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 need change in many areas – politics, education, economics, environment, wellness care, to name just a few. You know the problems…and they’re all intertwined, at both cause and effect levels.
In that context, many people watched the U.S. presidential debate last night. Some Americans are still struggling to decide how to vote in the election for the “Leader of the Free World,” a term that was first used during the Cold War. And they are hoping for some clarification from the debates. Some, especially in other countries, watched for entertainment or in bewilderment that it’s come to this circus. Many of my friends and acquaintances worry what the world would look like if it was led by a bumbling, narcissistic, misogynist bigot.
I worry, too. But as much as I think that the election – or any large event, for that matter – is very important, I don’t lose too much sleep over it. And 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 isn’t one. Picking up trash as you walk. 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 sometimes 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, and 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.”