This October 25th is the 18th anniversary of the late Senator Paul Wellstone’s death. Before he became a US Senator, Paul was a professor of political science at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota. While on faculty in 1971, Wellstone became a founding board member of HECUA.
To honor Senator Wellstone’s legacy and foundational role with HECUA, we interviewed Pam Costain, a lifelong social justice activist, HECUA Crisis Colony ’70 alumna, and academic advisee of Paul Wellstone.
Pam recalls Paul’s entrance at Carleton College.
“Paul arrived in the fall of 1969 and he made a huge splash immediately. He was 26 years old, had huge hair, and he was on fire. The radical students on campus were thrilled.”
Pam described the atmosphere of being a student in the late 1960s. “It was an incredibly turbulent time with the Vietnam War abroad and racial issues in the United States. It was sometime toward the end of that first quarter when Paul and I took a walk in the [Carleton] arboretum. I told him ‘This is ridiculous. Going to college right now doesn’t make any sense whatsoever. The world is in flames around me and I’ve got to go.’”
He said, ‘Well, I’ve got an idea for you. There’s this program in Minneapolis called Crisis Colony, and I think you should go. You’ll get to leave campus and be in the city. If you want to leave college after, that’s fine, but try this first.’
Pam took her advisor’s advice.
“It was everything,” Pam said. “As I’ve told my mother many times, I have a college degree because of Paul Wellstone. I was able to have an experiential education and that made all the difference in the world.”
Pam recalled how Crisis Colony (HECUA’s first program) provided her with eye-opening experiences both within and beyond the classroom.
“It was my first experience in communal living. We had a pretty unique experience in that our resident assistant, Barbara Andrews, had cerebral palsy. Our house wasn’t accessible, so we took turns caring for her. She later became the first woman ordained in the American Lutheran Church – a real trailblazer. Later, I served as her aide. It was humbling to be an aide to someone who was so accomplished and also had a serious disability.”
Community organizers came as field speakers to teach about urban issues affecting the city.
“This was the time that the American Indian Movement (AIM) was emerging in Minneapolis. We had quite a bit of contact with leaders of AIM, and that was very present for me as we were living in South Minneapolis near Franklin Avenue.”
Looking back on her experience in HECUA, Pam shared how deeply this program influenced her life.
“I understood from HECUA the importance of experiential education. That has been a consistent thread in my life all along. I believe that people learn by doing. Whether it’s in a union or a non-profit you can talk and talk, but until you put yourself in the situation where you have to do the work and be confronted with your own weaknesses and fears, you don’t grow. If you are immersed in the work, then you do.”
Pam’s experience in the program combined with Wellstone’s mentorship solidified the direction her life would take.
“Having Paul as my advisor, I came to understand my identity as a community organizer and that has never changed. I’ve had a lot of jobs over the years, but I always bring an organizer’s sensibility to whatever job I’m in. That started at HECUA in Crisis Colony: the absolute fundamental belief that change in society comes from the bottom up, not the other way around. I always put my faith in that.”
After her time in Crisis Colony, Pam returned to Carleton College feeling a bit disillusioned.
“I had to choose a major after all that, and nothing was appealing to me. Again, Paul Wellstone stepped in and said, ‘Let’s have you design your own major.’ I became an urban studies major, which at the time really meant I studied social movements.”
Pam went on to complete another urban studies program in Chicago before graduating from Carleton College in 1972 – “just barely” – she adds.
Pam has been a resident of South Minneapolis ever since. (One of her first jobs out of college was working as a recruiter for HECUA at the rate of $50/month, hitchhiking to different schools across Minnesota and South Dakota.)
Throughout the years she stayed in touch with Paul, a relationship that grew into a lifelong friendship.
In the early 2000s, Paul invited her to be part of his campaign team. It was about a year later that Paul was tragically killed in a plane crash, along with his wife, Shelia, and daughter, Marcia.
“Because I was there (working on his campaign) when he died, I was part of a small group of people trying to figure out how to honor his legacy. We looked back at what he had written in his life about community organizing. Only then did we realize how much he understood – what I think we are just now fully understanding – that you have to combine community organizing and electoral work and policy development. It took me years to understand how sophisticated his analysis was. We started calling it the ‘Wellstone Triangle.’ It became the foundation of everything we taught at Wellstone Action (a non-profit organization which Pam helped start). It was another way that he completely impacted my life in his death.”
Pam confides that, “The minute the days turn to October, it’s a lot. At the same time, I love the fact that my Facebook feed is still filled with Paul Wellstone eighteen years later. People still love him.
“I always say, let’s love him, but let’s not make him into something that he wasn’t. He was a person who made mistakes, but he was as honest and authentic a politician as you will ever find. You don’t get everything out of your politicians. That doesn’t mean you don’t support the good ones, because we have to.”
Wellstone’s genuine warmth as a person, his commitment to relationship-building, and his insight into creating social change are all qualities that Pam sees as part of his legacy.
“Even up until he died, I didn’t have an appreciation for electoral politics. I thought electoral politics was for sellouts. It was after he died that I came to appreciate this and realized – oh my gosh — this man is brilliant. He actually knows where power resides. He had so much appreciation for collective work to make change. People felt invested in his campaigns because it was their campaign. He embodied that.”
In our current moment, Pam says she is finding reasons to hope.
“What’s great about this moment right now in this city is that people are experiencing the moment. They’re not reading about it in a book, they’re out there experiencing it. I think that out of this experience will come solutions.”
Pam has been a community organizer and social justice activist for 50 years, inspired by her experience at Crisis Colony. She was Executive Director of the Resource Center of the America and AchieveMpls, the Education and Training Director at Wellstone Action and served as an elected member of the Minneapolis School Board.