Community Development & Growing Democracy Series, Part 4: How Can Residents Get Involved with Grassroots Organizing?
By Hannah Lebovits, Assistant Professor at University of Texas, Arlington (and former Growing Democracy project manager)
Grassroots community organizing begins with a community and a cause. Residents often already have a sense of a common issue the neighborhood, faith-building, school, or street is facing, yet often lack a cohesive group with which to discuss these issues and advocate for change. The first step to creating community involves conversation. Today, this often occurs on social media sites such as Facebook or Twitter and in collective spaces such as parks, libraries, faith-buildings, and schools.
Involvement in grassroots organizing efforts does not require a leader or a hierarchical structure. In fact, grassroots organizing efforts are marked by their resistance to a hierarchical organizational model and a single unilaterally powerful. Instead, residents seeking to create or join a grassroots movement will often be expected to jump in, carve out their own role, and remain committed to it.
Many grassroots organizing efforts only last for several months or years, as hyper local issues might be resolved or the group might begin to fragment. However, the short tenure of the campaign itself, is only the tip of the iceberg. Residents seeking to generate collective power to combat a communal issue will often have to spend a significant amount of time connecting like-minded individuals and building the base of support. Agendas, mobilization tactics, and specific campaign efforts will have to be outlined early on in the process. Disagreement over what the resolution of the issue looks like and how best to pursue that goal can stop the grassroots organizing effort before it even begins.
For those seeking to join existing grassroots efforts, a significant amount of time and energy must be dedicated to understanding the issue, the group, and the role the individual will bring to the collective.
Grassroots organizing efforts grow organically and authentically via interpersonal relationships. The best way to get involved in grassroots organizing efforts that are already underway is to begin by building relationships with people who are already engaged in this work. However, involvement should not stop there. Residents who join existing grassroots efforts can lack a knowledge of the historical nature of the group as well as the specific needs of the campaign. To avoid becoming a burden to the group, residents looking to join grassroots organizing efforts must seek to first listen and learn and then act.
Some grassroots organizations grow to a size that enables greater capacity to sustain membership, volunteers, fundraising efforts, and outreach. These organizations tend to be more institutional in nature yet they also offer official procedures and practices for those seeking to join and get involved in the work. These practices can reduce confusion and enhance retention, making those residents interested in getting involved more likely to be able to easily contribute to the cause.