Organizing lessons from Linn County‏

 

Today we would like to share with you the incredible story of how Linn County leaders went from hosting an event to helping form a multigenerational and multiracial group who, in the face of hate activity, led their community in action and response! Community Action for Racial Equity (CARE)’s work is sure to inspire you!

You can meet and strategize alongside leaders from CARE in Woodburn at the Rural Caucus & Strategy Session on Saturday, June 13th! Register today at www.rop.org/caucus!

“This is about building a movement, not just a moment in time in one town. We hope to build more than a ‘moment’ here in Albany and folks are energized and moving forward to make our group stronger to weather the inevitable push back. We mean to change the conversation on race in Albany.” -Peter Goodman, CARE leader

On Sunday, September 7th, 2014, over 240 people packed into the Albany Public Library’s meeting room to participate in a conversation project led by educator and organizer Walidah Imarisha called “Why Aren’t There More Black People in Oregon?: A Hidden History”, sponsored by ROP and Oregon Humanities.

Peter and Sue Goodman, who took on the charge of organizing this event, had an important strategy: intentionally building up relationships with groups and institutions around Linn and Benton Counties, including the Albany Human Relations Commission, the Hispanic Advisory Council, Occupy Albany, Veterans for Peace – Linus Pauling Chapter, Linn-Benton Community College, Oregon State University, and more! As a result, not only were key leaders in the room for an important conversation about Oregon’s history, but also the City of Albany emailed out a notice in their City email newsletter to all residents. A front-page article on the Albany Democrat-Herald also served as a key outreach tool.

After Walidah’s fantastic and hard-hitting presentation of racially exclusionary policies and practices in Oregon’s not-so distant history, ROP facilitated an organizing conversation that over 120 folks participated in. We discussed and reflected on these questions:

  • How does this history of racially exclusionary laws play out today? How can you see the legacy of this history here in Linn County?
  • What can we do to start addressing racism in our community?

Folks left the room hungry for more conversation and for tangible ways they can take action to advance racial justice. Luckily, Peter & Sue had already planned a follow-up meeting to dive into organizing next steps scheduled for two weeks later!

From Education to Organizing

Over 30 people attended this follow-up meeting, eager to digest and process what was presented, to make the connection between racially exclusionary laws in place throughout Oregon’s history and comparing them to the racial injustices we see today. The meeting broke out into groups to discuss action items, including community education, outreach and awareness raising, and structural and institutional change.

Ideas tossed around included organizing public events, tabling, reading groups, and focusing on white privilege. A critical piece of this agenda involves building alliances with like-minded groups already working on social and racial justice issues in the area, as well as deepening the relationships with City and County leaders. An understanding was easily reached that writing and passing Welcoming Resolutions could help build relationships and gain legitimacy in the community to amplify the work.

Folks left committed to seeing some of these ideas through and soon Community Action for Racial Equity (CARE) was formed — and just in time to lead the community in taking a strong stand against racism and hate!

Responding to Hate

CARE couldn’t have formed at a better time. Peter Goodman recounts what happened next:

One of our members shared the announcement that the Community Alliance of Lane County (CALC) and Springfield Alliance for Equality and Respect (SAfER) were holding a meeting at the public library to discuss the rise in protesting of progressive events with messages such as “diversity is a code word for white genocide”. A few of us attended this meeting and found out that a white supremacist group active in the area, and in particular one man, had been distributing hate leaflets, taking advantage of well attended public events. A goal of this particular man was to get media exposure. We were all shocked when halfway through the meeting this man walked in. Long story short, his presence cause considerable angst and the meeting was relocated to another, private location.

We realized first hand that there are individuals and groups that are prominent and active in spewing hate and discrimination in our communities. This realization hit home a few weeks later during the Albany Veterans Day parade as an unidentified person/persons wandered the side streets posting hate leaflets on the windshields of parked cars of those enjoying the parade. A professor from Linn-Benton Community College (LBCC) collected as many of these leaflets as he could and he then provided them to Javier Cervantes, CARE member and Director of the Department of Equity, Diversity & Inclusion at LBCC, as well as a member of the Human Relations Commission for the City of Albany.
Once this was shared with CARE members, a letter writing campaign ensued where a dozen or so letters, along with subsequent comments, were published in the Albany Democrat-Herald and the Corvallis Gazette Times. Soon we received a request for an interview from a reporter of the Albany Democrat-Herald. Many calls of concern were made to the city, the police department, and the newspaper. Frankly, people were confused and upset, leading this reporter to reach out to CARE for guidance on how the City could best respond. We even got the Albany Democrat-Herald to write a sympathetic editorial without asking them.

Feeling the need to publicly respond quickly, CARE put signs up along Highway 34 coming into Corvallis on the “Civil War” football game day. We figure about 7,000 people saw the signs.

Our group recognized the opportunity and necessity of a public response as quickly as possible. Since our group didn’t formal structure in place, our initial effort was somewhat ad hoc, but there was a committed and identified group that could make a collective push for a resolution. We decided to go to the sympathetic Albany City Human Relations Commission to get them to approve and sponsor a resolution, as well as introduce it to the City Council. We hoped to mobilize a situation in which the conservative City Council was pressured by their own advisory commission to pass the resolution.

We secured a slot on the Human Relations Commission agenda and had approximately 30 people attend the meeting. We had three speakers and a song by the Raging Grannies specifically crafted for the event. The resolution passed unanimously.

The following week our contingent of CARE members attended the Albany City Council meeting, along with over 20 supportive neighbors. We prepared several local folks to speak, including an 85 year old survivor of Dachau who told of the human cost of race hate;
a man from the South told of growing up in segregated East Texas in the ’50s; and
a black mother of two young boys who spoke of her fear because of the hate flyering and the special fear, alarm, and sense of exclusion she felt for herself and her family after moving to Albany to find a better life (she also said pointedly that silence in the face of hate and bigotry is acquiescence). Others spoke to good effect from the heart.

The final vote was 4-1 with one Councilor absent. They changed one word: they changed “citizens” to “residents”, an improvement.

Peter continues:

It was unprecedented for the Albany City Council to pass such a resolution and we plan to hold them to their word on the whole document.

The moral of the story is that a small group of organized and focused individuals, powerless alone, but instead acting in coordinated collective action can quickly respond to opportunities to make a point and insist on racial equity in the face of a racist challenge. CARE entered onto the community stage with a positive win. It was a win fostered by an “inside-outside”strategy that, in this case, led to maximum exposure for CARE and generated the least resistance. This victory with only the bigots opposing us publicly has allowed us to preserve and widen a dialogue with the Human Rights Commission, the City Council, and the Albany Police. If they think reforms are their idea and take credit, so much the better.

Without our group’s collective and coordinated actions the only response would have been, at best, a few letters to the editor buried in our local paper.

Building for the Long Haul

CARE recognized the value of establishing their group’s structure so they can carry the momentum of their success forward into next steps! They discussed and decided on how decisions are made, how often to hold regular meetings, what leadership roles should exist, a system to communicate with each other, and more.

At the end of May, CARE, in collaboration with Linn-Benton Community College, hosted film screenings and discussions in Corvallis and Albany of the PBS documentary Two Towns of Jasper:

In 1998 in Jasper, Texas, James Byrd, Jr., a black man, was chained to a pick-up truck and dragged to his death by three white men. The town was forever altered, and the nation woke up to the horror of a modern-day lynching. In Two Towns Of Jasper, two film crews, one black and one white, set out to document the aftermath of the murder by following the subsequent trials of the local men charged with the crime. The result is an explicit and troubling portrait of race in America, one that asks how and why a crime like this could have occurred.

In the six months since they encouraged the community to respond to hate, CARE has met with the Albany Human Resource Commission to demand a response to hate graffiti painted on home and are exploring ways to organize a response to discriminatory evictions in the Willamette Valley. Needless to say, CARE is set up to accomplish incredible things in Linn and Benton Counties!

You can meet CARE in person at the Rural Caucus & Strategy Session in Woodburn on Saturday, June 13th! Register your group at www.rop.org/caucus!

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