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.