Tag Archives: Rural Organizing Project

Marcy Westerling, founder of Rural Organizing Project, reflects on community organizing in Oregon, as her own life takes a new direction

By Joanne Zuhl, Staff Writer

After 30 years, Marcy Westerling recently returned to Saul Alinsky’s “Rules for Radicals,” the famous and controversial book on community organizing used by both the Left and the Right. In those years between, however, the book and its principles never gathered dust under Westerling’s stewardship.

After years with ACORN, and later creating a rural women’s crisis network, Westerling founded the Rural Organizing Project, or ROP, taking her brand of grassroots organizing and turning it into a galvanizing force among pro-democracy groups operating in small towns across Oregon. ROP created a structure through which groups from all backgrounds could organize around common causes. It created human dignity groups in 50 rural communities throughout the state that brought divergent perspectives and agendas into political discussion.

Its first target was 1992’s Proposition 9, the anti-gay ballot measure put forward by the well-heeled conservative group Oregon Citizens Alliance, which claimed its roots in rural, right-wing Oregon. ROP organized the opposition, and the measure was defeated. In the nearly 20 years since, ROP has addressed farm workers’ rights, immigration issues and economic justice, organizing strategic caucuses   to move forward.

In 2009, Westerling accepted a fellowship with the Open Society Institute to take the tactics of community “mapping” nationwide; to create a toolkit in essence that people could adapt for their community. She was just getting started on the work when in the spring of 2010 she was diagnosed with Stage IV ovarian cancer. She has had to scale back her work with the Open Society Institute, and she and her husband Mike moved from their beloved farm in Scappoose to Southeast Portland to be closer to her health care. She continues working on the mapping project and with ROP, working to keep the dialogue going from all sources. She remains committed to bridging false cultural divides, as she has called them, and staying healthy, even though she is quite frank about the odds. She embodies the progressive movement in fighting the right-wing takeover of rural America, and she can handle just about anything someone wants to dish out — just don’t call her a liberal.

Marcy Westerling: Liberal has never been a word I’ve been comfortable with.

Joanne Zuhl: Why not?

M.W.: I’m more interested in the content of the belief system. We believe in the words of every human being. We believe that every zip code no matter where it’s located is important. We believe that every issue is connected. And we believe that no rights supersede the rights of others. It’s a little more nuanced and value-based, but we’ve been able to have a lot of members who maybe are not comfortable with the next issue we will approach or the last issue we did approach. Our umbrella has to be big enough. Continue reading

Immigrant workers face extremes of economic crisis


Published in the May 1 edition of Street Roots

Growing up in the riverfront manufacturing town of St. Helens, Yesenia Sanchez knew only a handful of other Latino families. Born in Oregon to Mexican immigrant parents, she was one of the only non-white students in her class. Still, she says, she was never aware of any significant racial tension.

That changed last year, when economic troubles stirred political unrest, which in turn brought animosity bubbling to the surface.

Columbia County, where St. Helens is located, has a small but fairly settled Latino community. Some, like Sanchez, are citizens, some are legal residents, and others are undocumented immigrants.
In November, Columbia County voters passed a ballot initiative to penalize businesses that employed undocumented workers with a $10,000 fine or revocation of their business license. Another measure, which was voted down, would have required construction sites to display large signs declaring them for legal workers only. Latinos in the community, regardless of their immigration status, felt targeted.

“I’d never really experienced overt racism, or at least not that I can remember,” says Sanchez, now a college student at the University of Oregon in Eugene. “I never thought that part of my community wanted to essentially kick me out — didn’t want me there, my family there.”

Columbia County isn’t the only place Latinos are feeling the pressures of the recession in full force.

Oregon is home to almost 400,000 Latinos, most from Mexico. Their median income in 2007 was just over $18,000 per person a year, according to the Pew Hispanic Center; the average for Oregon is about $25,000. Latinos were already more likely than other Oregonians to live in poverty and less likely to own their own homes.

Continue reading