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Rural Organizing Project

By: 
Amy Dudley
Date Published: 
March 01, 2006
    A hundred and fifty people strong, we walked along Highway 99 in rural Oregon. The rush of air and sound of a horn from a passing truck interrupted the quiet shuffling of our feet. We looked up, waved and flashed peace signs, as one more rural American signaled their support for the Walk for Truth, Justice, and Community.

We walked up the steps of the capitol and occupied the governor’s office. 300 bodies shoulder to shoulder, we literally turned up the heat on the governor to take action against the war. Veterans and members of Military Families Speak Out stepped to the front of the room to deliver our call to bring the Oregon National Guard home. Later that week, the governor made his strongest critique of the war to date.

We walked to Woodburn, the home of Oregon’s farmworker union, Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste (Northwest Treeplanters and Farmworkers United—PCUN). Latino youth carried signs for peace and against the REAL ID Act, and taught chants in Spanish to the white rural marchers who demanded together, “Deportación No! Legalización Si!”

We walked through the streets of Portland as rural people; farmworkers; youth of color; and members of faith, labor, LGBT, and peace communities united in a call for a better world. And we got a glimpse of the world that is possible, that beloved community that we are creating through our collective power.

From June 12th to the 18th, The Walk for Truth, Justice, and Community, organized by the Rural Organizing Project (ROP), CAUSA (Oregon’s statewide immigrant rights network that PCUN helped to establish), and Oregon Action, brought together over 3000 people in the course a 60-mile march from Oregon’s capitol city of Salem to its biggest urban center of Portland. We walked to demand funding for human needs not war, immigrant rights, queer rights, and economic justice. This unique mobilization brought together rural white folks and Latino workers in a sustained direct action at a time when rural America is painted as backwards, and the anti-immigrant movement scapegoats immigrants and people of color by exploiting tensions around economics, race, and nationalism.

Movement united

For over ten years, ROP and CAUSA have worked together to build Oregon’s movement for human rights—supporting each other’s struggles for immigrant rights and farmworker justice, and fighting back assaults on LGBT rights and Oregon’s social safety net. This partnership between a predominately white, rural, woman-led organization, ROP, predominately Latino, immigrant-led organizations, CAUSA and PCUN, has not been one without challenges, but at its core it has reflected the belief that our struggles are indeed bound up with one another and that we have a lot to learn and gain by working together. The Walk was an opportunity to physically manifest this partnership, bring our respective bases together, and make our unified demands visible.
Spending a week together in shared community transformed seemingly distant issues into the intimate hopes of good friends—allowing us to see the commonality in our communities’ struggles. We affirmed that many of the policies so destructive to rural Oregon communities are the same also used to destroy Latin America.

Fred Hall from Grants Pass, OR, reflected,

    “It gave me a real lift to learn more about their struggle—la lucha—and enduring challenges and living through struggle with an attitude of ‘we can do it’—we can make change. It was great to hear how the struggle can be an inspiration. Being here made me feel very hopeful.”

ROP was born to contest the notion that rural Oregon was a readymade base for the Right. Rural activists created local groups that eventually defeated Measure 9—a 1992 anti-queer ballot measure—using an analysis that affirmed human dignity and radically democratic principles. After the defeat of Measure 9, the rural communities that had formed local “human dignity groups” decided that they wanted the Rural Organizing Project to exist beyond the campaign. ROP was commissioned with the mission of advancing democracy in rural and small-town Oregon. We do this by supporting the leadership of local autonomous groups that can build a broad base of progressive-minded folks, take collective action to push back the Right, and create more just and democratic communities. There are over 5000 members and 60 member groups alongside which the three staff members of the Rural Organizing Project organize. Volunteers provide ROP’s day-to-day administrative support and of the 60 member groups only two have staff of their own, shaping the true grassroots character of the ROP.

What worked

Grassroots organizing and base building: Both ROP and CAUSA have real constituencies (not simply dues paying memberships) that are educated on the issues, connected through communication networks, and ready to take action. ROP spent a lot of time prior to the Walk creating local plans with its member groups to identify their own recruitment plans, media outreach, and visibility (which included homemade local county flags that were carried on the Walk). We asked our base to be creative and independent within the framework and structure that we were offering. We encouraged them to see the Walk as a way to grow their local community networks.

    Strategic action: the Walk occurred during the fallout from the disillusioning 2004 US presidential election, the dismal dragging on of the war in Iraq, and several years into the post-9/11 culture of fear and paranoia that has allowed the passage of the PATRIOT Act, REAL ID Act, and other anti-immigrant attacks. Therefore, the Walk met the need that our folks felt to respond to these desperate times in a big, bold act of sustained resistance and hope.
    Relationships: For ROP and CAUSA, the commitment and trust built up over time has allowed us to work together with the recognition that we will bring our skills to the table, and take what we need from the project to advance both our individual and collective goals. ROP and CAUSA described the Walk to our bases in different ways, and used it to advance different priorities that spoke to what was most core to the struggles for justice in our communities.

Next steps

As Jerry Atkin from Wheeler, OR, said, “We didn’t stop the war in Iraq, our schools are still bleeding to death, hunger is endemic in Oregon, and George Bush is still President … and in spite of all that the Walk was a great success.”

We put our resistance on record and used a strategic moment to make visible the strength and solidarity of our movement. We are continuing to build the ROP/PCUN/CAUSA relationship by creating opportunities for our communities to work together in shared spaces and take collective action. We are currently working on a joint-campaign to support Comprehensive Immigration Reform that includes rural solidarity and Latino-led actions focusing on a shared congressional target. CAUSA and ROP are sharing our analyses of the 2005 legislative session, and beginning to strategize about voter mobilization in 2006 and the legislative session in 2007. This May, ROP’s annual caucus and strategy session will also be a Walk reunion hosted at PCUN. As President of PCUN, Ramon Ramirez, says, “We have just barely scratched the surface of what our collective strength can produce.”
Amy Dudley

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Amy Dudley is an organizer with the Rural Organizing Project where her rural roots remind her that the truth of justice resides in the hearts of even the most isolated and “red” communities in the US For more information on ROP, visit www.rop.org; and for information