I was 19 years old in 1969 when Paul Wellstone arrived on the Carleton campus. A short, muscular man with a huge mop of curly hair, Paul took the campus by storm. His passionate belief in activism and social justice made this new political-science professor an instant sensation with students.
We flocked to his classes, mesmerized by his stories of real people organizing to change the world. He taught us about the struggle for civil rights, about Saul Alinsky and community organizing, about poor people’s movements and our nation’s sometimes bitter fight to expand democracy and build a more inclusive union. He prodded us to look beyond the walls of the elite institution that was our school and to learn about the lives of poor people who lived in surrounding Rice County. Paul instilled in us a belief that the purpose of an educated person is to make the world a better place.
The truth is, Paul Wellstone was an extraordinarily gifted teacher long before he became a U.S. senator, and he continued to teach long after he went to Washington, D.C. His influence over his students – thousands of them over 21 years – was enormous. Generations of activists and organizers were schooled by this passionate professor and brilliant political strategist who taught us that change is possible and that the most enduring change grows from the bottom up. Paul asked, no indeed he demanded, that we sink roots into our communities and use our intellect to shift the power to those who had little.
Led students to new paths
I was among the first students at Carleton College to be deeply impacted by having Paul Wellstone as my teacher and adviser. My colleague Jim McCorkell, who now leads the nationally recognized College Possible, was among the last to have that privilege. In 1990, 21 years after Paul’s arrival on the Carleton campus, Jim sat in some of his last classes. By January Paul Wellstone would leave the classroom to become a senator. Today both Jim and I lead organizations dedicated to helping low-income and first-generation students move successfully from high school to college. I can say for certain it is a path I would never have pursued had it not been for the values, grit and determination instilled in me by Paul Wellstone.
As we think of Paul 10 years after his death, I remember a gifted community organizer and a senator who tirelessly defended the dignity of all people. But most of all I remember a passionate teacher and caring friend who transformed the lives of the young people who knew him.
Rest in peace Professor Wellstone, teacher, friend, mentor and guide. You changed our lives. In turn we dedicate ourselves every day to making a difference in the lives of others.
Pam Costain is the president and CEO of AchieveMpls.