Politics the Wellstone Way

A few years ago, Dave Beckwith, executive director of the Needmor Fund, wrote in Shelterforce about The ABCs of Organizing that offered an overview of some important books on organizing that provided valuable examples from the field replete with the challenges and setbacks, but also the wins that add reward to the work.

Beckwith notes that while books can tell stories, action is the only way to win. He even quotes Lee Staples’s Roots to Power: “[A] book can only point the way. It can’t take action. It can’t fight for economic and social justice…. Organize! Struggle! Become powerful!”

This sentiment is on full display all over the country right now, whether it’s by way of the Occupy Wall Street movement, The New Bottom Line, or other movements associated with bank accountability and economic justice. In fact, in the upcoming fall issue of Shelterforce, we will feature an entire package on organizing that includes an article co-written by SEIU’s Stephen Lerner and National People’s Action’s George Goehl on the New Bottom Line as well as a piece by Amy Schur, executive director of the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment about a new crop of activists getting involved in the bank accountability movement. They are taking action; they are becoming powerful.

Coincidentally, October 25 marks nine years since progressive leader and Minnesota Sen. Paul Wellstone, his wife, Sheila Ison Wellstone, and their daughter, Marcia Wellstone Markuson, died tragically in a plane crash as the senator battled a tough reelection fight. In ABCs Beckwith quotes a Wellstone passage from Politics the Wellstone Way : “If we don’t fight hard enough for the things we stand for, at some point we have to recognize that we don’t really stand for them.” This, of course, is directly in context with what we’re seeing today on the national level.

In an interview given right before his death, Wellstone discussed the power of the grass roots and the importance of cultivating leaders at the grass roots. The result, he said, would be a sort of grass-roots politics. In the video clip below, he says:

“The way in which we make the change — the way in which we have more opportunities for people, more justice in our country; the ways in which we get to the point where no citizen ever views himself or herself as a victim, but rather as men and women with rights, who live a life with dignity. The way in which we get to a country where every child feels as if they’re a treasure, and parents have hope, vision and we are learning and have dignity. That’s how we win. That’s how we win. I think the key to that is a citizen politics that can beat a big money politics.”


The types of wins that result from the actions we’re seeing today are uncertain, but they more than live up to Beckwith’s recollection of Lee Staples’s sentiment.

Matthew Brian Hersh served as senior editor at Shelterforce from March 2008 to October 2012. He studied English at Rutgers University and has spent his professional career in journalism, policy, and politics.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.