Donald K. Ross (1943-2022) – Activist and Builder of Democratic Institutions Extraordinaire!

By Ralph Nader

It was a marathon day of thirty-minute interviews in 1970. Little did I think we were selecting recent law school graduates who would become, over a lifetime, civic leaders of historical significance in producing major changes for a more just and safe society.

Ten minutes into my interview with Donald K. Ross – fresh out of NYU Law School after two years of teaching in Nigeria with the Peace Corps – I knew he was someone very special. It wasn’t about any charisma or galvanizing rhetoric. It was his steady, focused, mature explanations that he gave for his qualifications and desire to engage in the work of bringing people together to create strong foundations for a better society.

Donald and two other recruits spent two months assessing the temper of campuses north and south, after which Donald and I traveled to colleges and universities meeting with active students to start their own full-time public interest research groups (PIRGs). After some disappointments, we got PIRGs going in Oregon and Minnesota. Our early groundwork helped Donald persuade students on numerous campuses to persevere and form a total of thirteen state-wide student public interest research groups. There are now over 20 such groups, run by student boards, with full-time staff advocates. PIRGs have canvassed millions of households in their states to move forward with legislation on environmental, consumer and other causes for all the people.

It is hard to exaggerate how difficult the process was to stay on course and negotiate with university administrations for funding to establish and keep these PIRGs going. It took Donald’s immense stamina, diplomacy and foresight to mediate student conflicts and advise students on the organizational details of their civic start-ups. These efforts overcame many a stumble and drawback before such unique, wonderful civic training and civil justice organizations got underway.

During his nearly three years with us, Donald wrote, with me, Action for a Change: A Student’s Manual for Public Interest Organizing, to guide students in starting or running PIRGs. In 1973, he wrote A Public Citizen’s Action Manual, which was full of projects that today still retain their importance for “public citizens” to use in their communities.

Over the next fifty years, Donald demonstrated the remarkable range and depth of his skills to strengthen our democratic society. In 1973 he became the head of the New York PIRG (NYPIRG) and over the next decade built this student funded and student run nonprofit into the largest state-based research and advocacy organization in the country with offices all over the state, including in its capital, Albany. NYPIRG pushed for government accountability and advanced political reforms. Donald and his NYPIRG colleagues also challenged the banks, insurance companies, utility companies, drug companies and toxic polluters.

Students received course credit for turning their ideals into practice through legislation, litigation or rigorous citizen monitoring, such as the Straphangers Campaign that Donald and his colleagues set up to improve the New York City subways.

This bold, friendly, humble civic giant, adored by scores of younger colleagues he mentored, had an uncanny sense of civic opportunity. After the Three Mile Island breakdown in 1979, Donald achieved the impossible task of organizing, in three weeks, a giant “No-Nukes” rally of 100,000 people in Washington, D.C., followed a few months later in September by a 250,000-person rally on the sands of the Battery Park City landfill in New York City.

He was hard to keep up with, so methodical and diverse were his projects. His work with Rockefeller Family Fund expanded the horizons of what philanthropy could do to advance justice. He co-founded and helped manage the Environmental Grantmakers Association which has grown to 200 member foundations around the world. He expanded the impact of the Tortuga Foundation which advances efforts to protect public lands and the environment, including the priceless Tongass National Forest in Alaska.

Together with one of his former student organizers Arthur Malkin, he started a large public relations firm (M+R Strategic Services) and a public interest law and lobbying firm (Malkin & Ross). They represented the interests of nonprofit organizations, most of whom hitherto had little muscle with lawmakers at the state and federal levels. He led fights against Big Tobacco, Big Oil and the Defense Department’s toxic contamination of its military reservations and its contiguous environments and communities.

From 2009 to 2017 he undertook the improbable task of uniting Republican and Democratic state legislators in the passage of about 200 bills in nearly 40 states regarding juvenile justice reform. To do this he traveled incessantly with the support of the John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, with whom he conceived the campaign.

A father of three, Donald always had time to travel, including a memorable trip with his wife Helen throughout rural China and taking his well-known “treks” with close friends up the Himalayas.

I was fortunate to discover such an unsurpassed superstar citizen organizer and institution builder for sustainable democratic institutions. He had an extraordinary civic personality of resilient stamina, motivating others by self-disciplined example, and relentless focus on results.

Millions of people who benefited from his proliferating projects never knew this modest man’s name.

He was too modestly authentic, too productive, and too sharing of credit with others to warrant any media coverage. (His hometown newspaper, the New York Times, would do well to do more reporting on the civic community.)

Those Harvard professors who wrote the recent book, How Democracies Die, should now study the life and lasting achievements and institutions of Donald K. Ross to show how democracies can live. They would learn how much he has to teach them and millions of other Americans presently sinking into paralyzing discouragement and inaction in the face of Trumpian-driven fascism.

America lost a front-line champion of democracy and justice-in-action with the passing of Donald K. Ross on May 14, 2022. His legacy – the forces he put into motion – will continue to nourish what he and his collaborators fought for over half a century. For more information about Donald K. Ross visit: https://donaldkross.org/).

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