In Memory of Marcy Westerling

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The incomparable, unforgettable Marcy Westerling: March 25, 1959 – June 10, 2015

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.

 

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About marcy westerling

I am a long time community organizer with a passion for justice and founded the Rural Organizing Project in 1992. Derailed by a Stage IV Ovarian Cancer diagnosis in spring 2010, I have stayed in treatment since then. I am learning how to embrace livingly dying and hope that by starting a Phase One immunology clinical trial at UPenn in spring of 2013 I will have more time to find the sweet spots of thriving while terminally ill.

58 responses »

  1. Words escape me – and the huge lump in my throat will likely remain for a long time. Marcy was one amazing woman – and a very dear friend. She will often be in my thoughts, and forever in my heart. Much love to her family and many, many friends.

  2. My deepest condolences to Mike, Marcy’s family, and all of her deeply devoted friends. She will sorely missed by all of us who knew and loved her. I write this with tears in my eyes, but at least she is no longer in pain. May her afterlife be one of gardens, butterflies, and peace.

  3. Focused on your life………I will be a comfort to your friends Marcy……they carry your light. You my dear still have work to do………we know you are already “at it”……..with love in my heart I will miss you………..

  4. We have lost such a wonderful friend and powerful advocate. I am so grateful for the years of our friendship.

  5. A truly wonderful giving lady. Inspirational, helpful to all a loss to all of us. May God grant peace and compassion for all whose life was touched by Marcy, especially her wonderful husband and family. may God hold Marcy in His loving arms we will all see you again one day gone but never forgotten. Again we will miss you Marcy! rest in peace you fought a valiant, courageous battle.

  6. We have been connected since the summer of 2013, we two survivors. Your legacy WILL live on. My very best wishes for peace and contentment to Marcy’s family and close friends. This is very hard.

  7. A huge loss to all of the communities in which she belonged. She left a wonderful legacy and many many friends who will miss her terribly. She also left an amazing chronicle of her journey with ovarian cancer that has inspired and given hope to many. My deepest condolences to her family and friends.

  8. MARCY WESTERLING – PRESENTE! for always and ever with gratitude and love. And for dear Mike and care team as well.

  9. What an inspiration she was to a junior high girl when I first met her. Her ever-present attitude of selflessness has made me see the world differently. You will be missed.

  10. With a very heavy heart, Goodbye Marcy. Thank you for all that you freely gave to us. My deepest condolences to your loving and steadfast husband, family.

    What an amazing person you were and will always be in my heart.

  11. Marcy, I wasn’t fortunate enough to meet you in person but I feel very lucky to have read your blogs. I’m many times stronger as I join my sister in battling ovarian cancer because of the inspiration and courage that you’ve shared. I send you, your family and friends a lot of love.

    • Sending gratitude to those who cared for Marcy, and sincere condolences to her beloved partner, family and friends. So thankful to have had her in our life, to have had the privilege to march, chant, chat, laugh, cry and dance with a most impacting powerful woman! Oh she will be missed.

  12. What a tremendous force you were while you were here, Marcy! An earlier commenter acknowledged that “a light has gone out” in our world, and indeed, it has. Yet I felt immediately, “But she ignited sooo many others!” I smile now, thinking of all those lights twinkling here still, a brilliant manifestation of sustainable luminosity (and love)!
    Thank you, Marcy, and rest in peace.

    To Mike, family and her beloved friends, my condolences and prayers as you make your way without your dear Marcy. May her light still shine upon you.

  13. Gone too soon….but she left a little of herself with everyone she met, in person or through her writings, so we can be sure she will never be gone completely. Marcy more than earned her rest.

    My deepest condolences to her family & friends. I will miss her.

  14. Loosing a beloved too early sucks. I am so sorry for your loss- all you who were Marcy’s beloveds. I will always be grateful for Marcy and the ROP. I love justice and I love rural. That the two can coexist is a legacy of Marcy’s I will hold on to. Thank you.

  15. Reblogged this on So, I Read This Book Today and commented:
    Marcy was my heroine. She suffered with great dignity, fought to survive, and worked tirelessly to improve the fate of others. She will be deeply missed. Marcy, may your trip to the Summerlands be joyous and your time there peaceful until all who love you arrive. Then may great joy and much love increase your blessings. Upon the wings of love you are sent. Leiah

  16. Reblogged.
    “Marcy was my heroine. She suffered with great dignity, fought to survive, and worked tirelessly to improve the fate of others. She will be deeply missed. Marcy, may your trip to the Summerlands be joyous and your time there peaceful until all who love you arrive. Then may great joy and much love increase your blessings. Upon the wings of love you are sent. Leiah”

  17. I dreamed of Marcy in the early morning hours today. She was teaching me. Somehow I know her teaching will continue. Love and light to you Mike.

  18. Fly free, Marcy. I had no idea that you were even more incredible than I initially thought you to be. Love and light to Mike and the rest of your family. Thank you for the lessons you’ve taught me and so many others XO

  19. This message is to Mike. I know you have been an asset to Marcy your sacrafices to enter into this unwelcomed disease that takes a toll on everyone and many times their loved ones life ; eventually. Marcy fought hard and your sacrafices has helped many of us who fight on trying to find the cure for Ovarian cancer. We do things to help women in this cause. Like Marcy I am traveling accross country to Penn Medicine for trial. I know no one there, don’t know exactly where I am staying up to the day before I arrive and wonder why. My desire to help find the cure for women is stronger than my fear and frailties. We march on as Marcy did.

    If each of us had to start at square one reinventing the wheel instead of piggy backing on what others like Marcy have shared, women would never volunteer for trials. Although you can’t say Marcys input to this disease was average. I don’t know the scale hadn’t followed her that long but its huge.

    I don’t purpose to know what end of life means for others, but for me it is to live in eternity forever free of disease and sickness “we will be made whole.”

  20. RIP sister, friend. Eternal thanks for your courage, grace, generosity, eloquence and sacrifice. You gave so much. Your story lives on in my heart; I shall share it at every opportunity.

  21. Dearest Mike and Marcy’s family,
    Marcy was a life force if there ever was one. I knew her for less than two years, but I learned so much: about how to organize in a radically inclusive way, where there are no “others;” about how to love life fiercely and give it up livingly; about how to laugh with your friends in the midst of struggle, everyday. Love you, Marcy, and love you too, Mike.

  22. Marcy – a tremendous force for all life!

    So grateful we connected. I will miss her unique spirit. May it live on in us, through us.

    Tender wishes for all who held her in loving care. Thank you.

  23. What an amazing woman, got to know her through Words with Friends.Though we never met she touched my life just chatting on line. Bless you Marcy.

  24. So impressive and well written. Thank you for sharing about her life. My mother in law used to say- go out there and take a big bite out of life- Marcy did. I’m grateful just to have been a witness. Usha

  25. Marcy was a tremendous person who I admired so much. I am so sad she is not with us. I am so sorry, Mike. May your sorrow slowly heal and your memories keep you moving forward. Marcy would want that for you.

  26. Marcy, I feel so privileged to have known you since 1982 when you worked with ACORN in Des Moines. You were one of the feminists who embodied love and peace and justice when so many would label us as men-haters. YOU GOT IT. I feel so privileged to have been part of your amazing journey and witnessed your fire and your love of life. Blessings be for ALL that you gave and gave and gave. And to Mike, you are part of our extended family; please know we will always have a place for you in our hearts – our love is with you and all who knew and loved Marcy.

  27. On June 12, 2015, hearts broken open by grief and boundless love, we tenderly delivered our beloved Marcy Westerling to her new earthen home at River View Cemetery. Following instructions written on the first anniversary of her cancer diagnosis, we prepared Marcy’s body for burial at home in the hours following her death, tucking her into a shroud made by her sister Pam with all the things she’d requested for her journey. With the aural embrace of kd lang’s rendition of Hallelujah, Marcy was lowered into her grave on a white pine board milled by her brother Randy from a tree on his property. We showered her with flowers and words of love, and closed her grave to the sounds of a lone bagpiper. Her grave was decorated with a final cape of floral beauty and protection provided by Marcy’s mother Mary.

    Marcy’s invitation to all of you: “Visit often. Make it a place where you problem solve dilemmas, process new adventures, keen and celebrate the many transitions in your own life. Come alone. Bring others. Young people, scared people, irreverent people. Keep me as present as you can. I truly believe that I will feel and treasure this.”

    • Thank you so much, Holly, for sharing this with us. What a beautiful farewell! It was comforting to read your touching account, and inspiring — yet another gift from Marcy via your elegant words. And her graciousness continues to defy boundaries! I will certainly take her up on her invitation. Again, thank you.

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