Niilo Koponen

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Niilo Emil Koponen2.jpg


Niilo Koponen , born 1928, was an Alaska activist.

A memorial service was held on Jan. 5 2014 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 Koponen. [1]

Finnish socialist

Koponen was active in the "once-vibrant immigrant Finnish socialist movement" in Massachusetts before setting off for Alaska in the 1960s [2]

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 he received a degree from the London School of Economics.[3]

Alaska

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.

Koponen 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.[4]

Democrat and socialist

In 1974 Niilo Koponen 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.

When asked in 2006 how he developed his socialist philosophy, Koponen 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.”[5]

DSA Elected Representatives, 1990

Democratic Left, Jan. 1990, page 7

As of January 1990, Democratic Socialists of America members holding elected public office included;[6]

Democratic Socialists of America

In 1997, Niilo Koponen was the Alaska contact for Democratic Socialists of America.[7]

Kucinich delegate

In 2004 Alaska DSA member Niilo Koponen was a Dennis Kucinich delegate to the Democratic National Convention in Boston.[8]

References

  1. http://www.dsausa.org/celebrating_two_exemplary_lives, Dem. Left, Celebrating Two Exemplary LivesPosted by Dsa on 01.23.14 Niilo Koponen (1928 – 2013) By Dick Farris]
  2. Yankee Radical Jan. 2002
  3. http://www.dsausa.org/celebrating_two_exemplary_lives, Dem. Left, Celebrating Two Exemplary LivesPosted by Dsa on 01.23.14 Niilo Koponen (1928 – 2013) By Dick Farris]
  4. http://www.dsausa.org/celebrating_two_exemplary_lives, Dem. Left, Celebrating Two Exemplary LivesPosted by Dsa on 01.23.14 Niilo Koponen (1928 – 2013) By Dick Farris]
  5. http://www.dsausa.org/celebrating_two_exemplary_lives, Dem. Left, Celebrating Two Exemplary LivesPosted by Dsa on 01.23.14 Niilo Koponen (1928 – 2013) By Dick Farris]
  6. Democratic left, Jan./Feb. 1990, page 7
  7. [1] DSA website 1997, accessed May 27, 2010
  8. Democratic Left Spring 2005