Paul Wellstone: Mountains to Melt

Date: Sun, 3 Nov 2002 22:25:00 -0800 (PST)

Dear All,

The late Senator Paul Wellstone liked to tell the following story:

It is my favorite quote. It is from Wendell Phillips, an abolitionist from the 1840's. At that time both political parties were very weary of the slavery issue and they weren't sure how to confront it. But not Wendell, he just said slavery was a moral outrage, that it was unconscionable, and he wouldn't equivocate. He wasn't afraid to speak out.

After he gave a particularly fiery speech about abolition, a friend came up to him and said, “Wendell, why are you so on fire?”

And Wendell turned to his friend and said, “Brother May, I'm on fire because I have mountains of ice before me to melt.”

We have mountains of ice before us to melt.

Part of what made Senator Wellstone such a powerful advocate for social justice was his belief that what must be done, must be done – and so can be done. That a task may be difficult is not a reason to abandon it. Even when the political winds were blowing against him – or when other people just didn’t seem to care – Senator Wellstone continued to fight for such things as health insurance for all Americans, for an approach to welfare centered on lifting people out of poverty rather than simply cutting welfare rolls, for affordable housing, for peace. Sometimes he succeeded. He has helped bring insurance coverage for mental health to the brink of full equality with coverage for physical health. He co-sponsored legislation enacted in 2000 that should help curb the practice of trafficking human beings, especially women and children, for purposes of sexually exploitation and forced labor. He secured a federal waiver that enables Minnesota to have a more humane welfare policy ! than most of the nation, providing disadvantaged families with assistance for job training, education, transportation, and child care. But Senator Wellstone’s sudden death – and the sheer size of the mountains of ice – have left many of his goals unfinished, leaving it to the rest of us to melt the mountains of ice before our nation, our world.

Senator Wellstone also cared deeply for those said to be voiceless. Of course, they have voices, but most people aren’t listening to what they are saying. But Senator Wellstone listened. He listened to, cared about people whom so much of society has forgotten about, or never really thought about. He then used his voice to amplify theirs. In 1997, he followed in the footsteps of Robert Kennedy, who 30 years earlier had toured some of our nation’s poorest areas, trying to shine light on the plight of the poorest Americans. Knowing that they still live in the shadows of America, the hidden recesses that many of us never see, Senator Wellstone did what he could to focus the nation’s attention on the poverty in our backyards, visiting the Mississippi Delta and Appalachia, inner cities of Los Angeles, Chicago, and Baltimore. Senator Wellstone worked to bring better health and housing to Native Americans, to bring more funding to school programs for disabled children, to protect women from domestic violence, and to protect children who witness that domestic violence.

The world needs more people who, like Senator Wellstone, listen to those whose own voices so often go unheard. Maybe when enough people hear, when the voices become too loud and too many to ignore, maybe then our nation will finally listen. Maybe then we will commit ourselves to ending homelessness and to creating an America that is serious about equal opportunity. Maybe then we will stop watching a generation of Africans being decimated by HIV/AIDS as though Africa were on another planet, and instead commit ourselves to ending this plague. Maybe then we will stop deafening ourselves to the cries of some 30,000 children under five who die every day of preventable, treatable causes (, and instead work to heal their suffering. If we listen to their voices, then Senator Wellstone's voice will continue to reverberate throughout our land.

Excerpted below are parts of two speeches Senator Wellstone delivered. The first is on poverty, especially child poverty, and the second is on education and the need for equal opportunity for all. These speeches, as well as more information on the issues that Senator Wellstone cared most about, are available on his webpage,

Our nation will miss Senator Wellstone. He liked to say: "We can do better." Like so many other crusaders for social justice who have come and gone, we have perhaps no better way to honor the life of Senator Wellstone and those who perished with him than by promising ourselves that indeed, we can and will do better. Thank you for listening.



* * * * * *

Think of parents, think of family, think of relationships with other students, think of the friendships, think of the bond that so many of you have with one another. And so I raise this question, why not in our country? Why not the same focus on the ways that we are interdependent? Why not the same focus on relationships? On how we treat one another. Why not define a community where we all do better -- when we all do better? I think that that's the direction that our country needs to go. [. . .]

How can it be that in the United States of America, today, at the peak of our economic performance, we are still being told that we cannot provide a good education for every child? We are still being told that we cannot provide good health care for every citizen. We are still being told that people can't look forward to jobs that they can support themselves and their children on. We're still being told that we cannot achieve the goal of having every five-year old come to kindergarten ready to learn, knowing the alphabet, knowing how to spell her name, knowing colors, shapes, and sizes, having been read to widely with that wonderful readiness to learn. How can it be that we are being told that we cannot do this at the peak of our economic performance? I say to you today that it is not right. It is not acceptable. We can do much better, and if not now, when? If we don't do this now, when will we do it as a nation? [. . .]

[I]f you take that spark of learning that those children have, and you ignite it, you can take a child from any background to a lifetime of creativity and accomplishment. But if you pour cold water on that spark of learning, it is the cruelest and most short sighted thing we can do as a nation. We pour cold water on that spark of learning for too many children. Another question I pose, and I'm going to keep asking this question and asking this question, keep pressing this with this question. How can it be in a country I love so much, and a country that's doing so well economically, a country at the peak of its economic performance, that one out of every four children under the age of three is growing up poor in America? One out of every two children of color under the age of three is growing up poor in America. We have a set of social arrangements in our country that allow children to be the most poverty stricken group. [. . .]

I wanted to start our trip in a neighborhood in the Mississippi Delta. And then we went to East L.A., and then we went to Chicago in the Pilsen neighborhood, a Latino community, and then public housing projects -- the Robert Taylor Homes and Ida Wells. And then we went to inner-city Baltimore, and then we went to Appalachia. I can tell you that we met a lot of heroines and heroes who give lie to the argument that nothing can be done. If I had hours, I would celebrate their worth. We can do so much at the community level if people have the resources. But I also want to tell you that everywhere we went, what people were saying, citizens in our country, what they were saying was, "what happened to our national vow, our vow as a nation, that there should be equal opportunity for every child? Not in our community. And where are the jobs or the business opportunities so that we can do well economically and we can give our children the care we know they need and deserve?" [. . .]

And I will summarize, in a different voice. "Senator, my daughter is twenty-four. She graduated from college. She's a diabetic. She now will be off our health insurance plan. I know that the insurance companies are no longer allowed to deny her coverage, but it's going to cost her ten thousand dollars a year, and she won't be able to afford it." [. . .]

Or, "Senator, I'm a single parent. I'm one of the welfare mothers you hear about, but I'm in the community college. I want to be independent, but now I'm being told, in the name of welfare reform, that I have to leave school and take a job, but the job pays six dollars and fifty cents an hour and I won't have health care in a year and I'll be worse off. Please let me finish my schooling, my education, so I can support my children."

Or, "Senator, we're both thirty, our combined income is thirty-five thousand dollars a year, but it costs us twelve thousand dollars in child care for our two children." Can't we do better?

Here's what I dare to imagine. . . . I dare to imagine a country, where I travel, and meet children, and I pick up an infant and hold her in my arms, I want to be able to believe, that in the United States of America, I dare to imagine a country where every child I hold in my hands, are all God's children, regardless of the color of their skin, regardless of whether they're boy or girl, regardless of religion, regardless of rich or poor, regardless of urban or rural, that every child I hold in my hands, will have the same chance to reach her full potential or his full potential. That is the goodness of our country. That is the American dream. [. . .]

I do not believe the future will belong to those who are content with the present, I do not believe the future will belong to the cynics, or to those who stand on the sideline. The future will belong to those who have passion, and to those who are willing to make the personal commitment to make our country better. The future will belong to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.

(Full speech available at

* * * * * *

But today in education there is a threat afoot to which I do not need to call your attention: the threat of high-stakes testing being grossly abused in the name of greater accountability, and almost always to the serious detriment of our children.

Allowing the continued misuse of high-stakes tests is, in itself, a gross failure of moral imagination, a failure both of educators and of policymakers, who persistently refuse to provide the educational resources necessary to guarantee an equal opportunity to learn for all our children.

That all citizens will be given an equal start through a sound education is one of the most basic, promised rights of our democracy. Our chronic refusal as a nation to guarantee that right for all children, including poor children, is a national disgrace.

It is rooted in a kind of moral blindness, or at least a failure of moral imagination, that we do not see that meeting the most basic needs of so many of our children condemns them to lives and futures of frustration, chronic underachievement, poverty, crime and violence. It is a failure which threatens our future as a nation of citizens called to a common purpose, allied with one another in a common enterprise, tied to one another by a common bond.[…]

Making students accountable for test scores works well on a bumper sticker and it allows many politicians to look good by saying that they will not tolerate failure. But it represents a hollow promise. Far from improving education, high stakes testing marks a major retreat from fairness, from accuracy, from quality and from equity. […]

We cannot close the achievement gap until we close the gap in investment between poor and rich schools no matter how "motivated" some students are. We know what these key investments are: quality teaching, parental involvement, and early childhood education, to name just a few.

But instead of doing what we know will work, and instead of taking responsibility as policy makers to invest in improving students' lives, we place the responsibility squarely on children. It is simply negligent to force children to pass a test and expect that the poorest children, who face every disadvantage, will be able to do as well as those who have every advantage.

When we do this, we hold children responsible for our own inaction and unwillingness to live up to our own promises and our own obligations. We confuse their failure with our own. This is a harsh agenda indeed, for America's children.

All of us in politics like to get our picture taken with children. We never miss a "photo op." We all like to say that ‘children are our future.' We are all for children until it comes time to make the investment. Too often, despite the talk, when it comes to making the investment in the lives of our children, we come up a dollar short.[…]

[I]t is clear who is losing out in public education–those with the least opportunity. This pattern extends nationwide. In Massachusetts, African American and Latino students are failing tests at twice the rate of whites. In Texas, the gap between blacks and Latinos and whites is three times. It is unconscionable.[…]

This fight we confront today is not just a fight about tests, or just about ensuring that all our children are educated and educated well. It is time for us to renew our national vow of equal opportunity for every child in America. That's what this fight is all about.

(Full speech available at

"I have only dreams: to build a better world, a world of harmony and understanding, a world in which it is a joy to live. This is not asking for too much." -- Yitzhak Rabin

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