Marcy Westerling

Marcy’s Story   *   Marcy in Action   *   Essays   *   Interviews   *   The Marcy Westerling Collection

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“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.

M. Westerling Baby Photo

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.

5810902080714185794After 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

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Organizing the group's next move at the 2005 Walk for Truth, Justice & Community.

Marcy’s Essays & Publications

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:

  • 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.

The Marcy Westerling Collection

Browse all media by Marcy Westerling »

The first Living Room Conversations

When anti-gay hysteria explodes in Marcy's hometown of Scappoose, OR, she calls in long-time social justice activists Suzanne Pharr and Scot Nakagawa to help organize her neighbors in Columbia County.

Statewide travel chronicle from 1992

In 1992 Marcy Westerling crisscrossed Oregon, logging thousands of miles, visiting hundreds of local human dignity activists, and catalyzing nearly 20 new Human Dignity Groups in rural and small towns across the state. Eventually, these groups would come together to form the Rural Organizing Project.

1992 Living Room Conversations

ROP victories

When you are doing progressive organizing in rural, predominantly conservative areas, traditional campaign victories are few and far between. Here, Marcy reflects on and shares some of the more improbable, anecdotal and ultimately longer-lasting victories that she's experienced.

Letter to local leaders in Tillamook County

Personal correspondence with local leaders, full of concrete suggestions, gentle nudges and lots of encouragement has been a hallmark of Marcy's organizing style. Following a July 1993 visit to meet with a group of local human dignity activists in Tillamook County, Marcy wrote this letter to several of the group’s key leaders, offering advice and support as they considered next steps in building their group.


How a crisis moment (and a some very passionate organizers) spawned an enduring rural movement for human dignity in rural and small town Oregon. In this audio slideshow, Marcy "tells it like she lived it" - narrating the origins of Columbia County Citizens for Human Dignity and the Rural Organizing Project.

Roots & Wings speech

Marcy shares the story of her own journey to grassroots organizing at ROP’s 2010 Roots and Wings Celebration.

Focusing on the numbers

A critical first task of new Human Dignity Groups is to build a broad base of supporters. Here, ROP Founder Marcy Westerling shares the small town-tailored approach that she and other local leaders used to build lists of supporters in their rural communities.

The Anne Frank exhibit

How does a group keep momentum after a crisis moment has passed? In the aftermath of intense campaigns to defeat the anti-gay Ballot Measure #9 (1992) and a subsequent rash of similar, county and city-wide initiatives (1993-94), a touring holocaust exhibit not only mobilizes and strengthens local human dignity groups--it helps prepare them for the next crisis.

County-by-County as a strategy

What does it mean to have a “County-by-County” organizing principle? Rural organizing is more than having a meeting once a year in Bend (Oregon’s third largest city outside of the Portland metro area).

County-by-County organizing

County-by-County organizing as a “bullshit detector” - we’ve got to be able to find people who care about our message in every single county. Otherwise, what the #%?@ are we doing?