Death of an Organizer: Remembering Marcy Westerling

I first encountered Marcy in the early 1990s, when I was living in Eugene. I think it was Kelly Weigel who introduced us. It turned out that Marcy and I went to neighboring colleges back east at exactly the same time (though we never knew each other then) and shared a background in community organizing, having both worked for the group ACORN the previous decade. Organizing was the most difficult work I had ever done, and I quickly burned out, retreating to academic life. Marcy stuck it out (she was, no doubt, a far more talented organizer than me) and moved to Oregon. There she established the Rural Organizing Project (ROP), which melded ACORN’s model of pragmatic politics with feminism and rural progressivism.

At the time, a conservative populist movement was welling up in the West and elsewhere, driven by an infusion of money from national Christian right organizations and promoted by local evangelical churches. Most of those on the left had written off rural people in places like Oregon, flocking to cities in order to insulate themselves in safe enclaves; I was one of them. Marcy took a different route, settling in Scapoose. There she began to talk to people she met– teachers, gas station attendants, waitresses, anyone who would talk with her– about what angered and moved them. She knocked on doors, made connections with activists and faith leaders, and like a good organizer, set out to build bridges.

In ROP Marcy fashioned an organization that took the ACORN model of Alinsky-style organizing into areas that had been abandoned by the left, using the insights of the feminist and civil rights movements. The beauty of the ROP model was that it articulated a progressive, democratic vision that supported the rights of the weakest members of society, even as it refused to demonize or exclude those it opposed. In small town Oregon, conservatives and liberals lived down the block from one another, shopped in the same stores, and sent their kids to the same schools. They were part of the same world, more or less. A canny organizer would have to understand the worldview of one’s enemies in order to be effective in challenging them.

Marcy really liked people and trusted them, and had an enormous reservoir of patience —which made the slow, painstaking work of organizing possible. When she crisscrossed the state for ROP, she would sometimes stay with my partner Nancy and me in Eugene, along with her dog Tony, and we shared a meal and conversation. I began to write a book about her work, telling the story of the early ‘90s “son of 9” campaigns in small town Oregon. I decamped to Cottage Grove, which had been the site of a particularly ugly (and also, to this sociologist, fascinating) local battle, interviewing people on both sides of the conflict. Marcy offered contacts and advice; the book eventually became The Stranger Next Door. It was gratifying to me that Marcy praised it in her inimitable style: “You did not write a dud,” she said.

When I moved back East, she and I stayed in sporadic touch; she had received a Soros fellowship to write a book about rural organizing. We sometimes met in New York to chat about writing and politics. And when the Tea Party burst on the scene and I interviewed her about it, she spoke unflinchingly about living with a terminal illness.

Over the next few years, surviving became a full time job. Marcy’s writings about her travels through the world of cancer care and treatment (in the blog “Livingly Dyingly”) reflected this. I dreaded each new post and sometimes turned away because they took me into a parallel universe that was too scary to contemplate. Still, I often found myself marveling at the beauty of her writing and the clarity of her vision. Even as she moved further and further into the world of the dying, she never shed her organizer’s sensibility. Cancer isn’t simply an individual affliction, she told us: it is a social scourge that deserves collective responses. As a leader of social justice movements, Marcy’s imagination was fired by the power of groups, but it is her singular sweetness, her savvy, and her righteous anger that I will miss the most.

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