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Bottom-up Organizing: Transformative movements Can Only be Realized with Authentic Grassroots Leadership

By Greg Jobin-Leeds — May 31, 2012 5 min read
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Here is the 6th post in the discussion between Saulo and I concerning the role of leadership, organizing, and funders in bending the arc of educational history. This post involves a set of hypotheses we view as crucial and connected, that of self-emancipation and leadership from below. -- Greg

Hypothesis #3: Bottom-up Organizing; Transformative movements Can Only be Realized with Authentic Grassroots Leadership

by Saulo Colon

“Before women gained the right to vote it took . . . 56 different campaigns for state referenda, 408 campaigns to urge legislatures to put women’s suffrage on the ballot, 47 campaigns for state constitutional conventions, 30 campaigns to urge presidential party platforms to include women’s suffrage as a plank, and 19 lobbying efforts with nineteen successive Congresses before the 19th amendment was proposed in Congress in 1919 and ratified August 26, 1920.” -- Judith Niles, Nine Women

The extensive grassroots efforts leading to women’s right to vote is a compelling portrayal of the fact that social change movements are like rivers with many tributaries. A dynamic, successful social movement is really the confluence of many movements--smaller, more local, narrower or different in focus. Another example, one local tributary of the U.S. immigrants’ rights struggle, is the Student Immigration Movement (SIM), a Massachusetts-based youth organization that uses student-led, community and electoral organizing to press for equal access to higher education.

Transformative movements emerge from a multitude of struggles, campaigns, organizing and other popular initiatives. The combination of many small victories builds the momentum for success. A movement of many movements has deeper, larger roots among the population and has a much richer base of ideas and activities that allow it to grow.

While “it takes all” to create a powerful transformative movement, the key to success is that the most excluded, those pushed to the sidelines and to the bottom need to lead. Those who are most marginalized are often the underserved, underrepresented, poor and subject to the yoke of repression on a daily basis. Movements fail when those who are most excluded are sidelined. It is vitally important that that those who are most affected by the issues that the movement is trying to address are propelling that movement. Their perspectives, leadership, and organizations must drive and be central. In addition, their contributions should be broadly acknowledged as the movement achieves gains; their stories must not be marginalized after success.

Great visions cannot be realized without self-organizing from the ground up

Most significant structural social transformations have been largely led by those most affected by the structured inequality, whether class, gender or race based.

As Nelson Mandela explained about grassroots organizing:

As we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

The broadest-based and longest enduring transformational movements grow from the grassroots up. In his book Why We Can’t Wait, Dr. Martin Luther King discussed how the civil rights movement affected the Kennedy presidency. While the Kennedy brothers had helped King and the Southern Christian Leadership Council early on, during the first two years of the Kennedy Administration the Kennedys vacillated on civil rights and took the Black base for granted (as Obama does now). It was only after Birmingham and the strong push from the grassroots that the Kennedy Administration responded to the call from below.

People can march against war, advocate universal healthcare, or fight for education equity without generating a “sense of movement;” most often leaders in these situations neglect the passion and intellect of those most impacted -- key ingredients in the alchemy of transformation. And the organizations they lead can sometimes be part of the problem.

Avoiding professionalization and non-profitization

Today, with the non-profitization (and accompanying professionalization) of movements, we have lost much of the autonomy of grassroots movement building. Foundations and other nonprofits have become “the environmental movement,” “the school reform movement,” or the “anti-poverty movement.” Community activism on such issues has been partially supplanted or co-opted by Washington-based organizations with recognized brand names, fundraising prowess, and an approach to social action not unlike other top-down entities. They are often led by professionals much like those in business -- executives drawing on “expert” opinions to determine how change should unfold.

Rarely do foundations fund grassroots activists and communities to build upon their self-empowerment and self-governance. Funders rarely create spaces for the inspiration and energy of those outside certain elite and/or educated circles. Social change movements do require considerable resources, but they cannot be consigned to direction by large 501(c)(3) organizations or 501(c)(4) organizations.

The leadership, membership, base, and spokespeople of a successful movement need to include those most affected by injustice: the poor, workers; youth and students; people of color, LGBTQ. Leaders must include people from the groups most affected by an issue, and must not be dominated by wealthy, educated, and well-meaning allies. The wealthy can be allies who bring resources but they have to know when and how to take a step back.

To win, successful transformative justice movements draw on strategic contributions by a diversity of people. For example, the NAACP was created by Jews and Christians, as well as African Americans -- but its leadership remained African American. The abolitionist, yet aristocratic, South Carolina sisters, Sarah and Angelina Grimke, spoke out bravely to demystify slave owners’ claims that slavery was benevolent. But the abolitionist movement was driven in many ways by former slaves and the sons and daughters of former slaves.

Today, we can see student led movements around the world from the Québec Student Movement led by students impacted by their debt, to the Chilean Student Movement, to Occupy on campuses led by indebted students in the US. These movements have the potential to be transformative and bend the arc of US educational history. They deserve our support and recognition.

The opinions expressed in Democracy and Education are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


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