When a burning cross shows up on the lawn of one of the few openly queer individuals living in your community, who will stand up to say “Not in Our Town”? When anti-government, anti-tax activists hatch a plan to dismantle and privatize everything from the local post office to the county library, who will defend your county’s basic services and social safety net? When the local paper is flooded with racist letters demanding the immediate deportation of all “illegals” and the sheriff nods in agreement, who will march down main street in support of immigrant justice? When the Aryan Nation decides to set up shop in your small town, who will resist?
It is in rural and small towns where some of our nation’s toughest cultural and political battles play out most intensely, and standing up for justice can be most scary, even dangerous. Community organizing means building the power of people to take collective action to resist injustice and bring about the changes needed to improve their lives and communities. ROP recognizes that we are stronger together than apart, that locally-led groups have a legitimacy in small-town groups that statewide and outside organizations can’t, and that there is safety in numbers. But what does it take to build – and to maintain – a locally-based group that can respond quickly in times of crisis and work over the long haul for systemic change, especially in a rural or small town setting?
Questions for reflection
The Creating a Human Dignity Group Collection (related interview excerpts, documents, tools and essays)
While racism, intolerance and homophobia were nothing new in rural Oregon in 1991, the specific, looming and urgent nature of a credible threat – the Oregon Citizen Alliance’s campaign to amend the Oregon constitution to require discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation – gave Marcy Westerling and other like-minded individuals in Columbia County the impetus to get serious – and better organized – in their resistance.
They knew that it wasn’t enough to have an urban-based (supposedly) statewide group advocating for the issues they cared about – they needed a vocal and visible presence for dignity and democracy in their own town. They formed a group and named themselves Columbia County Citizens for Human Dignity, or CCCHD, for short.
Today, nearly 50 similar, autonomous, volunteer-run organizations are working for justice, democracy and human dignity in rural and small town Oregon. These “Human Dignity Groups” quickly mount community-wide responses to hate crimes, educate and mobilize their neighbors around critical issues at election time, organize a visible presence for peace, and advance critical conversations and concrete policies around immigrant rights, LGBTQ equality, and racial and economic justice. Together, they make up the Rural Organizing Project’s statewide Human Dignity Network.
Get it Started
Like CCCHD, most new ROP member groups have formed in response to a specific threat, need or opportunity. 9/11, and the subsequent Patriot Act and wars in Afghanistan and Iraq gave rise to dozens of rural peace groups and Bill of Rights Defense Committees that chose to affiliate with ROP. The Occupy Movement captured the imagination of rural Oregonians, with local Occupations and actions springing up in some 40 different communities. National frustration at the proposed closure of rural Post Offices saw a flood of new folks calling ROP for support to organize in their own towns.
ROP staff and local leaders alike have capitalized on these catalyzing “movement moments” and crises when energy is high and momentum is strong in order to help launch new Human Dignity Groups (or to revive a dormant group).
Soon after the formation of CCCHD, group instigator Marcy Westerling started traveling the state, encouraging and catalyzing the formation of similar groups. The approach she used then isn’t so different from that of ROP organizers today who are trying to help get a local human dignity group get off the ground:
- Connect with a local community member or leader who is concerned about the focus issue and sympathetic to your values. Ask if they would be willing to help pull together a group of folks in their (or someone else’s) living room to talk about what’s happening in their community around the issue.
- Facilitate an evening meeting (Living Room Conversation style) with a group of anywhere from 10-30 leaders and neighbors to talk about the issue and connect with people at a heart level. Why are you in the room? At the end, highlight the need for action/organized response and recruit a smaller group of volunteers to attend a breakfast meeting the next morning.
- Organize a breakfast meeting the next morning with a smaller group of leaders to sketch out the basics of the group and to develop an action plan with clear next steps that local leaders can begin to implement on their own (or with relatively minimal external support) after the ROP organizer leaves town.
Build for the long term
But there is a difference between a short-term task force or committee that emerges to respond to an immediate crisis or work on a specific campaign and an enduring human dignity group with an ongoing presence. As Marcy Westerling put it, “we were trying to make short-term hysteria have a long-term home.”
ROP staff and local leaders have found that there are some things that organizers can do from the beginning to help an emerging group build a strong foundation for the long-term infrastructure our movements require. One is to define the group’s mission broadly. Articulating the group’s purpose – and its initial campaign or project – in terms of basic values such as “advancing an inclusive democracy” or “upholding human dignity” or “defending justice for all” enables a new group to see a life for itself beyond a single-issue crisis. Likewise, it’s important to support group members in an analysis of how the specific issue they are working to address connects to other issues and to the core values they all share.
While having a core group of leaders is crucial, it isn’t enough. ROP has seen many a group flounder and fizzle because they neglected to build a broad base of supporters. Common ways that emerging groups in the ROP network have done this base-building work is by:
- Using simple tools (such as surveys and petitions) to approach and engage their neighbors. Whether done by going door-to-door, setting up a booth at a local fair, or circulating a petition informally among friends and colleagues, such tools allow a new group to figure out who else in their community shares their values. It’s also a simple way to get supporters’ contact information so the group can stay in touch and reach out to them when it’s time to take further action.
- Hosting a well-publicized, well-organized community event or forum about a timely or hot-button issue, and making sure to get attendees to sign-in with their contact information if they’d like to learn more about the group and stay involved.
Of course, once you’ve found those supporters, it’s necessary to keep them informed and engaged, with clear opportunities to connect and build relationships with other members of the group and to learn about and take action on issues they care about. That’s where the ROP’s “Organizing Basics” come in.
Keep it Going
While the 50+ member groups that make up the Rural Organizing Project vary significantly in size, strength, and focus, ROP has found that the most effective groups share some common characteristics (aka “organizing basics”):
- Named leadership team – a group of 7-10 people that each commit to a specified period of stewardship for the organization. This working group provides structure, makes routine decisions and sets directions for the organization.
- Strong communication systems – a way to track track current, past, and future supporters’ contact information, political districts, interests, and donations (a database) and the means to stay in regular contact with these individuals (e-mail listserv, facebook page, website).
- Clear action plan – a plan that outlines the group’s goals and strategies and the specific actions and activities it will organize to achieve those goals. Ideally this includes timeline, tasks, and delineation of responsibilities.
- Strong political analysis – the ability to analyze any social problem or issue according to a values-based framework and through a race, class and gender lens.
Shoring up these “organizing basics” gives a group the best chance to weather leadership transitions and inevitable lulls in the energy and activity of the group’s membership base.
Questions for Reflection
- Who would you call and who could you count on to take action in your community “when the chips are down”?
- If you’re trying to form a local group when there’s not an immediate crisis, what might you do to generate a sense of urgency or momentum?
- What might be the value (and the potential challenges) of having an “outside” organizer help catalyze a new group in a local community?
- What strategies or tools do you think would work best to help build a broad base of supporters in your community around the values and issues your group cares about?
- How does your group measure up on the 4 “organizing basics”? What areas could you use some help in?
- When ROP first started, newly formed Human Dignity Groups were often the only “progressive” or social justice-oriented group in their town or county. Today, as progressive infrastructure in rural Oregon has grown, with many counties featuring several issue-based groups or local chapters of national or statewide outfits like MoveOn.org or Basic Rights Oregon, what is the role and relevance of a multi-issue Human Dignity Group?