Exhibits That Build the Movement: Then & Now

ROP is turning 30! Next year will mark the third decade since a grassroots network of rural human dignity groups from across Oregon joined together to fight a homophobic ballot measure put forward by the Oregon Citizens Alliance in 1992. Our team is hard at work to commemorate this anniversary by creating a traveling exhibit about the last 30 years of work that human dignity groups have done to advance democracy across rural Oregon! By lifting up stories of powerful rural organizing, this exhibit will create space for people to connect with each other, share their own memories and experiences, and reflect on the past as we strategize and dream together of the world we want to build for future generations. The bilingual exhibit will feature materials from ROP’s archives, activities to engage kids of all ages, and an online exhibit to share ROP’s inspiring history with our allies around the world!

Exhibits like this have been a part of ROP’s and human dignity groups’ toolboxes since the beginning. One of the first projects ROP took on as a network was hosting the Anne Frank Exhibit at rural schools, libraries, and community centers across the state. Many human dignity groups created their own additions to the exhibit and made it their own. The Cottage Grove Community Action Network organized to put up the Anne Frank exhibit at Lincoln Middle School alongside a collection of news articles drawing attention to recent acts of racist and homophobic violence in Oregon, calling on young people not just to connect with Anne Frank as a fellow teenager, but also to connect the violence her family suffered to forms of discrimination and violence common to the United States. In Polk County, the West Valley Human Rights Coalition (WVHRC) presented the Anne Frank exhibit alongside an Oregon Perspective presentation featuring materials contributed by the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde and artifacts related to U.S. government internment of Japanese citizens during WWII, sourced from ROPer Carol Suzukawa. In April 1994, the Anne Frank Center USA estimated that 30,000 Oregonians had seen the exhibit, and it continued to travel to many other locations in the state after that assessment was made.

Spanish-language poster for Anne Frank exhibit in Sheridan, OR
Spanish-language poster for Anne Frank exhibit sites in Polk Counties, 1994.

The WVHRC followed up their work on the Anne Frank exhibit with two additional exhibit projects the following year: “Herstory,” an overview of women’s history in Oregon, and “Your Family, Friends and Neighbors,” a photo exhibit featuring Oregon LGBTQ people and their families, which the WVHRC’s newsletter described as “designed to dispel the myths of who we are.”

More recently, another ROP group sought to bust myths and challenge scapegoating narratives with the exhibit “Borderless Stories: True Stories of Love, Struggle, and Immigration from Small-Town Oregon.” Created by the human dignity group Immigrant Family Advocates of Deschutes County, the exhibit featured photographs and testimonies of eight undocumented Oregonians. Debuting at the McMinnville Public Library in September 2011, “Borderless Stories” then traveled to rural communities across Oregon. To help spread the message even further, ROP designed and distributed a zine made up of the photos and stories from the exhibit, also incorporating two additional testimonies collected by Unidos Bridging Community’s Jann Brewer in Yamhill County. Immigrant Family Advocates of Deschutes County describe their goal as “giv[ing] these neighbors a voice, [giving] a face to the abstract, the debatable, and the impenetrable challenge of immigration policy and reform.”

Cover of Borderless Stories exhibit zine, 2011
Cover of the Borderless Stories exhibit’s accompanying zine, 2011

In both of these cases, we can see how the ROP network used the traveling exhibit to call on visitors’ shared values of human dignity and democracy. As keen observers of the white supremacist and militia movements in rural Oregon, ROPers in 1995 understood that an exhibit on Anne Frank would serve not only to fight Holocaust denialism but also to open space for communities, especially young people, to see patterns and connections between the political violence and racist ideology of historical fascists and their lived experiences. In 2011, amidst a rancorous election season, the ROP network used the travelling exhibit once more to fight back against racist scapegoating and misrepresentation of Latinx immigrants, sharing stories of neighbors and colleagues to reframe an often viciously racist policy debate around the reality that immigrants are valued members of our rural communities. Most recently, ROP worked with several local groups to bring the exhibit called “Architecture of Internment: The Build Up to Wartime Incarceration” to their communities. That exhibit focused on the lead-up to internment of Japanese Americans during WWII, demonstrating how white farmers, business people, and community organizations in Oregon drummed up political pressure in favor of internment and ensured that their enterprises would benefit from the captive labor of the people incarcerated. Exhibit host Shannon Cockayne at the Heritage Museum in Independence shared feedback that encapsulates why the ROP network has had such a sustained interest in traveling exhibits: “Independence is a city of approximately 9,000 people. While small, we pride ourselves in having a world view and an interest in how the past informs the present. The Architecture of Internment exhibit was the first of its kind here and, based on feedback from residents, we’ll certainly endeavor to bring more such provocative and instructional exhibits [again].” 

Now, with our 30th anniversary fast approaching, ROP will be putting an exhibit on the road once again! Our choice to commemorate our anniversary with a traveling exhibit echoes our first projects. We believe that in this moment, as overlapping environmental, public health, and political crises escalate around us, it is more important than ever to resist the short-term thinking that those pressures can force us into. Taking stock of the past 30 years of powerful community organizing gives us fuel and fortitude to contemplate the next 30 years ahead of us, even when those prospects sometimes seem frightening. This exhibit will give us an opportunity as a network to reflect, reconnect, and strategize together about how to achieve a livable future for all Oregonians.

Ready to dig in? Are you excited about ROP’s 30th anniversary exhibit and interested in learning more?

>>What organizing stories from your human dignity group, your county, and other communities are you excited to see in the exhibit? We’d love to brainstorm with you! Email monicap@rop.org to let us know!

>>Do you have a favorite exhibit or other museum experience? One that helped shift your perspective or inspired you to action? We would love to hear about it! Email kate@rop.org to share!

>>Are you interested in helping bring the exhibit to your community? Email monicap@rop.org!

>>Are you interested in exploring records of community organizing in your area and helping identify stories that will be featured in the exhibit? Email kate@rop.org to discuss options for connecting you with our archives!

>>Do you have pins & patches related to your human dignity group or progressive organizing in Oregon from the 1990s on? We are hoping to showcase some selections from ROP’s collection and we would love to feature others’ collections as well. Email kate@rop.org!

We’re so excited about sharing the amazing stories of power rural organizing over the last three decades, and if you’re excited too, please get in touch—we can’t wait to connect with you!

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