When I moved across the country at the age of 28, my mother told me it would be a permanent move. At the time, I was not thinking in terms of permanence, and in retrospect, I was not thinking much at all. I went because my partner at the time was from Corvallis, Oregon, and he really wanted to go back, and I had spent enough time in Oregon to love swimming in rivers, picking blackberries, and living without deer flies. I wasn't worried about finding work; it was 1990, and work was abundant. I thought I was going for my next phase.
As soon as we got to Corvallis -- literally within a week or arriving -- he broke up with me, and told me he preferred I wouldn't stay in the area, because he didn't want to have to feel responsible for me. Rather than turn around and go back to Maine, where I had everything I'd ever wanted, I headed up to Portland (which was for me at the time a very big city) and started to forge a new life. I rented an apartment from a sign I found at a food coop; I got a job as a barista while I went through the carpenter's union apprenticeship training program; I joined New Jewish Agenda; I got involved in the anti-white supremacy activism that was forming in the wake of the recent murder of Mulegeta Seraw; I started to play Zimbabwean marimba and eventually was invited to play in a band; I started working as a carpenter -- first for a bunch of contractors who were building suburban monstrosities and then for a contractor who did high-end work in Portland and then along with my then-girlfriend, in our own residential remodeling company; I bought a house with a good friend; I hurt my back and went to work for Workers Organizing Committee doing low-wage worker organizing with mostly immigrant workers; I was one of the early people in the Argentine tango scene in Portland .... and at some point I realized that my mother was right. I was building permanent connections, and a permanent life.
One of the people I grew to know, love, and respect in those years is Marcy Westerling, who founded Rural Organizing Project -- a statewide organization of locally-based groups that work to create communities accountable to a standard of human dignity: the belief in the equal worth of all people, the need for equal access to justice, and the right to self-determination. Starting in 1992, ROP's challenges to the anti-democratic right have earned ROP a national reputation for being an effective grassroots organization that takes on the hard issues. The catalyst for ROP was the Oregon Citizens Alliance and their outrageous Abnormal Behaviors Initiative, which targeted gay and lesbian Oregonians for legalized second-class citizenship. Oregonians in small towns across the state were mobilized, many for the first time, as basic tenets of the Constitution were at risk through this ballot initiative. ROP stepped into this organizing opportunity to fill a niche the radical right was trying to claim.
That part in italics was all taken from the ROP website. In my words, Rural Organizing Project is brilliant because it treats rural people as an important, unified voice (and voting block and organizing base) -- while also recognizing that there are as many rural constituencies as there are urban ones, and that power and justice comes from understanding and backing each others' issues.
As you all know because I say it incessantly, I grew up in rural New England, and I still feel caught off guard that I ended up living in cities. As you can see from what I just wrote, going to Portland was ill-considered, but ultimately wonderful for me. And coming to NYC was similarly so -- I came for grad school and expected to go back to Portland (my permanent home) but ended up staying because I realized that when you change careers in mid-life, you also have to build new collegial relationships in your new field. But I miss rural life. Not just fields and rivers and flowers and people dropping by with a bag full of zucchini, but the sense of interconnectedness that comes from living near each other but not on top of each other, and that comes at the end of a long summer after a dry winter when there's no water in anyone's wells.
I think one of the reasons that rural people know that our issues are interconnected is because there's one sun and one storm cloud and they affect our orchards and fields and wells equally. Well, almost equally. Because one person could have a lot of money and be able to dig a really deep well, and another person might not. But you know what might often happen in that situation? The person with water might give water to the person without water. Which is not an organizing for justice and equality solution, but it does take empathy, and empathy is one of the first steps in building unity for each others' issues.
This is what Marcy understood from the start -- along with the fact that rural people can be quite brilliant global thinkers (but are often dismissed as provincial) -- and this is what led her to found one of the most effective and visionary organizations I've ever known.
I thought that was the end of the post, except then I realized I didn't say anything about actually seeing Marcy in NYC. She's a fellow at Open Society Institute (OSI) -- more colloquially known as the George Soros foundation, and she had some time in between appointments, and I had some time after a wonderful video shoot with the brilliant social psychologist Claude Steele, and we did that New York thing where we squeezed in a visit. Never mind that we hadn't seen each other in probably 10 years, it was Marcy, and I'm me, and it didn't take long before she was connected me to someone and I was connecting her to someone else and we had an idea for an entire new organization. I think I get smarter when I'm around her. Is there a social psychologist out there who can explain that to me?