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Organize Grassroots Movements for Issues You Care About

It is not enough to lobby elected officials.
We must build a big grassroots movement to make elected officials do what we want.

When we talk to elected officials, they think there are only a few of us, so it’s safe to simply listen politely and then ignore what we are asking them to do.

They can do that if there are only a few of us. But if we had a big, strong, vibrant environmental movement, they would have to do what we tell them to do – or else get voted out of office.

We have done this before. Richard Nixon was NOT an environmentalist, but in the late 1960s the environmental movement was growing large. We convinced Nixon to create the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970. As bad as Nixon was on many issues, he knew that – as a politician who would be seeking re-election in 1972 – he needed to take this strong action to create the EPA.

Grassroots organizing has accomplished huge progress on a variety of issues, including the environment, LGBTQ rights, outlawing smoking in public places, and so forth. In order to make more progress, we need local grassroots movements that are strategically savvy and bold.

How do we build a strong grassroots environmental movement to achieve our goals?

  • It’s not enough for activists to merely accumulate more information and talk among ourselves. Some people fill themselves up with more and more information but fail to act upon it.
  • In order to make political progress, we must define clear goals and reach out to the general public.
  • We must set goals and strategize how to bring more people into our movement to accomplish our goals.
  • To be effective, we must design our public outreach strategically and carry it out skillfully.
  • We can become much more effective at moving public opinion!

If you want to organize a long-term grassroots movement to achieve social or political goals, you will need to strategize how to deepen it and move it ahead. You will need to develop different strategies at each stage of your grassroots movement in order to keep moving it ahead.

Let’s reverse some common assumptions about power:

The conventional model is a pyramid with a few people on top and all of the ordinary people at the bottom. The few people at the top of the pyramid have the official power, so the rest of us are relatively powerless. This conventional pyramid model says all we can do is ask the powerful people at the top to please do what we ask.

A totally different model promotes profound social change by flipping that pyramid upside-down with “We the People” on top holding the power. This is what Thomas Jefferson and other people were calling for. “We the People” have the power. We allow some other people (in government and business) to use some of our power – but only tentatively unless they violate the public’s trust.

In this inverted model based on “People Power,” besides urging governments and businesses to do what we want, most of our efforts go to reaching the general public – “We the People” at the top of this upside-down pyramid – so we can change public opinion and change our culture to solve the big problems in the way we want. Then the people who currently have the official power will have to obey “We the People.”

We need to win a majority of the public to agree with us:

70% to 80% of the struggle in social change is getting our issue onto the public agenda of hot issues that society must seriously deal with:

  • Make the public focus on our issue.
  • Make the media focus on our issue.
  • Make the politicians focus on our issue.

The central issue of social movements is the struggle between the grassroots movements and the people who hold official power. We and they are competing with each other to win the hearts, minds, and support of the general public, so the public can demand the changes we seek.

We need to peel more and more of the public away from being dominated by the people who have the official power – and hurt by their bad public policies.

A three-step process is very helpful. For whatever issue you want to promote, take these three steps in sequence:

  1. Make this problem a hot public issue that must be dealt with. First, make this a hot issue that the PUBLIC must deal with, the MEDIA must deal with, and the POLITICIANS and BUSINESSES must deal with.
  2. Win a majority of the public to agree that current public policies are a serious problem. Make the PUBLIC, MEDIA, POLITICIANS and BUSINESSES recognize that the status quo is broken – and must be fixed.
  3. Win a majority of the public to agree to support our solutions for changing public policies. The first two steps flow smoothly into our third step: We must convince them to adopt the solution that we are proposing.

I have used this three-step process effectively in many kinds of settings (letters to newspaper editors, testifying to state legislative committees, and so forth).

How do we bring different kinds of people into our environmental movement?

The public is diverse. Let’s devise smart strategies and activities to reach out specifically to each constituency within the public:

Some kinds of people will easily agree with us. They are “natural allies” we can easily recruit. Let’s devise strategies and activities to bring them into our grassroots movement.

Some other kinds of people are “tactical allies” who are not yet paying attention to our hot issues, but will likely agree with us and join with us if we show them what we have in common with their values, issues, and goals, so we can join together with their priorities while they also join together with our priorities.

We can also devise strategies to reach out to people who are not involved at all and show how we care about their own values and interests, so we can also bring them into our movement.

Beyond that, we can devise strategies to reach out to people “on the other side” of the issue, so they can reduce their animosity toward us and perhaps see some merit in the message we are promoting. Softening their opposition to us is strategically useful, but too often we overlook this important strategy.

On any issue, public opinion ranges all the way from strongly supporting to strongly opposing. The spectrum includes individuals at each point all the way along that spectrum.

I like to think of the metaphor of kids sitting next to each other on a teeter-totter, all the way from one end to the other end. With kids spread out evenly, the teeter-totter is perfectly level. But if each kid moves just 6 inches toward the same direction, the teeter-totter will tilt. That’s what we need to do with public opinion! Let’s devise strategies for each point along the spectrum of public opinion, so we can move the people at that point just a little bit toward the direction we want. This strategy can help us achieve a big shift in public opinion toward wanting the public policy change that we are working to accomplish.

We can devise specific messaging for each point by devising strategies that ask:

  • What will persuade people at each point along the spectrum to move a little closer toward our position?
  • What do those people value and want?
  • What do those people fear?
  • What symbols and images can get those people to move in our direction?

Liberals and progressives tend to over-intellectualize issues and throw a lot of facts and statistics at people. Let’s figure out different strategies that will connect people at a “heart” level as well as a “head” level.

Let’s help all the different kinds of people see how our issues and goals are inter-connected with the issues and goals those various kinds of people already have, so we can work together for our common issues and goals.

Let’s ground our outreach to the public in positive, friendly ways:

  • Let’s always be friendly and open when we reach out to the public, so we can warmly welcome more people to open up to considering our issues and joining our environmental movement.
  • The public is NOT the enemy! The public is NOT idiots.
  • How many times have we seen activists approach the public with a smug superiority or insult the public’s intelligence, attitude or values?
  • Let’s always be warm, friendly and welcoming, so people will feel warmly invited to join with us and protect the environment.

Let’s change our national culture to strongly value what we want our culture to value – and make our values dominant and permanent throughout our culture.

In addition to the specific issues we are focusing on, let’s also devise strategies that will move our overall national culture toward stronger support for a the full range of progressive, humane, socially just, and environment goals.

If you watch movies from the 1930s, 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, you will see smoking portrayed as cool and sexy. But in recent decades ordinary people – from the grassroots up – changed that, so now most people see smoking as gross and disgusting. Decades ago people used to smoke in restaurants, airplanes, college classrooms and everywhere else, but that’s no longer acceptable. Grassroots people changed the public consciousness – changed our culture – about smoking and forced the politicians to outlaw smoking in many, many places.

Now we need to change the public consciousness about a number of issues. We have allies working in the grassroots movements for peace, economic justice, women’s rights, and many other important movements. We have a huge amount of potential to boldly re-shape our society with grassroots movements from the bottom up.

This will be exciting – and this will be fun!

Since the late 1960s Glen Anderson has devoted his life to working as a volunteer for peace, nonviolence, social justice, and progressive political issues.  He has lived in Lacey since 1975. You can reach him at (360) 491-9093. You can see information and resources on a wide variety of issues at his blog,


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