Adults holding large signs and yelling while protesting on the side of a street

Grantee: Rural Organizing Project

How do community organizers in rural Oregon remain strong in the face of intense right-wing opposition?

For twenty years, Rural Organizing Project (ROP) has provided an essential support network in rural Oregon to build and sustain progressive organizing around issues of immigrant rights, economic justice, LGBTQ equality, and racial justice; and to advance democracy and human dignity in rural communities.

Human dignity groups— typically small and volunteer-led— have organized since the early 1990s to break down isolation and join together to confront intense homophobia, xenophobia, and racism perpetuated in rural towns by the extreme Right. ROP was formed to strengthen these groups, invest in the leadership and skills of these local organizers, and create a new vision of progressive organizing in rural Oregon.

ROP works with over 50 member groups, representing 29 of Oregon’s 36 counties in places like Bend, Klamath Falls, Newport, and Hermiston. A common thread among member groups is that they are often formed by everyday people— workers, parents, elders, and youth— who care about the future of their communities and struggle to sustain their work for change. ROP has built a support system that provides behind-the-scenes help to organizations through trainings, political education, strategy sharing, and grassroots coalition building.

In December 2011, dozens of rural Oregon communities began participating in ROP’s Occupy the Post Office campaign to challenge a Congressional funding mandate that threatens to drastically reduce postal service and shut down post offices in rural areas. Communities across the state collected petition signatures demanding that Congress stop the dismantling of the USPS, engaged in community-wide conversations around community infrastructure, and discussed with legislators the significance of post offices in the health and overall functioning of rural communities.

“Rural postmasters sometimes joke that the majority of their job isn’t in their job description,” says Cara Shufelt, director of ROP. With their post offices serving as unofficial community gathering centers, these postmasters find themselves providing regular support to small business owners, distributing information about community resources, and even traveling to residents’ homes and checking on them when their mail piles up— in the latter case, this common practice has saved the lives of ill and elderly residents.

Organizers see the threat to rural post offices and other public services as part of a larger picture of conservative policy in action: “This is a right-wing strategy to privatize public infrastructure, shrink government, and make it function for corporate— not public— good,” says Cara, who sees many member organizations working to prevent further dismantling of essential services.

ROP’s post office campaign is a part of a broad strategy to engage rural Oregonians in cross-issue organizing, with the goal of raising larger conversations about economic injustice and how it connects to other critical issues in rural Oregon.

For example, the Right has typically used immigrant rights as a wedge issue in an attempt to divide communities, especially in areas that have been impacted by economic recession for many years. “The right-wing has dominated the conversation [around immigration] in rural Oregon. People are really uncomfortable and it is easy to scapegoat a marginalized community,” says Cara. “Our goal is to get rural Oregonians thinking about the changes in demographics and building political analysis. It helps bring down the temperature in rural communities.”

ROP has built coalitions with a number of Latino-led immigrant rights groups is mobilizing rural Oregonians around immigration reform. This March, ROP, along with allied organizations like Causa Oregon, convened a weeklong, statewide bus tour to build community awareness and demand stronger and just immigration reform from policymakers.

Additionally, ROP has worked with members to build commitments in rural communities to approach immigrant rights issues within a Safe and Welcoming Communities framework. “The Welcoming concept is about reflecting the changing demographics in Oregon,” says Cara. “For instance, a benchmark for our work should be, ‘are we including immigrants, LGBTQ folks, and historically rural folks?’”

Bringing together a wide range of issues that affect rural Oregonians, ROP is building a conversation around the state that highlights how the public good is threatened by regressive policies and political rhetoric. “It’s about defeating the strategies of the right, which uses culture wars to take away basic infrastructure from our communities,” continues Cara. “…From citizenship, to the post office, to public schools.”

Recently, ROP was awarded a critical response grant from MRG to convene their March for ONE Oregon Bus Tour. “We value MRG’s belief in ROP,” says Cara. “This makes it possible for us to embrace an opportunity and jump on the moment— which means we can do the work that our members need us to do.”

For more information on Rural Organizing Project’s work, visit their website here.