As an ROP volunteer I’m sometimes offered assignments that paid staff would love to do but, alas, they have minute-by-minute obligations that often preclude fun extras. So when the World Affairs Council of Oregon asked if ROP could meet with a delegation of Serbian LGBT leaders, the query was kicked over to me and I said, “Yes!” The Open World Program is sponsored by Congress and brings young political and civic leaders from Russia, Ukraine, and other Eurasian countries to the United States for short-term professional trips. This delegation’s eight days in Oregon were tightly booked to maximize their exposure to our gblt community. I am sure that it is no accident that unlike other tours, this one spent all its non DC time in Oregon. We have a lot to be proud of here!
I chose to spend my limited time with them talking about the organic way that human dignity groups became the basic building block of ROP before the Rural Organizing Project even imagined existing. I wanted to tell our story in a way that might resonate with their own reality in a country violently divided in recent history and facing many struggles beyond gender identity.
Without an Oregon map handy, I had them imagine our state. And I similarly had them grasp the basics of Oregon rural/urban reality in the late eighties/early nineties – a time when urban Oregon (eg Portland metro area) was flush with high tech opportunities and rural communities experienced the decay of the timber industry, keeping much of the state in dramatically high unemployment. (Sound familiar?) The delegates identified with the rural/urban divide that results when economic realities are so different. The rural/urban divide is international and very old.
With our similarities established (a key first step when you meet with any group of people), I proceeded to describe how back in the early nineties our basic ROP model, still with us today, developed as we sought to debate contentious issues without knowing how much support we had in the community. Our focus became to first develop a trusted core of activists with a collective analysis that united us and then from there to develop a roster of supporters/members so that as we became more public there would be safety in numbers for exploring a contentious topic. This strategy has held true whether we were talking about whether glbt people were entitled to constitutional protections back in 1992 ,or if LNG lines and coal trains are sane public policy in 2013.
I described recruiting leads for those very first living room conversations when we knew so few ‘righteous folks’ in each town. It’s not that they weren’t there, but rather that small town life tended to discourage distinguishing yourself in certain ways. Small towns offer many wonders and anonymity is not among them. The battered women’s movement, the one entity that we could count on to support an anti-discriminatory frame back in the early nineties, became how we sought out initial leaders, those who ‘got’ what was wrong with the proposed ballot measure 9 and had the energy to host an initial gathering in a living room where we could meet possible supporters. These first meetings were called ‘brainstorm’ sessions because everyone is more open to attending a one time meeting that seeks input versus an organizing meeting that might commit them for a longer period of time. This has become the basic format still used in ROPs living room conversations. Then as now each living room conversation’s agenda had three pieces:
1. an initial 15 minute overview where a shared context for the focus crisis was established;
2. an hour of conversation where participants explore the issue and how it is being expressed locally – building their own map of the issue;
3. and then a closing period to focus on immediate next steps to expand opposition and push for progressive solutions.
At the Open World talk, all of this was being translated from my English into Serbian with me never sure how much sense I was making. You can imagine my relief when we broke for comments and the first person stated, “We have been fortunate to meet with many fine people in our time in your country. But you are the first person who is able to talk about your work in terms of methodology. This is information we can take home. And we will.” The rest of the room heartily concurred.
I am sure there are many kind comments they could have made but really is there anything of greater value then to be reminded that ROP’s work has relevance 25 years later in our own towns and in towns across the globe? I think this stays true primarily because we do the simple work of giving people entry points in to the toughest conversations of our times. Such entry points defuse tensions, build broader agreement and allow dignity in position shifts.
As Mike Edera and I return from Dallas, Texas to represent ROP at the first ever national anti-fracking summit (http://www.