Q&A with Ralph Nader

Shaf Nader, older brother of activist Ralph Nader, was the founding president of Northwestern Connecticut Community College and later was a staff member at the American Association of Community Colleges, then called the American Association of Junior Colleges. (Photo: NWCCC)

Ralph Nader has dedicated his life to activism and advocacy and is known for his involvement in consumer protection, environmentalism and government reform causes. He founded several organizations, including the Center for Study of Responsive Law, Public Interest Research Group (PIRG), Center for Auto Safety, Public Citizen, Clean Water Action Project, Disability Rights Center, Pension Rights Center and the Project for Corporate Responsibility.

In a discussion with the American Association of Community CollegesCommunity College Journal, Nader talks about the need for civic engagement on community college campuses. He also notes his brother Shaf Nader’s struggle to start Northwestern Connecticut Community College. The story is told in the book Democratizing America: Shaf Nader and the Founding of the Impossible College.

CCJournal: The 2017 book Democratizing America talks about your brother’s work starting Northwestern Connecticut Community College. Why did he take on that responsibility?

Ralph Nader: Winsted was a multiple factory town that was losing almost all its factories. He believed community involvement would turn his home town around. A community college was the most constructive response, though, to reviving the town both in an economic sense — worker skills — and in a democratic sense — enabling civic skills and experience through a well-rounded curriculum helpful to Winsted and the surrounding region of small towns.

Eventually, the community rallied behind the creation of the college. How did Shaf help end their resistance and get their support?

How he overcame the town’s self-deprecation, its lack of self-confidence and its collective depression — following a devastatingly destructive flood in 1955, and most young people leaving for the “big city,” could become a course in leadership training for students today. He started with extensive research, building relentless optimism. He found a small, committed core of like-minded believers, enlisted the local media, business community, especially the local Jaycees, and methodically outlined all the steps needed, local and state, to establish this institution. It helped mightily that the building housing the Gilbert High School was available for a campus after a new high school was built on the other side of town.

What can current college and community leaders learn from your brother’s experience?

That a great deal of creative energy and political support can spring from tapping into local initiatives and local knowledge to strengthen the community college’s foundations, especially in an era of budget cuts, as is the case in Connecticut today. That it is imperative to continue dreaming about the many ways the community college can educate students for the practice of democracy and the way it can anticipate and better resolve societal problems. That in the words of author Dimitra Doukas, they “can never know too well that disappointment is part of the journey — not a roadblock.”

Read the rest of interview with Ralph Nader in the current issue of CCJournal.