Western States Center joins scores of new and longtime community-based groups fighting Ballot Measure 9.
We don’t have the original project materials, grant proposals, or reports. The memories of the architects of the Oregon Democracy Project are influenced by the passage of 30 years. Not all of us are still alive.
A description remains on the back of a brochure in one person’s personal archive:
The Oregon Democracy Project, a coalition of four community-based organizations – Lesbian Community Project, Oregon Alliance for Progressive Policy, Oregon Coalition Against Domestic & Sexual Violence, and the Coalition for Human Dignity – sponsored by Western States Center, work[s] to oppose bigotry and promote progressive social change. The Oregon Democracy Project has been generously funded by the Public Welfare Foundation and the Veatch Foundation.
We could probably go back and dig up more documentation. But this is not an archival project. It’s about historical memory. The stories we carry within us. The lens of today through which we understand the past. The kaleidoscopic view glimpsed through many fragments in ever-shifting configurations.
Looking back, three things are crystal clear about Western States Center’s views at that time:
The fight against Ballot Measure 9 couldn’t be seen only as an attack on the gay and lesbian community; it was an attack on democracy and the gains of the twentieth-century civil rights movements. Because of that, the fight had to engage broader segments of leaders, communities, and voters than the No on 9 campaign would prioritize. And we had to start to move away from the boom-and-bust cycles of electoral campaigns that didn’t build infrastructure or movement.
The Oregon Democracy Project was conceived as a way to channel progressive philanthropic resources to address these critical needs as Oregonians considered the question of Ballot Measure 9.
Western States Center
Western States Center (WSC) was founded in Portland, Oregon only five years before the Measure 9 campaign. Its vision was of a just and equitable society governed by a strong, grassroots democracy. Its mission: to build a progressive movement for social, economic, racial and environmental justice in eight western states.
WSC founders were largely rooted in labor and place-based community organizing with an emphasis on economic class as the driver. “Speaking truth to power” was mainly seen as workers to bosses, tenants to landlords, poor neighborhoods to city halls and statehouses. What came to be called “identity politics” was still pretty new. The modern Christian Right and LGBTQ movements (see Text of Ballot Measure 9) were each only about two decades old.
“Ballot Measure 9 came along at a time of generational change. It was time we woke up to the anti-pelvic right,” says Jeff Malachowsky, founding Western States Center executive director.
WSC described itself at the time as “a unique regional organization of political activists, community leaders and progressive officials.” While there were a number of programs meant to encourage cross-pollination, the biggest tent was an annual conference, the Community Strategic Training Initiative (CSTI, now biennial and renamed AMP: Activists Mobilizing for Power).
“CSTI was a place where organizational leaders, and those on their way towards running organizations coming out of student, environmental and LGBTQ movements, would make connections with aging dinosaur organizers,” Jeff says. “We had a lot of work to do to unify the various wings: historic economic and civil rights organizations with the new social identity groups. But the energy for that was led by the latter.”
Deb Ross, one of Western States Center’s program directors, was an early leader in the feminist movement to end violence against women and children. The co-founder of the Center Against Rape & Domestic Violence (CARDV) in Corvallis, Deb had gone on to staff the Oregon Coalition Against Domestic & Sexual Violence (OCADSV) and to co-direct McKenzie River Gathering Foundation (now Seeding Justice).
Oregon Coalition Against Domestic & Sexual Violence
During the ballot measure fights against the Oregon Citizens Alliance in 1990 and 1992, your writer, Holly Pruett, was executive director of the Oregon Coalition Against Domestic & Sexual Violence (OCADSV). As only the second-ever director, I had the incredible good fortune of learning from the movement’s founders – Deb and many of the others who had created Oregon’s first rape hotlines and battered women’s shelters.
These founders had established some of the country’s first laws addressing domestic violence and made marital rape a state crime. They’d lobbied for a fee on marriage licenses that provided the only steady public funds in that era, distributed through a cooperative formula that made sure there was some level of resistance to violence against women in every one of Oregon’s 36 counties.
OCADSV, along with the national coalitions we were a part of, worked hard towards being explicitly anti-racist. It was the kind of work that came to be understood as intersectional after Kimberlé Crenshaw’s analysis entered the mainstream.
We understood that making the criminal justice system responsive to violence against women was complicated by the fact of anti-Black racism. The use of rape accusations had long justified both legal and extra-judicial lynching even as the sexual abuse of Black women was rarely acknowledged, much less punished. Trainings at my first crisis line in 1985 included role plays to practice “interrupting racism” – for example, objections to “that part of town” when transporting white women to a battered women’s shelter in a historically Black neighborhood.
Our ability to live up to our anti-racist ideals, both individually and institutionally, was a mixed bag, of course. There were many mistakes, and there was pushback from white women. But anti-racism trainings were mandatory. There was a staffed Women of Color Caucus.
A commitment to addressing the inter-relationship of racism and violence against women and a belief that the liberation of any one oppressed group was tied to the liberation of all oppressed groups – these were the prevailing norms across OCADSV’s network of 30-some community-based organizations when Ballot Measure 9 came to call.
Suzanne Pharr was a big part of that push at the national level. She had founded the Women’s Project in Arkansas in 1980, working at the time for Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA), part of the federal government’s mid-1960s “War on Poverty.” The Women’s Project’s Women’s Watchcare Network tracked violence against women along with racist, antisemitic, and homophobic hate violence and the activity of the Klan and other far-right groups. Suzanne became visible as one of the white women working in partnership with the women of color leading the push for anti-racism awareness and practices within the larger domestic and sexual violence movement.
In 1988 Suzanne published the first of her several essential movement books. Homophobia, A Weapon of Sexism exposed the ways that progress towards dismantling the barriers created by systemic misogyny could be weakened by accusing a woman of being a lesbian. Labeling feminists as “man-haters” was a primary form of discounting us and resisting the changes we demanded. Suzanne travelled to Oregon and around the country leading anti-homophobia trainings with other movement colleagues, extending OCADSV’s understanding of intersectionality to include the ways that anti-LGBTQ bias threatened the rights and safety of other marginalized groups.
This was the organizational base Deb Ross brought to Jeff Malachowsky’s attention as they were prioritizing constituencies to engage through Western States Center. It meant overcoming a conventional organizers’ bias against what was seen as “social service” organizations. It would prove catalytic to WSC’s commitment to expanding the parameters of the fight against Ballot Measure 9 beyond the confines of a typical electoral campaign in Oregon – by involving communities ignored by typical campaigns, and by strengthening progressive infrastructure for the future fights to come.
Oregon Democracy Project
Jeff and Deb conceived of a loose structure that would bring together four 501(c)(3) organizations that had much to offer the larger No on 9 effort. The idea was to channel some resources for each to do the kind of non-partisan voter education and engagement that was allowable under their tax-exempt status. Bring them together to develop some shared analysis. See if any synergy might develop among these groups, which were largely unknown to each other.
The Oregon Alliance for Progressive Policy (OAPP) was the closest to WSC’s core constituency. Based on a model already well-established in other states (now called “a table”), OAPP aimed to aggregate the power of public employee unions with other environmental, consumer, and civil rights advocacy groups. Its lifespan was short, from 1989 to 1994.
The Lesbian Community Project (LCP), founded by Cathy Siemens (a former WSC board member), and others in 1985 was in its heyday at that time. It mixed social and recreational community building (like a big annual softball tournament) with visibility and advocacy work. LCP’s second executive director Donna Redwing was a major figure in the No on 9 campaign, as documented in the film Ballot Measure 9.
The Coalition for Human Dignity (CHD) was a semi-underground opposition research and organizing shop based at that time in Portland. Part of their anti-fascist work addressing the hate violence described in Act I: 1988 is told through the podcast series It Did Happen Here. Scot Nakagawa, a key No on 9 organizer who afterwards became Fight the Right Director for NGLTF, was part of CHD. He and Tarso Luís Ramos (who joined the WSC staff for a 12-year run in May, 1992) were working on a series of essays and pamphlets making the case against the measure and the Oregon Citizens Alliance to different constituencies. Current WSC executive director Eric K. Ward and his then-colleague Kelley Weigel, later the third WSC executive director, worked on one about the OCA and race. I worked on one about the OCA and women’s rights. Others focused on environmentalists, labor and so on.
The fourth group was the one I directed at the time, the Oregon Coalition Against Domestic & Sexual Violence. Besides having the base of intersectional political education described above, we were about the only statewide organization with a presence in every one of Oregon’s largely rural 36 counties. Some of our member groups were pretty tiny, a handful of volunteers – but they had at least some recognition of what was at stake when their neighbors were asked to vote to condemn gays and lesbians in the state Constitution.
Deb was the builder who brought the four organizations together.
It required a paradigm shift about what organizing is and how power building is done. Patriarchal models of organizing weren’t going to work. The people with the most skin in the game and the most to offer weren’t in those old models.Tarso Luis Ramos
Tarso credits WSC with the kind of broadly inclusive leadership we need more of in 2022. “Jeff took a risk,” he says, “that proved very significant. Jeff came out of Alinsky organizing, a very white, extremely ‘bro’ culture, and had a lot of credibility in that world. He was convinced to leverage Western States Center’s resources and platform for leaders – many of them queer women – and communities that hadn’t previously figured prominently in his imagination of how to build power. The resulting alliances transformed the politics of an array of institutions and shifted movement culture in the Northwest.”
It was clear that regardless of the poll-driven, media-market-targeted messaging of the official No on 9 campaign, there had to be a conversation about democracy. What it meant to vote on a group of peoples’ rights. The way this campaign was a covert referendum on race and the gains of the civil rights movement.
As Suzanne Pharr said when the “special rights” attack was first discussed at the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force’s Creating Change conference, “This is not just about queers. This is something different.”
Western States Center and the four organizations it brought together decided to call the consortium the Oregon Democracy Project.
Suzanne came out to Oregon to work both inside the official campaign, doing political education and fielding media to broaden the understanding of the OCA’s agenda, and to work with Oregon Democracy Project (ODP) members.
The full range of what ODP did as a consortium, and what each of the four groups did towards the defeat of Ballot Measure 9, is either forgotten or to be told on another day. Tarso remembers that WSC featured the Rev. Dr. Mac Jones, a Black Baptist preacher from the South, at CSTI that summer. “That was an important talk,” Tarso says, “explicitly linking the struggle for African American civil rights with Ballot Measure 9” in a state that was then 90% white. The Child Advocates Caucus at OCADSV took the lead on debunking the measure’s conflation of pedophilia and homosexuality. And both LCP and CHD worked 24/7 from the start to the finish of the fight against the OCA.
In all this activity, the most significant and durable was the focus the Oregon Democracy Project brought to rural Oregon.
Rural Road Trips
With Oregon’s population concentrated along the Interstate 5 corridor, a statewide electoral victory can generally be achieved by ignoring the residents of the rest of the state. Our last Republican Governor left office in January, 1987. But a commitment to inclusive democracy meant we couldn’t see anyone as expendable.
If you throw away small towns and rural people you’ve defeated yourself. You set up fertile ground in the face of an anti-democracy movement that thrives on resentment – you contribute to the resentment.Suzanne Pharr
Not only was reaching out to rural communities the right thing to do for the long-term prospects of democracy, our relationships within OCADSV and other progressive groups outside metro areas – like the farmworkers’ union – meant that we personally knew or lived in communities that were being torn apart by the OCA’s divisive agenda.
Marcy Westerling decided to do something about it from the small town of Scappoose, north of Portland on the Columbia River. The director of the OCADSV member group Columbia County Women’s Resource Center, Marcy organized her neighbors into Columbia County Citizens for Human Dignity, a model she thought could work elsewhere.
With Suzanne Pharr, Scot Nakagawa, and Pat McGuire from Coalition For Human Dignity on board, Marcy hit the road. Years later, when Marcy died in 2015 after five years of “livingly dying” of ovarian cancer, her memorial tributes included this from Tarso:
“The official ‘No’ campaign hoped the liberal vote in Portland and a few other west side cities would be enough to defeat the measure. Marcy and other savvy people at the Oregon Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence (where she was board chair) doubted that calculus and were in any case unwilling to concede rural and small town Oregon to the Right. So they set out to build a statewide resistance network. That network would be carried by the leadership of women who already understood about White Christian patriarchy and were in various capacities already combatants in the struggle for women’s survival and liberation.
“Marcy went on tour around the state with Patricia McGuire, Scot Nakagawa, and Suzanne Pharr. While they all came home—challenged and elated—in some sense for Marcy that tour never really ended. Rather, under her leadership and in response to the shifting conditions of the day, the network she built evolved over time into the Rural Organizing Project.”
And this from Suzanne Pharr: “Of all the many things I cherish about Marcy Westerling, the most outstanding was her relentless commitment to rural people and belief they can organize for change in their local communities. In 1992, Scot Nakagawa, Pat McGuire, and I were Marcy’s sidekicks in a memorable ride around Oregon to see if there was an interest in organizing in small towns. Marcy drew from what she learned on that trip to found the Rural Organizing Project. With a belief that every voice should be heard, she established strong democratic principles and began organizing.”
Infrastructure for the Long Haul
There will be more to say about the Rural Organizing Project, celebrating their 30th anniversary this year. OCADSV was proud to serve as their fiscal sponsor once the Oregon Democracy Project wrapped up, until their independent tax-exempt status came through.
There were other relationships forged through the focus on the underlying issues of race and the threat to inclusive democracy that we’ll have time to tell over the course of the year.
There’s one more outcome from Western States Center’s investment in the Oregon Democracy Project to mention now.
Immediately after the defeat of Ballot Measure 9, the official campaign closed its offices, its singular goal of achieving 50 percent + one having been achieved. Jeff and Deb brought in campaign organizer Thalia Zepatos for a huddle around a tape recorder. They, with Kathleen Saadat, documented all of the strengths and all of the weaknesses of what had gone down, with an eye to how such campaigns going forward could have dual goals. Not just to win at the ballot – in this case, we had only stopped something bad from happening – but at the same time, to build the movement for inclusive democracy.
Their observations formed the framework for the fight against the OCA’s next round of local measures and their “Son of 9” statewide Ballot Measure 13 in 1994. That campaign, which I co-led, defeated the OCA and laid the groundwork for a permanent, campaign-ready LGBTQ organization with an intersectional anti-racist commitment. That organization is Basic Rights Oregon, still thriving more than 25 years later.
Thalia’s notes formed the outline for a Movement Building Campaign curriculum and toolbox that later I helped to edit, used by Western States Center with dozens of groups around the region over the course of the next decade or more.
In the shorter term – January, 1993 – Marcy and Deb took those lessons to Idaho which in 1994 would face an Idaho Citizens Alliance measure modeled on Ballot Measure 9. Idaho leader John Hummel remembered the impact in his memorial tribute to Marcy:
“Marcy and Deb spoke to a group of LGBTQ activists in our living room, just as they had in countless living rooms throughout Oregon during the 1992 Ballot Measure 9 campaign. Together, Marcy and Deb inspired the formation of our campaign, the ‘Decline to Sign/No On One Campaign,’ that defeated Proposition One, Idaho’s anti-gay ballot measure, in the statewide general election in November 1994 (by approximately 2,000 votes, but who’s counting?). In 1993 and 1994, Marcy and Deb and Suzanne Pharr returned to Idaho three times to teach and inspire at a series of training events sponsored by our statewide equality group, Your Family Friends & Neighbors. My partner Brian co-chaired our statewide campaign, and the wisdom and support that both Marcy and Deb provided was a great foundation to his leadership.” ~ John Hummel
An Important Story for Our Present Moment
Reflecting on the No on 9 effort that expanded beyond the confines of the traditional electoral campaign box – the Oregon Democracy Project and other complementary organizing – Tarso says:
Taking the long view beyond short-term policy fights took a lot of chutzpa, a lot of fight, and a willingness to deal with dissent in our own coalitions. A commitment to a long-term struggle for power required competing in places that were strongholds for our opposition. It meant making decisions not to just fight within the opposition’s frame and to invest in new infrastructure that could build countervailing power.Tarso Luís Ramos
As the first state to enable direct legislation through citizen-led ballot initiatives, Oregon already had savvy electoral organizers safeguarding reproductive rights and public employee unions. The Ballot Measure 9 campaign benefitted from that base of expertise. In turn, the fights against the OCA’s anti-LGBTQ ballot measures may have strengthened progressive infrastructure for other issues. It’s one of the reasons, Tarso believes, that Oregon has just about the strongest commitment to reproductive rights in the country, defeating every attempted restriction at the ballot box, defending state funding for abortion, and winning comprehensive Reproductive Health Equity Act legislation in 2017 (another Western States Center priority).
“The infrastructure that began or developed through the fight against Ballot Measure 9 organized new constituencies and galvanized others,” Tarso says. “It’s one of the most important stories we need to tell in this current moment in time.”
As they say on The Moth Radio Hour, “Moth stories are true as remembered and affirmed by the storyteller.” Read more about the benefits and challenges of historical memory.