I always knew that I wanted to organize people to create a more just society. Organizing made sense to me; in fact, it was an obligation—non-negotiable. Although my family was devoutly apolitical, the family lore was not. My father grew up during World War II in occupied Holland, and his family hid Jews in their home. My grandfather was incarcerated under the Nazis. My childhood holidays included relatives who had arrived in this country as refugees from Russian and Nazi pogroms. When they left the room, their stories would be whispered about in snippets.
The message to my generation was, “Listen to this, and stay out of trouble.” Our family followed the news and voted, but did little more.
I was a good girl, and I wanted to stay out of trouble. But as I puzzled out my role in this world, the family stories of leadership and resistance inspired my sense of duty. I knew I did not have the courage for war; my poor tolerance for snowball fights seemed an early indicator. I wondered, what if the Resistance had started earlier, well in advance of the violent crisis? Could the need to pick up guns have been avoided? I believe this fundamental question is still relevant today.
As a schoolgirl during the 1970s, a decade of heated debate about racial integration on the East Coast, I started to notice a disconnect between liberal talk—we are all equal; be nice to everyone—and liberal action. For example, I was pulled from the public school when the violence escalated. At my new private school, a few carefully vetted Blacks studied with us privileged Whites. Full integration was good, it seemed, only in theory. The children’s book character Harriet the Spy became my role model. Like her, I observed the world around me. Although I didn’t know the language of “isms,” I began to understand that being “nice” was very different from being fair. I saw that the U.S. had a caste system. Equality, I realized, means little unless you share the wealth—and that was definitely not happening around me.
I might have forgotten my personal commitment to organizing, but during my junior year of college I got a big knock on the head. While living on another continent, I was kidnapped and raped, then denied access to medical care, police, or the courts—that is, until an amazing thing happened.
The women of the town found me. They had been living in the midst of an epidemic of rape, and reporting the attacks just made their woes worse. But they had developed a strategy. When I spoke up—a naïve nineteen year old trained to do so by American movies-of-the-week that explained “what to do if you are raped”—well, they were waiting for just such a public incident. With only a vague newspaper description of me, they divided up the town and went door to door until they found me. They needed me, and they knew that I needed them. By the trial nine months later, they had organized a huge court watch that resulted in a landmark verdict in my case. Women bravely overflowed that courtroom because they knew that in their repressive culture, the risk to each individual would be reduced only if a critical mass of women showed up. The grassroots were building power through numbers. I learned the importance of numbers.
And I learned the importance of having a long-term strategy. The community takeover of the trial was part of a larger strategy to expose and eliminate the abuse of women. The women weren’t improvising from event to event. Their community had a serious problem, and they were committed to addressing it. Despite a gag order barring the media from covering the verdict, that landmark trial had immediate resonance. And fifteen years later, when the country’s national legislature passed a law that said that no woman could claim she had been raped if she was wearing jeans, the law was quickly overturned. Justice for women remains a journey that no single trial could conclude. This is a critical point to remember in our fast-paced society, in which we’re used to instant gratification. (No wonder so many are crushed by Obama’s questionable performance as president. In our current reality, winning the presidency could not be anything but a short-term victory.)
Why Am I Sharing All This?
I come from the feminist tradition of telling your story as a political act. I became political because of stories. I stay political because of stories. My stories explain why I and the Rural Organizing Project, which I founded in the early 1990s, have prioritized long-term organizing for change over short-term policy successes. At ROP, we measure progress in terms of our relationship with our base; we’re grassroots not just in our membership but in how we function. Our small budget requires little distracting administration and better yet, a genuine reliance on a volunteer culture. To own our organization, to struggle with each new issue as it arises, to share our stories transforms us. Then we, in turn, can transform the world around us.
Although many progressives see “civic participation” as critical to building a just world, I think it is also of value to study resistance movements. Sometimes you participate, and sometimes you resist. When I started in organizing in my home town of Scappoose, Oregon, in the early nineties, it was in resistance to the extreme Right, which was the only loud voice in many small town Oregon communities, as it attempted to define civil rights as “special rights.” I was also resisting an established, urban-based infrastructure that saw little value in rural America. At ROP, we set out to change those two realities by building our own infrastructure: self-governed, small-town groups that we called human-dignity groups. In ROP’s early days, I teamed up with an activist nun on a radio show. She easily declared the human-dignity groups to be a resistance movement. “Ha,” I thought. “She gets it.” By resisting first, we built the infrastructure we needed in order to participate.
My style of organizing includes constant “cold” contact with people I don’t know to see if they have the potential to become “warm” or even “hot.” I can tell when people are getting “warm” not by where they drink their coffee or how they look but by the spark in their eyes when we approach divisive (often manufactured) issues of the day with common sense.
My hands-on organizing for civil rights and social justice in small-town America came to an abrupt halt as I was diagnosed with advanced ovarian cancer this past spring. I pulled a short straw and, despite my age, have entered the closing phase of my life at age 51.
Before I headed to cancerland, I had initiated two projects. One was an event that had been in the works since the town-hall meetings about healthcare during the summer of 2009. The meeting in the small town of St. Helens, Oregon, had been a carnival of bad behavior. In another era, the crowd might have started attacking each other with pitchforks. The atmosphere had become so heated that the fire department had to be deputized to maintain calm. Troubled by the jeers on both sides, the long-time head of the hard religious Right in the area had approached me. We talked for more than an hour, and although he and I couldn’t come to an agreement on the healthcare bill, we did agree that access to medical care was important. We decided that it would be incredibly cool to have a sane discussion on how the community might make sure that everyone had healthcare. I took the lead in bringing together good thinkers who would maintain their core values but not be falsely partisan.
Then, just before we were finally ready for our first meeting, I was diagnosed. I was sad to miss such an important conversation about building a resilient community—especially because of another organizing principle I had learned from observing my family. While my grandfather had been a true hero, who had saved many lives while risking his own, he was basically a decent man with backbone. He was also a man of his times: not very evolved when it came to regarding Jews as his equals. Because of my grandfather, I believe in reaching out to decent people like him, with all their flaws, presuming the best and providing political education throughout.
I had also planned to take a road trip through the most conservative and isolated counties of rural Nebraska. Unlike rural Washington, Idaho, and Oregon, this was unfamiliar territory to me. It was a challenge to find a few starter sentences that might keep a prospective ally on the phone. Constructing the road trip refreshed my memories of how we had started my own human-dignity group, Columbia County Citizens for Human Dignity, in 1990, and the endless hours of cold calling to find people who would talk to me. In 2010 I was again starting from scratch. What were the effective opening, middle, and closing lines that would connect me to these people? I was trolling for innovative thinkers and leaders wherever I could find them: among community bankers, safety net programs, the Rotary Club, the Chamber of Commerce. Setting up enough morning, afternoon, and evening stops to fill a five-day journey, as well as the community housing necessary for establishing the deeper relationships I would need to begin talking about difficult issues such as immigrants’ rights and racism, was a challenge. But it happened. Unknown prospects became hosts, empty days became too full, and rural Nebraska promised to be quite the adventure.
When I contacted these barely known people, spread out over hundreds of miles, to tell them I had to cancel, they set up prayer circles for me. Their regret was palpable. The director of one small-town Chamber of Commerce said she had never had the opportunity to be part of something so exciting. She hoped I could reschedule soon. There is a hunger out there.
In both of these projects, values created a bridge across difference.
Recently I learned that I have metastasized cancer in my lungs. Statistically, I am doomed. The crazy thing is that I am doing fine. It is hard, but I stay happy and hopeful—traits that I learned in the pursuit of justice. Early on I wrote a test obituary for myself. It said:
Marcy Westerling: A kickass community organizer dedicated to the notion that small-town America is filled with justice-seeking souls who deserve support and who have the power to bridge the false cultural divides of our times. Derailed by Stage IV ovarian cancer in spring 2010. She trusts others to continue moving rural-inclusive, progressive organizing forward.
The only thing I would change now is to insert the word “momentarily” before “derailed.” There is a lot to be done on this journey called life, this journey toward justice. Count me in.