A Tribute to Marcy Westerling
|Marcy Westerling, ROP’s beloved founder, died from cancer on June 10th, 2015.
Passionate, funny, courageous and compassionate, Marcy was unafraid to speak her mind and truth. She embodied her values, as anyone who saw her biking to and from work every day, rain or shine, with her computer and Tony the dog (and an occasional chick or hamster), could tell you.
“Every person matters” was Marcy’s driving force as she sought out small town community members to take action to create more just communities. This was the premise from which she founded the Rural Organizing Project and this is the legacy of work we are charged to carry on today.
Marcy will be missed dearly; in fact the world will not be the same, but it is a better, more just, and more wonderful place because of Marcy.
You can read Marcy’s full obituary here.
A Living Legacy Memorial Celebration was held for Marcy on August 15, 2015. Read about it and watch videos here.
At ROP, we are deeply committed to carrying on Marcy’s legacy. For us, that begins with honoring her countless contributions to her community, to rural Oregon, to organizing, to movement building. Marcy left a mark on all of us, and in many different ways. A visionary, friend, mentor, colleague and organizer, Marcy inspired and influenced thousands. This page contains stories about how Marcy has made a difference in our lives and our organizing. If you have a tribute you’d like to share, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Marcy Westerling Living Legacy Memorial Celebration:
Sunday, August 23rd Rural Organizing Project and Marcy’s friends and family held a memorial celebration to honor her memory, her life and her legacy. Memories from that event, including slide shows and eulogies will be posted to the website soon.
The Marcy Westerling Legacy Fund
Rural Organizing Project has established the Marcy Westerling Legacy Fund in memory of our Founder and to honor her life’s work. In 1992, Marcy Westerling’s passion and organizing brilliance sparked a movement for human dignity in rural Oregon. Marcy believed that people in rural communities have the power to change our communities and the world.Grassroots contributions to the Marcy Westerling Legacy Fund will sustain Marcy’s vision, share Marcy’s legacy, and ensure that her core organizing values remain central to ROP’s work. Donate to the Fund here.
The tributes in these pages describe how Marcy has brought so many to justice work: mentoring, cheerleading, nagging, nudging and inspiring us into action. The best way to honor Marcy is to make her work a living legacy, to carry forward that work and the vision of ROP.
From that first Rural Caucus and Strategy Session in 1992 that marked the beginning of ROP, Marcy and ROP organizers have reached out to small-town organizers, growing the network from 20 human dignity groups to 60, and extending to almost every county in Oregon. ROP staff organizers connect, support and inspire the many local people who form a statewide progressive rural movement. The impact they make given minimal resources is astounding.
It is our hope that we can continue to build and strengthen the progressive infrastructure it takes to promote a vision for truly inclusive democracy and sustainable communities and to resist right-wing extremism.
ROP was formed with three core notions at its heart:
Every person counts no matter where you live. We believe in the equal worth of all people, the need for equal access to justice and the right to self-determination. Every place counts, including very rural communities. Rural people can and should be a part of organizing for change in their own communities and shaping progressive organizing.
All issues are connected. Communities aren’t single issue and neither are people. None of us identify with being only a woman or white or gay or rural or working class – we can be all of these parts of ourselves and so much more. ROP believes that the issues that matter to our lives intersect and therefore our organizing must do the same. We organize for justice for all of us, for all the parts of us, and for our whole communities. We seek racial, gender and economic justice, and our work is prodemocracy and anti-fascist.
Only through transformational organizing can we expect to change the rules of this world. ROP exists to build and support local organizers to advance democracy and human dignity through local, autonomous human dignity groups. Grassroots organizing is how we envision leadership. Organizing is not left to paid professionals from campaigns but is the work of everyday people transforming our communities. To share our stories, to struggle with new issues and their connections to complex social realities, to truly own our organizations through grassroots leadership – these actions transform us so we can better transform the world.
Just after her diagnosis in 2010, Marcy tested out writing her own obituary:
Marcy Westerling: A kickass community organizer dedicated to the notion that small town Americana is filled with justice seeking souls that deserve support as well as have the power to bridge the false cultural divides of our times. Derailed by Stage IV Ovarian Cancer in Spring of 2010. I trust others to continue moving rural inclusive progressive organizing forwards.
We invite all of you to join us as we carry forward the work of rural inclusive progressive organizing.
ROP Staff and Board
For Marcy organizing was like Zen mysticism: supremely matter of fact. Organizing was how she lived, how she saw each unique moment, how she breathed. Injustice wasn’t an ism or some abstract concept, it was how people lived their lives, their right to live their lives. Their right to all the things we need as human beings. Not just food and shelter but education, meaningful work, the resources to live full and healthy lives, raise healthy families. And underneath it all, we need each other and communities. All these things Marcy understood in her bones, in her DNA. This understanding was part of her, part of everything she did. So Marcy walked among us and brought us hope, strength, and courage.
As a writer, I was always delighted by her ability to use language accurately and to great effect.
It’s a rare gift to make complex ideas simple, to reduce them to their essence artfully. To be clear and funny at the same time. To speak truth both to power and to the people. What a rare gift she had with language, with words and phrases.
What a rare gift she was as a shining example of what we all could be. So thank you Marcy for all the smiles you caused, all the havoc you wrecked, all the politicians you seriously pissed off.
Thanks for being such a gloriously uppity woman. None of us who were touched by you will ever forget your vision, all of us will carry you with us, a banner on the front lines, as we wade into the local, national, and planetary mess around us and try to nudge the planet back toward sanity.
Marcy Westerling. Presente!
There is a hole in the universe and it will never be filled.
The keeners are wailing and the tears are pooling,
but they fall through and the echoes fade in this cavernous hole in the universe.
This vacuum is sucking out sunshine and laughter,
the sound of keys typing, ideas sparking, passion igniting, feet walking,
trailed by little paws click clacking.
Leaving us in the shadow of this hole in the universe.
There is a hole in the universe and we will fill it.
We who gather and remember, who uplift and call forth, and refuse to let the light fade.
This hole in the universe is a vacuum, a cosmic opening drawing a life home,
and pulling, pouring, provoking new lives, voices, dreams, starlight,
grace, courage, wisdom, justice, love forward in its wake.
There is a hole in the universe.
I was lucky enough to work with Marcy at ROP beginning in 2004, and like so many others who got ROP in their blood, I’ve never really left. I felt Marcy’s power from the first time I was in the room with her, at the Rural Caucus in Salem in 2003. Maybe it was her white blond tresses, or her love of sunny patches and the way she would migrate through the office, indoors and out, no matter the season, to follow the sun, but I think of her like the sun – fiery and bright, yielding growth, uncovering shadows, often stark and sometimes hard to face directly in her intensity, but always a brilliant, energetic force.
I do feel like the sun has gone a little dimmer without Marcy in this world. She held a space that mattered to me more than I realized – a fearless (there is no time for fear, dear, let it come from your gut and act), truth telling, creative, experimental, imperfect, deep, accountable, loving, relationship based organizing space that put my people – rural, white, working class people – in a central role for building a movement for democracy and justice in our world. As I mourn Marcy’s loss, I know that the best testimony I can give to Marcy will be to organize like hell.
So, dear Marcy, when I think of you and all the love you have given, shared, generated, and the many lives and places that are so better because of you, including mine, I know that I will see you in so many ways and forms. In wagging puppy dogs’ tails, in bikers along highway 30, in the way daffodils in early spring turn their heads to the sun, in lip goop and flowing denim skirts, in the eyes of gutsy young organizers and feisty old organizers, in truth tellers and fairy dust spreaders, and even sometimes when I am lucky in my own reflection when I am especially brave and true to myself. Thanks for all these gifts and love that you shared with me.
September 25, 2014, For Marcy:
On a day with both sun and rain,
with news of bombs dropping and polar bears protesting their destruction,
a day of hope and despair,
I look for the rainbow,
the path that can lead us to a reality of survival and peace.
And I think of you, my friend,
warrior and artist,
visionary and laborer,
a regular gal like no other,
bold and brave because someone has to be,
and I grieve your pain today,
and I also lift up thanks with you, for you,
for the beauty and joy of this life, your life, our lives,
the small wonder and everyday miracles of our lives.
– Amy Dudley
As Marcy prepared to launch ROP, I took on the role of Administrative Assistant at the WRC, so Marcy would have more time to devote to developing her incredible organizing project. Once ROP was up and running, Marcy convinced me to come on board part time as the Office Manger. I served in this capacity for a year before I went on to full time employment elsewhere. As the OM, I watched Marcy work her magic convincing people to fight for what was right. She had an amazing knack of finding people to do the job.
She pushed herself to extremes and had great expectations everyone else would do the same. She energized whole groups of people, doing more for social justice in Oregon than anyone I know. She will always be with me, as who I am can partly be attributed to my ongoing relationship with her during a period of over twenty-five years.
Marcy taught and mentored many LGBT rights activists in Idaho, including Brian and myself. We became lifelong friends with Marcy, Deb, and their partners Mike Edera and Linda Brandt in the process. When Brian died suddenly in June 1998, both Marcy and Deb came to Boise to grieve with me and to attend Brian’s memorial service. I will never forget her love and support during that terrible time.
Marcy returned to Idaho other times to work with progressive organizations, including United Vision for Idaho, the Idaho Women’s Network, and others.
In 2007, I briefly served as executive director of Basic Rights Oregon. Marcy was a great ally to me during that time, which was not an easy one for me. The role of an executive director was not one for which I was cut out, but Marcy was there for me nonetheless. In February 2010, shortly before Marcy was diagnosed with cancer, she and I were together for the last time in this life. I hosted her one final time in my home in Denver, Colorado. Of course we were doing organizing work together! Marcy was in Colorado to work with the Colorado Progressive Coalition as part of her Ford Foundation fellowship. I hosted a meeting to introduce Marcy to the leadership of my newly formed state employee union, Colorado WINS. At the time, we just thought she had a bad cold or walking pneumonia, but it turned out this was a symptom of her much more serious illness.
Things I loved about Marcy: her sense of humor, her optimism, her vision of a better and more sustainable and just world, her commitment to non-violence and peace, her beauty, her little dog Tony, her beat-up little car that she drove all over the states of Oregon and Idaho, her bicycle, and her houseboat in Scappoose. Her courageous and indomitable will to live and live well with cancer inspired me. I will never forget her, I love her deeply, and I will miss her terribly, always.
John Hummel, Boise, Idaho
Thank you for sharing your life force with us, with me. I have felt its shape and presence in the moments I’ve gotten to connect with you and in the people you have known well.
It has lit up my life in the chance to read your brilliant and instructive writings for the cookbook, in learning from your workshop on “lean and mean organizations” at AMP and your talk at the ROP Caucus, in being shaped and moved by your people (including Cara, Abel, Jess, Nancy, Keyla and most recently on my travels, Suzanne), in your read on our times and your modeling of living the work. Through all of these gifts and more, you have brightly-colored my world. You’ve shaped my understanding of history, the Right, and our present and future work as liberationist organizers and communities in the Northwest and beyond. You’ve built and demonstrated a collective model of politicized and loving rural organizing that has given me a sense of possibility for movement homemaking in my state and region in our times.
When you check out this world from wherever you are going next, I hope you’ll see us honoring your work by giving you something to grin about, be it winning deeper democracy, doing community-building that generates hope, or simply living—or livingly dying—with openness, grace, and the crackling humor you do so well. (Or maybe you’ll be too busy organizing and cooking up mischief in the next world to pay us any mind!) I thank you for everything you’ve given me, for the chance to know people and the work you have inspired over decades. It’s a gift of the sweetest power. Much love to you, Marcy, and goodbye for now.
Marcy and I met through our respective activism. Me with a timed crisis: the Iraq War to stop and people to save, and Marcy with long-standing, enduring oppressions to fight. I felt inferior. I was just a seventh grade dropout involved in activism because my daughter was in peril, and Marcy was a life-long, well-educated, effective activist. I quickly learned that feeling inferior is useless, but learning from Marcy was quite useful. The first thing I learned from her was to let my ego relax a bit and realize someone else’s successes do not detract from my worth. I learned to be gracious and joyous at the success of others and to listen and watch if I wanted to learn something. Through the long years of the Iraq War, I indeed did grow—into a B.A. in political science and eventually I finished my Ph.D. in anthropology, while Marcy and I both languished under the influence of our respective illnesses. The day in April I was awarded my Ph. D. Marcy was one of the first people I wrote.
But what I really learned from Marcy was how to die. All those years she fought the cancer, and I was so healthy. I thought I was immune. I thought I was so gracious, with my missives to Marcy about the soul and our lives after this world. I watched her fight, and I started thinking about myself: What would I do? Would I fight for life, or would I leave this world without a splash? Perhaps in a sort of premonition, I began to write Marcy more often, and I became more adamant about figuring out what I would do in her situation. She shared everything with us: her treatments, the trials, the details of her joy and suffering. Her gift to us changed me. I realized Marcy and I were totally different people who were friends on the same mortal path but taking very different directions toward our ends. She helped me to look into myself and see where my strengths and desires are. Even in her death, she left something behind to guide us, to guide me toward my own parting.
When I found out I had terminal cancer, Marcy was the second person I wrote. I had spent weeks trying to convince her death was marvelous and we do not end when we leave here; and there, I now had to stand by my own words. As I examined the things I had written to Marcy, they became reinforced for me. I had spent months thinking about these things in her context, but it was also preparation for me as I faced the hard choices I had to make.
I am so grateful to Marcy. Without her courage and compassion, her need to share with the world, I would not have had the preparation, the foundation to happily find my own way to death. She shared personal, poignant, and tough stuff with us. I know that soon she and I will dance together, and I know she is aware of our love for her. We were fortunate to have her for the time we did, and she sure did a lot of good in that short time.
I personally am grateful she showed me it was permissible to choose my own path and death, and I have never regretted the choice to avoid treatment. For Marcy, it was not about doing things her way; she encouraged me to find the way that was right for my soul, and that support gave me the strength to go in my own direction. She was one-of-a kind, and we were lucky to have her for the time we did.
Adele Kubein, Ph.D.
I met Marcy through my current husband, Ben Zachrich, who worked with her when they opened an ACORN office in Des Moines in 1982. Their work hours were unpredictable, and they spent many hours knocking on doors and engaging folks in the neighborhoods who were most disenfranchised from support of the community. I remember the work they did to get a fuel tank removed from an “inner city” neighborhood near a park. They were able to find passionate neighbors to speak the truth about the fear of living in an area where an explosion could mean certain death for children and families who lived nearby. They were successful. I attribute it to their excellent organizing and sheer passion to see that all had the opportunity to live in a safe, sane, and supportive neighborhood. They just cared that people were informed and involved in the matters affecting their lives.
Marcy moved away from Iowa around 1984 or 1985, but we stayed connected over the years while she moved first to St. Paul then to Scapoose to pursue her passion. We were fortunate to be invited to attend her marriage to Mike on their property outside of Portland. What a beautiful testament to such a loving couple. I guess the part I remember most is eating that incredible paella made in the largest pan I’d ever seen and hanging out one afternoon to play Quiddler. The laughter and the love will never be forgotten.
Once we heard of Marcy’s diagnosis, I felt helpless and too far away. I was pleased to be part of the effort of her close friends and family to help create a prayer flag given to her some months after her initial diagnosis. I have no idea if those flags were still part of her environment in the waning months; however, it doesn’t matter, because I was felt privileged to witness the love and the humor of all of those who submitted a beautiful portrayal of memories and feelings for their dear friend Marcy.
Aren’t we all fortunate to have been touched by the lives of people like Marcy who are full of spirit, life and the good of humanity? Her selflessness to share her cancer journey with others and her passion for living should inspire us all to be the best we can be during our precious time here on earth.
I will see you in eternity—wherever that may be ? Love, Binnie Lehew
In the decades since, I’ve always admired those for whom living up to this ideal seems effortless; just a natural expression of who they are as people.
Marcy Westerling stands out among the remarkable, inspirational leaders of this sort I’ve encountered.
I’m sure that quality of Marcy’s leadership will be apparent among the tributes that have been and will be written and spoken in her memory.
Marcy was nothing if not a powerfully persuasive and inspirational woman whose example of courage, compassion, and tireless determination inspired people. She empowered us to see ourselves, not just as objects of history, but as historical actors, both through the strategies she deployed as an organizer and organizational leader, and through the life she led.
Marcy walked the talk.
But just speaking to Marcy’s personal qualities would leave out the greatest contribution Marcy will continue to make long after those of us who called her friend are gone. Marcy was a historical actor of a special kind.
Institutional records of the late 20th and early 21st century may not tell us much about the specifics of the remarkable life of Marcy Westerling.
However, there can be no doubt concerning Marcy’s impact on that history, not just in Oregon but also around the country.
By adapting the organizing methodologies of Saul Alinsky, methods often deployed with the caveat that the issues contested must be those around which there is broad consensus, and putting them in the service of controversial, even hated constituencies, Marcy stepped up into leadership among the pioneers of organizing and progressive activism of our time.
She showed us how to put divisive issues, shaped as much by prejudice and a lack of a broad social consensus about the people those issues are affecting, in the context of democracy. Marcy made us aware that these issues could be levers of empowerment and power for progressive people, even in the most conservative rural and small town communities, in a state that has distinguished itself by the remarkable popularity of the reactionary movements rising within its borders for the whole of its history.
Among the constituencies Marcy helped to bring together to do this work are Oregon’s LGBTQ community and immigrant farm workers. Marcy was able to do this work at a time when it appeared that the issues of undocumented immigrants were toxic in the mainstream LGBTQ movement and the issues of LGBTQ people equally so in the Latino immigrant community. This was no small part because of the heroic leadership of Latino leaders and, in particular, Latino LGBTQ activists. Latino LGBTQ activists took the biggest risk and put the most on the line in this struggle. But the risks these individuals took are also part of Marcy’s story.
Marcy understood that by joining these communities in struggle, she could help to create the political space between them in which the courage of these risk-takers would have the best chance of leading to success. She was right, and has been recognized nationally for this insight and the relentless determination it took to turn that insight into action.
By doing this work, Marcy became a touchstone, role model, strategic resource, and beacon of hope for rural progressives everywhere. She also became a friend to many, myself included. Being included in that circle and having been touched by her life was a great privilege. I will hold her in my heart forever.
Marcy believed that not only should rural people have a voice in shaping their own communities but also they should figure strongly in efforts for change on the state level. She was convinced we could build a better world together if we built strong community relationships and held ourselves to high standards of political understanding and hard work. Everything had to be based on the belief that every person is of equal worth and should have human dignity. From the beginning, Marcy wove me and thousands of others into the work of the Rural Organizing Project, asking us to commit to thinking about democracy and rural people.
Marcy died having the satisfaction of a life well lived, with dreams accomplished.
Those dreams were manifest in the over 20 years of the Rural Organizing Project’s work with people in more than 50 sites in the state. They were also manifest in the hundreds of organizations that were touched and informed by ROP. Every time I Google “rural organizing,” I am astounded to see how often ROP is listed and how few other organizations are devoted entirely to rural organizing. The Rural Organizing Project is unique, and the vital need for the work Marcy envisioned still remains.
As I write this appreciation of Marcy’s work, the annual caucus of ROP is being held.
This gathering of rural people from around Oregon stands as a clear indicator of Marcy’s work and life, for here continues the work she began—and leading it are two passionate young women she raised as organizers. What more could a community organizer wish than her dream fulfilled with a living legacy.
That network would be carried by the leadership of women who already understood about White Christian patriarchy and were in various capacities already combatants in the struggle for women’s survival and liberation. Marcy went on tour around the state with Patricia McGuire, Scot Nakagawa, and Suzanne Pharr.
While they all came home—challenged and elated—in some sense for Marcy that tour never really ended.
Rather, under her leadership and in response to the shifting conditions of the day, the network she built evolved over time into the Rural Organizing Project.
Marcy brought considerable experience, skills, and dedication to the fight against politicized homophobia.
Having survived kidnapping and sexual assault during a college year abroad in Italy, Marcy honored the local women who rescued her by becoming a leader in the U.S. domestic violence movement. Along the way she learned how to do high-impact/low-budget organizing with ACORN. ROP’s organizing helped to expand, focus, and resource the fight against the OCA until the group was effectively defeated. But Marcy and ROP were just getting started.
Descended from Dutch resistance fighters, Marcy saw her work as feminist, anti-fascist, and anti-racist. She forged close and enduring ties with Oregon’s farm worker and immigrant rights movements and led ROP’s mostly small town and rural community members into a strong anti-racist posture. As Patriot groups and militias gained prominence in the first half of the 1990s and racist public policy attacks saw a resurgence, ROP consistently challenged the Right and offered an alternative, progressive vision of community rooted in the material and cultural realities of rural Oregon.
Marcy understood that rural organizing is generally an afterthought (at best) for most liberals and progressives and she was committed to finding ways to sustain ROP without relying on large foundation grants. She had seen the DV movement institutionalize and lose much of its organizing and political edge. ROP was partly a response to that. She was committed (some might say to a fault) to sustaining ROP’s organizing on a shoestring budget; the stories of her… frugality are legion and often hilarious. She could be brilliant and also had her foibles. I sometimes found it frustratingly difficult to make sense of what she was saying (and when I did understand, would sometimes take issue). She was, as are we all, a character and her frailties and contradictions are part of what I loved about her. I believe these qualities should be remembered and celebrated along with her many achievements, if for no other reason than to elevate a democratic notion of leadership—to which I’m sure Marcy subscribed—that dismisses the idea that “real leaders” are of the slivertongued, well-coiffed variety. She was a quirky girl who built community and kicked ass.
When former Oregon Citizen Alliance leader Scott Lively relocated to Massachusetts a few years after I moved to Boston and took a job with Political Research Associates, Marcy was the first to call me up and urge that PRA produce a backgrounder on Lively for local social justice groups trying to figure him out. I became executive director of PRA and asked Marcy to join the board. She readily agreed, and of course brought her focus on frontline organizing and advocacy for grassroots groups. As it happened, she would never attend an in-person meeting. Within mere months or even weeks, the physically fit daily biker had to contend with a new identity: stage IV ovarian cancer warrior. To the extent she could, Marcy kept organizing through intense and experimental treatments. She brought an organizer’s eye to the deficiencies of the healthcare industry’s cancer complex, and became an inspiration to perhaps thousands of survivors through her “Livingly Dying” blog.
These last years I made a point of seeing Marcy whenever I went to Portland to visit family or support ROP in some way. Although she was already something of a living legend in rural Oregon, Marcy was afraid that her work and that of ROP, being at the rural fringes of progressive consciousness, might be lost to history. How to assure someone nearing the end of life that they are seen, that their story of struggle will live on in a larger, collective story of resistance? Because of her deteriorating condition, I came to Portland at the end of April and saw on Marcy on her first day of hospice care. I brought her a copy of Orange On Top, the 1945 young adult book about Dutch resistance to the Nazi occupation. “It might as well have been written just for you,” I said.
“Well, then,” she replied, “I’d better read it.” I understand it’s the last book she read. I hope she recognized herself in it.
My friend Marcy Westerling was a freedom fighter. My colleagues and children will continue to hear my stories about Marcy—what I admired about her, what I learned from her, and how much I enjoyed being in the struggle with her, cursing and laughing and doing what seemed necessary.
Marcy Westerling, Presente!
-Tarso Luís Ramos
Freshly graduated from the Western State Centers WILD (Western Institute for Leadership Development) program, our first project together was while working on LGBT rights in Idaho. Believing that the most revolutionary thing we could do was to identify and meet with LGBT folks in their hometowns across the state, she helped us create a plan to set out to make a robust contact list to begin organizing on a variety of issues. She counseled me and other volunteers like Pam Baldwin, who also passed too soon, to talk to people and lead them from where they were. It was called kitchen table organizing and it worked.
As the dial continued to move, she helped us build a strategy for the work ahead, both as an organizer and personally. I started to think bolder. Working under her wing, I stated to see what was possible. I started to think bigger. As my confidence grew with her help, I became the director of the Snake River Alliance, Idaho’s nuclear watchdog and clean energy advocate. I was on the front lines of the fight for clean, air, water and land. I learned so much from that position about what it means to lead, and I could not have done it without people like Marcy holding me up.
One of the jokes I share with those who love her is that Marcy could practically get me and others to do anything. I kid you not, if Marcy would have asked me to eat a turd sandwich, I would have deeply considered it. She was inspirational and she led from a genuine place of honesty and love which made it really hard to say no.
Marcy was an ever present guide to me. Because of her spirit and love, when I thought of her, no challenge felt insurmountable. Marcy believed in the power of people and she treated each of us with an open door. Marcy always had a place for me to sit down at the table with other incredible community organizers to scheme a new day over a cup of green tea.
Marcy’s lessons were never didactic. Instead, she guided with encouragement and led by example. Watching Marcy in action, I saw creativity that was never hampered with doubt. Marcy saw a new world and had the smarts to figure out how to get it done.
I feel so fortunate to have known Marcy. She always moved me and countless others beyond fear, beyond barriers, to the things that really matter: peace, love and justice. As a guiding light, we all know that there cannot be too many lighthouses in the world or we would never know which way to go. Losing her is so disorienting because her light burned bright and dimmed too soon. Though I feel lost without her advice and constant coaching, her memory is still bright enough to bring me to shore. I will follow that light for as long as it shines.
The first moment I met Marcy I was already filled with the thrill of the idea and aspirations of being an organizer. I had no idea what was to come but I was eager to find out. I sensed immediately that I was in the presence of someone extraordinary.
The stories of Marcy’s grandfather’s role in the Dutch resistance first showed me a little of who Marcy was and where she drew inspiration. Her grandfather, no more than “a decent man with backbone” (as Marcy described him), hid Jews and played a significant role in leadership and resistance to the Nazis. Marcy had always wondered, “What if the resistance had started earlier?” That question shaped and inspired Marcy’s organizing and it was her visionary and bold leadership that led to the creation of the Rural Organizing Project. Today, rural Oregon is filled with decent people with backbone who are starting the resistance early through human dignity organizing.
At a time when the left wrote off rural communities, Marcy put down roots and organized. She started in her home community of Columbia County, and expanded. She believed rural communities did not have to be a ready-made base for the right. She believed we could advance progressive values in rural Oregon if we talked to each other, kept temperatures low, framed issues in terms of basic democratic values, used sane problem solving to cut across false divides and think about issues. She built an organization responding to the question “what do these times need?” Through her wit, her cheerleading and nagging, she grew that organization to be a powerful force in rural Oregon with national recognition.
At her core, Marcy was an organizer. She had a unique and incredible ability to see a role for everybody: whether doing data entry, writing letters, talking to neighbors or leading a local human dignity group, she could inspire and nudge people into action. She was uncanny in her ability to get people to do things they didn’t think they could do. She believed in bringing the biggest dilemmas of our moment back to human dignity groups and communities — inviting human dignity leaders to be part of a “think tanks” that unpacked problems and developed action.
She’d ask questions like “what’s the impact of the war in our town?” “What unique strategies can we use?” and, “What does our community need?” She gave people more to do than show up to rallies or phone banks in Portland, she inspired them to have conversations in their own towns, take on big issues, and identify accessible actions and then encouraged and supported them with a high level of engagement and expectation. It was in our work together, and with Marcy’s mentorship, that I learned what concrete, action-oriented organizing looked like; how to be rooted in communities and realities; what it took to make organizing simple, straightforward and accessible; and what it means to democratize leadership.
Marcy taught me powerful lessons about organizing, working with people and bringing people together to forge change. I learned about being sharp, being strategic and experimenting. I learned about joy and love in building community and creating space for everyone in the fight for justice. Perhaps most importantly, I came to understand what it means to have a “movement home”, finding my place in the movement (not just a career or a job) and deeply committing to seeing that work through as it and my role evolve.
Thirteen years later, I am a part of a powerful team of organizers at Rural Organizing Project, carrying forward the spirit and vision of what Marcy so boldly created — an organization committed to staying on the front lines of cutting edge organizing and evolving to respond to the times. Marcy called upon all of us to play a role, to not sit by and let history happen to us, and to use stories to be and stay political. This is the legacy she has left for us all and I am forever changed by it.
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 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 as beyond reproach, and they flocked to cities in order to insulate themselves in safe enclaves; I was one of them.
Marcy took a different route, settling in Scappoose. 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 clear progressive vision, one that was on the side of democracy and 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, Marcy 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 (“The Politics of Broken Dreams,” published in Contexts magazine).
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 sweetness, her savvy, and her righteous anger that I will miss the most.
It is gives me hope when I add up the dates and realize I met Marcy less than two years ago. Hope that she might not really be gone. Because it is impossible that I knew her for less than two years. I know, somewhere deep, that ours is a relationship of many years, of a lifetime. If those twenty months were really longer, then maybe time is warped by relativity or something. Maybe all the space shuttles and satellites have messed with the universe. Maybe she’s not really gone, or she’ll be coming back around. Yeah, I know that’s crazy, but it is so much crazier to believe that Marcy could be gone forever.
It was at Blue Mountain Center in September, 2013, where I was spending a month trying to write, and she and Mike stopped by for a week. I think I talked with them for five days or so. See what I mean. That right there is impossible. How would I get this close to a woman in five days?
I was drawn to her, an organizer and a woman who was dedicated to writing down what she knew about the work. It seemed to me that not enough of us had done that. Very little, it seems to me, is written by organizers. Most of what exists is written by white males, God bless ’em. Time for women and people of color to put some fingers to the keyboard. I was glad to have her company in my efforts.
Marcy was so upfront about the cancer that I felt comfortable asking her at breakfast one morning, across the huge table that held more than twenty for dinner every night. That morning we were a half dozen eating our optional breakfast, and I asked her loudly across the table.
“So it’s stage four ovarian cancer?”
The table went silent. I wondered for a moment if I had misread Marcy, if she did not want group discussion of her condition.
Then she turned to me.
” Yep,” Marcy responded. “I was supposed to be dead by now.” Then the questions began, and Marcy seemed very much at home launching into clinical trials, how she found them and got into them, what she was learning. All the women at the table knew someone with ovarian cancer, or, more ominously, had known someone. We talked throughout the meal, and then headed back to our writing or artwork. But the ice was broken, and Marcy would manage to climb into our hearts in her short time at the retreat center.
For me, it felt different. Blue Mountain was run by people who were something like organizers, but the participants were largely writers and artists with decent politics but for whom organizing was neither clearly understood or valued. If anything, they seemed a bit confused by organizers. Lovely people who I came to adore, but not the kind of people who already understood you without any explaining required.
Marcy, however, was an organizer. We got each other in some deep way.
Evenso, she had done organizing on the most difficult, divisive issues in the most difficult, seemingly impossible places. Not only had she chosen to organize white people, but she had chosen to organize white people in rural areas of Oregon on issues like homophobia and immigration. When I heard that, my heart hurt. How would you do that, why would you even attempt it? I was scared for her, for all the rejection, even the violence. She was sitting right in front of me after decades of the work, but I couldn’t quite wrap my head around it. How? Why?
I had spent my organizing career in the welcoming communities of low income Black and Brown big city neighborhoods. I felt loved, cared for, fed — literally and figuratively — in those neighborhoods. I felt at home in the so-called “high crime” neighborhoods of Englewood and Lawndale in Chicago; wrapped up in generous hugs. When I had to interact with white people, as I did when we canvassed the suburbs to raise funds for our work, then I was really scared. The people seemed colder there, like the white people I had grown up with in middle class communities and army posts. It seemed to me that white folks lost some feeling in their effort to maintain their privileged position — in exchange for claiming that they belonged in this nation, they had to move to a more isolated and cooler climate. They did not notice the cost of our privilege, but I did. It was scary to me.
I had come to the realization late in life that I had an obligation to these same white people — my people. But I had no idea where to begin. So I retired early, turning the post-ACORN organization I founded, Action Now in Chicago, over to a young Black woman who was a fine organizer and a brilliant manager.
And now, here was a woman in her fifties telling me that she knew something about organizing white folks, with integrity, around all the issues, not just the easy ones.
She had my full attention.
Marcy and I talked a lot at Blue Mountain. We went for hikes and sat together at meals. We did tai chi one morning on the dock by the lake. We climbed a hill one day that let us look out over the gorgeous autumn bordered lakes. It was five days, and she and Mike were working pretty feverishly on their book, but we made the most of our proximity.
By the day she and Mike left, I was looking for more. Turned out Marcy lived close to my sister in Portland, who I visited every July. We left each other in September with a goal of meeting up the following July in Portland.
Then I noticed something about Marcy. She kept reaching out to me, through email, to see how I was doing. She was dying, very livingly, but she was the one who kept checking to see how I was doing.
I subscribed to her blog, and responded to her posts from time to time with emails to her.
Then June, 2014 came around. My sister Maria and I had made plans to meet up in the south of France that August, so I cancelled my plans for my July visit. But as I did so, I thought of Marcy.
“She’s too busy working on her book, fighting to get into clinical trials, stopping the doctors from giving her death sentences,” I thought to myself. “She doesn’t have time to see me. Who do I think I am? I’ve known her for five days. She has a host of real friends and family. She doesn’t need to see me.”
I made plans to go to Seattle instead to visit my brother in July. That’s when I got the email from Marcy.
“When you coming to see your sister, and me?” she asked. “It’s getting close to July. I better be on your itinerary!”
I felt like Sally Field at the Oscars. “You like me, you really like me!” There I was, thinking of myself as an imposition, as an acquaintance trying to pretend I was a friend, and there she was, saying “Hello, friend, when you stopping by?”
As I made my plans to rent a car at the Seattle Airport and drive down to Portland, I wondered at the guts it took to assume I wanted to see her, to spend time with her. After all, I had lost faith that she would want to see me. Yet Marcy seemed to realize that time between us was a gift, and she reached out confidently, hopefully.
That was the thing. It wasn’t just the time with her, which, given her diagnosis, was indeed a marvelous thing. But the real gift was her assumption that I wanted what she wanted. Her willingness to read the many cues I had given her that I would love to see her again.
That’s how Marcy was. She assumed I wanted to know her. Deeply. She was right.
I ended up setting up a semi-regular phone conversation with Marcy, on one of the good days that fell every other week in between the bad chemo days. I got to read her writing, both memoir and organizing manual, and then I got to ask her plenty of questions. At first I took notes, but when I realized that what was coming out of her mouth was pure gold, I started taping her.
During those conversations, I learned that Marcy had a working assumption: that a large majority of the people on earth would be interested in getting to know her. And that she and they would benefit from making the relationship as deep as possible.
Still, I was stunned to learn Marcy’s approach to organizing in Nebraska when she got her OSF Fellowship, just before her diagnosis. Marcy had set out to see if her Rural Organizing Project model would work in other states. There was a whole section of Nebraska where she had no contacts, and she needed to build relationships throughout that region. How did she begin, I asked her.
Marcy reported that she got the phonebooks for the towns in the region and started calling.
“You what?” I asked.
“Well, Madeline, we’ve both worked at ACORN. I know you’ve driven to a new town and started doorknocking, cold.”
“Yeah, it’s pretty lonely and scary too. But I was asking people what was going on in their neighborhood, what improvements they wanted. It was a pretty easy rap.” “Well, my way wasn’t much different. I called through the phonebook until I found someone who would have coffee with me when I traveled to Nebraska. And when I found someone who seemed particularly good to me, I asked if I could spend the night at their place.”
“You what?” I repeated.
“Well, a lot of these towns don’t have motels, and besides, it’s in the hours between dinner and bedtime when we were likely to have the conversations that would allow me to scope out where they were coming from, and maybe share some observations and principles that would help them in putting together the first meeting.” “But Marcy, how do you call people cold out of the phonebook, figure out if they will be up for an ethical position on gay rights and immigrant rights, and also, by the way, invite yourself to spend the night?”
“Actually,” Marcy confided, “I loved that. The sheer brashness of the request. These are good people, but this was a heavy lift. If they went for it, I knew we were dealing with the caliber of person who could probably build something in that town.”
“Did anyone say yes?”
“Oh yeah,” Marcy laughed. “I got quite a few potential leaders over the phone. But then I got the diagnosis and I had to call them back and put them on hold. Too bad. I really loved those people.”
It wasn’t just in her organizing where Marcy was so bold. In her first clinical trial, I think it was, she told me that she built such a tight knit group of patients that they figured out, from the continued illness and death of their compañeras, that the trial had not worked, long before the doctors informed them of that fact.
“How did you build such a group?” I asked.
“Oh, when I was in a waiting room, I would look around and could pretty much guess who was in my trial. They had to be women, first of all. Women of a certain age, probably. So I just went up to middle aged women and asked if they were in the trial and got their contact info. Then I created an email listserve and we were in touch.”
I loved that. I don’t think I had ever thought of communicating with the other patients in a doctor’s waiting room. There was such a social, even quasi-legal, prohibition against asking about a stranger’s illness. But that did not stop Marcy.
She built quite a group that way.
In early November, Marcy told me she was planning to head home to Iowa for the holiday. In typical Marcy fashion, she offered to stop by to stay a night with me in Chicago.
“I would love it,” I squealed.
“Mike would be coming too,” she added.
“Good, he and Keith can cook for us while I tape record your organizing stories.”
“And then there’s the dog,” she added.
“I love dogs. And I’d love to see your puppy again.”
It was a date. Marcy had been in pain at Blue Mountain, and again when I visited her at her home in Portland, but this time I could see the pain more clearly in her eyes, in her limp, in her difficulty sleeping. But it was a lovely visit, nonetheless, and we both knew it might be our last time together in person. Then again, Marcy might live forever. That was always my thought. Someone with such a strong life force might in fact be able to beat all the odds. Marcy, Marcy, burning bright.
It was not to be. But lately I have heroes in the movement who have passed on who are so full of life that I have come to believe in an afterlife. A kind of surround sound, where they live, just out of touch, but not always gone. Some say they must have known their life would be shorter, because they lived it so intensely. Yes. But they live with me still.
Marcy lives there, urging me out of myself to believe that people everywhere will be glad to get to know me. She is laughing at me, the way she would, and gently pushing me. “Sure they want to get to know you, Madeline. Who wouldn’t?”
I think about Marcy on the move when we worked – she liked having walking meetings. We would have agenda items on the back of an envelope and tick them off as we charted a course through the neighborhood. As many know, she biked anywhere she could and in all kinds of weather. She always had Tony tucked into a basket and off they would go, often arriving at our common destination before I did by car. Marcy introduced me to yoga and she and I had disagreements about whether the resting part at the end of the routine was actually necessary to the yoga practice. Marcy frequently opted out of that last five minutes so she could get back to work.
Marcy’s movement extended to her hands. As we know she was a quilter, a crafter, an artist. She frequently would be stitching something in a meeting – her creations might be a full quilt or a potholder or a pillow covering. Many of us were lucky enough to get a handmade Valentine card, one block-carved and printed annually. Marcy’s artistry was another version of her motion through life: purposeful, beautiful and not wasting a moment.
The clearest, and most personal, memory I have of Marcy on the move is with my child, Quinn. When I was pregnant Marcy asked me if she could be an auntie to Quinn, in the same way that Deb had Riley and Holly had Ava and Charlie. I said yes, knowing Marcy meant it. My first week home from delivery, Marcy asked if we were ready for her to visit with Quinn. She came on a Wednesday afternoon – it was August almost exactly ten years ago. She swooped Quinn from my arms and said “shoo” and went and sat in a hammock on our deck and rocked Quinn back to sleep. She rocked in the hammock like it was a swing and cooed to Quinn and seemed in total bliss. Marcy visited with Quinn every Wednesday afternoon for the better part of his first few years of life. As he got older, she then taught him the beauty of her pond in Scappoose by going canoeing across it, circling the pond on the path as his steps grew bigger and more confident. In this way, Marcy really did become the older sister I never had, moving from friendship to family. I feel so fortunate that Marcy is a part of Quinn’s life and we will always remember this.
Marcy and I started as colleagues: she hired me and we worked together for seven years. Through our work we became friends because of our shared values, hopes and dreams. Marcy’s organizing skill taught me lessons that I hold to this day: that every person counts, no matter where they live; that it takes all of us to make the changes we so deeply desire; that resistance is a first step to creating the world we want. Marcy’s complexities made her an amazing colleague and friend who I will miss every day.
For all these reasons, when Holly suggested we share this poem in Marcy’s memory I thought it was perfect. To be of use, by Marge Piercy.
The people I love the best
jump into work head first
without dallying in the shallows
and swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight.
They seem to become natives of that element,
the black sleek heads of seals
bouncing like half-submerged balls.
I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,
who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,
who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,
who do what has to be done, again and again.
I want to be with people who submerge
in the task, who go into the fields to harvest
and work in a row and pass the bags along,
who are not parlor generals and field deserters
but move in a common rhythm
when the food must come in or the fire be put out.
The work of the world is common as mud.
Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.
But the thing worth doing well done
has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.
Greek amphoras for wine or oil,
Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums
but you know they were made to be used.
The pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real.
She was the first woman I really clicked with in cancer land. Funny how we met. We were both clients at Portland’s Immune Enhancement Project. She was tracking me. She would schedule her appointments around mine for the chance that we would connect in the waiting room. Apparently she was excited to see another “young one”. She was talking to SW when I finished up with acupuncture. While trying to drink the cold water in the miniature dixie cup she asked me what stage my lung cancer was. I barely eked out, “it’s stage 4”. Tears streaming down my cheeks; this was the first time I spoke it to someone.
The three of us left the small waiting room after being shushed several times by the practitioners. We grabbed a table and some beverages outside a at nearby pizza shop. Marcy talked and I listened in awe. Forget putting her on a pedestal, I placed her on top of Mt. Everest. She was the complete opposite of the doom and gloom depression rift I was in. She was determined to live. Thankfully her determination was contagious. She played a major part in helping me learn how to navigate cancer land.
For over 3-years, not many days went by without the two of us communicating. In her final weeks that communication became nonexistent. It was sad but I accepted it. In my head I knew that it would be fine if we did not speak or hold hands one last time. To my surprise, and nearly her entire home care team, she phoned me hours before her life ended. As directed by her, I showed up at her bedside to hold her hand. A 30-minute visit to say I love you and goodbye to her body was satisfying. An email stating that she died later that night did not surprise me.
I miss my friend.
Read more about Marcy here.
Elli Work, June 25, 2015
A community meeting to respond to Measure 9 had been called by Deb Jones, Director of the local women’s shelter in Bend. Deb had also called on her friend Marcy Westerling to come from Scappoose to attend. I remember the church where the meeting was held. It was standing room only. I remember Marcy taking charge. I met Marcy for the first time there. It was 1992, and we had only two months until Election Day. Anyone who did not smoke cigarettes started.
Little did we know this scene was playing out across the State of Oregon. Marcy was everywhere, offering desperately needed leadership and support. After the defeat of the anti-gay measure, and after I became the leader of the local human dignity group, Marcy became my mentor and friend. This, too, was the case across Oregon. Marcy built and maintained literally hundreds of relationships in her work.
That’s why it never ceased to amaze me that she would always be accessible. Always.
Many of us became activists in 1992. The work we did for the next two decades was not easy and most definitely not safe. I remember being absolutely clueless in the beginning. I had the drive and the passion but no tools, nothing. Nothing until I established strong ties with Marcy and the Rural Organizing Project (ROP). Marcy was always there to support us with resources and encouragement. We learned how to write a press release, organize phone banks, and raise money. Marcy and the ROP taught us many things, including the interconnectedness of racism, sexism, and homophobia. We learned about economic justice. I learned about the steady, unrelenting march of the religious right and their threat to democracy. And then the ROP helped us with the truly horrifying stuff: board development and internal policy.
Like the countless lives Marcy touched, I have many, many fond memories of her. One of my favorite stories about Marcy was when the Bend Bulletin wrote a scathing opinion piece about our coalition. I called Marcy in tears, devastated by the very public criticism. Marcy just laughed, saying it was a very good sign. She explained we had made the grade, doing the important work that would draw out the ire of the opposition. What a wonderful revelation!
I remember in 1997 when Right to Pride presented me with the Director’s Award for my work in central Oregon. Marcy, I know, had persuaded their leadership to choose me. She knew I would need queer money from Portland for my 1998 run for the legislature. Despite my loss, Marcy’s forward thinking was amazing. After the election, Marcy said, “I don’t care about the people who voted for someone else. I want to reach the people who supported you but didn’t vote or help.” Marcy’s seemingly endless passion and drive was thrilling. And, although I did not insert it here, Marcy’s strategic placement of an “F” bomb was always gleefully appreciated.
And finally, I remember all the nights Marcy, my partner Rocco, and me were curled up in our pajamas, gossiping and giggling like teenagers. Marcy’s laugh was beautifully mischievous and utterly delightful.
At Marcy’s recent burial, we were invited to write a message to Marcy on little pieces of paper to then drop into her grave. I wrote two simple words: thank you.