Breaking the Isolation:

Keeping Leadership Vibrant

by Marcy Westerling, Oregon Rural Organizing Project
Isolation poses a primary challenge to lead organizers, particularly in traditionally under-represented communities (people of color, gay/lesbian, rural, women, low-income). It is crucial, therefore, that intentional support be a part of any model for effective rural organizing. The Rural Organizing Project sponsored by the Oregon Democracy Project in response to the anti-gay ballot measures in 1992 represents one such model.

The initial goal of the Rural Organizing Project was to support the analysis and forward movement of local activists as they countered the growth of the Christian Right in their communities. The article, "Rally Against the Right," chronicles a typical and highly effective example of the way one rural community came together to face an immediate electoral crisis by creating a long term vehicle for advancing social justice: a broad-based human dignity group.

The Rural Organizing Project grew out of this community's leadership, and soon began assisting other communities in their developmental process. Other rural areas developed their own models in isolation, then joined the Rural Organizing Project's network.

As the network evolved, the Rural Organizing Project found its most pivotal role was breaking down the isolation of local leadership. The project found rural leaders facing tremendous barriers in identifying and connecting with allies in their own and other areas. These obstacles range from geographic isolation to a historic silencing of progressive voices and values in more conservative communities. It is difficult to create a liberation movement without the presence of viable local groups, and isolated, unsupported leaders rarely keep a group alive. The Project saw that every community group had a need for an infrastructure that not only shared informational resources, but more importantly, allowed those in primary leadership roles to feel supported.

As the Christian Right creates a frantic pace for our social change work by setting brush fires for us to rush around and extinguish, local leaders desperately need to remain connected to the bigger picture. Establishing a true democracy that includes the participation of all is a daunting goal. It is often easier to see why liberation cannot happen than to feel it within our grasp. In the face of constant challenges that appear to require an organizational response, we become reactive and worn and are too exhausted to contemplated the additional work of being proactive.

Intentional support allows our vision to remain clear and feel obtainable. An outside perspective can offer a reality check, a useful critique, and reveal new possibilities within the context of acknowledging all of the positive movement that is already taking place. Support can provide the objectivity that allows clear strategizing on what it would look like to set the agenda ourselves. When we set the agenda, we feel much more powerful while remaining equally effective in countering strategies of the Christian Right, and our movement gains ground.

The support provided by the Rural Organizing Project varied along the continuum from moment to moment and from community to community, but inevitably our organizing included putting forth an obtainable vision of the world we were organizing to create. This meant checking in on a frequent basis with lead activists to monitor their mood. Often a negative mood reflected a concrete obstacle that, once problem-solved for solutions, returned the lead activists to a position of hope crucial to their ability to inspire others.

Check in calls should follow a basic leadership support model using standard discussion points. By starting with an inventory of five things that are going well, leadership must identify what is working within the group. Then asking leaders to inventory what five things they value in their current leadership, they are encouraged to chronicle what they are doing well as leaders. The check-in call has now established a positive framework to explore obstacles the group and leadership face. As 3-5 key obstacles are listed, the discussion should focus on the immediate next steps to overcome each obstacle and the barriers that stand in the way of these next steps.

Through this discussion format, obstacles fast become manageable and a plan of action becomes clear. It is important for the support to happen in a goal-oriented manner. An unstructured support process can too easily deteriorate into an overwhelming morass of negativity that just confirms the impossibility of our work. While structured questions may appear trite, they allow us to see the true progress of our work and the viability of moving beyond current obstacles.

Creation of a formal Rural Organizing Project is just one model for delivering such support, but establishing some kind of vehicle to break down isolation appears crucial. Another model might be a buddy system in which the buddies are responsible for helping each other see progress in their work and to problem-solve obstacles as they emerge. A broader regional support system, or use of an existing structure such as a formal campaign, could also allow a similar support process to happen. Any structure would require frequent check-ins that are designed to insure leaders feel hope about their long-term work and their immediate next steps. An advantage of a centralized structure is its greater ability to share concrete models from other communities.

The key to a viable rural strategy for fighting the Christian right is to make such support an intentional part of any system. Support cannot be left to chance. Modeling an intentional support method allows leadership to start integrating this method into local strategizing. The more that strategizing gets placed in a workable model, the more hope we maintain. Nothing builds community and viable organizations that can effect change more quickly than hope.

For more information or to request a complete Fight the Right Action Kit, call NGLTF at 202-332-6483, TTY 202-332-6219.