An Anecdotal Study in Rural Organizing

by Marcy Westerling

(Reprinted with permission from the The Witness, July 1992, the newsletter of the Coalition for Human Dignity of Portland, Oregon.)

Columbia County, in the northwest corner of Oregon, is home to 37,000 people, the state's only nuclear reactor (which employs approximately 25% of Columbia County residents and is scheduled to shut down this year), and a growing struggle over who will define the community: white supremacists, right wing Christians, and other organized bigots...or those who believe in democracy for all. Encompassing seven small towns, and 620 square miles of surrounding farmland and forests, Columbia County's economy is based on timber, with unemployment now at 13% and rising. Like other rural parts of the Northwest, Columbia County seems an ideal haven for racialist groups and Christian warriors who hope to turn the clock back to a time before the great social justice movements of the 20th century. Many local residents regularly travel into Portland to act as "foot soldiers" in the fight to shut down access to abortion clinics.

At the same time, many of us in Columbia County have watched the growth of the right wing with alarm from our silent corners of the community. Occasionally we have 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 found ourselves together in our common concern over what was going on, we were assembled as individuals; we failed to assemble in clear unity. 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.

Naming the Challenge

Back in August of 1991, something hopeful began to happen. A variety 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 a clear analysis of the present danger and the need to develop counter-strategies.

The most immediate cause of alarm which brought people together was the campaign the OCA was orchestrating to amend the Oregon constitution to require discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. 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, bigotry, Christian authoritarianism, and disinformation. We all shared our clear commitment to reclaim our community as a place that actively protected the minority voice a community of democracy. The power of this initial meeting where we acknowledged our common concerns, gave us tremendous energy to move forward together into action.

Getting Organized

Our immediate strategy was to gather a strong base of support. Our premise was that our strength would come not only from sheer numbers but from the diversity that would truly represent our community. We each took on the task of meeting with neighbors, co-workers, family members and friends who had a history of leadership and ethics. Such criteria allowed us to approach fundamentalist Christians, loggers and other individuals not traditionally seen as being aligned with the progressive community. The common ground was concern over the 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 that we approached not only asked for inclusion in the project but also sought out an immediate role for themselves. We found that it became critical to have some tasks that each member could embark on even if the task was as loosely constructed 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. Our group agreed on the value of completing some routine tasks. We attempted to differentiate which tasks were needed to develop a solid structure and which would merely distract us from our real purpose of mobilizing.

We drafted a mission statement that clarified why we were gathered together this was to prove an invaluable tool as we set about 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 that established Columbia County Citizens for Human Dignity as an official Political Action Committee(PAC), which enabled us to generate money (we knew we would need some money). We elected officers. At the close of this two hour meeting we had dealt with most of the more mundane details of becoming a formal organization.

By now we were beginning to learn how to work with one another. A couple more tasks would solidify our ability to work together while respecting each other's dignity. By the time we had selected our "official" steering committee, designed our letterhead and agreed upon our decision making process we were truly ready to move outward into our community.

The Campaign

Selecting an initial strategy for communicating with the community was hard. By then we had had our first (and last) run-in with the OCA. We had peacefully attended a few of their meetings and observed them taking over the only supermarket and post office in one of our towns in an effort to collect signatures. 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 slow ed 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 than waiting for the perfect campaign plan.

We finally moved forward with some simple steps. We designed a signature waiver form to gather the names of dozens of "friends and neighbors" who would publicly affiliate themselves with us in future education efforts. More immediately, this would serve as a tool to frame discussion with other people we knew. Another group set about to draft a press release that would announce our formation in our five local papers. A few folks compiled 100 "organizer's packets" that described what our group was all about and provided tips on how to move into action by gathering signature waivers. A sequence of small group discussions were set up with potential allies, providing each participant with accurate information and an opportunity to sign on to the campaign. When there have been candidates' forums we have been there to ask clear questions on where each candidate stands of civil rights. We've moved down the roster of churches and community groups and met with them group by group. The local papers have printed editorials, articles, and letters reflecting our views and activities.

Throughout each of these projects we have kept our meetings minimal and fun. Food and casual settings are incorporated whenever possible. We've tried to anticipate possible barriers to participating, finding rides for those without cars. Inclusion of children is standard.

Our campaign, to date, is very much a work in progress. We interweave our strategies into our everyday lives in our community. We have found that 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. Being able to demonstrate to the uncertain the diversity and strength of our numbers inspires many to take one of the first stands they've taken in recent history and, for some, their lives. Again and again we find that a decade of repressive politics has left many people eager to grab hold of the opportunity to belong to a group that stands for human dignity.

Traditionally Democratic but conservative Columbia County is a community that doesn't seek to be on the front lines of any issue. Our newspapers chronicle the local sports teams and the next citywide cleanup day. People tend to take notice only when their immediate world of job or family is threatened. But Columbia County is like all of our communities in that it is made up of real people struggling with real issues. In 1992, chaos and uncertainty seem to reign. The value of our organizing to date is that we have given a community hope and belief in the power of our collective strength. For now we fight the bigotry being advanced by the OCA, but our real purpose is to assert the vision of inclusion that we have for our community in a time of challenge.

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