An ROP Remembrance


If you are stymied to name a mentor you might want to set about changing that right now. We deserve them. They help us get where we most deeply want to go in life (unlike so much else that tells us what we should shoot for – the biggest house, the most gas guzzling vehicle.) You select mentors. They select you. There is a little bit of magic in the process.The founding of ROP saw two contrasting organizing approaches converging courtesy of the two mentors that most influenced my life. (For those newer to the ROP community, I am Marcy Westerling, the lead founder of ROP back in the early nineties. I was lucky enough to stay an active lead until sidelined by cancer in early 2010 at age 50.)

Suzanne Pharr was a hands-on influence at our founding. She modeled a feminist based consciousness-raising style that became core to the ‘living room conversations’ that continue to develop our shared ROP analysis even today, twenty years later. How many living room conversations have you been to? Suzanne has maintained active support in our work travelling to Oregon quite a few times from her home in the South. She joined us as we walked for a week in 2005 through the small towns that connect Salem to Portland in protests of the wars at home and abroad. Not every organization can claim such an active mentor.

Jon Kest was a much less obvious influence. But Jon Kest is the reason I became a community organizer. He introduced me to Alinsky style direct action organizing that inserted those most impacted by injustice into all leadership roles. He cajoled and prodded me to door knock poor neighborhoods six nights/week, seeking out angry, prospective leaders to train up. In Iowa at the height of the early eighties foreclosure epidemic that left 2-5 boarded homes on each Des Moines block, reducing everyone’s quality of life, he coached me through nightly calls on how to recruit for squatters that we then installed in the homes – pushing cities to establish dollar home programs that matched urban poor with abandoned homes for a buck. We had enormous success. This was just one of the campaigns in which I learned how to organize and the value of always, always, always going door to door. (An activity I can claim in 2012 while living on chemotherapy.)

Jon Kest was my other primary mentor. There is a large pool of current day, kick ass community organizers that can claim him as well.
Jon died on December 5th. Too young at age 57 but he left a legacy. We can list the radical, fair and inclusive infrastructure he built. Much will endure, improving life for many of the working and nonworking poor. But that will only be a small sliver of his legacy. Jon trained up hundreds of hungry organizers determined to learn the ropes of social change. He showed us the value of behind the scenes tenacity. He probably pushed them as hard as he did me thirty plus years ago when we had nightly check in calls at 8 or 9 p.m. my time, 10 or 11 p.m. for him. Not everyone found his discipline so charming.

I left ACORN after two years feeling gifted with a free Masters-equivalent I had never sought. For the next three decades I used those skills working in different settings then urban poor neighborhoods. First in rural anti-violence work and then in rural organizing around a competing set of values to what the organized right offered – what we all know as the Rural Organizing Project. The skills Jon taught me adapted well over decades, regions and conditions. Jon taught timeless lessons that I believe many a member of the ROP community has also absorbed. It is time you were introduced to him.

They say you die twice: the first time when you stop breathing and the second time when the last person who says your name dies. Jon has yet to leave us. Jon Kest Presente!

The work of the Rural Organizing Project and all the human dignity groups is built on the shoulders of many.

warmly, Marcy Westerling – Oregon

Rural Organizing Project volunteer

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