Progressive rebel Jason McKain ‘rode life to the edge’

Today the colleagues, friends and family of Jason McKain, 42, gathered to celebrate his life and mourn his death. McKain, a progressive leader in Colorado, died on June 14.

When those close to McKain remember him they tell stories of a man animated by passion — for social justice, for his family, for his “buddies,” be they coworkers, friends, protégés or a mix of all three.

“He was incredibly intelligent, a rebel,” remembered Miriam Peña, who co-directed the Colorado Progressive Coalition with McKain.

“He was not a follow-the-rules kind of guy. He was a bend-all-the rules kind of guy. He’s the funniest person I’ve ever met in my life and extremely kind, very empathetic. He cared about people.”

Sarah Shirazi, who worked on development with McKain at CPC, vividly remembered a massive action he referred to as “organized chaos” during the Great Recession. Led by McKain, CPC members shutdown Denver’s downtown Wells Fargo bank for four hours decrying the era’s rampant foreclosures resulting from predatory lending practices.

“He rode life to the edge,” said Shirazi. “If you weren’t scared around him in a good way, you weren’t really there.”

Heather Schreck worked with McKain at Free Speech TV, where he worked as Director of Development before working at CPC and returned to after. Like Shirazi, she praised McKain’s leadership, his management, his ability to look through a resume into the heart of a potential colleague.

[pullquote]“If you weren’t scared around him in a good way, you weren’t really there.”[/pullquote]

“He was very true to himself, the definition of an idealist in every sense of the word,” said Schreck. “He spoke truth and would fight back where justice was needed.”

Peña agreed, saying that in co-directing CPC with McKain she learned to be grounded in her principles and to never compromise when it comes to matters of justice.

During their time directing the organization, Peña and McKain ran an aggressive campaign against payday lending companies seeking major reforms in how high-interest loans were regulated. The pressure grew to the point that several lending executives agreed to meet with the activists to negotiate a ceasefire.

“They told him, ‘How much money do you want to shut this campaign down?” remembered Peña. “He told them it wasn’t about the money and that they could leave our office immediately. That’s kind of unheard of in the nonprofit world.”

Those who worked with McKain emphasized how radical his efforts were and how little he seemed to need or want credit for them, though they fundamentally shaped progressive politics in the city and state.

“When I think about the progressive community in Denver, he really did a lot to push the bar,” said Peña. “Everything we did was way out there, things people said we couldn’t do, things people said the political climate wasn’t ready for. Jason would just say, ‘They’ll never be ready, and what we’re doing now isn’t working.'”

Driving all that conviction, say friends, was McKain’s unfailing sense of humor – his goofiness.

When he moved on from CPC, McKain requested a going away party with a combo theme: Star Trek and America’s Next Top Model.

Stephanie Tierney, who worked at CPC at the time, loaned him a spangled dress.

“He wore it proudly and well,” she remembered.

Jason McKain
McKain, far right, just being Miley/ Lincoln/ cool boss. Photo courtesy or Sarah Shirazi.

McKain was known to don other costumes in the name of camaraderie — including a very convincing Abe Lincoln in honor of the graduation of an organizer who idolized the president.

“He had a really rare sense of humor,” said Shirazi. “He was really empowering and just knew how to motivate people and really allow for innovation and creativity. He brought out the best in people. I know he brought out the best in me.”

That humor was born of love, say McKain’s friends. He was the father who invented “bring your twins to work day” so his children, Lael and Oliver, now six years old, could play alongside him while he rallied donors and organized campaigns. He was an endless source of stories about his beloved wife Hava Gordon, who is a professor of Sociology at the University of Denver.

“With all the pressure that comes with development, he had this tight little unit at home,” said Schreck. “A man full of love, just so much love. I’m very blessed to have known him in my life and have him as my mentor, to consider him my brother and one of my best friends.”

Tierney remembers Jason as a confidant and constant support, a partner in sobriety, adventure and affection for metal music. In the months before he died, the two went back and forth over email trying to find a time to meet up. Tierney held back tears as she read from one of his emails:

When you’re ready, I’d love to see you. Just know you’ve got a friend out there.

“I always had that in the back of my mind: Jason’s always there when I need him,” said Tierney. “Except when (now) he’s not.”

McKain brought the same ferocity to his recreation as he did to his work. He was an avid outdoorsman, a rock climber, a fly fisherman. He drowned while fishing in the rain-swollen Boulder Creek.

McKain passed away in the middle of a pledge drive he was spearheading with Schreck for Free Speech TV. Pledge drives are the most critical and intense period for any nonprofit development director, and McKain had revolutionized how the organization asked for support form its viewers and donors. He’d broken all the records.

Though the set of circumstances feels impossibly hard, Schreck has continued with the pledge drive, working overtime to reach the high goals he set for the team. She offered her own voice in honor of McKain alongside Amy Goodman of Democracy Now, who spoke on her program about McKain’s life and work.

“I have his voice in my head: ‘Come on. Truck.’ I’m fighting for that, to give him that, and that’s what he would have wanted,” said Schreck, adding that she’ll carry that conviction with here to other causes as well.

“If something happens in the community that’s unjust, you take all the things he taught you, all those conversations, and you hold him in your heart, and you hold him in your mind, and you draw the strength to take action.”


Jason McKain. Image courtesy of Sarah Shirazi.