Thoughts

  • August 23, 2018

6 Benefits of Grassroots Efforts & Mobilization

In our decade of experience with building a grassroots organization, we have witnessed changes in the local community, where people become more active and engaged, more confident in their own voice, and more invested in communal outcomes. It has been exciting to see, and has helped crystallize the benefits of building change from the ground up.

Here are some of the benefits we’ve seen:

It’s a means of democratic participation

Countries exist on a scale of more to less democratic. It’s not an on/off switch. Becoming democratic involves an infusion of values and skills that are instrumental to citizen participation. Organizing in local communities to shape the local environment is a powerful form of democratic participation. It’s a great way to help people grow their skills in collective action. For example, in many countries in the global South, cultural and legal norms discourage women from participation in the public sphere. However, there are several examples of women-led collectives pooling resources for greater economic security. Working together, the women develop skills and power to negotiate and bargain for greater rights. (Source: UNESCO)

In Northern Thailand, a handful of farming co-ops have grown so that families work together, sharing fields so they can diversify crops and collectively agree on safe practices like organic pesticides as an alternative to the harmful chemicals they’re exposed to in work with the large agricultural companies.

It can be empowering and therapeutic to share individual experiences collectively

When exploitation and abuse happen, oftentimes people keep those experiences private, especially to avoid stigmas and shame. Sometimes hearing another’s experience with the same thing helps people to know they’re is not alone. For example, vets coming back from overseas often have a difficult time processing their experience. Joining a grassroots organization gives a safe place to do that. As veteran Jose Vasquez explains, “The camaraderie is a huge asset. It’s probably saved a couple of people’s lives actually—people on the verge of suicide. They meet up with other IVAW members and realize, ‘I’m not alone.’” (Source: Hegemony How-To)

When people share their stories, they start to see whether abuse and exploitation are individual instances that require individual solutions or whether they’re part of a larger problem that requires collective action. “It’s empowering to identify with other people, to find likeminded individuals, to have that outlet, to do things with others—sort of taking that negative energy and turning it into something positive.”

Local organizations can help ensure implementation of public policy

While our organization refrains from direct policy advocacy, grassroots organizations in general can play a key role in making sure public policy works as it should. Experts and advocates working in the field, as with our human rights’ training workshops, can help inform the public of things like what the laws and their rights are and where they can find help. This helps people know how to protect themselves from exploitation.

Grassroots organizations fill gaps in goods and services, where the government and market fail to provide

Sometimes it takes a group of committed and concerned citizens to ensure the existence of goods and services. Sometimes important benefits come as a byproduct. In a new book, Patrick Sharkey, sociology professor at New York University, investigated the great crime decline of the past decades and discovered that in areas where crime went down the most, grassroots organizations were helping to clean streets, build playgrounds, mentor children and employ young men. As the number of nonprofits addressing neighborhood and youth development began to rise, crime began to fall such that, “every 10 additional organizations in a city with 100,000 residents, they estimate, led to a 9 percent drop in the murder rate and a 6 percent drop in violent crime.” (Source: The New York Times)

A key aspect was that police shouldered the burden of tasks like counseling, marriage therapy, and substance abuse therapy that was not within their purview and for which they had not been trained. By placing these tasks back in the hands of people who were better equipped to deal with them, the police could focus on their real jobs and people could get the kind of help they needed.  

They help articulate local problems and needs

In our work, we’ve seen this in the vulnerability of stateless people. When we first started working in anti-trafficking, the clear indicator for vulnerability to trafficking was poverty and lack of education. However, as our experience on the ground showed us, there was a whole hidden class of vulnerable people: the stateless. It became quickly apparent that not having citizenship made it much harder to gain access to education and legal work.

Moreover, lack of documentation meant stateless people had incentives to stay hidden, rather than to push for access and rights, even if they did have a rightful claim to a visa or citizenship. For many, nonprofit organizations are the only safe place they have to turn for help.

Grassroots organizations challenge status quo

Done well, efforts in the field do more than teach people how to plant a vegetable garden as a way to mitigate poverty. They have the potential to raise questions about what structural elements cause problems and to press for structural solutions. However, grassroots organizations cannot provide structural solutions. We cannot end poverty, we can only mitigate its effects for individuals.

In that sense, grassroots organizations are a necessary component of a larger system that needs the government and private sector to operate well. As such, we also must take care not to focus so much on discrete service solutions and neglect the larger problem. Our work is about more than giving 100 children education. It’s about highlighting how essential it is to include everyone in social life: in school, in healthcare, in legal access to work.

When we push people out of society then plagues like trafficking and other human rights exploitation propagate and spread. When we encourage participation, we help people build resources to strengthen themselves and the community. That security that comes with embeddedness in a strong family and community network becomes the foundation for greater liberation.

Dr. Jade Keller is the Research Writer and Executive Editor for The Freedom Story (formerly The SOLD Project). After receiving a PhD in Political Science from UC Santa Barbara, she moved with her family to northern Thailand in 2010 to work in child trafficking prevention, education, and helping to raise awareness. She currently writes from Berlin.