Visionary and Fierce: the 2015 Caucus!‏

June 29th, 2015

Just over two weeks ago, over 120 rural and small town leaders convened at the Rural Caucus & Strategy Session hosted by PCUN, Oregon’s farm worker union and one of ROP’s longest allies. Together we honored the spirit of ROP’s founder Marcy Westerling through song and diving deep into bold, innovative, exciting movement building and organizing strategy!

23 years ago, Marcy Westerling convened the first Rural Caucus & Strategy Session. It was at that Caucus that 20 human dignity groups from across rural Oregon decided to form the Rural Organizing Project. Every year since, human dignity groups from around the state have convened for a gathering to assess the last year and make plans for next year. We strategize, we celebrate, and we honor our movement work together. This year, we dedicated the Caucus to Marcy and, in her spirit, we focused in on what our next year will look like and what kind of innovative organizing strategies we are going to try in our home communities!

Attendees came away saying that the weekend was Inspiring, powerful, uplifting, full of camaraderie and unity, and a place to explore new ideas, new approaches for reaching their communities. Folks left knowing that there are others in towns across the state who share our values, all moving together toward justice and human dignity. This is the energy and inspiration folks take back home to organize for the next year.

Over the next few weeks, we will share summaries from the various strategy sessions and other highlights from the Caucus. Keep an eye on ROPNET!

The Caucus weekend kicked off on Friday with a tour of farmworker housing. Folks on the tour went out to neighboring farms to learn about the ways that PCUN, Oregon’s farmworker union, fights and organizes for humane housing. The tour then explored the formation of the Farmworker Housing Development Corporation that has built beautiful farmworker housing complexes in Woodburn, complete with computer labs and playgrounds! That evening, PCUN and ROPers got together for a delicious dinner, a documentary, and discussion about Health Care for All Oregon.

On Saturday, the main event, over 120 folks convened for an action-packed day! We started off dedicating the Caucus to Marcy. We discussed in depth the moment we are in; a moment of great hope and inspiration as the movement builds for Black Lives Matter, but also acknowledging that there is a growing counter-movement and potential for backlash.

caucus fists

Ramon Ramirez, President of PCUN, welcomed us to the PCUN Union Hall and led us in song, at Marcy’s request.

saadat speaking

Kathleen Saadat’s keynote, Keeping Hope Alive: what it takes to build a movement, dove into our moment in time. With race and racism finally a national discussion, Kathleen dug into a deepening class inequity that is still untouched by national discourse.

caucus panel

A fishbowl conversation featuring several rural and small town leaders offered the Caucus attendees the opportunity to learn from their incredible work, the lessons that inform how they organize, and what inspires them!

From left to right: Kathleen Saadat, Hannah Sohl from Rogue Climate in Jackson County, Darcy Bedortha from the Human Dignity Advocates of Crook County, Alex Budd from Together for Josephine and the Josephine County Racial Justice Working Group, Eliot Feenstra from the Josephine County Racial Justice Working Group, and Abel Valladares from the CAPACES Leadership Institute.

caucus workshop

Everyone broke up into small groups to talk about our movement. How can we build a more loving movement culture? What do we need to feel supported in our organizing? What could it look like to connect directly with neighboring groups in the same region of the state and work together?

After a delicious lunch and Human Dignity Awards were awarded to two four outstanding groups (keep an eye out for a future ROPNET!), we officially launched Rural Organizing Voices! Rural Organizing Voices is an online compilation of history, essays, interviews, and resources from ROP’s formation and organizing. Caucus attendees watched a video narrated by Marcy Westerling about ROP’s origins and listened to an audio interview with Dave Toler describing the organizing to defeat a private prison proposal in Southern Oregon in 1996. Click here to check out Rural Organizing Voices!

Caucus attendees then had a big choice to make between two tracks of strategy sessions! Keep an eye out for notes from each session soon!

I. Community and Resilience in the Face of the Right
The mobilization of “patriot” and militia groups to Southern Oregon shines a spotlight on a nationally growing militia movement, fueled by an ongoing economic crisis and the predictable anger of working people and veterans. As the national conversation on race continues to grow, we can expect to see a growing backlash, especially in states like Oregon that are named by white supremacists as “the white homeland”. As funding for sheriffs departments and emergency response dwindle, the Right is offering concrete alternatives: militias, community preparedness resources, trainings, and more. How do we build broad community coalitions to overcome polarization? How can we keep lines of communication open and temperatures low during moments of community crisis?

  • Capture the Flag: How do we claim space in our communities with our values at the forefront, validate the suffering our communities are feeling, and meet the immediate needs of our neighbors as social safety nets disintegrate around us? We will brainstorm organizing strategies for creating and advancing alternative community visions that center on human dignity and democracy for all.
  • County-by-County: Countering the Right from the OCA to the Oath Keepers: What strategies are the Right employing to build their base, develop leaders, and build political power in rural Oregon? We will take a comprehensive look at the Right’s political strategies to build their base, develop leaders, and build political power through Sheriff’s departments and County Commissions in rural Oregon, and develop concrete next steps for human dignity group organizing strategies that uphold the values of democracy, human dignity, and justice.

II. A People’s Agenda for Rural Oregon
Our communities are under different forms of duress, and together we are building a vision of community that overcomes these forms of duress. In this track we will discuss strategies for advancing our vision for justice and human dignity in the next year. What are next steps for workers dignity organizing in rural Oregon? What are our opportunities to organize for racial justice and immigrant rights, while addressing anti-immigrant and racist backlash? What are the entry points for environmental justice work and connecting the dots to human dignity, democracy, and healthy rural communities? Breakouts include:

  • $15 Minimum Wage: How much more are workers worth?
  • From Black Lives Matter to Immigrant Rights: How Rural Oregon Shows Up for Racial Justice
  • Rural Oregon on the Frontlines of Climate Change & Environment Justice

We came back together to close out the Caucus with another round of singing. Folks from across the state stayed for dinner, reflection, and discussion. The strategizing continued well into the night!

On Sunday, Dara Silverman with Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ) facilitated a training and strategy session on how to organize white folks for racial justice! Attendees discussed ways they are taking action locally, learned how folks across the country are engaging in this movement building moment, and left with inspiration and ideas about how to advance their work at home!

surj training - darasurj training - group 1surj training - group 2

Thank you to the many rural and small town organizers and activists who work for justice and human dignity in their communities! And thank you for an incredible Rural Caucus & Strategy Session this year! Together we have built a truly remarkable movement home from which to gather strength to carry our work on into the years to come!

Warmly, Jessica & Cara

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