Celebrating Two Exemplary Lives

Niilo Koponen (1928 – 2013)

By Dick Farris

A memorial service was held on Jan. 5 for Niilo Koponen, homesteader, educator, legislator and life-long democratic socialist, at the Civic Center in Fairbanks, Alaska. Over 300 community members came to honor and say goodbye to Niilo. Photo by Brian Allen.


Niilo was raised in a Finnish housing cooperative in the Bronx beginning in 1928. In 1944, at the age of 16, Niilo heard Norman Thomas at a debate group he and several other friends had organized in the Bronx. Thomas’ ideas resulted in Niilo and friends going on to organize a Young Peoples Socialist League chapter in the Bronx.

Niilo was a graduate of the all-black Wilburforce College in 1951 as his own statement on civil rights.  In 1958-59 Niilo received a degree from the London School of Economics.

In 1952, Niilo and his wife Joan arrived in Fairbanks, clearing sufficient land to qualify for a homestead where Niilo and Joan raised five kids. In 1962-66 Niilo earned a doctorate in education from Harvard.  His thesis was to develop and implement a Hartford School District desegregation project. It was during his time at Harvard when Niilo met Michael Harrington, founder of DSA.

Niilo was a grassroots organizer, and among the organizing projects he undertook were the first Head Start program in Fairbanks, which he organized and directed; a Surveyors’ Union; the National Education Association of Alaska; and the Fairbanks Teachers’ Federal Credit Union, as well as initiating many nonprofit organizations. This credit union was the first ever accredited in Alaska. It opened its doors with $42 in a metal cash box in Sept. 1959.  After two name changes, this same credit union currently has over $100 million in assets and still serves members democratically.

In 1974 Niilo organized a DSA local for Alaska and was a principal organizer of a Democratic Party progressive splinter group that succeeded in taking over the regular Fairbanks Democratic Party in 1972.

At the Alaska Democratic Party State Convention held in Bethel, Alaska in 1994, during an open mike, an elderly Alaskan native took up the mike.  She was known locally as a healer who could read people’s auras.  She looked up, saw Niilo and exclaimed, "My lord, you are surrounded by a white light."  Niilo simply smiled.

I learned personally from Niilo, as his friend of over 46 years, that sharing with others is the basis for happiness, love and peace, whereas taking more than one’s fair share is the basis for unhappiness, hate and war.  Our political discussions were frequent and dealt with how society can realize justice and equality for everyone.  Our answer was “always and forever,” which is a long, long time. Democratic socialism is a society's means of achieving these goals.  

When asked in 2006 how he developed his socialist philosophy, Niilo replied: “We are taught in society that if we do what is best for the individual, it is best for the community. I realized how false this was and reversed it to: If I did what was best for the community, it would be best for me.” We will miss Niilo, but in his own words, “Onward.”

Dick Farris is chair of Alaska DSA.

Marta Russell (1951-2013)

By Ravi Malhotra


Marta Russell died in mid-December in Los Angeles, days short of her 62nd birthday. A journalist and commentator about issues affecting disabled people as well as a film industry worker for many years, Russell was best known for her pioneering book, Beyond Ramps: Disability at the end of the Social Contract (Common Courage Press). Here she set out a compelling critique of how capitalism marginalizes and oppresses disabled workers. Reading it as a young disability rights advocate, I found Marta's book a breath of fresh air, combining passionate advocacy with an understanding of political economy and an account of how disabled people are systematically oppressed by capitalism.
Marta was particularly unique in focusing on an anti-capitalist critique of disablement policy in the United States, where postmodern analysis of the disabled body has predominated. With Jean Stewart, she wrote a remarkably biting piece about prisons and disablement for Monthly Review. She was also not shy about criticizing misguided strategies by disability rights movements that she felt were too moderate or co-opted, even as she worked with rank-and-file disability rights organizations such as ADAPT. ADAPT played a tremendous role in the 1980s in making intercity bus transportation wheelchair accessible, using highly creative tactics of civil disobedience combined with effective strategic lobbying. 

In 1994, the City of Los Angeles Commission on Disabilities honored Marta for her work for people with disabilities. Disabled since birth, Marta grew up in the Mississippi Delta and attended the Memphis College of Art before moving to California in her 20s. She leaves behind a daughter, Georgia Scheele, her partner, Steve Weiss, and countless disabled people she radicalized around the world. Advocates of socialism would do well to revisit her work on this too often ignored topic.
Ravi Malhotra is a long time member of the New Democratic Party of Canada and co-authored an article with Marta Russell in Socialist Register in 2001.

Individually signed posts do not necessarily reflect the views of DSA as an organization or its leadership.

Film Discussion: The Price We Pay

January 30, 2017
· 44 rsvps
The Price We Pay blows the lid off the dirty world of corporate malfeasance — the dark history and dire present-day reality of big-business tax avoidance, tax havens - and what we need to do to stop this.  DSA member Bill Barclay, who has a cameo role in the film, will facilitate the discussion. Watch the film prior to the discussion.

Full film available on Vimeo.

How to Plug in New Members

February 01, 2017
· 12 rsvps

Is your DSA chapter growing quickly and you're trying desperately to find ways to plug new members into your chapter's work? Never fear! On this conference call an experienced DSA organizer will go over the basics of new member outreach and developing a plan for plugging new members into your chapter's work. Most of the call will be devoted to troubleshooting specific issues you're facing, so please brainstorm some issues beforehand that you want to bring up on the call.  8 PM ET; 7 PM CT; 7 PM MT; 7 PM PT.

Film Discussion: Salt of the Earth

February 05, 2017
· 8 rsvps

Join DSA members Shelby Murphy and Deborah Rosenfelt in discussing Salt of the Earth, a captivating film made in 1954 by blacklisted writers and actors about a strike at a New Mexico zinc mine. Well before the resurgence of feminism in the 1960s, these filmmakers were exploring gender inequality and solidarity. Available on Netflix.

Shelby Murphy is a Latina from Texas and former Young Democratic Socialists co-chair. Professor Emerita of Women’s Studies at the University of Maryland, Deborah Rosenfelt researched the making of the film and its aftermath for the reissued screenplay. Here is her blogpost about the film.


DSA New Member Orientation Call

February 15, 2017
· 61 rsvps

You've joined DSA - Great. Now register for this New Member Orientation call and find out more about our politics and our vision.  And, most importantly, how you can become involved.  8 PM ET; 7 PM CT; 6 PM MT; 5 PM PT.

Film Discussion: Documentaries of People's History in Texas

April 02, 2017
· 3 rsvps

Join DSA members Glenn Scott and Richard Croxdale to discuss videos produced by People’s History in Texas (PHIT), a project that brings to life the stories of ordinary people in significant socio-political movements in Texas. They will discuss The Rag, their newest documentary, which tells the story of an influential underground paper based in Austin, Texas, from 1966-77. Click here to view Part I (the early years as an all-volunteer paper covering the student, anti-Vietnam and Civil Rights movements), Part II (the impact of Women’s Liberation on the paper) and Part III (building community: covering local politics, nukes, co-ops, feminist institutions). But check out their short the video on the Stand-Ins about a group of university students who led a movement to desegregate Austin’s movie theaters in 1961.

Film Discussion: The Free State of Jones

June 11, 2017
· 2 rsvps

Join Victoria Bynum, Distinguished Professor Emeritus of History, Texas State University, San Marcos, to discuss The Free State of Jones. STX Entertainment bought the film rights to Bynum's book of the same title. She also served as a consultant and appears in a cameo scene. What was the Free State of Jones? During the Civil War, an armed band of deserters led by Newt Knight, a non-slaveholding white farmer, took to the swamps of southeastern Mississippi and battled against the Confederacy in an uprising popularly known as “The Free State of Jones.” Joining Newt in this rebellion was Rachel, a slave. From their relationship, there developed a controversial mixed-race community that endured long after the Civil War had ended. View the film here for $6 before the discussion.