of the justice struggles in Chapel Hill: civil rights, antiwar, antihunger, and antipoverty work.
I did my graduate work in political science at UNC and received a doctorate at twenty-four. But I had learned a great deal in a short period of time. I met many men and women who should be famous. They had little in the way of financial resources, but they were the ones who made history. Their courage, their ability, their love made our country better, not just for people of color but for all Americans. I learned from firsthand experience that ordinary people can be extraordinary and have the capacity to make our country better. I became a believer in grassroots organizing, in grassroots politics.
I came to Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota, in September 1969, with the knowledge that individuals can change the world. I was determined not to be an outside observer but to use my skills as a political scientist to empower people and to step forward with people in justice struggles. If this sounds a bit too romantic, remember that I was only twenty-five. And yet today I still feel the same way!
We act on what we believe in where we live, where we work, or where we go to school. (I always feel the need to include students.) I organized on campus on many different issues. But most of my work was organizing with poor people in rural Rice County, Minnesota (population 41,000; 495 square miles).
First, I supervised studies of housing, health care, and nutrition needs. We identified needs but made no policy recommendations. It was controversial work. The college was not used to this kind of community research. And when it became clear that the data would be used by poor people for poor people, neither the county nor college officials were pleased. I remember one of many confrontations over this research. The then-president of Carleton said: “One would think that in good political science public-policy research, there would be a clear set of policy recommendations for the relevant decision-makers.” The untenured assistant professor — me — replied: “This isn’t for the politicians and the elite, it is for poor people that are affected by the problems. It is to help empower them to take action.”
This organizing work, which I will detail later in the book, combined with my activism on campus, was too much for Carleton College. After two years, I was given a one-year contract with a warning that I would be fired if I did not change. I didn’t change, and they carried through with their threat. It was a unanimous decision by the political science department, the president, the dean, and the board of trustees. I was given one year’s notice. When the dean called me into his office and notified me of this decision, I was shaken. Right away, I thought of Sheila and our three children. Where would we go? What were we going to do? I felt tremendous fear and guilt. This experience gave me a real feeling for why many people put up with so much and are so passive. You do not want to lose your job. You have to put bread on the table and prioritize for your family. That is why most people, as someone once said, are more concerned with making a living than with making history.
This firing came right after I had received the best student evaluations of all third-year teachers. Lucky for me, there was a student rebellion. Fifteen hundred students out of sixteen hundred signed a petition demanding that the decision be reversed. The 150 black and Latino students (most of whom were attending Carleton through a Rockefeller grant program aimed at ghettos and barrios) all signed a separate petition and were a major force on my side. The student paper, in spite of considerable pressure, carried many strong articles and editorials of support. And an older mathematics professor, Sy Schuster, stepped forward and said he would help me.
This was a yearlong fight. The students organized, poor people in Rice County came to my support, and Sy Schuster successfully challenged some of the ways the decision had been made. The college, under tremendous pressure, agreed to bring in prominent political scientists as outside evaluators. Their evaluations were great (much more than I deserved).
But at least some trustees remained in favor of firing me. Dean Bruce Morgan, who now felt I had been wronged, threatened to resign if the board did not reverse the decision and, most important, immediately grant me tenure. He argued that I, of all professors, needed the protection of tenure. The trustees acceded to his demand.
It was amazing. In one year, I went from being fired to being the youngest (age twenty-eight) tenured professor in the history of Carleton. I owe so much to Sy Schuster and especially to the students. As one student put it to me, “Paul, you taught us how to organize, and it was a pleasure to put it into practice for you!” Last year, I spoke at the twenty-fifth reunion of this class of 1974 that saved me. There was and still is a lot of love.
My students have had such a formative impact on my life and work. When Jeff Blodgett was a student in my class on community organizing in 1981, he was the only student I remember who was interested in electoral politics as a way to effect social change. The rest of the class believed that organizing people for power and direct action, as in the labor movement of the 1930s and the civil-rights movement of the 1960s, was the only way to succeed. They viewed running for office as a waste of time. I sided with the other students against him!
Over the years, I came around to Jeff’s point of view, and nine years later he became the manager of my 1990 campaign. He again managed my 1996 campaign. It is a strange feeling to have your political life depend on former students!
My twenty years in Minnesota were a combination of teaching, writing, speaking, and community organizing. I traveled the state widely and was involved in most of the farm, labor, antipoverty, environmental, peace, and economic justice struggles. This rich experience gave me an appreciation of three critical ingredients for effective political activism: good ideas and policy, so that your activism has direction; grassroots organizing, so that there is a constituency to fight for the change; and electoral politics, since it is one of the ways people feel most comfortable deciding about power in our country. If I could will into existence another social movement like the labor or civil-rights movement, I would do so in a second. Indeed, my intuition tells me that the next social movement will be around the right of people to organize, bargain collectively, and earn a decent standard of living so that they can give their children the care and opportunities they need and deserve.
But we act with political purpose. We do not create the winds and the tides, the conditions that give rise to great social movements. So it is important to achieve power in other ways. And in a representative democracy, it matters whom we elect to office and hold accountable for public policy. Those who eschew electoral politics marginalize themselves.
I ran for the Senate because I wanted to use this position of power to make a difference. I wanted to go to Washington to fight for the people and causes I believed in. I wanted to travel Minnesota and the country to help empower people, to nurture and support organizing and citizen politics, to engage, energize, excite, and galvanize citizens to make our country better. This was my dream.
What finally put me over the edge was my experience with students. Quite often, I was invited to speak at high schools, and each time I asked students to take out a piece of paper and write down the first words that came to mind when I mentioned the word politics to them. Their comments were devastating: “fake,” “phony,” “corrupt,” “promises never kept,” “big money,” et cetera. Rarely was there a positive comment.
Excerpted from The Conscience of a Liberal by Senator Paul Wellstone. Copyright © 2001 by Senator Paul Wellstone. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.