How to hold ‘living room conversations’ about immigration

IssueAugust - September 2016
Feature by Amy Dudley, Chris Crass


Semi-functional artwork at TriMet’s Gresham central transit centre, Gresham, Oregon. PHOTO: Steve Morgan CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia

With hundreds of volunteer leaders and 65 member groups across Oregon, the Rural Organising Project is a powerful example of a statewide social justice organisation with a statewide strategy. At the centre of their work for peace, justice and democracy is an organising strategy to develop anti-racist politics, leadership, and action in rural white working-class communities. Here is an interview with Amy Dudley, one of the ROP co-ordinators.

Chris Crass: What were the conditions that the Rural Organising Project emerged from and what is the organisation’s history?

Amy Dudley: Rural Organising Project (ROP) developed as a progressive rural response to homophobic ballot measures initiated by right-wing organisations that considered rural Oregon to be their political base. In the late ’80s and early ’90s, the Right was on the prowl. They were seeking out wedge issues that would effectively divide working-class people from their own economic self-interest and encourage fear and the worst of human nature to create a vacuum that the Right would then fill with ‘moral’ leadership and ‘family values’. Sounds familiar, right?

By equating being queer with paedophilia and a list of evils, the Right was able to whip up homophobic fears, focus the mainstream on a non-existent threat, scapegoat a vulnerable group of people, then enter the divide that they had created with anti-queer policies that would distract from the real focus of their platform – to create unfair tax structures, subsidise the rich, establish corporate welfare, and destroy the social safety net.

“What we have to understand is that being the best ally that you can be usually means working with other white folks.”

So the Right had their plan, now they needed to find communities to launch this attack. Where better than white rural America? Oregon is an incredibly white state, as is much of the Northwest. The state as a whole is 81 percent white, 10 percent Latino/a, 4 percent Asian and Pacific Islander, 2 percent African-American, and 1 percent Native American. Most communities of colour are concentrated in a few areas. Rural Oregon, like much of rural America, is downwardly-mobile, predominantly working-class/working poor, with a tendency to more conservative politics and religious fundamentalism, and a long history of openly white supremacist organising.

This is where ROP enters the scene. We don’t fit easily into gross stereotypes of ‘hillbillies’ or ‘rednecks’, terms that are intended to make fun of poor, white, rural people.

While all poor people are oppressed and treated in classist ways, making fun of poor, white, rural people is one of the few places that it is socially acceptable to be classist.

In the same way that working-class people are often blamed for perpetuating homophobia or characterised as exceedingly homophobic, poor, white, rural folks are often blamed for perpetuating white supremacy or characterised as exceedingly racist. In both these instances, perhaps it is true that working-class people are more likely to verbally express their homophobia or racism, but it is the wealthy, owning class that is exercising the power to keep these systems of oppression in place and ultimately use homophobia and racism to keep working people divided from each other.

It has been our experience at ROP that finding solidarity between working-class rural folks and the queer community, and between white rural folks and people of colour, and between white rural queer people and immigrant farm workers, has been a journey of finding common cause and a shared sense of struggle against the same systems of oppression that are working to keep us all divided and to keep us all down.

That is a journey that is much easier to take as a working-class person than as a wealthy person who is invested in keeping the system in place.

The reality is that rural communities can hark back, like all communities, to the radical struggles that we have been part of. Our values and our sense of community can be a uniting force against hatred and oppression.

... As [anti-queer] petitions started showing up outside post offices and grocery stores, justice-minded folk in rural Oregon stepped up. [They] took what support they could glean from urban supporters and set out on their own, travelling the state and holding ‘Living Room Conversations’ that called on people to recognise the human dignity that is innate in every person, to ask themselves what treatment their neighbours were deserving of, and ultimately to talk about what a real democracy requires of its members. From these Living Room Conversations, local human dignity groups were organised.

CC: What are the methodologies you use to work with white people? What has been successful and what has not?

AD: Since ROP’s beginning, we have used Living Room Conversations as a tool to bring contentious issues literally into someone’s living room with the intent of gathering community input, presenting outside observations and a framework, and then discussing how those observations match up or not with the wisdom of the local community.

These conversations have also served to break isolation. There is no substitute for face-to-face personal contact when you are trying to change culture, not just policy, particularly in rural communities.

When it comes to building our base of anti-racist white folks who are committed to countering the anti-immigrant movement in rural Oregon, we have used Living Room Conversations over the past two years to dialogue with more than 400 people in 20 different communities.

We open by sharing our analysis of the anti-immigrant movement in Oregon alongside a framework for talking about immigration that emphasises human dignity and human rights, democracy and global justice.

Then we use bulk of the time to talk about what folks are noticing in their own communities and what they think of the information that we have just shared. We believe that this method of popular education allows the wisdom and reflections of the community to lead the group towards action that is grounded in the realities of their community and allows ROP to act more as a facilitator and convenor which in turn leaves room for local leadership and direction to emerge.

At the close of the conversation we suggest options for ways to keep the conversation going and ask anyone who is interested to sign up to be a member of ROP’s Immigration Fairness Network (IFN) and their local Rapid Response Team (RRT).

From an organising perspective, these Living Room Conversations serve at least two purposes.

The first is to inoculate everyone in the room against the anti-immigrant movement.

The second is to identify leaders who will be part of the IFN and members of their RRT. While we want everyone to be an active leader in the struggle for racial justice, we know that is not going to happen immediately.

By talking through the white supremacist vision that the anti-immigrant attempts to hide and debunking anti-immigrant myths, we hope that most folks in the room won’t fall for these arguments. By sharing the impacts of global economic policies like NAFTA on people in Mexico and the United States and affirming that white folks can choose to welcome their immigrant neighbours and appreciate their contributions and suggesting active ways to organise to make that happen, we hope that some of the people in the room will take that work up.

Part of what is most effective about Living Room Conversations is that they are conversations. While the leader of the conversation will share information for the group to reflect on, we truly do allow it to be a conversation where people can put their thoughts out there and have time to talk through them.

We find this to be more effective than talking ‘at’ someone, trying to convince them they should feel a certain way. This style allows people to come to conclusions on their own that are grounded in justice and human dignity and creates more ownership and commitment to a cause....

ROP is above all about organising and building a movement in small town and rural Oregon. Whatever we are doing we are always asking how can this grow our contacts, engage new people, build for the long haul.

We don’t go anywhere without passing around a sign-in sheet or asking people for their contact information. When it comes to our anti-racism work, the same thing is true. We want to grow a large base of anti-racist allies who will take action when called upon and incorporate this vision and awareness into their own organising.

Growing our base means that we have to start where people are. Really. Of course you want your leadership to get it at the core – to be committed anti-racists.

But if we are truly committed to building a base, we have to make room for the base. And that means making space for learning, having the patience and compassion that it takes to move with people, often move really slowly with people.

CC: What is your strategy and how do you see that strategy fitting into a Left movement-building approach?

AD: ROP is working to build a rural movement for justice in Oregon. This is our piece of the larger global justice movement pie. We see this as the simple but difficult work of base building coupled with analysis building, or political education and action. The structure that we use is local, autonomous human dignity groups who are committed to our shared values of democracy and justice. Members of a local group will identify primarily with their local group and secondarily as a member group of ROP. The kind of campaigns and issues that these local groups work on is up to them.

ROP now works with more than 60 local groups in nearly every one of Oregon’s 36 counties. While building local progressive infrastructure is our core mission, we have a variety of issues that we focus on: tax fairness, funding for human needs, stopping the war(s), queer rights, protection of civil liberties, and immigrant rights. Of all of these, immigration is the most threatening as a wedge issue not only in the communities that we work in around the state, but within the progressive groups that we work with.

We unite this work under a shared vision of true democracy and human dignity for all. This is the kind of language that we use to mean collective liberation, the notion that we are not free until all of us are free, that all oppression, and therefore liberation, is connected.

We put this vision into practice by organising a base that brings together targets of oppression (queers, immigrants, communities of colour) and beneficiaries of privilege (white folks, straight folks, allies) to work on one another’s issues by challenging one another to stand up for the kind of democracy and kind of community that we want to live in.

Many of us, myself included, want to be the ‘perfect’ ally, a good white person. What we have to understand is that being the best ally that you can be usually means working with other white folks. And the truth is that just like us, most white folks still have a lot of learning and growing to do when it comes to their own internalised white supremacy. But if we are going to end white supremacy, I believe we have to do a lot more work within our white communities to dismantle the systems that have us all by the neck.