A Professor and Organizer. Sound Familiar?
January 30, 2014
Photo credit: Nicky González Yuen
Nicky Gonzalez Yuen, a student at Carleton College in the late 1970s, stood in the campus center, frustrated and tired. As the South Africa divestment campaign of that era morphed into a broader fight to move the college towards more ethical buying and investment policies, Nicky had spent the day being pushed around by a college administration that was skeptical of student organizers and slow to change.
In that moment, his advisor and mentor Professor Paul Wellstone happened by. After sympathizing with Nicky about the challenges of organizing he said “We may or may not win this one, but the real question that we always have to ask is this: ‘win, lose or draw, at the end of the day, who did you bring with you?’” Nicky recalls Paul saying that this was the critical question because if you win without building a base, then you’re out on an edge without support; and if you lose then you have to start all over from scratch.
After graduating from Carleton, Nicky moved to the Bay Area to start his career as a community college professor and organizer. He stayed connected to his former professor, from hosting a fundraiser for Paul’s first senate campaign to working as a Congressional Fellow in Senator Wellstone’s office in 2001.
“Paul was my North Star,” says Nicky, “He was the one who taught me that wherever you are, whenever it is, now is the time to make a difference in your community.” So after the plane crashed, supporting Wellstone Action, “made very good sense, because even as a Senator, Paul was first and foremost a community organizer and strategist working to empower people to fight for their communities. Wellstone Action has distilled the core lessons of Paul’s organizing work and then developed it further.”
Now, Nicky is a professor, elected college trustee, labor leader, party activist and community organizer. So why does he support Wellstone Action? “I can work with students and train them to organize. I can cast the right votes as an elected official. But the big question I still want to ask myself every day is ‘who am I bringing along with me?’”
For Nicky and his wife, Jude, supporting Wellstone Action financially is just part of their commitment. More importantly, Nicky is helping a new generation of leaders learn to win the Wellstone Way. Nicky has brought Campus Camp Wellstone to De Anza, the college where he teaches, nearly a half dozen times. Later this year, he’s working with a state-wide coalition of faculty and students to sponsor the first ever joint Campus Camp Wellstone and Camp Wellstone together, bringing student and labor organizing with faculty members together in one training.
Wellstone Action is special because our trainers are engaged with all parts of the movement, because our curriculum is intensely customized, and because of our unique philosophy of how we change: the Wellstone triangle, combining of progressive public policy, grassroots organizing and electoral action. And so, according to Nicky, “I am convinced that any model of community organizing that doesn’t incorporate these key insights of Wellstone Action is not optimizing its movement building capacity.”
In the end it’s all about the outcomes, and after Campus Camp, Nicky’s students get to work. “Right away, you start seeing students planning one-on-one meetings, thinking about power in a strategic way, planning out tactics; you see that the students start to feel part of a bigger movement.” What’s he talking about? Here’s one example that Nicky loves to use: Leila McCabe went to Campus Camp Wellstone and then co-founded the November 2012 election campaign to raise the minimum wage in San Jose, the 10th largest city in the country. Her work kick-started a labor-community-student coalition. The students from De Anza and San Jose State carried out hundreds of classroom presentations, canvassed, and signed up over 3,000 students who pledged their support for the wage increase. In the final week of the election the students at De Anza alone made over 9,000 voter turn-out calls, and in the end the minimum wage increase passed with 60% of the vote. 70,000 working families got a raise from $8 to $10, with an annual COLA. Now that’s results.
And that brings us to why all these years after walking into Professor Paul Wellstone’s introductory political science class, Nicky’s still supporting Wellstone Action. “I support Wellstone Action because winning on social justice issues matters. It’s how we improve people’s lives.” Thanks to Nicky, and his students, we’re going to keep winning, and keep fighting, and keep organizing—because Paul and Sheila Wellstone would’ve expected nothing less from us.