The oppression that Pam Costain witnessed during her 1993 Upper Midwest Human Rights Fellowship in Nicaragua was not surprising to a woman who has spent her adult life learning about the needs of the world’s most impoverished peoples: “Globalization is a human rights topic. Through globalization, despite what those in power might say, there is a lessening of the standard of living in most countries for most of the people who are incorporated into the global economy.”
Costain’s 1993 Fellowship studying globalization and fair trade agriculture was her second trip to Nicaragua, where the United States has had an ominous presence: “There was a thirty-some year long dictatorship supported by U.S. under Anastasio Simoza. There was tremendous oppression in the country and vast discrepancies between those who had and those who did not. I went to repair damage of the U.S. sponsored war, one person at a time.”
Costain’s passion to protect the rights of society’s forgotten contingents started at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota. She was exposed to international issues through her opposition to the Vietnam War and developed a generally skeptical attitude towards the intentions of United States foreign policy. It was also at Carleton that Costain first met Paul and Sheila Wellstone. Her friendship with the future senator and his wife continued until their tragic deaths on October 25th, 2002 and remains central to her career. She currently works at Wellstone Action, an organization founded in the memory of the late senator and his wife.
After graduating from Carleton in 1972, Costain obtained a Master’s Degree in Education from the University of Minnesota and worked for eight years as a literacy teacher for low income U.S. citizens. This background, as well as friendships with Chilean exiles to the United States in the late 1970’,s prompted Costain to find a career that united her work in education with Latin American issues. Costain explained, “My friends were exiles to the United States because Chile was a country with a democratically elected government that was overthrown with the support of the U.S. military. My friendship with them was a huge education and introduction to the U.S.’s role in Latin America.”
In 1988 Costain traveled to Nicaragua with her husband to help people recover from the violence and oppression of U.S. military involvement: “My husband was head of a construction crew building houses, a school and a water system and I taught adult literacy. It was all part of the effort to counter the death and destruction the U.S. government was imposing on the Nicaraguans.”
Costain went on to discuss the conflict: “In 1979 there was a revolution and the Sandanistas came to power. They began to redistribute land and provide universal health care and education. Because of that they were punished by the U.S. There were millions of Americans who were appalled by that war and who took action to try to counter the effects of it. The Central America Resource Center was just one of thousands of such organizations.”
After returning to Minnesota, Costain became the executive director of the Central American Resource Center, now known as the Resource Center of the Americas. The Resource Center was founded in 1982 to call attention to U.S. foreign policy and human rights abuses in Latin America at a time when the U.S. was increasing military involvement in the Central American countries of Nicaragua and El Salvador. The Resource Center advocates for the political and economic rights of Latino people abroad and in the Minnesota community.
In 1993 Costain took a hiatus from her position at the Resource Center. As a Bush Fellow at the University of Minnesota, she spent a year studying globalization and political science. After this year Costain returned to Nicaragua with a Fellowship from the Human Rights Center: “I was curious to go back to Nicaragua. I had been there in a very important time. By 1993 the revolution had been defeated and the U.S-backed candidate was back in office.”
What Costain found in Nicaragua was disheartening: “Poverty was back on the rise and the kind of hopeful, can-do attitude that had typified the revolutionary years was beginning to erode. The one bright spot was agricultural cooperatives looking for alternative markets. Poor small farmers couldn’t compete, and fair trade was one way to help them.” She went on to explain, “Fair trade coffee is marked with a certain label. A Small group of people had the idea to label coffec like an organic food, giving consumers the choice between fairly traded coffee and coffee on the market. It’s an example that ideals do move into real change in the world. The smallest group of people can have great ideas.”
Costain continued to serve as the executive director of the Resource Center of the Americas for nine years after her 1993 Fellowship. In 2002 she left to work as an Associate Political Director on Senator Paul Wellstone’s re-election campaign, organizing grassroots initiatives in immigrant communities. This led her to Wellstone Action through the death of Senator Wellstone: “We lost our candidate in a plane crash and went through some devastating months of grieving. Then a number of people got together and said, ‘What can we do to get together and carry on the memory and legacy of someone we admire a lot?’ Wellstone Action was the answer to that question.”
Wellstone Action is an organization that carries on the political legacies of Paul and Sheila Wellstone by training young activists on progressive ways to become involved in government. The organization lobbies for a number of issues important to the Senator and his wife and also develops new candidates to run for office.
The program fits Costain well, for whom social justice and education are inseparable: “Human rights are about your everyday decisions and the role of education is really important. I’ve always been an educator and an organizer, and you can’t organize without significant education. You also shouldn’t be educating without trying to change the world.”
Politics are never far from Costain’s mind and she was eager to tie a discussion of human rights into the 2004 presidential election: “It’s very easy in this country to live your life without being aware at all. It’s also easy to take in a lot of information and feel like because you’re informed, you’re doing something. And that doesn’t cut it for me. This year, I’m particularly focused on the need to vote. I learned in Central America that our elections determine the fate of people all around the world, not just the fate of people in the United States. We often don’t appreciate that when we vote here, were making a vote for the rest of the world.”