Progressive movement loses a leader

Heather McGhee, shared some sad news with friends of Demos, Common Cause and Citizen Action groups across the nation.

“It is with a heavy heart that I share the news that our former colleague Donna Parson passed away unexpectedly yesterday after complications from heart surgery,” said McGhee.

Donna joined Miles Rapoport at Common Cause earlier this year after 12 years with Demos. 

Donna played many roles at Demos: her titles included Senior Advisor, Director of the Fellows Program, and member of our Executive Team—but her more apt and informal title was “Mother Demos.” 

Donna mentored countless people over her career, particularly young women just joining the movement.

“Donna was so many things to so many people, but to me and many at Demos, she was a dedicated mentor, champion and friend,” says Rachel Whiting, our Director of Development. “She modeled quiet, thoughtful, empathetic, inclusive and extremely effective leadership. She cared deeply about growing the next generation of progressive leaders, and at every chance she could, she opened doors and created space for us to lead, provided recognition of our talent and our potential, and offered sage advice. So many of us would not be where we are at without her, and we will miss her greatly.”

As her colleagues at Common Cause noted, Donna’s early career was centered in her home state of Connecticut. She was a young mother in a rural part of the state during the 1970s when she helped organize a successful movement to stop an extension of Interstate Highway 84 through an environmentally sensitive area. Later, she joined with environmental activists to pass a “bottle bill,” legislation requiring consumers to pay a small deposit on beverage containers; the money is refunded when the empty cans and bottles are returned.

Over the subsequent decades, Donna’s impact grew. She would eventually lead multi-issue social justice organizations—the Connecticut and the Northeast Citizen Action Resource Center—and serve as the campaign manager for former U.S. Representative Sam Gejdenson and for Miles Rapoport’s bid for the Congress. She was serving as the Field Director for Public Campaign in 2002 when Miles Rapoport invited her to join a small public policy organization called Demos.

Demos’ Director of Administration and Budgeting, Kalin Drzewiecki-Sezer, was a beneficiary of Donna’s unparalleled dedication to developing young staff. “Donna was a mentor for me in my work and, more importantly, in my life—as an employee, leader, friend, wife, mother, and traveler. It is so sad to lose her but I know the wisdom she shared with me and so many others will live on in our hearts and will continue to shape how we move through the world.”

Our heartfelt condolences go out to Donna’s two devoted daughters, Joanna and Jennifer, who have become part of the Demos family as well. Donna also leaves behind a network of cherished friends who include some of the most accomplished leaders in the progressive movement… none closer than our own Miles Rapoport, who worked with Donna for over thirty years. Their friendship was a testament to the power of human relationships to change the world.

In closing, I’ll just say that Donna was a model for us all. She was a strategist, an organizer, and a gifted writer. She was an unwavering champion of “the little guy”—in society wherever there was injustice, and within the organizations she touched. We were lucky to have been shaped by her for 13 years at Demos, and are all stronger, wiser, and more compassionate for having known her.


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