Community Development & Growing Democracy Series, Part 3: What is Grassroots Organizing? 

By Hannah Lebovits, Assistant Professor at University of Texas, Arlington (and former Growing Democracy project manager)
[Part 2: Role of government in community development?]

Developing communities in ways that enhance social justice, equity, inclusion, and participation requires non-institutional efforts from residents, themselves. Grassroots organizing is a process by which communities create and maintain social power through identifying shared concerns, mobilizing to pursue resolutions, and sustaining the capacity to confront future concerns. Grassroots organizing is one type of community organizing effort in which a group is constructed from scratch, usually due to a new opportunity to build collective power. 

The term “grassroots” refers to the makeup of the group as non-leaders within fixed institutions and existing associations.  A community is often defined as a group of people who share a geographic, spatial location- such as a neighborhood, school, or faith-based institution. Social identity and/or economic status can further bind the group through historical and current similarities in experience and capacity. 

Many associate grassroots tactics with progressive efforts to promote better social outcomes. However, individuals across ideological, political, social, and economic spectrums routinely engage in this form of community organizing. Indeed, efforts to reduce access, equity, and inclusion can be led by grassroots movements and gain tremendous momentum. Affordable housing, public transit access, and school integration are common concerns that generate grassroots movements to restrict access to a neighborhood and its resources. 

Grassroots groups are self-organized and often attempt to remain non-hierarchical and leaderless. Members are often encouraged to individually pursue collective goals while remaining accountable to the group. If successful, grassroots efforts can dissipate after an issue is resolved, but these groups often resurface to address other, related concerns.

Unlike other forms of protest or rapid issue-based organizing, grassroots efforts require authentic, long-term, base-building tactics. These tactics often include door knocking campaigns, community meetings, protests, and direct mailings. Grassroots organizers also often brand and market their efforts through posters, press releases, and community art.

Today, grassroots groups also use internet and communication tools to generate support for their campaign. As a result, the “community” can be extended beyond the geographic or spatial entity to which the effort is tied. The benefit of social media, online petitions, and text/email blasts is the clear potential to produce more support- and in some cases funding- for the campaign. However, a drawback of extending community in such a manner is that the grassroots nature of the effort can be lost. Power can be co-opted and the group might lose sight of the local, community-based need.