Joel Olson (1967 – 2012) worked as a political science associate professor at Northern Arizona University and a social justice activist. He died last Spring and is survived by his wife and their three children.
Olson graduated with a PhD in political theory from the
University of Minnesota. Inspired by the work of abolitionists and African-American Sociologist WEB DuBois, his dissertation examined the interconnection between race and democracy. From his dissertation, he published his book The Abolition of White Democracy (2004, University of Minnesota Press). At the time of his death, he was building a theory of fanaticism or extremism that would explain the politics of Pro Life assassins, abolitionists, green anarchists, and Al Qaeda. The work was titled American Zealot: Fanaticism and Democracy in the United States.
He taught political theory courses at Arizona State University West prior to becoming a professor at NAU in 2003. At NAU, he taught courses in American political thought, ancient political thought, critical theory, critical race theory, fanaticism, modern political thought, Marxism, and political ideologies. The College of Social and Behavioral Sciences awarded him the Outstanding Teaching Award for the 2004-2005 school year. In student eyes, he was one of the most popular and challenging professors in the Department of Politics and International Affairs and consistently received high teaching evaluations. He also served as an advisor for the Graduate Association of Political Science, an advocacy and social group, and a Steering Committee member for the Ethnic Studies program.
For Olson, politics in an ivory tower was insufficient. Politics meant being on the streets, going door-to-door, building community support, never creating intellectual-worker or activist-theorist divides. Over his life, he worked in and helped found groups like Bring the Ruckus, Cop Watch, and the Repeal Coalition. In 2008, in response to an increased oppression of immigrants and those perceived to be immigrants, Olson with many other members of the Flagstaff, AZ, community helped co-found the Repeal Coalition. The group focuses on repealing all anti-immigration legislation and providing support for the immigrant community. As their web states, the group is “an organization committed to repealing over 60 anti-immigrant laws and bills that have been passed or considered by Arizona politicians in the past few years. We demand the repeal of all laws — federal, state, and local — that degrade and discriminate against undocumented individuals and that deny U.S. citizens their lawful rights.” The group continues their struggle after his death.
Perhaps not a summation, but a good way to think of Olson, was the quote he scribbled on a piece of paper and kept in his office, one that his family and friends turned into a plaque on a memorial outdoor classroom between the SBS and SBS West buildings at NAU: “What is the most damage I can do, given my biography, abilities, and commitments, to the racial order and rule of capital?”