*UPDATE: NYPIRG will be working with Donald’s family, friends, and colleagues to organize an event celebrating his amazing life. We are planning on the event occurring sometime in the early fall. Please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like to receive updates about the event.
Donald Ross, NYPIRG’s first executive director, passed away on May 14, 2022. One of the original “Nader’s Raiders,” Donald was the “father” of the Public Interest Research Groups (PIRGs). It was Donald’s genius to see that a better world could be created by harnessing the energy, idealism, and smarts of college students. Not only could public policies be improved, but the experience of civic engagement would make these younger adults better citizens. Donald’s book, “Action for a Change” offered a blueprint for college student activism, with a formula that focused on accomplishments, bite-sized policy victories that could cascade into fundamental changes in governance. His book soon led to the establishment of dozens of PIRGs in states across the country.
Donald’s vision soon turned into personal practical application when, in 1973, he became the executive director of NYPIRG. From a handful of staff and dozens of student volunteers working on college campuses, he transformed NYPIRG into one of New York’s leading environmental and consumer advocacy organizations. His work taking on the nuclear power industry after the near-catastrophic Three Mile Island partial meltdown put NYPIRG on the national stage, with massive rallies in Washington DC and New York City.
NYPIRG’s work expanded into tough environmental challenges helping to launch clean-ups through a state Superfund program. Under his leadership, the Straphangers Campaign, NYPIRG’s well-known project, was launched. Among the many policy successes, Donald’s work touched the lives of hundreds of college students. For many of these individuals, Donald’s work led to life-changing career experiences. And as his vision was played out across the country, thousands of students’ lives were transformed. Essentially, NYPIRG became an “advocacy graduate school” for political organizers who went on to run state and national groups.
After he left NYPIRG in 1982, he went on to work at the Rockefeller Family Fund, helped establish the Environmental Grantmakers Association, chaired Greenpeace USA, and founded the law firm Malkin & Ross, as well as M+R, a consulting firm that was instrumental in winning hundreds of policy victories over the years, most notably in recent years around the issue of juvenile justice reform.
For those of us at NYPIRG, as well as the networks of PIRGs and other allied organizations, we owe more than we can express to Donald and his work.
On a personal note, my first memory of meeting Donald was at a canvass briefing in the Massapequa Park office in June of 1979. I had just started with NYPIRG the month before, and Donald was the first “outsider” that I had seen. His comments to our group strengthened my understanding of NYPIRG’s goals and the larger citizen movement across the country. I was impressed and decided that this work was for me.
The hard work, long hours, threadbare finances, and incredible, meaningful impact have been the standards for all of us. Donald set the pace.
For the next 40 years, Donald was always a personal inspiration, a thoughtful collaborator, and a loyal NYPIRG supporter.
For all of us in the immediate and extended PIRG family, Donald’s impact has changed our lives, and the nation, for the better. For that, we will always be grateful.
PS: Visit donaldkross.org for more tributes and information about Donald’s extraordinary life and accomplishments.