Grassroots Change – From the Ground Up
By Wendy Priesnitz
Grassroots change works from the ground up, rather than
the top down. It does not rely on politicians, experts, corporations, or big
non-profits. But it may be the most effective type of change.
We desperately need change in many areas – politics,
education, economics, environment, health care, to name just a few. The world is reeling right now from assaults in those
areas and on personal freedom itself. You know the problems…and they’re all
intertwined, at both cause and effect levels. Some days, it seems like narcissism,
misogyny, greed, bigotry, and many other evils are ruling our countries.
Nevertheless, my belief in the strength of everyday actions and activities
keeps me leaping out of bed most mornings. I think, as I wrote in my book
Challenging Assumptions in Education, that “change on the scale that is
required happens one person at a time.” Lasting change occurs from the
grassroots, in a bottom-up manner. And that’s because it directly addresses
people’s needs and is participatory.
Sociologists are increasingly realizing how important
it is that community members create, lead, and engage with solutions to
their own problems. Expensive, top-down solutions seldom gain enough buy-in
to work in the long-term.
So what does grassroots change look like?
It relies not on power over others, but, as Starhawk
wrote in her 1988 book Truth or Dare, on power with others – the collective
actions of our peers at the local level.
It is born of passion for our communities and our
neighbors. It involves connecting and communicating, informing, and helping
others to tackle an issue. Community-building activities – either locally or
with a community-of-interest – are powerful learning experiences and cement
both change and relationships. Seeing direct results of our activities –
making things better for our families and neighbors – spurs us to take more
action. Solving one small, personal, family, or local problem can lead to
further change, inspiring others to create change…and so it goes.
Grassroots change can involve civil disobedience and
boycotts, but it doesn’t have to. It is also veggies and herbs grown instead
of flowers in downtown planters and the harvest used to make soup for street
people. It’s a Little Free Library. A bench on a street where there wasn’t
one. Picking up trash as you walk. Grieving teens standing up to the gun
lobby and pandering politicians. Yes, it’s even social media hashtags, some
of which have proven to be quite potent in recent history.
None of these efforts alone will save the world from
climate change or war or terrorism. But on their own, and as they multiply
(and they will), they will inspire others to help make their corner of the
world a better place. And who knows where that spirit of positivity and
inspiration will lead?
Local grassroots change activities require organizing,
but they don’t rely on traditional power structures to get things done. They
don’t replicate the hierarchies, gender or race or other discriminations, or
the special interests that they’re attempting to overturn.
The self-directed education community is a good example
of grassroots activity leading to change. For over forty years, families
have been helping their children learn without school systems. As our
numbers grew and the community diversified, a home-based education movement
inevitably formed, with the support of unfunded, grassroots groups of
volunteer parents (often moms) working to provide information and assistance
to their peers. In many countries, there is now enough experience, strength,
and momentum to withstand any interference with the principles and goals of
self-directed education. And, more than that, those principles are being
adopted (sometimes, in a watered-down fashion, but that’s okay) beyond the
life learning sphere – in schools, in the minds of those contemplating
post-secondary education, and more. People hopping on your bandwagon can be
a sign that you’re moving in the right direction!
Other examples of grassroots efforts include Brazil’s
land equity movement of the 1970s, the Chinese rural democracy movement of
the 1980s, the German peace movement of the 1980s, and modern movements
worldwide supporting local economies and the environment.
So take your cue from the many grassroots activities
already in action. Vote, but concentrate most of your time and research on
electoral races taking place at lower, more local levels – because that’s
where a lot of the power for change lies. Don’t rely on presidential
elections, national organizations, or the academic community to create
change for you. Move ahead in your own immediate sphere, with whatever
knowledge, determination, joy, and kindness you can summon. You’ll create
change. And your life will be calmer and richer.
Remember what Margaret Mead said: “Never doubt that a
small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed,
it’s the only thing that ever has.”
Wendy Priesnitz is the editor of Natural Life Magazine, a former
leader of the Green Party of Canada (1996/97), and the author of 13 books.