OregonPEN Best Invest List: Rural Organizing Project

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A Living Legacy: Carrying Marcy’s Work Forward

By ROP Staff and Board

So many of us have been inspired and changed by Marcy Westerling and Rural Organizing Project.

The tributes in these pages describe how Marcy has brought so many to justice work: mentoring, cheerleading, nagging, nudging and inspiring us into action. The best way to honor Marcy is to make her work a living legacy, to carry forward that work and the vision of ROP.

From that first Rural Caucus and Strategy Session in 1992 that marked the beginning of ROP, Marcy and ROP organizers have reached out to small-town organizers, growing the network from 20 human dignity groups to 60, and extending to almost every county in Oregon. ROP staff organizers connect, support and inspire the many local people who form a statewide progressive rural movement. The impact they make given minimal resources is astounding.

It is our hope that we can continue to build and strengthen the progressive infrastructure it takes to promote a vision for truly inclusive democracy and sustainable communities and to resist right-wing extremism.

ROP was formed with three core notions at its heart:

Every person counts no matter where you live. We believe in the equal worth of all people, the need for equal access to justice and the right to self-determination. Every place counts, including very rural communities. Rural people can and should be a part of organizing for change in their own communities and shaping progressive organizing.

All issues are connected.  Communities aren’t single issue and neither are people. None of us identify with being only a woman or white or gay or rural or working class – we can be all of these parts of ourselves and so much more. ROP believes that the issues that matter to our lives intersect and therefore our organizing must do the same. We organize for justice for all of us, for all the parts of us, and for our whole communities. We seek racial, gender and economic justice, and our work is prodemocracy and anti-fascist.

Only through transformational organizing can we expect to change the rules of this world. ROP exists to build and support local organizers to advance democracy and human dignity through local, autonomous human dignity groups. Grassroots organizing is how we envision leadership. Organizing is not left to paid professionals from campaigns but is the work of everyday people transforming our communities. To share our stories, to struggle with new issues and their connections to complex social realities, to truly own our organizations through grassroots leadership – these actions transform us so we can better transform the world.

Just after her diagnosis in 2010, Marcy tested out writing her own obituary:

Marcy Westerling:  A kickass community organizer dedicated to the notion that small town Americana is filled with justice seeking souls that deserve support as well as have the power to bridge the false cultural divides of our times.  Derailed by Stage IV Ovarian Cancer in Spring of 2010. I trust others to continue moving rural inclusive progressive organizing forwards.

We invite all of you to join us as we carry forward the work of rural inclusive progressive organizing.  — ROP Staff and Board

Our History: the Evolution of the Rural Organizing Project 1991-2004 –
Rural Organizing Project – by Marcy Westerling

Values

According to conventional wisdom, the Left fails to talk values with voters, particularly voters in rural (now “red”) communities. Beneath this popular story line is a more complex reality. Rural voters care about values, yes – but those values are not necessarily conservative. For over twelve years, the Rural Organizing Project has used values-based organizing to advance a progressive vision of democracy in Oregon, the 10th largest state in the country where all 36 counties have a rural profile.

Roots of Reaction

In the early 90’s Oregon became a battleground in the “culture wars”. An organized conservative Christian social movement seemed to emerge full-blown from nowhere to put an alternative world view on the public agenda. In 1992 the Oregon Citizens Alliance launched a state-wide Constitutional ballot measure to define homosexuality as “abnormal and perverse” and enjoin state agencies from doing anything to “promote the homosexual agenda”.

To most Oregonians, it is safe to say, this political thrust appeared like a bizarre bolt out of the blue. But the religious right-wing movement had been developing under the radar for over a decade in a state known to the rest of the nation as a model of forward-looking progressive policies. The political base of this new conservative insurgency was rural Oregon.

It was no accident that rural Oregon had turned sharply to the right by 1992. Beginning in the late 1970’s, the rural economy entered a tailspin that it has not emerged from to this day. The recession of the early 80’s was a depression in timber-dependent communities. Tens of thousands of high-paying union jobs disappeared as lumber and paper mills closed and logging operations shut down.
Small businesses went bankrupt and main streets began to atrophy. The timber economy had supported a prosperous small-town lifestyle since the end of World War II. The crash was caused by over-logging and long-term timber industry planning to replace older Pacific Northwest timber stands with newer forests in the Southeast United States. The economic pain in rural Oregon was neither adequately explained to the victims, nor planned for by industry and government. Instead, convenient scapegoats stepped right onto the stage in the form of environmental lawsuits to halt old-growth logging in the late 1980’s.

Environmental lawsuits to protect the last stands of ancient forest and defend endangered species like the spotted owl were, in truth, efforts to preserve the ecologically sensitive remains of the national forests. But to out-of-work loggers and mill workers watching the rest of the state and nation gear back up for economic expansion while they remained stuck, the environmentalist organizations seemed like malicious interlopers. The first reaction was a coalition of timber corporations, chambers of commerce, conservative politicians, and unions that organized log truck convoys and rallies to protest Federal Court rulings on the spotted owl, and environmentalist meddling. The greens were portrayed as city-based, latte-drinking elitists who “preferred animals and bugs to people”. The pro-timber, anti-forest protection movement was a rapid groundswell, but it was not able to restore the timber economy whose real-world, material base had been destroyed by corporate forces beyond local control.

The character of rural and small-town Oregon was changing radically. The years of timber prosperity had generated a live-and-let-live social culture that was the base of Oregon’s nationally famous moderate progressive political reputation, exemplified by liberal Republicans such as former Governor Tom McCall , Senator Mark Hatfield, and pro-choice Republican Bob Packwood. On the ground, the main street leadership was also essentially moderate, pro-government and pro-environment. In the late sixties and seventies, rural Oregon accepted an influx of counter-cultural new comers: organic gardeners, craftspeople and builders, and later in the decade, telecommuting professionals. But when the economy crashed, the social fault-lines appeared.

Alongside and in reaction to the counter-cultural changes of the seventies, another alternative culture had developed – the growth of fundamentalist religious communities. Hard-hit timber workers and small business people, whose own anti-environmental movement was going nowhere, began to be attracted into the orbit of the new, growing “non-denominational” churches that offered a combination of caring community on a personal level, and a paranoid political world view. The movement identified forces such as feminism, gay liberation, and “liberalism” as the causes behind the social stresses that economically strapped families were experiencing. These were “molecular changes”, happening beneath the veneer of conventional, business-as-usual politics. Eventually, this grassroots socially conservative movement linked up with national “New Right” institutions. The resultant launch of politically sophisticated campaigns in favor of primitive social goals took both the political establishment and the progressive movement by surprise.

Progressive Response – Columbia County Citizens

Progressive rural Oregonians did not yet know the names of Richard Viguerie or Pat Robertson or that the growth of a reactionary right was a national phenomenon, but we did know that our communities were under siege. Awareness grew in the late 80s and early 90s as people watched hiccups of small town conservatism erupt into harsh community divisions. Books were being censored with increased regularity. Creationism was debated at 7-hour school board meetings. Anti-gay policymaking was on the ballot again and again, in both state-wide and local initiatives. Many fair minded people did not have the words to describe what was happening in their towns but they did know that there was an escalating trend that had everyone on edge. One bizarre sign of the times during a heated anti-gay ballot measure were the 8 ½” by 11” placards in car windows portraying two male silhouettes engaged in anal sex with the international stop slash through the image. These same cars boasted bumper stickers supporting family values. There was little room for dialogue.

To cope, progressive small town community members started congregating. And this led to the organizing of human rights groups. It was an organic response that many small town progressives arrived at simultaneously – we needed progressive infrastructure in order to push back.

The story of the formation of one ‘human dignity group’ narrates a process that was replicated across the state. In the early nineties Columbia County, in the northwest corner of Oregon, was home to 37,000 people, seven small towns, the state’s only nuclear reactor (soon to be defunct), a shrinking paper and timber industry, unemployment at over 10% and rising, and a growing struggle over who would define the community: right wing Christians and other organized bigots… Or those who believed in democracy for all. Like other rural parts of the Northwest, Columbia County seemed an ideal haven for Christian warriors who hoped to turn the clock back to a time before the great social justice movements of the 20th century.

At the same time, many others in Columbia County had watched the growth of the right wing with alarm from our silent corners of the community. Occasionally we gathered, such as at the school board meeting in the spring of 1991 where 300 people debated whether creationism should be taught in our public schools. But even when we gathered together in our common concern, we assembled as individuals rather than members of an organized response. At the end of any given meeting we each went home in despair, feeling as if we were losing control of our community… And we were.

In August of 1991, a hopeful development occurred. A group of community leaders and everyday citizens (often one and the same) met over a potluck to name what was happening to our community. As elsewhere in the state, the impetus came from the local feminist rape and domestic violence program, the Columbia County Women’s Resource Center (CCWRC). With its long history in the community of opposing oppression-based violence, challenging dominant social norms and organizing among targeted groups, the CCWRC was able to provide clear analysis of the present danger and the need to develop counter-strategies.

The most immediate cause of alarm was a campaign to amend the Oregon constitution to require discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Passage of the initiative would have marked the first time a state constitution had been amended to take away the rights of a group of people. People in Columbia County were concerned about the implications: we were not so ready to allow democracy to be weakened.

For the first time we talked about what each of us saw: homophobia, social control, Christian authoritarianism and disinformation. We all shared our clear commitment to reclaim our community as a place that did not tolerate bigotry, as a place that actively protected the minority voice – a community of democracy. The power of this initial meeting gave us tremendous energy to move forward together into action.
Our immediate strategy was to gather a strong base of support. Our strength would come not only from sheer numbers but also from the diversity that would truly represent our community. We took on the task of meeting with neighbors, co-workers, family members and friends who had a history of leadership and ethics.

Such criteria led us to approach fundamentalist Christians, loggers and other individuals not traditionally seen as aligned with the progressive community. The common ground was the concern over erosion of civil rights and the immediate targeting of the gay and lesbian community. Soon our base of support included people of color, Christians, pagans, Jews, laborers, office workers, a few gays and lesbians and a lot of committed heterosexuals.

We talked with people about what we were seeing and presented them with the hopeful prospect that a group was organizing to unite our voices. Most people we approached asked to join the project and also sought out a role for themselves. We found it critical to have some ready tasks for each new member, even if the task was as ‘small’ as approaching five others. None of us could remember a time where people were so ready to move into action.

Once we had a base of support of almost 50 people clearly signed on to reclaim our community, we felt we had a credible and safe starting point for formalizing our group. We drafted a mission statement. This was an invaluable tool as we set out to attract additional folks. We struggled to come up with a name that would represent our group perfectly, compromising on a name that offended none in our group. We acquired papers from the county clerk to establish Columbia County Citizens for Human Dignity as an official organization, which enabled us to generate money (we knew that we would need some money). We elected officers.

By now we were learning how to work with one another. When we had elected our “official” steering committee, designed our letterhead and agreed upon our decision making process we were truly ready to move outward into our community.

Selecting an initial strategy for outreach with the community was hard. By then we
had encountered the Oregon Citizens Alliance, the religious right-wing group seeking to place the anti-gay Measure 9 on the ballot through the public initiative process. We had peacefully attended a few of their meetings and observed them taking over the super-market and post office in one of our towns to gather signatures for the ballot measure. It hurt and almost immobilized us to witness our neighbors advancing bigotry. Our initial response was confusion: for a week we struggled to find a direction for action. Again our high standards slowed us down as we sought the “perfect” strategy. It took a few discussions before we recognized that moving forward with plans that were ethically sound was more realistic that waiting for the perfect campaign plan.

We finally took some simple steps. We designed a signature form to gather the names of “friends and neighbors” who would publicly affiliate themselves with us in future education efforts. More immediately, the signature form would serve as a tool to start discussions. We placed a press release announcing our formation in our local papers. We compiled 100 “organizer’s packets” that described what our group was about and provided tips on how to move into action. Small group discussions were set up with potential allies, providing each participant with accurate information and an opportunity to sign on to the campaign. We began to attend local candidate forums to ask where each candidate stood on civil rights. We’ve moved down the roster of churches and community groups and met with them group by group. The local papers printed editorials, articles and letters reflecting our views and activities.

Throughout all these projects we kept our meetings minimal and fun. Food and casual settings were incorporated. Whenever possible we tried to anticipate possible barriers to participating, finding rides for those without cars, and making sure children were included in meetings.

Today, Columbia County Citizens is still a work in progress. We interweave our strategies into our everyday lives in the community. Our most effective strategies are very simple. Most accomplish the immediate task of breaking down the isolation of rural progressive people and broadening our campaign to provide information to decent, often conservative, people who have rarely needed to challenge their perceptions. By demonstrating our diversity and strength of numbers, we inspire many to take their first public stands for social justice, and to re-commit others who had long ago given up hope and action. Again and again we’ve found that a decade of repressive politics has made many people eager to grab hold of the opportunity to belong to a group that stands for human dignity.

The value of our organizing to date is that we have restored hope to people that had almost given up believing in the power of the progressive social justice vision. We began by opposing the anti-gay bigotry of the Oregon Citizens Alliance but we have gone on to other projects that demonstrate our core vision of inclusion, fairness, and justice for the community in a time of severe challenge.

The Rural Organizing Project

The same process of reaction and response happening in Columbia County in 1991-93 was happening across rural Oregon, and for the same reason. All across the region, the Christian right was mobilizing – behind the OCA’s state-wide ballot measure, behind campaigns for local anti-gay ordinances, and behind right-wing primary election challenges to moderate Republican state legislators. And where ever these conservative challenges emerged, local progressives responded by creating human rights and human dignity groups.

The people who joined human dignity groups fit into certain categories. As high percentage were self-employed, often in newer information industries, crafts, as well as more traditional trades. Many folks cobbled together several employment sources. Another large percentage was employed in ‘caring professions’ such as teachers, and public employees involved in social services. People tended to be middle income, with at least some college, confronting the economic problems of the middle class in a depressed rural economy.

As a trained community organizer (courtesy of ACORN in the 80s) who had since developed strong relationships in the women’s movement while running a rural crisis center, I could appreciate the dramatic ease with which groups like Columbia County Citizens formed but could also predict that as the overt crisis of the moment abated, the basic business of life would exert disintegrating pressure on organizations. It was clear that rural progressives were up against powerful, divisive opponents, with only a limited progressive infrastructure at their back. It was logical to craft an organization run by rural progressives to provide ongoing behind the scenes support to rural groups. Such an organization could ensure that triumphs were shared during boom times and collapse was avoided during inevitable ebb moments.

The timing was right. Folks in community after community were concluding that traditional liberal politics run from the city would not work in these new times. The leaders of the culture war had declared that their constituents were rural America. For rural voters to navigate the hot button wedge issues of God, gays and guns, of immigration and collapsing safety nets, their progressive neighbors were best positioned to develop the language of compassionate communication. A support system was vital if this was to happen.

Because of the national attention that Oregon attracted around the OCA’s anti-gay campaigns, I was able to make connections that were critical to the emerging vision for a rural progressive organization. In1992 Susanne Pharr came to Oregon from the Women’s Project in Arkansas, in order to help create resistance to the right-wing mobilization. Her presence in the state was sponsored by the Oregon Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence. Working together, we combined conscious-raising from the women’s movement, and the multi-issue, anti-racist approach of the Women’s Project’s anti-poverty work and put it on the road in rural Oregon.

Setting up meetings in the rural communities that had fought battles around OCA’s local anti-gay campaigns, we brought people together to share experiences and discuss strategy. Scott Nakagawa of the Coalition for Human Dignity helped us with an analysis of the national and international structure of the right-wing movement, and the links between the Christian social conservatives and the racist right. We discovered that groups which experienced this type of conscious-raising process were far more able to engage in long term organizing than groups that rose up around a particular crisis or outrage, without the benefit of seeing the big picture.

In 1993, we held the first Rural Caucus and Strategy Session, bringing together activists from around the state. At this session we decided to create a permanent state-wide organization, the Rural Organizing Project, consisting of a network of over 40 human dignity groups, and a permanent staff to facilitate local organizing, communication, and political analysis. Voting membership in the organization was relegated entirely to local, autonomous Human Dignity Groups, and board members were required to be rural residents.

Rural Organizing Project was created to allow local activists to control the terms of our own activism. We formed around some fairly basic notions: that every person mattered, that every issue was interconnected, and that transformation needed to be the goal. We took our scarce resources (a budget of $18,000 in the first year and yet to exceed $200,000/year) and created a different type of organization. One that valued being lean and mean, saw the value of local autonomy, and measured success in the number of people we reached out to.

The Human Dignity Group proved to be an enduring form for local organizing. Meeting in living rooms, church basements, and libraries, people came together to support each other, and to do basic political activism such as letter writing, planning educational events and community canvasses. When concerned people meet face to face on a regular basis this opens space for neighbors to break their isolation and take concrete, small steps to further social justice.

ROP developed an analysis that merged consciousness raising about oppression with broader political education. This analysis assisted groups understand the wedge issues used by the right wing to divide communities. We tried to re-frame issues in terms of a real, functioning democracy. We used a four-point definition of democracy from the World Book Encyclopedia : a true democracy requires

1) Majority rule
2) Minority Rights
3) An informed and educated public
4) An adequate standard of living.

From this we created a Democracy Grid that allowed people to judge any political initiative against the tenets of democracy.

ROP helped each group use external projects to build internal capacity. The focus was on ensuring that each group had a functional leadership team, a communication system (used and updated with regularity) and an action plan with a race, class, gender analysis. Since ROP was working with over 50 groups at any one moment we relied on a combination of constant traveling meetings to create organizational work plans and regular, standardized check- ins via phone and e-mail.

Every group could count on contacts from the office that combined cheerleading for successes as well as honest nagging as we reviewed what might have fallen off the organizational to-do list.

Allies

In 1995 Oregon’s farm worker union PCUN (Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste) called a ten year anniversary strawberry harvest job action, to win improved wages and job conditions for Oregon’s farm workers. ROP was able to mobilize human dignity group support throughout the region, taking shifts on the picket lines, providing logistical support, and creating favorable local public opinion in support of the job action. In 1992, PCUN had provided highly visible solidarity to the gay and lesbian community in the struggle against the OCA’s anti-gay ballot measure, helping to blunt the right wing attempt to drive a wedge between the embattled communities. The strawberry actions were an opportunity to repay a debt and cement an alliance. Later in the year, ROP worked with CAUSA, the newly formed immigrant-rights group, to derail an attempt to float anti-immigrant ballot measures modeled on California’s infamous Measure 187.

Over the years ROP has worked with CAUSA and PCUN to back off the INS’s brutal immigrant busts in 1997. In 2001 we worked together to derail a plan by Oregon Senators Gordon Smith R, and Ron Wyden D for a ‘guest-worker program’ based on the infamous ‘bracero program’ of the 1940’s, that would have created a sub-class of immigrant workers at the complete mercy of their employers.
The groups have worked together at every legislative session to oppose anti-immigrant and anti-worker legislation, defend the increased minimum wage and fight for the social safety net.

The human dignity groups have been able to “get” the need to work with the Latino community through principled, militant groups like PCUN and CAUSA. From the beginning we have tried to raise consciousness about race, gender, and class issues, exposing the roots of social conservatism in racist movements like the 1968 George Wallace campaign for president, and pointing out the ways that the political base built around anti-gay and anti-abortion movements has been used to advance anti-union policies and efforts to wreck the social safety net. But no doubt the circumstances under which the ROP was formed, in struggle against discriminatory legislation that targeted gay and lesbians, provided the shock that allowed people with ‘white skin’ privilege to experience a little bit of what communities of color have undergone for generations. (Ethnography available Spring 2005)

An Evolving Struggle

The ROP was created in a moment of crisis, in the face of an insurgent right wing movement. That insurgent movement has changed in the last thirteen years. While particular state-wide anti-gay initiatives were defeated at the polls, and in-your-face organizations like the Oregon Citizens Alliance lost credibility, a powerful conservative political base was created through these battles, and the more strategic leaders of the movement used this new political power to transform the Oregon Republican Party. Between 1994 and the present, the right has targeted virtually every moderate Republican in the state legislature, taking advantage of the low voter turn out in primaries to install hard-right conservatives in Republican rural districts. Social conservatives have made common-cause with anti-tax activists, promoting a phony anti-government populism that has captured the economic anger in districts that have experienced over two decades of recession.

For its part, the ROP’s network maintained itself and grew over this period. The human dignity group has provided structure for people to coalesce around, and the type of intimate community that conservatives find in the church environment. The ROP network has continually sought to evolve a political program around the values of inclusion for all, and democracy. As the battle with the right shifted to the economic sphere ROP tried to fit issues such as tax justice, and the need for social programs into its values-based language.

But the ROP is a minority within the liberal and progressive movement, and that movement, by and large, has been hesitant, fearful, slow-footed, and defensive in fighting the conservative assault on social programs. Consequently, the progressive Oregon of the early 1970’s has lost every economic battle to conservative forces, unable to counter fake right-wing populism with an effective reply.
— by Marcy Westerling

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