In planning grassroots movements, strategies can often be confused with tactics. It’s important to differentiate between the two, however.
Grassroots strategies define the approach to creating social and political change. Examples include nonviolent resistance, challenges to legal authority, and economic pressure. The term should not be confused with tactics which are individual actions such as sit-ins, lawsuits, and boycotts.
The size of the movement often has a bearing on which strategy is most viable. Movements with a broad base of support can make use of multiple approaches. For example, the civil rights movement had many actors that largely gravitated toward one of four strategies – nonviolent resistance, challenges to legal authority, economic means, and citizen action (all discussed below).
Smaller movements typically emphasize one strategy until they get some traction. The Tea Party Movement, for instance, was a small minority of citizens that were able to ground the political process to a halt using a political resistance strategy.
Below is a look at seven strategies that have become fundamental to grassroots movements. Each has its benefits and drawbacks and no strategy is inherently better than the other. Some strategies have a typical set of actions (or tactics) for organizers, while others allow for more creativity.
This list is not exhaustive and the categories below are only meant to serve as rough starting points for organizers. In practice, many of these strategies can blend together and/or can be applied in a sequence over time.
They are (in no particular order):
- Policy Change and Advocacy Strategies
- Nonviolent Action & Civil Disobedience
- Challenges to Legal Authority and Legitimacy
- Political Resistance
- Social Transformation Models
- Economic Means and Leveraging
- Citizen Action and Empowerment
Policy Change and Advocacy Strategies
Policy change strategies are the most common ways to harness the power of grassroots. This strategy is defined by deliberate pressure on elected leaders and officials to change policies. Often, groups using this approach focus on Congress by asking for things like a new law to be enacted, an existing law to be changed, or to stop a proposal from becoming law.
In the U.S., this form of civic engagement happens on an impressive scale. While grassroots activity of this sort waxes and wanes with political events, there are always forces pushing for policy change on any given issue.
Tactics have become much more standardized for this strategy as engagement between advocates and Members of Congress (MOC) is so routine. At the grassroots level, tactics usually involve phone calls, emails, social media messages, or letters to the MOC’s office; asking questions at town halls; in-person meetings with the MOC or staff; writing opinion pieces in local newspapers; information pickets, and more.
This strategy often relies on several common planning methods as well such as power mapping to find where and how to apply pressure to key officials. Depending on the issue, the demands of grassroots activists may need to start modestly and gradually move toward a larger goal. For instance, it’s common for groups to ask for a resolution (nonbinding statement by Congress) in support of an issue before seeking to change the law by introducing a bill.
The drawback of this strategy is that the process to change laws can take time. Sometimes it can take a decade or more for groups to see significant progress on an issue. So, having a long term perspective is important for this method.
The women’s suffrage movement, for example, took almost 100 years to succeed in getting the right to vote for women. The movement, like the civil rights movement, consisted of many actors with different strategies. However, the actors all shared the overarching goal of an amendment to the Constitution.
Additionally, grassroots movements that seek policy change in this way often become more “professionalized” over time. Groups may attract donors and bring on full-time staff – normally a welcome development. The challenge then becomes the balance between centralized actors (usually in the capital) and the volunteer activists, which may be spread out geographically.
More horizontal methods of grassroots, however, are becoming increasingly popular. The Black Lives Matter movement is known for its decentralized decision-making processes. While this type of organizing maintains a more authentic grassroots voice, it does make decision making more cumbersome for movements. Nonetheless, some argue the tradeoff is worth it to maintain a grassroots identity.
Nonviolent Action & Civil Disobedience
While policy change and advocacy may be the most common grassroots strategy, nonviolent action and civil disobedience are likely what most people picture when they think of the “grassroots movements.” The approach uses public displays of opinion such as rallies or acts that deliberately (and nonviolently) break the law like hunger strikes.
The association of this strategy with the term “grassroots,” of course, comes from the iconic nonviolent struggles of the 19th and 20th centuries. Movements such as the Indian struggle for independence led by Mahatma Gandhi, Dr. Martin Luther King’s approach to the civil rights movement, and a certain wing of the women’s suffrage movement led by Alice Paul all encapsulated this approach.
These movements, though, are some of the most famous and successful cases of nonviolent action. It’s no accident, then, that these movements all share a few common traits. For one, they all had a broad base of supporters. So, demonstrations were more visible for the public and harder to ignore for policymakers. Secondly, the movements were consistent over a long time. These actions added up over many years, sometimes decades before they finally tipped the scale.
Thirdly, they all had widely respected leaders who were known for having been on the front lines of the movement. While some activists question the need for singular leaders and spokespeople in today’s grassroots groups, these leaders helped humanize the crowds by putting forth a face and voice for the media, public, and officials.
Tactics for this strategy can vary greatly from issue to issue, but the most common are demonstrations like protests, rallies, and marches. Singular uses of these tactics, however, don’t often yield results. The protest against the invasion of Iraq, for example, was one of the largest single-day of actions in all of human history. Yet, the protest did not stop the war.
On the other hand, long term use of this strategy does not guarantee success either. Civil disobedience can be risky and, at times, even life-threatening. For example, Irom Chanu Sharmila (also known as the “Iron Lady”), went on a hunger strike for 16 years in protest of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act in India. Over 500 weeks of fasting, she was repeatedly arrested, set free, and re-arrested to be force-fed. She is known as the “world’s longest hunger striker.”
Sharmila had even publicly appealed for support from a wider grassroots base. While she did not receive the groundswell she was hoping for, she did receive a fair amount of international attention and acclaim through awards and media. The law has not been repealed, despite her persistent and near-superhuman efforts.
Challenges to Legal Authority and Legitimacy
Challenges to legal authority could also be thought of as advocacy through the courts and the court of public opinion. This strategy challenges the legitimacy of laws, policies, or institutions through legal arguments, lawsuits, and public messaging. While this approach requires the help of attorneys, grassroots movements have been able to utilize this strategy more broadly to help spur social change.
Tactics for challenging legal authority can often intersect with civil disobedience. For example, when grassroots movements want to challenge something legally, they may find an illegal act that will bring the matter before the courts. The main difference between the two approaches is that challenges to legal authority are guided by legal arguments, while civil disobedience is meant to draw public attention to an injustice or issue.
Some actors in the civil rights movement such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and Thurgood Marshall relied heavily on this strategy to challenge segregation. In many respects, though, the strategy was built upon independent acts of civil disobedience.
For example, in a little known episode of history, a 15-year-old African-American girl named Claudette Colvin refused to give her seat to a white woman on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. Colvin was arrested for her refusal and it eventually gave the NAACP the idea for the now-famous incident involving Rosa Parks. Parks’ refusal to give up her seat was an attempt to recreate the legal circumstances of Colvin’s case.
The NAACP, worried that the public would not sympathize with a 15-year-old girl, had Parks recreate Colvin’s arrest. Colvin had also become pregnant shortly after the incident and local leaders worried her pregnancy would distract from the legal arguments. Nonetheless, Colvin was ultimately a plaintiff in the case that ended bus segregation (Browder v. Gayle).
Unlike nonviolent action or policy change strategies, single legal challenges can make immediate and abrupt changes to a community – though, changing attitudes and behaviors may not immediately follow court rulings. Drawbacks to the strategy is that it can take either deep legal expertise or a lot of financial resources. In the case of legal challenges made during the civil rights movement, Thurgood Marshall played an outsized role as he was a particularly gifted attorney.
This strategy does not always take place in legal courts, however. Within this category, organizers may also use tactics that publically document government abuses of power – referred to as “naming and shaming.” These actions are common among human rights groups, for example, who gather evidence of abuses, document them, and make them public alongside legal or moral arguments. The approach is in an attempt to expose wrongdoing and build public support for reform.
Political resistance is a deliberate attempt to nonviolently sabotage or disrupt a government or occupying power. In its most pure form, it is typically reserved for extreme moments in history such as the Nazi occupations during World War II. However, the approach has appeared in times of relative calm as well and can be seen in isolated acts throughout history.
The idea behind the strategy is to either sap political processes or undermine the ruling political regime. It can often look like civil disobedience in practice. However, while civil disobedience gains from public attention, political resistance doesn’t necessarily need to be seen by the public to be effective. In some cases, political resistance movements may even operate covertly in order to build an alternative political structure for the long term.
Tactics for political resistance can vary greatly depending on the circumstances; they can range from overloading political officials with messages to circulating underground newspapers to helping prisoners of war escape.
One of the most famous examples of political resistance is the Polish underground movements during World War II. Poland had the largest resistance movement during the War, and these efforts were collectively known as the Polish Underground State. The movement set up an alternative government that was largely a continuation of the pre-war government.
The effort took enormous grassroots support, however, and around 10-15% of the Polish population participated in some way. The network of various organizations and organelles that comprised the Polish Underground State mirrored a ruling government with education, culture, and other social services.
In recent times, political resistance has appeared as a deliberate strategy among minority viewpoints who want to stop a ruling political party from advancing its agenda. The Tea Party, for example, famously used these tactics to grind the U.S. government to a halt during the run-up to the 2010 primary elections.
The Tea Party used this strategy to slow any political movement and pressure officials into a stance of no compromise. Early on in the movement, one organizer named Robert MacGuffie circulated a memo (since removed from the web) outlining the Party’s strategy of disrupting civic gatherings to drown out opposition. Think Progress reported points from the memo on how to disrupt town hall meetings,
— Be Disruptive Early And Often: “You need to rock-the-boat early in the Rep’s presentation, Watch for an opportunity to yell out and challenge the Rep’s statements early.”
— Try To “Rattle Him,” Not Have An Intelligent Debate: “The goal is to rattle him, get him off his prepared script and agenda. If he says something outrageous, stand up and shout out and sit right back down. Look for these opportunities before he even takes questions.”
The memo guided much the behavior of the Tea Party Supporters. Congressional staff soon reported a sudden inability for elected leaders to find or even search for common ground.
In the wake of Donald Trump’s election, a progressive response was deliberately designed to mirror the Tea Party resistance. The progressive strategy was written by former congressional staffers who originally outlined their approach in a google document. The group of staffers later formed the group Indivisible, circulated the guide more broadly, and began organizing on a nationwide scale.
One advantage of the strategy is that even a small group of people can have a large impact on the political process. During extreme moments of history, this may be the only option available to organizers who then take great risks to act on their conscious. On the other hand, if resistance is used during moments of relative calm, organizers run the risk of plunging their communities into divisive and heated political environments.
A movement’s success may then require organizers to develop an alternative platform for the moment in which resistance is no longer needed. Simply opposing the status quo may leave supporters without direction when the environment changes; it may also keep the movement a reactionary force susceptible to manipulation by leaders and populist rhetoric.
Social Transformation Models
Social transformation models attempt to change societies by first shifting individual beliefs and behaviors and, from there, building toward social and political reform. This approach usually applies other grassroots strategies in a sequence over time to transform society from the bottom up.
The model is unique in that the strategy can be driven by a set of actors who carry their agendas with them throughout the decades. The actors may move between activist circles and organizations over many years – all the while steering the mission and actions of these groups toward an overarching strategy of social change.
In other cases, organizations may have a social transformation model as their mission. Regardless of the actors, then, the organization continues to work toward advancing their values.
Instances of this approach aren’t as well-documented as other strategies on this list. However, it’s known among some activist circles that many organizers used the social transformation model during the gay rights movement (though, they may not have referred to it as such).
The strategy was applied independently at a few points in history in different locations and by unrelated organizers (who may or may not have gained inspiration from one another). By nature of the issue, organizers likely recognized that rights would not be achieved unless people could first openly identify as being a member of the LGBTQ community.
Grassroots movements as far back as the early 1920s began their organizing by attempting to openly talk about being gay. For example, Henry Gerber established the first U.S. gay rights group called the Society for Human Rights in 1924. His mission was inspired by a German group that sought “homosexual emancipation.” Simply being able to identify as a member of the gay community was the natural first step toward gaining rights.
This strategy resurfaced later in the 1960s as the gay liberation movement began in the U.S. The movement emphasized the need for members of the LGBTQ community to “come out of the closet.” As more and more people “came out” in the decades that followed, the issue touched more and more lives. Family and friends of these individuals were impacted and whole communities were forced to confront the issue.
This individual liberation and form of community dialogue no doubt paved the way for organizers to evolve their strategy into one of challenging legal authority. Many are familiar with the landmark same-sex marriage cases of the 21st century. However, many don’t realize these legal cases were the culmination of a deliberate grassroots strategy that took shape over many decades.
Social transformation models can be more complex than the other strategies on this list. While the gay rights model was an exemplary movement of this sort, it’s not always easy to identify what type of individual change is necessary for other issues. The strategy also requires a strong core of committed organizers who stay the course no matter the political environment. The upside to this strategy is that if it’s successful, it likely represents the most holistic and stable way to transform society.
Economic Means and Leveraging
Movements that use economic means and leveraging seek to change institutions by either building a stigma around certain transactions and/or by draining an institution of resources. The strategy uses tactics like boycotts, strikes, and divestment campaigns to alter established policies and/or practices.
The approach is common among trade unions who use strikes and collective bargaining as a means to exert pressure on leaders. Labor movements used this method going back to, at least, 1768 when the first strike was recorded in New York. The movements continued to evolve over centuries and, in the U.S., the grassroots ultimately achieved the 40-hour workweek, the end of child labor, and better employment benefits including health care.
Other grassroots actors use consumer-end strategies like boycotts to stigmatize industry practices. Grassroots movements have relied on economic strategies like this for centuries. For example, the free-produce movement was started by the Quakers in the late 18th century.
The movement was effectively a boycott of any goods produced by slave labor. While popular for a time, it ultimately failed to produce change because goods made by slave labor were often difficult to identify. When items were easy to identify, those produced by non-slave labor were vastly inferior in quality. Gradually, the movement faded among consumers.
Nonetheless, the free-produce movement opened up a new means of grassroots action. Since then, boycotts have been used by many movements ranging from Iranian Taboacco Boycott in 1891 to the Montegorory Bus boycott of the civil rights movement to the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) campaign for Palestinian rights beginning in 2005.
A relatively new tactic within this strategy is divestment which seeks to pull investments from stocks, bonds, and funds within certain industries. For example, the fossil fuel divestment campaign seeks to stop all investments in coal, oil, and other non-renewable fuel sources. The purpose is to destabilize the market for these industries and to spark investments in renewable forms of energy.
This strategy can evoke backlash in unexpected and sometimes violent ways. Often the reactions of those in power demonstrate the threat these movements pose to their targets. For example, late 19th-century industrial moguls like Andrew Carnegie had become infamous for their violent crackdowns on striking workers. One famous example came in 1892 in the Homestead Strike. The incident ended in a violent clash between steelworkers and guards, resulting in at least ten deaths.
Backlash can also come in the form of shrinking civic space or even public messaging campaigns. For instance, legislation introduced in the U.S. attempted to make boycotts of Israeli goods and services illegal for U.S. government contractors. The legislation was a direct response to the BDS campaign mentioned above. Similarly, the fossil fuel industry promoted a series of videos attempting to delegitimize divestment campaigns.
Economic strategies for grassroots movements have become more sophisticated in recent decades, and activists may yet discover new tactics. The drawback of the strategy, as noted above, is that it can evoke a visceral response by those in power. As a result, activists may find themselves quickly placed on blacklists or the target of public smear campaigns. The upside of the strategy, though, is that movements may quickly get the attention of the public and policymakers.
Citizen Action & Empowerment
Citizen action and empowerment is a broad category of grassroots strategy that seeks to provide services, protections, and development directly to the community. This strategy differs from other approaches to grassroots activism in that it does not necessarily seek to alter policies or laws but, instead, fill gaps in social services left by the government.
This strategy is sometimes disregarded by activists as it may appear to be similar to charity work meant to alleviate temporary suffering, as opposed to movement-based actions that seek social change. However, the process of citizen empowerment can be one of the greatest tools for organizers. If done intentionally, the approach can alter the political environment by improving community linkages and information sharing. From there, movements can evolve into something like the social transformation models discussed above.
The range of tactics is quite stark in this category. The strategy could apply to anything from parents cleaning up a local park where their children play to the self-defense trainings put on by the Black Panther Party (BPP) in the 1960s.
One clear example of this strategy has been the annual International Coastal Cleanup, which harnesses the support of over one million volunteers. The effort is a grassroots mobilization to help address oceanic pollution and it’s likely one of the largest efforts of its kind. In 2018 alone, the movement cleaned up 23 million tons of trash – and documented 97 million items in the refuse.
The event started as a local cleanup effort but has since grown to be a symbol of citizen empowerment, the scale of the problem, and the gaps left by world governments in addressing oceanic pollution. Organizers of the event have been vocal advocates for research-backed solutions and have slowly accumulated a grassroots base who can act as volunteers, public messengers, and activists for the issue.
As mentioned above, the strategy of the BPP might also fall under this category and be on the extreme end of the approach. The BPP originally began with a group of organizers who wanted to protect the black community from police harassment and violence. To this end, party members armed themselves and monitored police patrols (“copwatching”).
Later, the movement grew into a more robust party that sought alternative peace and security structures to those provided by the state. However, the party drew intense backlash and had some controversies. The group represented such a threat to the U.S. government that the FBI even used a specialized policing program to target members and other actors in the civil rights movement.
The program called the “counterintelligence program” or (COINTELPRO) is largely believed to have been behind several assassinations and smear campaigns against the BPP and other groups in the civil rights movement.
In some cases, this grassroots strategy can be a fine line between asserting personal sovereignty and violence. Even small acts of citizens providing services to their communities, though, may threaten local power structures. Activists stand the best chance of success with citizen actions when they act with intention and legal awareness.
Looking for more on grassroots movements? Check out our post explaining the ins and outs of grassroots organizing.