Grassroots

A grassroots movement (often referenced in the context of a political movement) is one which uses the people in a given district as the basis for a political or economic movement. [1] Grassroots movements and organizations use collective action from the local level to effect change at the local, regional, national, or international level. Grassroots movements are associated with bottom-up, rather than top-down decision making, and are sometimes considered more natural or spontaneous than more traditional power structures.[ citation needed] Grassroots movements, using self-organization, encourages community members to contribute by taking responsibility and action for their community. [2] Grassroots movements utilize a variety of strategies from fundraising and registering voters, to simply encouraging political conversation. Goals of specific movements vary, but the movements are consistent in their focus on increasing mass participation in politics. [3] These political movements may begin as small and at the local level, but grassroots politics as Cornel West contends are necessary in shaping progressive politics as they bring public attention to regional political concerns [4]

The idea of grassroots is often conflated with participatory democracy. The Port Huron Statement, a manifesto seeking a more democratic society, says that to create a more equitable society, "the grass roots of American Society" need to be the basis of civil rights and economic reform movements. [5] The terms can be distinguished in that grassroots often refers to a specific movement or organization, whereas participatory democracy refers to the larger system of governance. [6]

History

The earliest origins of the use of "grass roots" as a political metaphor are obscure. In the United States, an early use of the phrase "grassroots and boots" was thought to have been coined by Senator Albert Jeremiah Beveridge of Indiana, who said of the Progressive Party in 1912, "This party has come from the grass roots. It has grown from the soil of people's hard necessities". [7]

In a 1907 newspaper article about Ed Perry, vice-chairman of the Oklahoma state committee, the phrase was used as follows: "In regard to his political views Mr. Perry has issued the following terse platform: 'I am for a square deal, grass root representation, for keeping close to the people, against ring rule and for fair treatment.'" [8] A 1904 news article on a campaign for possible Theodore Roosevelt running mate Eli Torrance quotes a Kansas political organizer as saying: "Roosevelt and Torrance clubs will be organized in every locality. We will begin at the grass roots". [9]

Since the early 1900s, grassroots movements have been widespread both in the United States and in other countries. Major examples include parts of the American Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s, Brazil's land equity movement of the 1970s and beyond, the Chinese rural democracy movement of the 1980s, and the German peace movement of the 1980s.

A particular instantiation of grassroots politics in the American Civil Rights Movement was the 1951 case of William Van Til working on integration of the Nashville Public Schools. Van Til worked to create a grassroots movement focused on discussing race relations at the local level. To that end, he founded the Nashville Community Relations Conference, which brought together leadership from various communities in Nashville to discuss the possibility of integration. In response to his attempts to network with leadership in the black community, residents of Nashville responded with violence and scare tactics. However, Van Til was still able to bring blacks and whites together to discuss the potential for changing race relations, and he was ultimately instrumental in integrating the Peabody College of Education in Nashville. Furthermore, the desegregation plan proposed by Van Til's Conference was implemented by Nashville schools in 1957. This movement is characterized as grassroots because it focused on changing a norm at the local level using local power. Van Til worked with local organizations to foster political dialogue, and was ultimately successful.

The Brazilian Landless Workers Movement (MST) was founded in the 1970s and has grown into an international organization. The MST focused on organizing young farmers and their children in fighting for a variety of rights, most notably the right to access land. The movement sought organic leaders, and used strategies of direct action such as land occupations. It largely maintained autonomy from the Brazilian government. The MST traces its roots to discontent arising from large land inequalities in Brazil in the 1960s. Such discontent gained traction, particularly after Brazil became a democracy in 1985. The movement focused especially on occupying land that was considered unproductive, thus showing that it was seeking overall social benefit. In the 1990s the influence of the MST grew tremendously following two mass killings of protestors. Successful protests were those in which the families of those occupying properties receiving plots of land. It is worth noting that although the grassroots efforts of the MST were successful in Brazil, when they were tried by the South African Landless People's Movement (LPM) in 2001 they were not nearly as successful. Land occupations in South Africa were politically contentious and did not achieve the positive results seen by the MST. [10]

The National People's Congress was a grassroots democratic reform movement that came out of the existing Chinese government in 1987. It encouraged grassroots elections in villages all around China with the express purpose of bringing democracy to the local level of government. Reforms took the form of self-governing village committees that were elected in a competitive, democratic process. Xu Wang from Princeton University called the Congress mutually empowering for the state and the peasantry in that the state was given a renewed level of legitimacy by the democratic reforms, and the peasantry was given far more political power. This manifested itself in increased voting rate, particularly for the poor, and increased levels of political awareness according to Wang's research. One example of the increased accountability from the new institutions was a province in which villagers gave 99,000 suggestions to the local government. Ultimately, 78,000 of these were adopted indicating a high rate of governmental responsiveness. This movement is considered grassroots because it focuses on systematically empowering the people. This focus manifested itself in the democratic institutions that focused on engaging the poor and in reform efforts that sought to make the government more responsive to the will of the people. [11]

Another instance of a historical grassroots movement was the 1980s German peace movement. The movement traces its roots to the 1950s movement opposing nuclear armament, or the "Ban the Bomb" Movement. In the 1980s, the movement became far bigger. In 1981, 800 organizations pushed the government to reduce the military size. The push culminated in a protest by 300,000 people in the German capital Bonn. The movement was successful in producing a grassroots organization, the Coordination Committee, which directed the efforts of the peace movements in the following years. The committee ultimately failed to decrease the size of the German military, but it laid the groundwork for protests of the Iraq war in the 2000s. Further, the movement started public dialogue about policy directed at peace and security. Like the Civil Rights movement, the German Peace movement is considered grassroots because it focused on political change starting at the local level. [12]

A further example of grassroots in the 1980s was the Citizens Clearinghouse for Natural Waste, an organization that united communities and various grassroots groups in America in support of more environmentally friendly methods of dealing with natural waste. The movement focused especially on African American communities and other minorities. It sought to bring awareness to those communities, and alter the focus from moving problematic waste to changing the system that produced such waste. The movement is considered grassroots because it utilized strategies that derived their power from the affected communities. For example, in North Carolina, African American communities lay down in front of dump trucks to protest their environment impact. The success of these movements largely remains to be seen. [13]

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