Community Development & Growing Democracy Series, Part 5:

What mechanisms do grassroots organizers use to engage in community development? 

By Hannah Lebovits, Assistant Professor at University of Texas, Arlington (and former Growing Democracy project manager)
[Part 4: Resident Involvement in Grassroots Organizing?]

Grassroots efforts involve several iterative stages including agenda setting, marketing, mobilization, action, and accountability. At each stage, organizers use a number of tools to refine their voice, empower their members, and tackle the central concern of the campaign. 

When setting the agenda for a grassroots campaign, organizers take great care to make sure that all important voices are at the table. A grassroots effort that begins with exclusion will not successfully resolve collective, community-based concerns. Agenda setting can be vague if the group is just starting out or more concrete if the group already has a clear plan of action. 

Once the agenda is set, organizers use a number of tactics- including door knocking, direct mail and letter writing, posters and advertisements, as well as phone calls, emails, texts and social media messages – to give the issue more exposure and begin to mobilize those who share the groups concerns. 

After a core membership is established, these folks are sometimes trained in the tactics the group seeks to use and once again sent out to enhance the exposure of the group and the issue. This process is referred to as “base building.”

When it is time to act, the group communicates the specific actions that it’s base can and should engage in- complete with all relevant details and language. Reminders might be sent out if the actions are to occur over a long period of time. The actions can commonly include protests, sit-ins, attendance at public meetings, giving comments at public meetings, direct communications with those in power. 

After the action period, the group remains vigilant to determine whether additional base-building and actions are needed. In the event that the action was successful, the group might maintain a low-level of operation to ensure that the success is sustained. Or it might disband. 

If the actions do not result in any meaningful change, the group might attempt to engage again or it might also disband. As the effort required to prepare for and engage in the actions is so immense, burn-out is common and the group might fizzle out even when the ultimate goal is not achieved.