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Oregon’s Rural Organizing Project: A Profile in democratic Local Organizing

There have been several recent articles (e.g., by James Vega and Kevin Baker) calling attention to the need for a more powerful grassroots progressive movement. As someone who has argued that this movement will not emerge from top-down structures like OFA, MoveOn, Democracy for America or other mass email lists, the question is what a more democratic and decentralized movement would look like. How do we recreate what the labor movement or the civil rights movement did with a focus on broad-based, 21st century progressive issues?

For those interested in authentic, democratic, grassroots community organizing, the Rural Organizing Project (ROP) in Oregon offers a superb example, along with a set of helpful organizing resources as a bonus. This week, I had the opportunity to correspond with ROP co-director and organizer Cara Shufelt, to learn more about how the group operates.

First, some brief history. ROP was founded in the early 1990s to counteract a "religious right-wing movement [that] had been developing under the radar for over a decade in a state known to the rest of the nation as a model of forward-looking progressive policies." The economic impact of the timber industry’s decline on small towns throughout the 1970s and 80s helped fuel the growth of this conservative movement. In response to an anti-gay statewide Constitutional ballot initiative, progressives began forming locally-based, democratic "human dignity groups." The full history is available here, and well worth the read. Also, check out a Sept. 2009 article from In These Times.

Structure

ROP now works with 50 autonomous paid member groups representing the majority of Oregon counties. These local human dignity groups have memberships ranging from 25-500 people, with a total of 10,000 supporter households. Each group has its own decision-making structure, mission statement, projects and campaigns. Most are all-volunteer, and while they are run democratically, their structures vary in levels of formality.

ROP itself is governed by this decentralized network. Member groups vote on the ROP Board of Directors at an annual Rural Caucus & Strategy Session, and the Board shapes the directions and decisions of ROP. The website states that "voting membership in the organization [is] relegated entirely to local, autonomous Human Dignity Groups, and board members [are] required to be rural residents." According to Shufelt, "the Caucus is also where much of the program work of the organization is shaped for the upcoming year, as there are about 130 ROP individual members & groups represented."

In addition to serving as Board members, individuals can be part of ROP program or field committees, serve as local human dignity group leaders/organizers, and assume other, more informal roles shaping programs and strategy within the organization. A lean staff of five supports ROP’s grassroots leadership development and organizing work.

While ROP is not an affiliate of a larger regional or national organization or network, some of its member groups are chapters of larger networks, such as Southern Oregon Jobs with Justice. In addition, both the statewide ROP and its member groups routinely connect with other allies at the state and local level. For instance, ROP is a member of – and helped start – CAUSA, Oregon’s statewide immigrants’ rights coalition. ROP focuses on local, state, national and global issues, with an emphasis on community-based problem-solving, and has worked closely with farmworkers unions, antiwar protestors, and civil liberties groups.

Purpose

Despite ROP’s beginnings as a response to a single-issue campaign, Shufelt notes that ROP is focused on creating a "movement-building infrastructure." Its mission is "to strengthen the skills, resources, and vision of primary leadership in local autonomous human dignity groups with a goal of keeping such groups a vibrant source for a just democracy."

According to Shufelt, "while our program and project work is important to ROP, our central focus is the support, strengthening, analysis building, training, strategizing, etc., that we do with local leadership to develop and grow the local groups as progressive organizing centers in their counties." ROP has a concrete set of goals for building grassroots progressive power over the next few years. The ROP website highlights a number of gains made in 2009. Nevertheless, the group continues to face an uphill battle in "countering fake right-wing populism with an effective reply," according to the site.

Lessons Learned

ROP offers a unique case study of the value of decentralized and democratic organizing. Among the group’s "lessons learned" are that "the Human Dignity Group proved to be an enduring form for local organizing. When concerned people meet face to face on a regular basis, this opens space for neighbors to break their isolation and take concrete, small steps to further social justice."

ROP also evaluates its actions by the degree to which those actions advance democracy, and the degree to which it builds a powerful and inclusive infrastructure:

We tried to re-frame issues in terms of a real, functioning democracy. We used a four-point definition of democracy…: 1) Majority rule 2) Minority Rights 3) An informed and educated public 4) An adequate standard of living. From this we created a Democracy Grid that allowed people to judge any political initiative against the tenets of democracy.

ROP helped each group use external projects to build internal capacity. The focus was on ensuring that each group had a functional leadership team, a communication system (used and updated with regularity) and an action plan with a race, class, gender analysis.

ROP also sets itself apart from the more popular, top-down progressive activism that has become prevalent in recent years:

"The ROP was created not only in opposition to the conservative movement, but also in reaction to the top-down, city-based, big money political culture of the liberal establishment. We experienced grassroots activists not controlling the message in our own communities, and not controlling the information generated by our grassroots canvassing work, which has been appropriated into the data banks of large umbrella organizations or the Democratic Party, unavailable to the communities that generated it…

To really succeed in changing the political dynamic, ROP human dignity groups need to be a permanent fixture on the street in the communities, using systematic tools like the survey to actively engage people about the issues whether an election is happening or not. We will need to struggle within our own base, encouraging our own activists to see beyond the next electoral emergency, and to challenge the Democratic Party from the outside, to talk about the real issues rather than seeking the lowest common denominator and avoiding hard topics."

Resources

One of the great things about ROP is that it offers a set of capacity-building and organizing tools that can inform the efforts of any progressive activist, whether in Oregon or elsewhere. These include brief guides on how to start and sustain a local human dignity group, tips for activism, and organizing tools on building effective leadership teams, assessing capacity, and developing database and communication systems.

A monthly Kitchen Table Activism project offers all local member groups some basic steps and ideas for local collective action. An ROP campaign on "building a democratic economy" offers additional resources and tips for action on economic justice issues. ROP’s founding director is currently working on a project to map rural organizing efforts in other states.

Reactions and Discussion

Although this kind of broad-based, democratic community organizing is more challenging and slower-paced than building a million-member email list, it has numerous benefits. It builds sustainable progressive infrastructure at the local level that can grow over time. It authentically engages individual members in setting the agenda, electing leadership, and developing strategies. It builds face-to-face connections rather than the more shallow online connections. It responds flexibly and accountably to the needs of its members rather than being coopted by those in power.

These benefits are why a democratic and decentralized structure is at the foundation of nearly every successful social movement. So here is my rhetorical question, and I only speak on my behalf and not ROP’s: Why is this group operating on a shoestring budget of less than $200,000/year at a time when progressives have the capacity to throw million-dollar money-bombs at our preferred candidates and causes? Wouldn’t it make sense to invest at least a portion of that in strengthening an authentic grassroots progressive infrastructure in our communities?

A few more questions for discussions:

1) Does anyone have similar examples of broad-based, democratic organizing by progressives from your communities?
2) What obstacles do you face in organizing a similar type of "local human dignity group" in your community, and how could those obstacles be overcome?
3) What practical steps would you recommend for shifting the overall progressive movement from top-down email marketing and field campaigns to bottom-up, democratic action?
4) Are profiles such as this one useful to you? If not, how could they be improved?

Please leave your remarks in the comments section or send profile examples to michael.karpman [at] gmail.com.

Cross-posted at Democratize the Progressive Movement

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