Two nights ago, I tasted hope. It’s sweetness came not from the homemade strawberry shortcake at our living room conversation on thorny immigration issues, nor from the soon-to-be flourishing produce in Newberg’s newly completed community garden. Rather, that delicious sense of possibility came from Keyla, a young Latina organizer, who enthusiastically shared her vision of the garden as a space where young children and people with disabilities and immigrant newcomers will all work side-by-side, tending their plots and taking breaks at picnic tables under the large oak tree. And it came from the dozen folks gathered in Marni’s living room, representing five different generations and multiple cultures, who demonstrated patience and compassion as we struggled to unpack the hate and fear that has become so embedded in our nation’s discourse around immigration these days.
This jaunt to Yamhill County was my last official trip on the road as an organizer with the Rural Organizing Project. In several weeks I will leave ROP, and move to New York City for a nine-month stint at Columbia University, earning a master’s degree in Oral History. When I shared this news with one of our beloved ROP office volunteers, she asked, “now, why would you want to do that?” and, “but what will come of all that you have learned about rural Oregon?”
Of the dozens of workshops I attended at the US Social Forum in Detroit last month, my favorite was one facilitated by Kentuckians for the Commonwealth about the story of white, lifelong anti-racist activist, Anne Braden, who died in 2006. Watching several clips of a documentary featuring interviews with Anne generated a profound and honest discussion amongst a panel of Anne’s colleagues, friends, mentees and the workshop participants on racism, mentoring and leadership in movements for social justice, cross-cultural work, making mistakes, and the intersectionality of oppressions.
For me, the workshop exemplified the power and imperative of oral history in building and sustaining our movements for justice. From war-torn El Salvador to frontier Oregon, people’s stories of resistance in the face of exploitation and oppression have provoked in me the transformative rage and empathy that gave birth to and continue to fuel my passion for justice. I’d like to create opportunities for more folks like me to be similarly inspired to action through stories. And I want to help democratize history by amplifying the voices of those in our society who have been systematically silenced.
I hope to honor my mentors and elders in this struggle and learn from their wisdom — and their mistakes. Certainly, documenting our collective work with candidness and intention is a gift to future generations of change-makers – and it helps make ourselves smarter, better organizers. So, for me, this next year will be about refining one more tool in my toolbox for creating the kind of world that I – we – dream of.
Looking back over the past two years at ROP, I am filled with gratitude for all of the memories that you have generously shared and co-created with me:
…Sitting around the Mendoza’s kitchen counter in La Grande, discussing family, faith and life in small towns. Leading phone banks with WCCHD members at Cornelius’s Centro Cultural to defeat anti-immigrant ballot measures. Plotting out plans for marriage equality in the cozy quarters of Astoria’s Blue Scorcher and T. Paul’s Supper Club. Processing for dignity and respect alongside Columbia County’s immigrants and allies. Struggling to define just what we mean by “democratic economy” in a time of economic disorientation and burgeoning unemployment. Witnessing new ROP friends from Clackamas County challenge ICE officials about their collaboration with local law enforcement at a community forum in Salem. Listening to couples in Eastern Oregon share heartfelt and heartbreaking stories of what it means to be queer in the reddest of counties…
As I move from working in rural Oregon to the craziness of Manhattan and the academy, I will carry with me these memories, your stories, and their practical life and movement lessons. ROP is a unique community and ROP members are a special – and powerful! – bunch. As during my recent trip to Newberg, I’ve been repeatedly replenished by the hope embedded in your visions and your persistence. I feel honored to have marched alongside you all in this work – and I look forward to reconnecting next May when I return to our shared home here in Oregon.