“I became political because of stories.
I stay political because of stories…”
Marcy Westerling was a nationally recognized leader in organizing, educating, and mobilizing grassroots responses to violence, bigotry and injustice in rural communities for over twenty-five years. Marcy founded the Rural Organizing Project (ROP) in 1992 to develop the ongoing capacity of pro-democracy groups in over 60 rural and small town communities in Oregon. This network of human dignity groups, committed to a broad agenda of social change, is the first of its kind in the state of Oregon and has since become a national model. The ROP is noted for its work in not only empowering rural, small town and frontier activists to develop and use their progressive voice, but also for linking issues through transformational organizing which understands the long term nature of justice work. Fully inclusive democracy is the frame through which issues are woven together.
Marcy was raised in small town New York. She grew up listening to her father’s stories of his adolescence in Nazi-occupied Holland. Particularly compelling were the tales of how his family hid Jews in their home and how the Nazis arrested Westerling’s grandfather for his role in the Dutch resistance movement. But even that level of bravery never quite satisfied young Marcy; she recalls that as a child she often asked her family, “Why didn’t you start the resistance earlier?” Heroic as her family’s stand was, she felt haunted by that question. As a young adult, she vowed never to hesitate in “fighting back.”
In 1979, while studying abroad during her junior year of college, Westerling herself became a victim: While visiting a small town in Italy, she was abducted and raped. When she pressed charges, “an underground network of women quickly came to my aid. In the subsequent nine months, I learned principles of organizing under fire as these women stayed by my side at great personal risk to themselves.” Her support system, Westerling said, not only addressed her immediate needs but also produced a “standing room only turnout” for the trial, which resulted in a landmark rape verdict for Italy. Returning to the United States, Marcy channeled her commitment to justice into founding a campus rape crisis center.
After graduating, Westerling kept her vow to fight back by learning direct action approaches to grassroots organizing during the two years she spent working with the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN).
In the late 1980s, Marcy moved to Oregon. She took a position as Executive Director of the Columbia County Women’s Resource Center (CCWRC), a feminist, grassroots, and rural crisis intervention program based in St. Helens, Oregon. Under her leadership, the CCWRC set state precedent in advocacy for the safety of female mill workers in a timber-dependent community and developed and implemented a social change work plan that went beyond social service delivery.
In 1992, the Oregon Citizens Alliance (OCA) came to Scappoose to gather support for its anti-gay Ballot Measure 9. Marcy fought back. She founded the Columbia County Citizens for Human Dignity to stand up to bigotry and educate neighbors – using shared values of democracy and human dignity to combat politics based on fear and ignorance. When she spoke against the OCA at the Scappoose City Council meeting, she was “outed” as a lesbian in the local paper.
Marcy expanded her organizing to other rural counties, logging thousands of miles (and countless hours) to catalyze and support the formation of similar, local human dignity groups in rural and small towns across the state. These groups joined together as the Rural Organizing Project in 1993 with Marcy as the Director, a role she enjoyed until 2011.
In 2010 Marcy was diagnosed with metastasized ovarian cancer. Around treatments, Marcy worked on special projects to raise up the history and unique organizing model of ROP as an Open Society Fellow. She chronicled the experience of daily life with terminal cancer on her blog, Livingly Dying. Whenever possible, Marcy integrated her personal pleasures of art, textiles and the outdoors into her organizing. Marcy died from cancer on June 10th, 2015.
Adapted from the Leadership for a Changing World Marcy Westerling profile
Marcy in Action
Marcy’s Essays & Publications
- Marcy’s “Roots & Wings” speech at ROP’s Roots and Wings Celebration (2010)
- “Uniting, One County at a Time” by Mike Edera and Marcy Westerling in In These Times (2009)
- “Rural Organizing Project: An Evolving Struggle” by Mike Edera and Marcy Westerling in Lessons from the Field: Organizing in Rural Communities, edited by Joe Szakos and Kristin Layng Szakos (2008)
- “Don’t Forget Rural Media” in SPIN Works! by Robert Bray, produced by the SPIN Project (Strategic Press Information Network) (2002)
- “Rallying Against the Right” in The Oregon Witness (1991)
Interviews with Marcy
The following interviews were conducted with Marcy as part of the Rural Organizing Voices oral history project. Eventually, these interviews will be archived with others from the project at the University of Oregon Special Collections & University Archives. In the meantime, for access to the full interviews, contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Marcy’s Life History. Interview by Pat Young. March 11, 2011 and April 22, 2011.
- ROP’s Lean & Mean Model: Part 1. Interview by Sarah Loose. October 3, 2011.
- The Role of an Organizer. Interview by ROP staff & Sarah Loose. February 1, 2012.
- Leadership Development & the ROP Caucus. Interview by ROP staff & Sarah Loose. April 18, 2012.
- ROP’s Bumps in the Road. Interview by Sarah Loose. June 1, 2012.
- Interview with Marcy Westerling & Janice Thompson. Interview by Sarah Loose. July 23, 2012.
- ROP’s Organizing Model. Interview by Bernadette Sebaly & Sarah Loose. August 1, 2012.
- ROP’s Lean & Mean Model: Part 2. Interview by Sarah Loose. October 24, 2012.
- Leadership Development at ROP. Interview by ROP staff & Sarah Loose. October 31, 2012.
- ROP Programs. Interview by Sarah Loose. November 16, 2012.