David Walls October 21, 1941 - June 6, 2020
David Walls, a dedicated social justice activist and community organizer, died at his Sebastopol home on Saturday June 6, after a long struggle with Parkinson's Disease. Professor Emeritus of Sociology and retired Dean of Extended Education at Sonoma State University, and an eager mentor to young people, David nevertheless wrote in 2012 "I found my calling in retirement, my true passion; or did I recover my youthful passion: organizing? "He had time then to participate in organizing the Living Wage Campaign and to bring together the group that founded the North Bay Organizing Project (NBOP), in which he participated as long as he physically could. Even up to his last weeks, he was working on an article about building an effective united front against what he saw as an emerging fascist movement.
David's youth in Minnesota was spent hunting, fishing and camping as an avid Boy Scout and building an elaborate ham radio system. He studied economics at UC Berkeley, became an active member of SLATE, the campus progressive political party, and participated in anti-nuclear weapons activity and the Bay Area civil rights movement. He also read Michael Harrington's The Other America, about poverty in America, and Harry Caudill's Night Comes to the Cumberlands, and was moved to join the War on Poverty after graduation. He worked first for the Dept. of Health, Education & Welfare in Washington, DC, and then joined the Community Action program in the Office of Economic Opportunity. There he met some Appalachian Volunteers from VISTA; "they urged me when I was tired of being a Washington bureaucrat to come see what it was like to work directly in the field." Shortly afterwards he joined the AV community organizing staff in eastern Kentucky. He planned to stay a year but remained for five, eventually serving as the Executive Director in the program's final year: "Once we started helping small farmers and landowners to oppose strip mining, (we were) hit by a political hailstorm…" David observed. He met his future wife, Lucia Gattone, a mental health counselor in the local community clinic and they married in 1971.
He also earned Master's & Ph.D. degrees from the U. of Kentucky, and then joined the university faculty teaching sociology and social work, as well as serving as Associate Director of the Appalachian Center, an interdisciplinary research institute. In 1981, he returned to California with his wife and young son, joining the administration at Sonoma State and eventually serving for sixteen years as Dean of Extended Education and as a Professor of Sociology until retirement in 2005.
His publications include Appalachia in the Sixties: Decade of Reawakening, The Activist's Almanac, based on interviews with over 100 leaders of national advocacy organizations, and Community Organizing: Fanning the Flames of Democracy. His teaching emphasized multidisciplinary approaches to the civil rights movement, the women's movement, and the environmental movement. When he retired, he returned to actively organizing, rather than just studying it. He was involved with the Living Wage Campaign and other attempts to improve the lives of Sonoma County workers, and, believing that the county needed an effective community organization in the (Saul) Alinsky tradition, in 2008 he assembled the core group that launched the now flourishing North Bay Organizing Project (NBOP). His gravestone, he once suggested gleefully, should be inscribed: "Change the world? I tried."
Published Online in the Press Democrat on June 12, 2020.