Marcy Westerling, a long-time community organizer with a passion for justice who founded the Rural Organizing Project, died late June 10th in her home in outer southeast Portland amidst the flowering gardens she loved so well, in the devoted care of her husband Mike Edera, family, close friends, and her loyal dog Sawyer. In the 5 years and 3 months since being derailed, as she put it, by Stage IV ovarian cancer, Marcy continued her lifelong role as a leader and organizer, informing and inspiring countless followers around the world through her reports from the frontlines of treatment on her blog, “Livingly Dying: Notes & Essays on Daily Life with Terminal Cancer”.
Marcy traced her identity as an organizer to her Dutch ancestry and the role her forebears played in the resistance movement during WWII. Her childhood on rural Long Island, NY shaped her love of being outdoors. Marcy graduated as an art history major with honors from Smith College in 1981 after attending the University of Florence during her junior year. She credited her time in Italy with teaching her about the power of women standing up for other women; she came back to the US and founded a campus rape crisis center.
Marcy’s first job out of college was with ACORN (Association of Communities Organized for Reform Now) in Minnesota and then Iowa. She learned more about the workings of power through three years serving the developmentally disabled confined to institutions.
In 1986 Marcy moved to Scappoose, Oregon, enchanted by the idea of life on a houseboat. She got involved in Central American solidarity work with the Ben Linder Brigade and then from 1988 to 1993 served as executive director of the Columbia County Women’s Resource Center, a grassroots feminist rural crisis intervention program. As president of the board of the Oregon Coalition Against Domestic & Sexual Violence during this time, she began to do statewide work responding to violence, bigotry, and injustice in rural communities.
Spurred by rural resistance to divisive homophobic ballot measures, Marcy founded the Rural Organizing Project (ROP) in 1992 to develop the ongoing capacity of pro-democracy groups in over 60 rural and small town communities in Oregon. This network of Human Dignity groups, committed to a broad agenda of social change including cutting-edge anti-racist solidarity work, was the first of its kind in the state of Oregon and has since become a national model featured in videos, magazines, web sites, blogs, books, journals, and national radio shows. Marcy provided hands-on training to organizers in Wyoming, Texas, Maine, New York, Colorado, Washington, Idaho, Nebraska, and Minnesota.
A number of prestigious awards and honors have recognized Marcy’s accomplishments and pioneering leadership. In 2009 she was granted an Open Society Fellowship to advance her model of organizing at a national level. In 2003 she was selected from 3,000 nominations for a two-year Ford Foundation Leadership for a Changing World Fellowship, accompanied by a $115,000 cash award. In 2001 she was one of eight national civil rights leaders selected for a two-week delegation to Israel. A frequent featured speaker, Marcy gave the 2000 commencement address at the University of Oregon. Marcy was honored with awards from organizations including the Oregon Chapter of the National Association of Social Workers, Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon, Social Justice Fund NW, Lesbian Community Project, McKenzie River Gathering Foundation, Columbia County Women’s Resource Center, Coalition Against Hate Crimes, Oregon Gay and Lesbian Legal Alliance, and Right to Privacy PAC.
Marcy’s groundbreaking solidarity work with Oregon’s farmworkers union was documented in an ethnography titled “Building Alliances: Collaboration Between Causa and the Rural Organizing Project in Oregon.” Marcy and PCUN President Ramon Ramirez spent a year as the “Marcy and Ramon roadshow,” traveling the country telling the story of their collaboration.
Marcy served in volunteer leadership roles for Political Research Associates, Oregon Coalition Against Hate Crimes, Western Prison Project, Columbia County Citizens for Human Dignity, Community Action Team, Columbia County Alcohol and Drug Planning Commission, McKenzie River Gathering Foundation, and the Rainbow Coalition.
Marcy’s hands were never idle. She biked to work with dog and computer in her basket, rain or shine. She quilted during meetings and gardened in between conference calls. She reused every piece of paper and stretched every dollar. She sent out hundreds of handmade Valentines every year and made her surroundings beautiful. After Marcy and Mike met through their shared political commitments, they moved to a half-acre pond surrounded by orchards, animal pens, and year-round beds of vegetables and flowers. They fed themselves from what they harvested, sold eggs, and imagined a small farm stand at the end of their driveway that would be the pension that neither of their cherished day jobs offered.
Marcy was a force to be reckoned with: fiercely smart, brave and bold, profanely funny, strong and determined. She brought these same qualities to her life as a cancer warrior – the moniker she had tattooed onto her wrist. “I dare the world to ignore my diagnosis just as I defy any attempt to limit me to my diagnosis,” she wrote. In nearly continuous treatment for five years, she tracked every possible option and enrolled in clinical trials and innovative approaches that took her from Philadelphia to the Bronx to Marin County and San Jose. She kept her doctors on their toes and organized other patients and an impressive support system everywhere she went. In Portland, she cycled to chemo and complementary care appointments with a large “Cancer Sucks” sign affixed to her bike.
Marcy shared her quest to “enjoy every moment of every day while having my pink slip from the world” through her blog, which was accessed by women from 45 countries, along with interviews, a support group she organized, and articles published in a range of venues including YES magazine.
After her diagnosis, Marcy and Mike moved from their house on the pond into town where they created an incredible urban oasis. If Marcy had any regrets from her purpose-filled life, it was that she didn’t have a chance to grow old with Mike, her partner in every sense of the word. She described her notion of heaven as one in which she would be by Mike’s side for eternity in the gardens of their homestead, in the sun, with water burbling nearby. In an essay written for the local Ovarian Cancer Alliance Marcy wrote, “While I stay saddened at how deeply interrupted my life was and how likely it is I will die younger than planned, I do marvel at how content Mike and I are with the life we rebuilt. We had a good life. We have a good life.”
Marcy is survived by her sweetie Mike; mother Mary Westerling, father Karel Westerling and his wife Doris; sister Pam Westerling, her husband Steve and their daughter Kathryn; brother Randy, his wife Peggy and their children Nina, Ricky, Peter, and Jonathan. Marcy was predeceased by her beloved younger brother Peter. Joining the family in mourning Marcy’s death are Mike’s family and Marcy’s tremendous circle of devoted longtime friends, organizing colleagues, and other cancer warriors, in Oregon and across the country.
Marcy chose a natural burial at River View Cemetery in Portland, and encouraged frequent visits to her grave. A public memorial will be held at a future date. University of Oregon is establishing a Marcy Westerling Collection on Rural Organizing. Memorial gifts are encouraged to a Legacy Fund established in Marcy’s honor by the Rural Organizing Project. Visit ROP.org for details.