Tale of a Community Activist

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Melanie Zermer is fiercely independent but also quite social, appearing at numerous happenings around town. Photo by Sarah Evans.

Zermer with a piece of art she made that hangs on the front porch of her house. Photo by Sarah Evans.

Zermer (center) interviewed a member of the Disabled Veterans of Oregon in a live KMUZ broadcast from the Marion County Fair in 2014. Photo by Diane Beals.

Zermer loves spending time with her cat, Luna. Photo by Sarah Evans.

Even if you don’t know Melanie Zermer, you’ve probably seen her around town. She’s a fixture at numerous local happenings, whether she’s dancing at an indie rock show, volunteering her time at an event highlighting the history of racism in Oregon or browsing booths at one of the city’s many festivals.

She’ll gladly engage you in a conversation about political candidates (she has worked on multiple local election campaigns) or causes (her most fervent one is Salem’s community radio station, KMUZ, where she serves as board president) or her favorite Salem bands (she currently digs City of Pieces and Vortex Remover, among others).

But if you turn the tables and ask Zermer to talk about her own life, this typically social person isn’t quite sure what to say at first.

“I’m the one usually asking the questions,” she says, laughing, during a recent interview over iced tea at her 1920s bungalow in central Salem. “This is quite a reversal for me.”

Zermer is dedicated to bringing together community members to share their stories and diverse points of view — a big part of why she pushed to bring KMUZ to life several years ago. But she’s also fiercely independent and not close to many people, which is why you may see her often but feel like you don’t know her well.

It turns out she’s got her own interesting story to tell. It starts in the late 1950s in an ethnically diverse suburb of Chicago.

An Early Independent Streak

Zermer, 58, grew up in North Chicago, a blue-collar town along Lake Michigan. Her mother assembled motors for a boat manufacturing company, and her father worked for an insulation and roofing company. (He later died of cancer related to asbestos exposure from his job.)

Both were proud union members — Zermer remembers seeing AFL-CIO items around the house, and her parents joined with families very different from their own when it came time to strike.

“My parents weren’t very political,” she says. “It was more the feeling of solidarity that I remember, the fact they supported the union and their community.”

Zermer’s only sister is 12 years older, so she spent a great deal of time on her own, beginning an independent streak which stays with her today.

After finishing high school, she headed to Normal, Illinois, to attend Illinois State University. She followed a winding route through college — taking a year off to go to Europe and to work at a job helping people with developmental disabilities — but eventually transferred to Southern Illinois University in Carbondale and earned a bachelor’s degree in human development.

“I loved Carbondale and was looking for an excuse to stay there,” Zermer says. “It was an exciting, cultural, fun place to live, but jobs were scarce unless you had a graduate degree.”

Zermer ended up working as a researcher for a renowned professor on the campus, assisting with his work linking race and the criminal justice system. In order to keep the job, she enrolled as a graduate student, eventually receiving a master’s degree in administration of justice.

“A lot of my major life decisions have happened that way, almost random,” Zermer says. “I really didn’t intend to get a master’s degree, but I did in order to stay in this job and to keep enjoying Carbondale.”

Working in Politics

As Zermer finished her degree in 1983, another random act impacted her next big move. She shared an office with another graduate student researcher, who tossed an application for internships with the Illinois State Legislature into the garbage. Curious about the opportunity, Zermer plucked the application out of the trash and, on a whim, decided to apply.

The House Democrats hired her, and she quickly learned that Illinois politics were volatile and divisive. Plus, Zermer did not like this particular capital city.

“I hated living in Springfield,” she says. “It felt like the middle of nowhere.”

A lot of my major life decisions have happened that way, almost random.

In the fall of 1985, Zermer took a vacation to visit her sister in Portland. While wandering downtown, she randomly entered the Portland Building and saw a bulletin board covered with government job postings.

“One of the notices was bright pink, which is why I noticed it,” she says. “It was a job for a legislative researcher for the Oregon Legislature.”

Thinking of her dissatisfaction with Springfield, she took the leap and moved to Salem in December 1985 to begin work for the legislature. In those days, legislative researchers were nonpartisan and worked for either party. Zermer loved the job. She researched diverse issues for the human services committee, ranging from the impact of the Oregon Bottle Bill to inmate health issues.

“The legislature at that time was so open,” Zermer says. “Any citizen could come in and really make a difference.”

Trouble at Home

While her work was thriving, Zermer’s personal life was another story. She had moved to Salem with her boyfriend from Illinois, but his issues with drug addiction broke their relationship apart. He was hooked on multiple drugs, Zermer says, starting with prescription meds and moving on to speedballs, a mix of cocaine with heroine or morphine.

Zermer’s father was an alcoholic, and she says her tendency to push forward even when faced with destructive behavior is probably a result of her upbringing. She was the kid who picked up the pieces when things were falling apart at home. With her boyfriend, she says she compartmentalized his drug abuse and viewed it as something separate from her busy life.

“It’s sort of the typical pattern of a child of an addict, just be responsible and try to do everything you can to make things better,” she says.

Zermer — who says she didn’t use hard drugs herself — didn’t even realize how much his behavior was affecting her until one day when she walked into an Al-Anon meeting in downtown Salem by herself.

“I just completely broke down. … When I was crying in front of strangers, something I couldn’t imagine myself doing, I realized the situation couldn’t go on,” she says.

Zermer broke up with that boyfriend 18 months after moving to Salem.

Four years later, Zermer went to see a cover band called Lip To Lip perform at Boon’s Treasury and met another man who changed her life, but this time for the better. Marc Nassar, also a fixture at many Salem events, remembers their first meeting well.

“She was there alone, and I was there alone, which is pretty typical of both of us,” Nassar says, laughing. “She asked me to dance and told me it was because I was wearing a tie-dyed shirt and had a ponytail, so I seemed safe.”

Nassar and Zermer were partners for many years, but their deep friendship turned into a familial relationship based on mutual respect, love and a similar background.

“We both grew up in blue collar, Midwest cities. Both had alcoholic fathers and we both didn’t get a lot of emotional support from our parents,” Nassar says. “As a result, we’re both extremely private, independent people.”

That independence is one of the reasons that Nassar and Zermer never lived together, married or had children, despite an obvious love and affection. Their romantic partnership ended years ago, but Zermer and Nassar are still close and consider each other family.

On the Dance Floor

It was Nassar who inadvertently led Zermer to another of her passions: Salem’s indie music scene. Nassar once owned a restaurant, the Soup Cellar, which he sold in 2005. One of his employees was Kevin Rafn, who, at the time, was in a band called Root Villa. Rafn and his three brothers — David, Daniel and Nate — make up a family of artists, musicians, painters, photographers and chefs.

Zermer still remembers first seeing Root Villa perform downtown at the Governor’s Cup.

“I can’t even really say why, but I just was drawn to it,” Zermer says of the music scene. “I don’t know many women my age who would go to shows like that. …. I just loved the music and the feeling of being around so many creative, open-minded people.”

Daniel Rafn, 35, says Zermer encouraged him as a young musician coming of age in Salem.

“Melanie always dances when I perform — and she makes sure to be in the front,” he says. “This is directly encouraging in the moment, and also lends a good atmosphere at shows.”

I just loved the music and the feeling of being around so many creative, open-minded people.

To this day, you’ll frequently find Zermer dancing at local concerts. For a while, she also hosted “song circles” in her home, encouraging friends to take turns playing music for one another.

“She always wants to foster community, and the song circles were just one way that she did,” Rafn says.

Engaging with Salem

Zermer also has worked to create community connections through her relationships with her neighbors.

She’ll never forget the first time her real estate agent drove her down southeast 23rd Street — she immediately fell in love and wanted to move there.

When Zermer bought her house in 1991, the neighborhood was a bit tough, causing some Salem residents to nickname it “Felony Flats.” Today, her street is lush, tree-canopied and lined with mostly restored historic homes (Zermer and her neighbors lovingly call themselves the “23rd Street Gang”). Some of that restoration is due to people like Zermer, who got involved with the Southeast Salem Neighborhood Association and at one point bought and rehabbed a run-down home across the street from her own.

Soon after Zermer purchased her dream home, her job took a turn for the worse. Republicans took over the Oregon Legislature in 1992, and Zermer’s position shifted dramatically.

“Things became less open; advocates got less notice for meetings,” she says. “The whole environment became much more hostile and partisan.”

Inspired, in part, by her then-boyfriend Nassar — who had given up a job as a state budget analyst to work for a hand-painted greeting card company — Zermer went on a “vision quest” with a Native American spiritualist. At that time, she decided she wanted to become a healer and work with her hands.

“My mother worked with her hands her whole life, and I wanted to honor and respect that somehow,” Zermer says.

She gave up a well-paid job with benefits and enrolled in massage school, eventually starting her own shiatsu massage practice.

“I think in 1991 I was making $45,000 a year, and I have never made anywhere close to that amount again,” Zermer says. “And I couldn’t be happier about that decision.”

My mother worked with her hands her whole life, and I wanted to honor and respect that somehow.

Zermer now earns an income with her massage practice, teaching classes at the Oregon School of Massage and as the citizen member of the review panel for the Oregon State Hospital. However, much of her time is now devoted to her primary passion: community radio.

As president of KMUZ’s board, Zermer has fought to ensure that the station reflects the diverse cultures and voices of the Salem area, from transgender issues and Latino programming to rural and agricultural perspectives.

“Even though many others worked hard on making KMUZ a reality, I singularly credit Melanie with the success of the station,” says Nassar, who’s also a DJ and volunteer at KMUZ. “It was her ability to take people from very diverse backgrounds, get them to come together in a non-threatening way and make things happen, that has made this station so successful.”

Compared with the frustrations Zermer often felt working in the political realm, she says community radio feels like a much more comfortable place to engage in dialogue.

“There were times (during her last career) when I would get together with friends, whose views I share, but we would end up talking down about people,” she says. “I never felt good after those talks. With the radio, I’m not here to tell people what to think. I just want to present as much information as possible and let people decide for themselves.

“The way I see it, everyone has good and bad sides, and you have to try and find the good. For me, community radio is about bringing people together.”

Angela Yeager works in communications for the state of Oregon. She co-hosts a film review show, “Reel Film Snobs,” on CCTV and considers Salem Cinema her second home.