Grassroots Activism and How It REALLY Works

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Grassroots activism is a term that’s used a lot in civic engagement and there are many ways to define it. One way of understanding the idea is the following:

Grassroots activism is when ordinary people take actions meant to demonstrate public opinion or demands and spark political change. This type of activism often originates among impacted communities and is characterized by a bottom-up decision-making process as well as a horizontal organizing model.

The term “grassroots” is a bit nebulous, however, and some conceptions of grassroots activism include top-down structures and centralized actors. In these cases, the centralized actors (usually in the capital city) coordinate the actions of local supporters with direct lobbying campaigns.

No conception of the term is more valid than the other and it’s important to allow some flexibility for the definition. In general, when organizers talk about the “grassroots” they are talking about supporters and dedicated activists who care enough about an issue that they will take action such as joining a protest or writing congress.

These ideas, though, can seem vague if you’ve never been involved in a grassroots action or movement. Below is a deeper dive into the world of grassroots activism including a look at how it all starts, what it means to “mobilize,” and the importance of grassroots activism.

How Grassroots Activism Starts 

The beginning of grassroots activism is a fascinating topic; it can start in different ways for different movements but, typically, grassroots organizing follows a general pattern of growth.

Grassroots activism starts when an individual or group of individuals make a determination to change norms, institutions, policies, or laws. Initial actions are often modest like convening meetings of activists. From there, organizers work toward collective action like writing lawmakers or protests.

If you’ve never been at the beginning of a grassroots movement, the whole process can seem mysterious or even frustratingly opaque. The beauty of grassroots activism, though, lies in the ambiguity as organizers seem to find an infinite number of ways to express a few core strategies and tactics that have been used for thousands of years (see below).

One modern example of a grassroots movement being born is when Tarana Burke created a MySpace page in 2006 dedicated to raising awareness of sexual abuse and providing support for those who had experienced it. Burke’s persistence as an advocate later paid off when, in 2017, Alyssa Milano tweeted Burke’s message asking those who had experienced sexual abuse to reply with “me too.”

The tweet later became the #MeToo movement of course and has had a substantial impact on the world. The movement is credited with removing over 200 men in positions of power that had collectively been accused of over 900 assaults.

Public support for the message also helped change laws in states such as New York and California as well as raise over $24 million in legal funds to press charges against perpetrators of sexual abuse.  

The changes the movement has made on public discourse are remarkable – especially with the perspective that the movement began with one person creating a social media page. The #MeToo movement is a textbook case study of how small, consistent actions can produce enormous change down the line.

While social media seems the obvious place to start for grassroots activists, movements still begin the old-fashioned way too with in-person meetings or even phone calls. Sometimes the meetings are spontaneous in that people connect over a social issue and feel inspired to act. Other times, the meeting can be more formal where a person or group of people purposely convene a meeting about an issue. 

Conference calls, too, are an important part of the grassroots toolkit. Not everyone loves getting on these calls, but they can be important to maintain connections among a network of activists – especially if the actors are spread out geographically.

In my personal experience, I was part of a campaign that developed when I met a kindred activist on US-Korea relations who spoke at a private event. After the event, we connected and exchanged information. The follow-up developed into a regular conference call and eventually a formal strategy meeting. 

From the meeting onward, the campaign developed a name, mission, structure, and strategy (called the Korea Peace Network). The Network is nowhere near the scale of the #MeToo movement but has helped move important policies including the reversal of restrictions on humanitarian aid to North Korea. Small campaign successes like these show that grassroots actions don’t necessarily need to reach global proportions to have an impact.

Grassroots activism, then, can start in a number of ways and it can start with just one person. If the activism is consistent, the movement or campaign will likely grow to involve a core network of activists coordinating activities over a number of platforms. 

Defining Grassroots Mobilization

“Mobilization” can seem like a bit of a buzzword for organizers, but the term simply refers to the activities of grassroots activism. A fuller definition might look like the following:

The term “grassroots mobilization” describes the collective actions of supporters and activists. These actions demonstrate public opinion and demands in an effort to spur political action. Grassroots mobilization can take many forms including protests, civil disruptions, and letters to lawmakers.

People often associate mobilizing the grassroots with the modern era – something born from the labor rights and/or civil rights movements. However, collective actions for social change have likely been an integral part of human society since the dawn of time.

Over the course of two hundred years, for example, ancient Rome’s social structure was so fragmented that the marginalized workers (or “Plebeians”) waged a non-violent struggle to gain the same rights and opportunities that the aristocracy (or “Patricians”) enjoyed. 

The “Struggle of the Orders” (as it’s known today) started in 494 B.C. and lasted until 287 B.C. Throughout this period, the Plebians found creative ways of leveraging collective action to improve their situation. 

In two instances, for example, the Plebians refused to serve in the army and left their positions in society. The workers moved outside of Rome, elected their own leaders, and threatened to leave the Republic. Eventually, the actions worked and the Plebians gained a better position in society. Current grassroots activism, then, has its roots in ancient social movements like the Struggle of the Orders. 

It’s encouraging to know that collective action has a long history of success; however, activists should not get the impression that grassroots mobilization is easy or even a guarantee of success.  

The worldwide protests against the impending U.S. invasion of Iraq on February 15, 2003, for example, was one of the largest collective actions in human history. The BBC reported that between six and ten million people participated in anti-war demonstrations that day. Despite these efforts, however, the invasion went forward and lead to sustained military involvement in the region.

Nonetheless, grassroots mobilization can have significant impacts on lawmakers. In 2017, research conducted by the Congressional Management Foundation found substantial evidence that voters have a major impact on their elected officials in the U.S. 

Researchers surveyed 1,200 congressional staffers over the course of more than a decade. When asked what factors influenced undecided members of Congress, 94% responded that in-person constituent meetings would have some or a lot of influence on the lawmaker’s decision and 92% said that a personalized email would have the same effect.

Modern Grassroots Movements and “Astroturfing”

Modern grassroots activism has become much more sophisticated than in ancient Rome, however. In fact, for some, it’s a fulltime profession. There are countless grassroots organizations throughout the world focusing on every cause imaginable.

Many of these organizations use a variety of strategies and tactics that engage the grassroots and grasstops. Organizations often build up supporters over direct mail, email, social media, and other means. Then, coordinators use these networks to push for certain actions at the right time. For instance, if an important vote is coming up, organizers can send an alert to their supporters urging them to contact their representatives.

In the modern setting, grassroots action is not always easily separated from establishment politics. Many organizations with grassroots supporters have become financial and political behemoths that control the conversation around particular issues. 

One prominent example is the National Rifle Association (NRA) in the U.S. which has accumulated enormous political capital. In 2016, the Journal of Political Sciences and Public Affairs published an examination of the NRA’s influence on politics in the U.S. 

The study found that the NRA operated with an annual budget of over $250 million and enjoyed strong relationships with current and former lawmakers. Yet, the authors noted that the true strength of the organization lies with its 5 million dedicated members who are willing to take political action.

As organizations accumulate money, influence and a large grassroots base, they begin to wield tremendous power over political decisions and rhetoric. In this way, the distinction between grassroots and establishment politics becomes blurred. 

Supporters, then, place immense trust in the organizations founded to represent the issues and interests they care about. This trust requires grassroots activists to forgo a bottom-up approach in favor of a centralized, top-down model that allows professionals to sustain organizing efforts on the issues they care about.

The line between establishmen politics and grassroots gets even blurrier when we look at the phenomenon of “astroturfing.” Astroturfing refers to sponsored campaigns that are meant to appear spontaneous, community-led, and grassroots-orientated but are, in fact, paid for by a special interest group.

In 2019, for instance, the vaping company Juul hired a “political dark arts” consulting group to push back against regulations on the industry. The consultant firm, Locust Street, designed the “Switch Network” to build support for more favorable policies. The Network was made to look like a grassroots movement that was asking policymakers to make it easy for tobacco-users to switch to vaping as a healthier alternative.

By collecting signatures and lists of supporters, the group was able to present policymakers with a grassroots-style pressure campaign that depicted a public in dire need of vaping products. Notably, after the links between Juul and the Switch Network were revealed, the campaign changed its name to the Juul Action Network

Today’s grassroots mobilization is not so clear cut from establishment politics as, perhaps, it was in the past. Despite this, modern grassroots isn’t necessarily less authentic or less impactful than in previous eras; it has taken on a different form, however, and has become more professionalized. 

The professional nature of grassroots mobilization in the modern era, however, does make it more susceptible to unequal power structures and risks marginalizing the very people it’s meant to empower.

The Significance of Grassroots Activism

As shown above, grassroots activism can play an important role in societies and can help shape political environments.

The true significance of grassroots activism lies in its ability to transform social and political institutions through nonviolent means. Research shows that nonviolent resistance creates “durable and internally peaceful democracies,” reducing the likelihood that a country will fall into civil war. 

In the book, Why Civil Resistance Works, researchers Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan demonstrated through an extensive data set that peaceful resistance and demonstrations are more than twice as effective as violent alternatives. 

Chenoweth and Stephan argue that nonviolent movements lower barriers to entry and, therefore, accumulate more public participation and support than violent methods. Chenoweth remarks on her site, 

Higher levels of participation then contribute to enhanced resilience, a greater probability of tactical innovation, increased opportunity for civic disruption (and therefore less incentive for the regime to maintain the status quo), and shifts in loyalty among opponents’ erstwhile supporters, including members of the military establishment. 

Social science research looking at the impacts of grassroots activism is growing. Much of the work around the issue is steadily reinforcing the notion that this type of movement-building has a demonstrable impact and is worthy of careful scientific study. 

In an article published in Social Problems, for instance, researchers revealed the impact of local grassroots efforts on fracking policies in Denton, Texas. The activism helped improve the community’s awareness of the environmental risks posed by fracking and pushed policymakers to ban the practice. Notably, researchers concluded that “[l]ocalized collective action should be at the front and center of social scientific examinations of shared understandings of environmental danger.”

Understanding why protests have an impact is a separate matter entirely. Researchers from Harvard found an ingenious way of looking at this matter by measuring the impacts of the Tea Party movement on Republican voter turnout.

The researchers found that for every one protester that showed up to a local rally there were between seven and fourteen more votes for Republican candidates in the 2010 elections. The study revealed that the power of demonstrations is not so much in the way they pressure policymakers but, instead, in the way it attracts more public support and funds.

The authors also found that demonstrations had longlasting impacts that compounded over time – advancing the Tea Party agenda long after the initial protest.

The research also found that the weather on the day of demonstrations had lingering impacts on the politics of the area. Participation rates were 60% lower in areas where it rained on the day of a rally than in locations that had good weather during the demonstration.

The rain, then, literally put a damper on the movement’s local momentum and impact over time.

As seen above, the significance of grassroots activism is well-documented. However, the Harvard study shows that there are many variables that impact a movement’s success including resources, personnel, leadership, messaging, and more.

Dan Jasper

Dan Jasper is the founder and primary author of Street Civics. He specializes in advocacy and international affairs.

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