Developing Leader-Organizers

It takes people to make change.  A lot of people.  People who are willing to speak truth to power, to call their representatives, to write letters to the Editor, to take to the streets, to sit-in and die-in, to risk arrest, to share their stories.

Movements for change also needs leader-organizers.  People who are willing to do the long, steady, sometimes slow work of reaching out to neighbors, friends, colleagues, acquaintances and getting them plugged-in. And then to do the nitty-gritty, follow-up work that it takes to keep those folks engaged beyond a single action or moment.

ROP recognizes that in every rural and small town there are capable and committed individuals with strong progressive values who want to make a difference in their communities. At the heart of ROP’s work are its efforts to find, support, mentor, train and nurture these individuals as they become the leaders and organizers of their own, locally-led, autonomous human dignity groups.

Overview essay
Questions for reflection
The Developing Leader-Organizers Collection (related interview excerpts, documents, tools and essays)


Leaders for what?March 2 098

Movements and the groups that make them up need all kinds of people: charismatic personalities to inspire, strategic thinkers to plan campaigns, computer whizzes to run websites, etc.

So what is ROP “developing” leaders to do or to “lead”?

As a statewide organization, with just a handful of paid staff, and the ambitious goal of maintaining strong, human dignity groups in all of Oregon’s 36 counties, ROP’s primary focus when it comes to leadership development has been to identify and work closely with a small number of individuals in communities across the state who can do the day-to-day work necessary to keep their own local groups active and growing. In other words, ROP has prioritized the identification and development of volunteer organizers.

To ROP, a good leader = a good community organizer. ROP staff coach new and emerging leaders in the critical work of identifying, communicating with, and engaging potential supporters – fostering organizing skills such as: facilitating group meetings, developing and managing a list of supporters, building relationships with and coordinating volunteers, planning events and campaigns, media work and diligent follow-up (and follow-through!).

Equally important, ROP staff invest time and energy in deepening local leaders’ political analysis. For ROP, an effective leader is one with strong critical thinking skills, who can analyze a broad array of issues within a values-based framework, understand the intersectional nature of oppression, identify points of intersection between seemingly disconnected problems or issues, and encourage their peers to do the same.

Finding Leader-Organizers

CCCHD Measure 9 PetitionIn the vast expanse of rural Oregon, where and how can we find our movements’ next generation of leaders? Here’s some of what ROP has tried:

  • Watching for “bright lights” at community events or meetings. Every time ROP organizes or attends an event, staff take note of the participants. Who in the crowd is asking thoughtful questions? Who is eager to talk about next steps and future plans? Who volunteers to take on follow-up tasks? These are the folks that get a “star” next to their name on the sign-in sheet, the people that ROP staff will make sure to call in a few days, and invite to coffee the next time they are in town.
  • Using petitions and surveys. A petition or survey can not only build and show public support for a cause, it is also a low-pressure and (generally) socially acceptable way to approach neighbors and strangers, start a conversation about politics and controversial topics, explore their interest and proclivities, and ask for contact information to follow up.
  • Partner with pre-existing networks to identify people who share a common set of values and concerns. In ROP’s founding years, the Oregon Coalition for Sexual and Domestic Violence was that network. It had a dependable presence in every county, and all staff and volunteers attended anti-oppression training by state mandate. Even if local OCADSV staff didn’t have the energy or time themselves to help start or lead a new group, they usually knew people who did. Often there is no such pre-existing network or partner to be found. Then ROP staff (with the support of a local contact) will identify or “map” who in a community is in leadership and might be supportive of human dignity organizing. This has included local campaign leaders, county elected officials, program leads or directors of social service agencies, liberal leaning ministers or faith leaders, chairs of local chapters of environmental or civic groups, and union leaders.

Relationships as Primary

Leadership development is a fundamental part of what ROP does. Indeed, ROP’s mission is “to strengthen the skills, resources, and vision of primary leadership in local autonomous human dignity groups with a goal of keeping such groups a vibrant source for a just democracy.”  Yet, as former ROP Co-Director Kelley Weigel has pointed out, “we did not have a formalized [leadership development] program. Nor do I think that’s what was needed.”

ROP’s work of leadership development is best characterized as informal, context-specific, and—most importantly—highly relational. Through one-on-one phone calls, regular correspondence, and coffee dates, ROP staff help local leaders think through their organizing challenges. They listen. They provide leaders with emotional support, affirmation and motivation. They offer concrete ideas and suggestions for moving forward. They offer to put leaders in touch with peers in other communities who face similar issues. Sometimes, the most important thing an ROP staff organizer can do is to hold a mirror up and help someone recognize themselves as a leader.

Such an approach requires – and results in – real relationships. ROP staff seek to develop authentic relationships with local leaders, relationships marked and sustained by a high degree of trust, candor and intimacy. These relationships are built over time, during late-night discussions over cups of tea long after the meeting has already ended, and long car rides on the way to retreats on the other side of the state. They don’t end with the close of an election cycle, or when a local leader needs to step back for a while to focus on a family crisis. Ideally, they can weather disagreement and allow for real accountability. Such genuine and long-lasting relationships lend our movements depth and endurance.

Questions for Reflection

  • What does it mean to be a “leader” versus an “organizer”? What does our movement, your group, your community, need?
  • Where would you begin identifying local leaders in your county or city? What roles will they play, what tasks will they do and what kind of skills, support and training will they need?
  • What strengths, skills or knowledge would be most helpful for organizing staff to bring to local organizer-leaders in your community?
  • How can a highly personalized, relational approach to leadership development happen on a large scale, with many individuals?

 The Developing Leader-Organizers Collection

Kathy Paterno - My first Caucus

ROP's approach to leadership development starts with the development of genuine, personal relationships with local leaders and then providing opportunities, like the annual Rural Caucus & Strategy Session, for emerging leaders to build their organizing skills and political analysis.

When the initial leaders of Crook County’s Human Dignity Advocates left town, they asked Kathy and her husband Phil to attend the ROP Caucus in their place. Here, Kathy describes how they were received by ROP staff organizers - and the critical things she learned there.

Rachel Ebora - ROP was my school

ROP is a community where leaders are invited to bring their whole selves. Here, former a ROP staff member reflects on ROP's role in her own development as a person and a leader. What are all the components to being an authentically queer, immigrant, person of color activist?

Elli Work - A phone call to Marcy

Part of ROP’s approach to leadership development is providing emotional support and helping local leaders to re-frame challenging experiences or problems.

Throughout the 1990s, Elli Work served as Executive Director for Deschutes County Coalition for Human Dignity, an ROP member group. In this clip, Elli recalls a call she made to ROP director, Marcy Westerling, during a particularly difficult moment.

Amy Dudley - Push-pull

Why Klamath County human dignity leaders gave ROP staff organizers Cara Shufelt and Marcy Westerling a whip, with love. What genuine relationships allow to happen.

Cris Lira - I learned that change can happen

ROP offers Oregon's rural and small town human dignity leaders perspective on their own communities and organizing efforts, it reinforces why rural organizing is so critical, and it provides hope that things can change.

Cris Lira - Being in the limelight

It’s not always easy for ROP staff to strike the right balance between encouraging people to step up in their leadership roles and providing appropriate support for people to do so, especially when staff are juggling so many responsibilities (such as coordinating a 7-day, 50-mile Walk with hundreds of participants!).

Former ROP Board Chair, Cris Lira, reflects on her readiness (or lack thereof) to serve as ROP’s Board Chair, and shares a painful experience from ROP’s week-long Walk for Truth, Justice and Community in 2005.

Jerry Atkin - From "Si Se Puede" to "Somos Uno"

From “Yes We Can” to “We Are One.” A cross-country bus ride births a new generation of movement leaders.

Jerry shares some powerful stories of transformation and community from his experience as an ROP delegate on the national 2004 Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride.

Recognizing and respecting local knowledge and expertise is a fundamental premise behind ROP’s approach to supporting rural and small town human dignity leaders.

Here, Brian and Linda share the story of how ROP staff organizer, Amy Dudley, supported them in their work to pass a county-wide non-discrimination ordinance.

A letter to local leaders in Tillamook County

Leadership development at ROP often happens through personal correspondence with local leaders, full of concrete suggestions, gentle nudges and lots of encouragement.

Following a July 1993 visit to meet with a group of local human dignity activists in Tillamook County, then ROP Director, Marcy Westerling, wrote this letter to several of the group’s key leaders, offering advice and support as they considered next steps in building their group.

Being Developed: An essay by Mike Edera

In this short essay, long-time human dignity activist and ROP leader, Mike Edera, describes his personal journey from “an isolated guy calling into talk shows from a pay phone to an organizer with actual colleagues” - and the role of ROP in that transformation.

Marcy Westerling on Developing Leader-Organizers

1. Kissing frogs - The importance of strong local leaders - and how to find them.

2. Supporting local leaders - Sometimes supporting local leaders means taking on unconventional tasks.

3. Narrating back - Sometimes the most important thing an ROP organizer can do to support local leaders is to hold up the mirror.

4. ROP organizer as soulmate - Why going deep, fast, is so critical to ROP’s model for statewide organizing and developing local leaders.

5. It's the quality of the interaction that counts - Organizers face a lot of competing demands on their time. Marcy offers her advice to a younger organizer on how to support local leaders in a way that’s authentic - but quick!