Zach Polett, an organizer’s organizer

The network and the movement have lost a friend and colleague


Staff | TPIN

Zach Polett passed away Tuesday, Sept. 26, at the age of 73.

Zach’s long-time friend, Dan Cantor, said the best word to describe Zach was “tenacity.” The term fit Zach to a T. 

Zach’s commitment was sparked as America grappled with the war in Vietnam and racial segregation and discrimination here at home. After graduating Harvard, Zach attended medical school at Stanford. Yet before following the usual post-med school path of internship, residency and fellowship, Zach spent a summer in Little Rock, working with ACORN (Arkansas Community Organizations for Reform Now). You could say that he never left. 

After becoming a full-time community organizer with ACORN in 1975, Zach’s responsibilities grew as the organization grew. He founded Louisiana ACORN in 1976. He became the director of Arkansas ACORN in 1980. He became national ACORN political director in 1992 and directed Project Vote, a nationwide voter registration project. 

The fruits of Zach’s labors included, among many other accomplishments, the South’s first homecare workers’ collective bargaining agreement; successful ballot initiatives on the minimum wage and campaign finance reform; and 1.1 million low-income and minority citizens registered to vote in the 2004 election cycle alone.

In 2010, Zach came to work for The Public Interest Network as National Campaigns Director. By that point, he had already done more than most of us will accomplish in a lifetime. Yet over the next 13 years, Zach would go on to:

  • become the first president of Progressive Future Network, where he worked closely with Peter Murray of Accelerate Change, Mark Ferrulo of Progress Florida, Bill Newman and Susan McGrath at Florida Consumer Action Network, and Sandy Newman of Voices for Progress,
  • became one of the network’s primary emissaries to the broader progressive community, 
  • organized some of our Fund Foundation’s grant work, including a $1 million grant to the NAACP’s “Black Voices Change Lives” voter registration and mobilization program,
  • established the Fund’s Calling for Action program and Progressive Future Network’s Calling for Progress program, working with groups from Common Cause to NARAL Pro-choice America, on issues from D.C. statehood to gun violence,
  • spearheaded the electoral work of some of our organizations, including the Environment America Action Fund’s GreenHouse Project and Environment America Voter Action’s contributions to pro-environment candidates, 
  • organized United for Massachusetts, the coalition we led to reelect long-time ally and environmental champion Ed Markey to the U.S. Senate, and
  • helped our advocates connect with potential allies and funders, as well as key decision makers, on multiple campaigns, including our recent victory on Right to Repair in Minnesota.

That’s the kind of resumé that, for some people, results in a big head. Not for Zach. No task was too small to embrace with zeal. He might meet with the President on behalf of PIRG one day, and do an all-day site visit with a first-year organizer the next. An old book about ACORN, “Seeds of Change,” captured Zach pretty well:  

On first impression, Polett, in glasses and a rumpled suit and with a slight stutter, could be mistaken for a quiet bookkeeper. His unassuming manner disguised a passionate, brilliant political strategist.

In addition to being an organizer’s organizer, Zach was a devoted husband to his wife, Mary, (whom he met while organizing in Louisiana); a proud and loving father to his sons, Mark and David; and a doting grandfather to Kian, Luka, Luna and Vera. Zach and Mary were also long-time, dear friends with Linda Croseford.

Though he had been diagnosed with esophageal cancer months earlier this year, Zach’s decline this past week was sudden and unexpected. Just a few weeks before his passing, he traveled to Denver for four days of retreat and meetings with PIRG leadership, and then on to D.C. for a day with other staff, who were gathering for the first time in three years. His participation was as keen and focused, and his contributions as plentiful and smart, as always. We are so grateful to have known Zach — professionally, politically and as a good friend. He was, and will remain, truly an inspiration.

Zach with David and Mark. 1988

Photo by Polett family archive | Used by permission

Zach and his wife, Mary (on the porch, standing) at a gathering of former ACORN staff. 2012

Photo by Polett family archive | Used by permission

Zach and Wendy. September 2023

Photo by Staff | TPIN

Zach. July 2016

Photo by Staff | TPIN

Doug Casler, Andre Delattre, Adam Rivera, Ryan Moeckly, Rich Hannigan, Alec Sprague, Emily Rusch, Zach, Allison Cairo and Lisa Frank on a hike in Colorado. September 2023

Photo by Staff | TPIN

Doug Casler, Susan Rakov, Matt Curtis, Faye Park, Andre Delattre, Wendy and Zach. 2017

Photo by Staff | TPIN

Wendy and Zach with PIRG alumni Tom Novick, Jon Motl and C.B. Pearson at the memorial service for Donald Ross. September 2022

Photo by Staff | TPIN

Zach and long-time friend and colleague, Sandy Newman. June 2023

Photo by Staff | TPIN

Zach and another old friend and colleague, Dan Cantor. April 2016

Photo by Staff | TPIN

Zach and Mary. 2015

Photo by Polett family archive | Used by permission

1of 10

Find Out More