Tom Westrum—The Power of Shared Stories
Tom does not see himself as an activist. He has chosen to engage in social justice through his work with youth, in his family life, and his own learning. To him, part of social justice is taking care of those in need. This has been apparent since early in his life, when he worked as a lifeguard and counselor at an amazing summer camp in New York, where kids from inner city Bronx, Mormon kids from Salt Lake City, and kids from Turkey who lived in poverty spent an incredible six weeks, sharing outdoor wilderness trips and sharing each other’s stories.
The power of shared stories remains a theme in Tom’s life. His initial experience of the power of circle talk, this story sharing, led to starting the NW Youth Corps in Eugene, Oregon. The Youth Corps served youth through job training, collaborative outdoor projects, and dialogue. It drew kids from a wide range of perspectives—from environmentalists to loggers—who learned to work across differences and find common ground. His goal was to teach how to include those who feel excluded, and also how to disagree while remaining at the table together. A wonderful, creative group of people made the NW Youth Corps happen, and they eventually were working with at-risk youth in fifteen counties to try to help break the cycle of poverty that affected so many kids’ lives.
After leaving the NW Youth Corps, Tom taught for seven years, working with at-risk youth who had been kicked out of school for behavior issues, some who had come directly from residential treatment. Tom believed that in order to really change kids’ lives, he would have to work with all the different people in their lives—from mental health workers to the justice department. Social justice includes going into homes, trying to reach parents and guardians on a deep level.
Another important aspect of Tom’s relationship with social justice is tied to a decision to adopt. He saw it as a way to reach out to someone in need.
The final aspect of justice work that Tom talked about was his grief work. He is connected to an organization called the Willow Center, a place for kids who have experienced the death of a loved one. As part of this, Tom has worked with kids from the Nez Perce Tribe. While attending a Native American funeral, he saw how two worlds can exist, side by side, and wanted to be a part of trying to make a change for the better—listening to stories, remembering and celebrating, and having questions answered.
For Tom, this is the work that Jesus taught—reaching out to others. Jesus was on the front lines. It can be hard to follow, but so rewarding when you see what taking those risks brings. That’s what Tom loves about Peace Church, that there are many who are trying to do that work. He often asks, “What would Jesus have done? How would you want to be treated?” He finds inspiration in the relationship between Jesus and the disciples. The disciples struggled, too—finding their faith, just like us. He also draws inspiration from the vastness of the universe or the beauty of a rainbow. For him, it strengthens his faith and inspires him to want to learn more, and reflect on his life. When he sees others doing good works, he remembers the lessons of Jesus to help those who are down-trodden and work to raise everyone up.
Tom’s biggest mentor in his life is his dad. He has been a teacher for fifty years, and an environmentalist, a land steward, who is very involved in his community. He spends time reading with Latino kids. Tom also loves that his dad has conversations around struggling with his faith. Most of all, Tom is inspired by his dad’s facilitation. He is the one who organizes men’s groups or gathers rich and poor folks together to talk about wealth inequality. For Tom, it’s not necessarily about what you believe, but about bringing people together to listen, connect, and move forward. His favorite bumper stickers reflect his approach to justice: “Keep on trucking”, and “Every once in a while, you see the light in the strangest places if you look at it right.”
Thank you to Nathan Holst, who interviewed Tom.