Bring Them into the Room

February 26, 2015

Fed up. Angry. Done. By 1990, Erik Peterson had given up on politics. The former peace movement organizer had stopped voting in protest: No one was seriously talking about race or poverty, both parties were pawns of corporate interests, all our leaders supported more militarization.

And then Erik met Paul Wellstone. 

At the time, Erik was teaching writing to recent immigrants at a community center in St. Paul. During a break, Erik and his students walked by a room where a short man was franticly waiving his arms, talking to a small group of people. “Paul being Paul, he brought us into the room.”

And so it began.

A colleague involved in the race invited Erik to stuff envelops for Paul Wellstone’s first campaign for Senate. He became one of those super-volunteers who helped out a few times a week. And, wouldn’t you know it, Paul Wellstone’s unlikely progressives campaign won, proving what a grassroots campaign can do with a lot of smarts and passion, and a bit of luck.

From there, Erik got involved with Jerry Brown’s 1992 presidential campaign, finished a PhD in American Studies, and managed several races in Minnesota. Eventually he moved to Duluth and became a union organizer. And his friendship with Paul grew.

Erik still recalls the transformative conversations he had with Paul. Like the time after Newt Gingrich’s “Promise to America” swept Republicans into power and Erik asked Senator Wellstone how he went passionately to work everyday given how bad everything was in DC. Paul Wellstone responded, “Because I’m angry. I’m angry because it doesn’t have to be this way.” Paul understood that anger could burn you out, it could consume you, or it could be the fuel that propels your work towards progress.

Another conversation that had a big impact on Erik was later in the 1990s when Senator Wellstone was up in Duluth, meeting with a small group of union organizers including Erik. He told the group, “Listen, you guys need to go out in the streets and yell at me more so I can go back to DC and do my job.”  For Erik, this was a touchstone conversation. It was a moment to better understand the connection between community organizing and electoral politics. As Erik puts it now, “Their job is to compromise. Our job is to push them to make better compromises. And that’s called governing.”

Soon after Wellstone Action was formed Jeff Blodgett, our founding director, recruited Erik to join the staff.

“I was worried that I would be working around the past – always looking backwards.  But the thing that makes me happiest and proudest is that Wellstone Action is a legacy organization that always looks forward. It’s so full of life, and energy and a recognition of the powerful roots we come from, and we have taken the work of Paul and Sheila to places they could not imagine.”


Eleven years since his start at Wellstone Action, Erik’s led well over 400 trainings, touching the careers of many thousands of progressives. He’s helped launch the Wellstone Triangle into a national model for progressive change. He became our Director of Strategic Initiatives, and his heart (and smarts) have touched virtually every aspect of our impact in the world: from the community leaders we’re preparing to run for office (and win), to the frontline organizations we partner with to win enduring progressive power.

Of all of it, Erik feels most deeply connected to something we do once a year: Campus Camp Wellstone Train the Trainer. It’s an annual event where we bring together a few of our trainers, rookies and veterans, for an intensive few days of trainer development. Many of our staff started with us as Campus Camp trainers, and some of the progressive movement's most respected leaders served as trainers, and attended a Train the Trainer with Erik, earlier in their careers.

“I’ve had the privilege of being able to work with some of the smartest, best, progressive young organizers in the country, and hopefully play some role in making a difference in their lives.” Says Erik, “The thing that I love so much about Train the Trainer is the depth of rigor, challenge, and love that is expressed towards one another.  We challenge one another, hold each other accountable, support one another, and take care of one another. That’s my vision of the world.”

Thanks to programs like Train the Trainer, Erik’s leaving his full time role at Wellstone having brought thousands of progressives into the room, for training, for support, to launch their careers.

It’s been 25 years since Paul Wellstone invited Erik into that room at the community center in St. Paul. Now, 11 years after starting with Wellstone Action, Erik’s transitioning to a new adventure in consulting, where he’ll still work with us, just in a different role.

From 1990 to today, we’re celebrating 25 years of Wellstone. And there’s no bigger testament to the impact of those 25 years than the people that the Wellstone movement, and people like Erik, have touched.