In the early 1990’s, Oregon’s emerging rural and small town Human Dignity Groups found themselves isolated – both geographically and culturally – from one another and from the urban-based, urban-centric No on 9 Campaign to defeat the Oregon Citizen Alliance’s anti-gay, anti-democratic statewide ballot initiative. In-person visits and follow-up correspondence and calls from rural organizing pioneer, Marcy Westerling, provided critical connection to a broader network. In 1993, representatives from some 40 or so of these new HDGs came together at the first Rural Caucus and Strategy Session, and formally established the Rural Organizing Project as a permanent organization for the growing network of Oregon’s rural and small town Human Dignity Groups.
The Structural Basics
While the social and political landscape of rural Oregon has changed significantly over the past 25 years, the need for a statewide network remains. Today, some 50+ groups across the state turn to ROP for organizing support, political analysis, and links to a greater progressive network.
At the most elementary level, the Rural Organizing Project is a 501c3 non-profit, governed by a Board of Directors made up of rural and small town residents from all regions of the state and elected to the position by local Human Dignity Groups who have paid their $50 annual dues to become an official ROP member group. A humble office in Scappoose, OR, houses a handful of paid ROP organizers. (The number of ROP paid staff members has fluctuated over the years, but never been more than 5 Full Time Employees.) ROP staff’s primary job is to support the leadership of ROP member groups across the state in their work to advance dignity and democracy in their local communities.
Unlike many statewide networks with member groups, ROP member groups are not “chapters”. They have their own names, missions, and identities. While ROP staff have had a hand in helping to start many member groups, others emerged organically on their own and later chose to affiliate with ROP. Some ROP member groups are also chapters or members of other statewide or national organizations, such as PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays).
The Guiding Principles of Rural Progressive Infrastructure
How does ROP interact with its “member” groups? What basic values and principles guide ROP’s approach to building rural, progressive power and infrastructure?
- Prioritize local group autonomy
The desire to ensure broad participation, a fundamental belief in self-determination and local control, the recognition that local leaders are the experts of their own communities, and local groups’ own insistence all demanded a network structure that prioritized local member groups’ autonomy. In practice, this means that HDGs are self-named, locally governed, and choose and run their own campaigns and projects, with ROP staff providing largely behind-the-scenes support. A “menu of options” approach has allowed local groups to “opt-in” to ROP-led programs and campaigns as they have the interest and energy. Structurally, a low bar for becoming an ROP member group, allows for many different “entry-points” into the network, for groups with widely different visions, structures, focuses, and capacity levels. This largely volunteer-powered, decentralized model seeks to minimize local group dependency on paid ROP staff, reinforce local group autonomy, and disentangle the network from some of the inherent limitations and complications of the nonprofit industrial complex. Ultimately, it aims to foster greater agility and long-term sustainability.
- Maintain shared baseline around common values
While the requirements for becoming an ROP member-group are relatively low, not just any rural or small town group can join. To ensure the integrity of the network, member groups are expected to share ROP’s basic progressive values and commitment to dismantling oppression. At the same time, ROP staff are charged with providing significant levels of support and training for local groups to help them deepen their analysis of racial, gender, and economic justice. There also has to be a willingness to let some groups go, if their work or vision fails to align with or represent the broader network’s values.
- Build in accountability
Accountability allows a loose network of locally-based groups to achieve something together. It also establishes checks and balances on power. ROP’s board structure (with mandated representation from rural regions across the state), annual paid member dues, and an iterative process for program development (incorporating local members’ feedback at multiple points) all help keep ROP accountable to its local member groups. If groups don’t feel that ROP is relevant to their local work, it’s unlikely they will pay their annual $50 membership fee or mobilize their base in response to an ROP call to action. On the flip side, it’s worth noting about this structure that local HDGs aren’t particularly accountable to the broader ROP network. Local group engagement is largely dependent on intrinsic belief in the worth of the network and on personal relationships with individual ROP staff. While local groups ultimately choose their own path, being part of ROP means consistently being asked to reflect on organizing strengths and challenges – how is your group growing? how are you responding to this moment in time and its particular political opportunities? While this kind of accountability is relationship-based and optional, it nonetheless helps set a standard for organizing that local groups over time have responded to and felt motivated by.
Maintaining the network
Just as a local Human Dignity Group needs some basics in order to flourish, so too does the statewide network. Thus, in addition to providing capacity-building support to individual Human Dignity Groups, ROP also monitors and nurtures the overall health of the network to ensure:
- Breadth & Depth. A basic measure of the ROP network’s health is whether there is at least one strong, functioning Human Dignity Group (depth) in every region and whether there are human dignity contacts in every county throughout the state (breadth). Breadth = human dignity presence across the state. Depth = capacity of human dignity groups to effect change.
- County-by-County presence. Viewing the state through a county lens provides a manageable and politically meaningful unit by which to conceptualize, assess and chunk out organizing work. It also helps safeguard the network’s statewide scope and keep a focus on rural, frontier and small towns in a state where major urban centers are concentrated in just a few of the state’s 36 counties, all of which have a rural profile. Explicitly naming all 36 counties as part of an organizing strategy affirms by its very nature that rural is important.
- Continuity. At any moment in time, about 33% of HDGs are in good shape (with a named leadership team, regular meetings, and active projects), 33% are passable and 33% are on life support (perhaps just a handful of folks that communicate over e-mail and occasionally get together but haven’t organized something locally in sometime). As groups inevitably ebb & flow, ROP’s focus on infrastructure (ROP archives some HDGs’ databases and maintains connections with individual leaders even when group activity wanes) & memory (ROP keeps county-by-county records of HDG activity dating back to the early ‘90s) allows groups to spring to action as needed. When a new crisis or opportunity emerges, new (or reinvigorated) leaders don’t have to start from zero.
- Connection. To the extent that local HDGs are connected to one another – and to allied progressive groups/networks at both state and national levels – HDGs and the ROP network as a whole possess more collective power, with greater potential for strategic collaboration and action with lasting political impact.
As such, a key part of ROP staff’s job is to create opportunities for local Human Dignity Group leaders and members to: 1) be together in authentic community, 2) learn together for both issue analysis and skill development, and 3) act together for collective impact. These opportunities include:
- Regional election or campaign debriefs, “movement moment” think tanks, Living Room Conversations, and strategy sessions.
- An annual all-day (and sometimes weekend-long) Rural Caucus & Strategy Session, that brings together some 100+ rural and small town HDG leaders to share stories and lessons from their local organizing, learn about and help shape new campaigns and ROP programs, set the direction for the network overall, and build skills.
- Latino Leadership Retreat and quarterly board meetings/retreats.
- ROPnet e-mail newsletters and toolkits that share organizing stories, case studies, sample materials, etc. from community to community. Occasional conference calls on specific issues or campaigns.
- Coordinated, statewide or regional actions or campaigns, such as the Walk for Truth Justice & Community, the Ruckus for Justice lobby day in Salem, or the cross-district Occupy Walden action.
A Movement-Building Organization
At its heart, ROP is a movement-building organization, with a long-term vision. The kind of change ROP seeks is a fundamental cultural shift – away from the individualistic, profit-driven, culture of a corporate America founded on white supremacy, patriarchy and heteronormativity towards a vision of beloved community, rooted in a recognition of our interdependence and a respect for every person’s inherent worth and dignity. Cultural change doesn’t happen overnight and it isn’t measured in short-term policy victories or counts at the ballot box.
This kind of deep, systemic change isn’t going to come about because of a single non-profit, no matter how well-funded or staffed that organization is. Rather, it happens because an active, dynamic, social movement is demanding, creating and birthing that new world into existence – unceasing in its resistance of injustice and oppression, and unbounded in its creativity and capacity to build new relationships rooted in a new vision of community.
ROP’s fundamental premise is this: to make the massive social change our country needs, we need hundreds of people in places across the state (we don’t want – and it simply isn’t plausible – to have only urban silos of progressivism) equipped to organize their local communities on all fronts of justice. ROP trusts that, if we build it, it will be used and it will have impact.
Yet ROP also knows that we only grow stronger and build our collective power if we exercise our organizing muscle. While we build for the future, there are also immediate injustices and concrete issues that need to be addressed now. ROP creates opportunities to leverage the power of its local HDG members to have collective impact at a regional or statewide scale on issues that matter. It’s not easy – ROP’s decentralized model, with its emphasis on local group autonomy, can present real challenges when it comes to harnessing and channeling local groups’ energy and capacity towards a common goal. Trying to coordinate statewide action and campaigns on a shoestring budget introduces additional limitations. Most consistently, ROP’s role in statewide policy work has been to engage and mobilize ROP’s base in allied groups’ issue-specific campaigns and actions. As the staff organizer for one allied organization put it, “ROP isn’t just building infrastructure for ROP. ROP is building infrastructure for all of us.”