Longtime Community Organizer, Par Excellence (Marion Malcolm)

Sylvia: It’s October 14, 2016 and I’m interviewing Marion Malcolm. I assume you could call yourself a community organizer. Is that right?

 Marion: Community organizer is exactly the title I like. I was hired by CALC [now called Community Alliance for Lane County] in late 1974 when it was still Clergy and Laymen Concerned about Vietnam. I was hired to work 15 hours a week for $150.00 a month. It was founded nationally in 1965 and then a chapter was formed in Eugene in 1966. I’m so very much still with them, in part because it is CALC’s 50th anniversary and I’m one of the people who carries the history.

Originally it was basically an anti-war group, wasn’t it?

 Yes. Because it was Clergy And Laymen Concerned About Vietnam. And it was brought together with the idea of mobilizing interfaith opposition to the war. Although many of the people had also been involved in the civil rights movement at the national and local levels. And I think many people quickly shared an analysis that the war was, in the words of Martin Luther King, a symptom of a far deeper malady which he defined as the giant triplets of racism, militarism, and materialism in a speech that he made under the auspices of CALCAV a year to the day before he was killed. He was co-chair of CALCAV at the time of his death.

Yes, that’s extraordinary. CALC and you have been involved in so many community issues as they arose, over the years, and you’re a tremendous asset to Eugene [Oregon.] And then you became very active in Springfield [Eugene’s sister city] as well.

 That’s CALC as well. Springfield Alliance for Quality and Respect is a program of CALC, started in 1997.

So now we’re going to move on. What in your past led you to become an activist?

 The most important answer really is my family, my parents. For them it was about being Christian. But the kind of Christian that they were was seven days a week, not just Sunday morning. And it was very much rooted in what the Bible has to say about justice. And about love. And so I can’t take any credit at all other than having been fortunate to be born into that family for having values from the time I was very little. That included, and I think this is a really important, not thinking I was related to my own nuclear family but that there was a human family that I was part of. And that we share responsibilities within that human family.

Even as a kid I always knew that we didn’t get as fancy Christmas presents as my friends because, dollar for dollar, my parents matched what they spent on us kids with gifts that they made to help people who were less fortunate than we are. I remember one year there was a really gorgeous doll that I wanted and didn’t get, but I think we understood from an early age, and felt good about it.

 So, with that background, I was in college from 1957 to 1961 and that time period stretched from the cold war, anti-communist McCarthy era — the people in the fifties that were called the “silent generation.” Because if you spoke out you really risked a lot in terms of your job and your livelihood. It came into the beginnings of real big mobilizations in response to human rights violations in the South, the civil rights movement. I was involved in fairly minimal ways when I was in college and the first thing that I did as a naïve freshman, I signed an open letter that was published in the campus newspaper against the House Un-American Activities Committee. I have never sent for my Freedom of Information files but I imagine I probably landed myself in there, right back then. I’ve never sent for them probably because if I didn’t have a file I would feel as though perhaps my life had been wasted. [laughs]

[laughs] That’s a marvelous line! It hasn’t been wasted.

 No, I don’t think it’s been wasted. But, I didn’t do all that much in college. For one thing I was working most of the time that I was in college. But I somehow got to know the handful of campus radicals of that period. Some people that I was really quite close to were among the first northern college students to join the Freedom Rides. They were arrested in Jackson, Mississippi for trying to integrate the bus terminal. And they ended up in Parchman State Penitentiary – it wasn’t a nice place.

But, while they were doing that, I was in my senior year in college and I somehow got old-fashioned measles and landed in the college infirmary. While I was in the infirmary, in isolation because of the measles, someone brought me the news that my friends had been arrested in Jackson and were in jail. I had plenty of time to contemplate and what came to me very clearly was that my friends were in jail for values that I said I also held. And that if I did nothing to act on those values they were completely meaningless. So from June of 1961 I have to some extent or another, usually a very considerable extent, been involved in organizing for social change. And I don’t think I ever told any of them that, and some of them are now gone. I really should see who I can find and tell them, because they don’t know what a big influence they had.

I wanna backtrack because I went to the funeral for your mother and you told me at that time, or thereabouts, that she had herself been an activist.

 Yes. My mother was actually involved in CALC before I was. I moved here in 1966 and from 1969 to when I started working for CALC, the primary group that I worked with was Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. We would co-sponsor things with CALC. So, I was very aware of CALC but I hadn’t actually been directly involved with them or gone to their meetings. They reached out to me and asked if I would be interested in this big position. [laughs]

This lucrative position.

 Lucrative position. I had the title of Executive Director. [laughs] And we had just been given free office space for a year in the Koinonia Center, because the Presbyterian campus minister at the time had started some organization about amnesty. And he really wanted somebody to implement what he had started. So if we worked on the issue of amnesty for war resisters then we could have free office space for a year. We ended up staying there from 1974 to 1980.

 Was your family’s background Methodist or Presbyterian or what?

 No. They were denomination jumpers. My parents were missionaries. My grandparents were missionaries. Multiple members of my family have been missionaries in India. My dad was born in India. My older brother was born in India. But my dad’s family was Baptist and my mother was Congregational. And I grew up in Presbyterian and Methodist churches. They kinda looked for which was the church that had some kind of social conscience whenever they went to a new community.

 Makes a lot of sense actually. I usually ask the question,“What issues have you worked on?” In your case maybe I should ask “what issues haven’t you worked on?” [laughs]

 [laughs] I’ve worked on many issues. For me, they’re all connected. I started out primarily as a peace activist. Concerned with the war in Vietnam and then concerned with the international arms race and the need for disarmament and international human rights. There was a period of time when the United States was supporting no fewer than fifty military dictatorships around the world. And CALC picked what we called “the dirty dozen” where the government was the most egregious and where our country had the biggest involvement. Cause we always thought our responsibility was to look at where our government was involved because that’s where we could have influence. So, that was international human rights.

 The Vietnam War ended in April 1975, and we spent the next five, six years with international human rights as a primary focus. CALC was a national organization, so we were doing things in concert with the national, which after the war changed its name and dropped the “about Vietnam,” and just was “Clergy and Laymen Concerned” until we had a little bit of a feminist uprising and got them to change it to Clergy and Laity.

 But the other thing we were doing in co-sponsorship with the American Friends Service Committee was the Stop the B-1 Bomber, national peace conversion campaign. And that was a campaign against a particularly expensive weapon system, but we also were doing it as a way of illuminating how the entire military industrial complex operated. So, the goals were stopping the production of that particular plane, but it was also about basically challenging military corporations. And building support for what we called “peace conversion.” Which is what should those factories be making that was of some use to human beings rather than the weapons.

This was a pretty big campaign. They campaigned in about fifty communities. And Charles Gray [Sylvia’s late husband] was one of the people that helped to put together a couple of different study action groups where we looked at how all of that got put together. They were always not just study groups but study-action groups, so a component was always saying to ourselves, “OK, what can we do about this?” So we did quite a few creative actions that were visible at a community level.

 I’ve often heard that Charles developed a giant bar graph of the U.S. budget that showed how military spending dwarfed virtually all other expenses.

 Oh yes, he developed that budget. And yes, CALC painted that down the entire closed block of 13th Avenue across the campus. I think it was there when we had Parents Weekend. So, that was that until around 1980 when there was a young man on the national staff of CALC who was African-American and he got really mad at people one day and he said, “You guys are looking at human rights everywhere in the world, and you’re not looking in your own backyard. That’s racist.” And that caused a bunch of soul searching at the national level but also at the level of the local chapters, and our particular chapter of CALC decided to take that really seriously. And began a process which is not yet finished of looking at racism and how that functions.

 That led to a rebalancing of our programs so that we were still doing at that point stuff around the international arms race and U.S. militarism and international human rights but we balanced that with looking at issues of racial justice and economic justice in the United States. And we’re still doing all those things. With probably the balance having shifted more to what’s going on here, including what’s going on in our own community where we can probably have the most impact. But, it’s a long journey and it’s a struggle because we’ve always all been so very affected by the racism that this country was founded on.

 This state [Oregon] has a history of racism, its own form of racism. And it’s still a relatively white state, white native-born.

All that’s true and that’s the situation in which we work. What CALC has tried to do is make sure that our leadership includes people from the communities that are affected by the issues we claim to care about. So most of the time since 1983 we’ve had at least a bi-racial if not a multi-racial staff. And ditto for the steering committee, now the board of directors. And it doesn’t mean we don’t mess up. And have people get mad at us. Cause we do.

 I believe CALC is held to a different standard by people who are activists in communities of color than the League of Women Voters or the ACLU, or any other of the organizations in the community because CALC says we’re trying to be an anti-racist organization, and people of color have every right to be a little bit skeptical about that because of everything they’ve seen. When we do something clumsy or mess up, we get called on it. Never easy. But, helps us grow. So, in terms of issues we’ve worked on, maybe I should highlight a few.

 The Vietnam War occupied, in a way, a decade of my life. And it wasn’t abstract, on two levels. I had three brothers-in-law who took turns being in Vietnam. And I totally reject the idea that the peace movement and veterans were always opposing forces cause that’s not my experience and we worked with veterans from pretty early in the war. And then the other way in which it was real to me is I was a mom of young kids. And I, because again of my upbringing and feeling like I was a part of a human family, I could not imagine that the Vietnamese mothers were any less in anguish than I was gonna be if I had a son in the war. That’s one of the reasons, I guess, I like working with the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, because we had this kind of woman to woman connection that felt very strong.

 Then the struggle for self-determination in Central America and against U.S. intervention in Central America was probably another decade, and that involved CALC organizing the first Oregon Witness For Peace delegation to Nicaragua. Also, the first delegation that had a teenager in it, which was my son, who is now 47? [laughs] Cause that was in 1985. And we were also instrumental in forming the Interfaith Sanctuary Movement when we had Salvadoran refugees living here with us in the community. And I feel really good about the way we did that, too. Because we didn’t just do it for them, some of the refugees themselves were part of that and we would have bilingual meetings and did some work that was of some national significance about cultural sensitivity in the sanctuary movement.

 Did CALC recruit congregations to be involved in sanctuary?

 No, we didn’t. This group called the Interfaith Sanctuary Network included people from the churches that were hosting them but also included some other people that were Central America activists to build support around that and to create opportunities for the refugees to tell their stories. That sort of thing. And we were part of a network regionally and nationally that was the Sanctuary Network.

 And we did a bunch of Southern African work, too. We did that while there was still apartheid. So, it was anti-apartheid work. And again that was a national movement and CALC as a national organization was very much involved in that national movement but we were very active here. We had a group at one point called People for Southern African Freedom, which again was CALC but it was also two or three other organizations. We’ve always believed in working in partnerships.

 What are you focusing on more right now? Or let’s say in the last ten years, what have been the main concerns of CALC?

 They, in a way, don’t change. And I feel two ways about that. Part of me feels just like sitting down and crying because are we ever gonna be done with any of these issues? Is any of this ever gonna be fixed? Are we ever gonna arrive at justice? And then the other part of me says, “I love this organization. It is not fickle. When it cares about something it cares about it deeply and for a lo-o-ong time.” So, we’ve been working for decades on issues related to racism, which to me has importantly included immigrant rights. And connected to farm worker justice.

 So, we have a long-term relationship with Piñeros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste, the farmworkers union in Oregon. That relationship goes back to the late ‘70’s. We’ve worked for a very long time for LGBTQ rights. We always work against war. Throughout the entire history of CALC we’ve provided counter-recruitment work, going into schools and helping kids see that there are alternatives to serving in the military. And in more recent years a lot of our work has also focused around the reasons for homelessness and pushing for policy changes which will make life a little bit better for people who are homeless or at risk of homelessness. I think we’ve done very important work on that issue in both Eugene and in Springfield. We’ve done a lot of work in the schools on racial equity issues.

 It’s taken a variety of forms, but I think one way to talk about our work is to say that we do our best to hold public institutions accountable to everybody, and more specifically including people that are at the margins, like people of color, or people that are there because they’re LGBTQ, or real poor.

 To see that they are served adequately or not discriminated against or whatever?

 Yeah, and then we’ll hear from people who work within the school system or could be the city about problems that are there or we’ll hear from parents or kids about problems and then we’ll take that information and without breaching people’s confidentiality we’ll take it to school personnel and say, “This is happening. And what are you gonna do about it?” And here’s some ideas we have about what you could be doing about it and we try to do it a way that doesn’t mean that the institution just slams the door in our face and doesn’t let us in anymore. So, we developed a mantra particularly in Springfield that’s “respectful but relentless.”

 And so we go in there and we talk in well-modulated voices. We don’t go over there and scream. But, we also continually take people in those kinds of positions beyond their comfort zones. We just nudge. And I think we are then the countervailing pressure to maybe more conservative groups which are also leaning on those districts. Certainly, around the LGBTQ stuff. They were hearing from the religious right and if they hadn’t been hearing from us, the religious right would have had a lot more…

 So, you are always like a countervailing force against the negative forces?

 That’s what we think we are. Yeah. I’m sure we are.

 When you say, ‘we’ — if you are going in to talk to the authorities at the school system or whatever, who would go?

 The programs at CALC typically have like a steering committee. Or a task force or some kind of formation of volunteers who are interested in that particular issue. So, for instance, yesterday we met with the city manager in Springfield and a couple other people from city government in Springfield and there were four of five of us there and we meet with them every couple of months and we have several theme issues that we pursue with them and we ask them to give us an update on what they’re doing that has to do with recruitment and retention of city staff — in that case because it was the city, and what are they doing with their hiring process. Are they involving any diverse citizens in that process in any way? What are their questions gonna be? That kind of stuff. We just had that kind of a discussion with them yesterday and we already have another meeting set with them for December. We meet with them about every two months and I think they consider us a resource. But they also know we’re gonna come in and nudge.

 The nice thing is they are open to letting us do that. It’s as though they welcome us providing that pressure. And when we didn’t do it because of a gap in our own staffing, nothing moved forward. We’ve been meeting again and now stuff is moving forward. It takes that. It’s the squeaky wheel. We insist that issues of justice are on the agenda. I’m talking about Springfield cause that’s where I’ve done a lot of my work but certainly CALC does that in Eugene as well. And testimony during public comment at a city council meeting or participation in a committee or something at a school district. Just staying the course and providing that pressure.

 And that’s pretty invisible. We do other kinds of more public stuff like an anti-hate rally or some public programming. But this other stuff nobody sees. And I think it’s really the most important part of the work.

 I’m sure it would be very informative and educational for anyone who goes to this blog and is working with a community organization or setting one up, to see that that’s a role they can play. You’ve really addressed this to a degree, but what are the most interesting, satisfying experiences you’ve had as an activist?

 That’s a simple answer because the most satisfying part has been the incredible privilege of working with people that care about the same things that I care about and that shared sense of values and that shared sense of commitment and just the camaraderie that goes along with that. I know very well that we have to reach people who are not already of the same perspective or not already convinced that they need to do anything about it or are just sitting home feeling cynical. Yes, we have to do that. But that isn’t something you should do alone. And working with other people is one of the most fun things in the whole world for me.

 There’s an issue that needs to be addressed. We have a meeting about it. Somebody has an idea. That idea sparks something in somebody, it’s a small group of people probably! Six, eight people sitting around and somebody throws out an idea and somebody else says, “and then we could also…” And then somebody else adds on to that, “Well then let’s think about it this way…” And by the end of the meeting you’re on your way to doing something which was not any single person’s fully thought out idea. It was a combination of a number of ideas, it was taking that shared commitment and also that creativity to come up with a project that people own. And that to me is fun. I think there’s a lot of people who would hate doing the work that I’ve done cause we deal with heavy, serious issues and the world is still a mess no matter how much we do. But there’s nothing I would rather have done.

 It sounds contradictory to say we have fun along the way but we do. We do. And part of it is that we’ve done the work in a way that we’ve embraced our creativity and imagination while we do it. Just to give a couple of examples, there’s a stunning new mural in the front yard of the CALC office now that was painted by youth in August. And we gave them a broad theme. We gave them CALC’s 50th anniversary, we gave them a broad theme of “struggles for social justice.” But then they decided how to depict that. We’ve done plays. We’ve done dramatic readings. We’ve done poetry events. We’ve done music events. We’ve done that kind of creative stuff which I think really helps us sustain ourselves. And I just came now from where we have an altar set up at the Maude Kerns Arts Center where they do a Dia de los Muertos exhibit every year. So we have an altar there to a part of CALC. After 50 years there are people who aren’t with us anymore. On the planet. But they’re still with us, we haven’t forgotten.

 It’s an altar tradition, for departed people who’ve played significant roles in CALC. And that too is creative. It feels like a nice way to honor the people that have been there. And we did it [with people who] have done lots of them so they know how to do it in a culturally appropriate way.

One time, someone in town who is an activist in a very specialized area said that I should ask this question. Often I don’t but I just thought maybe you would have an interesting response. When things get rough, what sustains you?

Stubbornness and defiance. [laughs] I really think it’s defiance. It’s like, “Yeah. Like, you’re gonna do this bad thing and I’m not gonna make it okay. And I’m gonna say so.” I think that gets me through some rough spots. And then like I said, the camaraderie, the sense of connection with other people who care about the same stuff. And sometimes we weep together. I remember, Dan Goldrich [a local political scientist and activist] and me hugging and crying with each other when the Sandinistas lost the election [in Nicaragua in 1990.]

And we saw such a beautiful dream being crushed. But again, you know, I never feel alone. I don’t ever feel alone. And then, it’s about balancing your life, too. Sometimes I think that if I didn’t have a family and kids I would’ve been a zealot and then whenever anyone saw me coming they would just run the other way.

That being sort of normal in those ways has made me a better organizer cause I understand when people say, “I can’t do that. I don’t have the time. And my family…” I don’t make them bad and wrong for that because I know what that’s about. And then way back during the Vietnam War, realizing, OK, this is not just about ending this war. This is about being part of a country which is trying to control the whole world and we’re not gonna be done with that anytime soon. I was at that time only doing things as a volunteer. I had no idea I’d ever be working in a paid position, however meager, on those issues. But I knew then that I was gonna be in some capacity or another working on issues of justice and peace the whole rest of my life. And that was a liberating feeling!

Because that meant, OK, I can take a weekend off. I can go for a walk by the river. I can go camping. I can go hear some music. I can take a vacation. Because, I need to sustain. Sometimes people have asked me, ‘How come you don’t ever burn out?” I don’t ever burn out. I get tired. Angry. Frustrated. But not burnt out.

Well, I think you have a wonderful support system and a rational approach to what you’re doing. I don’t have a lot more questions but is there anything else you would like to add?

I guess only to encourage anyone who sees some of these concerns but just feels heavy about it and discouraged about it, that if they come forward and work with other people, we can make a difference here where we live. Can we get to where we wanna be or where we want the world to be? I think not in my lifetime. Can we make a difference? Absolutely we can, and when we do it with other people, it’s a wonderful experience, the journey itself. The journey itself is really worth it.




About Sylvia

Sylvia Hart Wright, the interviewer and blogger, has combined efforts to help achieve a more peaceful world and social and economic justice, with a career as a librarian, author, and longtime college professor. For more about her, please visit her website at sylviahartwright.com There you can also find the first chapter of her memoir-in-progress, ACTIVIST: Adventures at the Cutting Edge of Social Change.
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