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Local Legend Leaves Chapel Hill

A farewell talk with Dan Coleman

by Mia Kirsh


For years he has been the persistent thorn in the side of local politicians. He has pushed "controversial" issues, such as a clean, safe environment, opposition to war, fair treatment of workers, a non corporate-controlled political system, civil rights for all, and a host of other socially and economically progressive ideas. And when he pushes on an issue, he pushes it right into the face of the powers that be, which has earned him a reputation as a political bulldog, unrelenting in what he feels is right, both feared and respected in our community.

We're talking, of course, about Dan Coleman, who is about to move on after 18 years in Chapel Hill. His wife has accepted a position as Professor of Soviet History at the University of Iowa, and they will move there this summer leaving behind a distinct legacy. His accomplishments are noteworthy to any activist in our area. Everything's Coming Up Green

Coleman was the founder and has been the leader of the Orange County Green Party since the mid-1980's. The Greens have supported candidates for local offices with strong commitments to Green values of ecology, social justice and grassroots democracy, and quite a few have won and made a difference. The Greens have also been an influential election watchdog group, holding forums to question candidates on their stance on environmental and social justice issues. Today Green Party backing is sought as a source of credibility to progressive candidates.

The presence of Coleman in the Greens, however, may have had its drawbacks. Coleman says, "My biggest regret is not having recruited and developed more active leadership in the Greens. There will probably be a rebuilding period for them after I leave. It's a great time for people to become involved."

Coleman has helped initiate several major actions on behalf of the Greens including the current Living Wage Ordinance for Orange County, organizing a "Developing a Vision" forum for UNC land-use planning. He also helped the Greens organize with the Sierra Club a successful campaign spending limit program for local candidates which is in place today.

Coleman also helped to found The Prism. He and the Greens came up with the original vision for having an alternative newspaper that could be a voice for all the activists in our area. "I've always hoped that the Prism would have much broader support from local organizations whose work would fill its pages and whose members would look forward to each issue. The Internationalist [Bookstore] page is a good step in that direction." says Coleman. He has remained a contributing writer for seven years.

Coleman published a book entitled Ecopolitics (1994), which has been continuing to sell well. In the book, Coleman provides insights on the environmental movement. He plans to work on another book in Iowa, probably fiction, and may also explore opportunities to be a local columnist.

There are few progressive causes in our area that have not been helped in some way by Coleman. He was board president of Weaver Street Market-a locally-owned cooperative grocery in Carrboro-for two years. He has volunteered with both NARAL and Internationalist Books for years. He has also worked on campaigns for local progressive candidates such as Margaret Brown for County Commissioner, Ellie Kinnaird for State Senate, Kevin Foy for Mayor, and Joyce Brown for Town Council. He himself has held several public positions, including those on the Chapel Hill Affordable Housing Committee and the Orange County Solid Waste Resource Group.

When asked what he thought was the most important fight that we need to continue here in his absence, Coleman said, "In Chapel Hill, there are many people who are progressive on global or national issues but who don't engage locally and who support neo-liberal politicians. I hope people will continue the work to build a strong constituency committed to democracy, ecology, and social justice. That work requires rejecting the corporate political parties, understanding that they will never serve the interests of the people. It requires rethinking our political, economic, and social structures, all of which have been fashioned to buttress injustice."

Coleman has never been shy about pointing out the danger of supporting political pretenders when it comes to progressive social change. Coleman remembers a controversial encounter with the local powers. "In 1991, when the Greens petitioned the Chapel Hill Town Council to establish a sanctuary for conscientious objectors, we really made them uncomfortable." Does that sound surprising in a town pegged as so "liberal"? Not to Coleman.

What Chapel Hill loses, Iowa City is about to gain. According to Coleman, Iowa is more than just a bunch of cornfields. "Iowa City has a Green Party, a New Party, and a strong labor movement. I would like to help Iowa City succeed as a model for political cooperation on the left (please, don't laugh!). Also, there is a Socialist Party member on the city council, although she is a minority of one." Coleman pledges to help elect a Green candidate who is running this fall in his district. Looks like Iowa City will never be the same.

Dan Coleman's presence will be enormously missed here, but Iowa City . . . now it's your turn.


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