Roots to Power
Staples Lee (2004) - A Manual for Grass Roots
Clinical Professor of Social Work, Boston University
grassroots community organizing
• collective action by community members drawing
– the strength of numbers,
– participatory processes, and
– indigenous leadership
• to decrease power disparities and achieve shared
goals for social change.
• Organizing is a bottom-up philosophical approach
to social change, not simply a method to achieve
• Community members make their own decisions about
• Community members take collective action that
employs “people power” to achieve shared goals,
resolve common problems, and gain a greater measure
of control over the circumstances of their lives
• The community provides its own leadership for the
• developing ongoing organizations as a power base
through which community members can take collective
action over time
• identity, or
Types of approach
• involves participants in constructive activities and processes to
• produce improvements, opportunities, structures, goods, and
• increase the quality of life, build individual and collective capacities,
and enhance social solidarity.
• approach is developmental & integrative.
• The goal is internal development
• of the community’s capacity to make improvements, solve
problems, generate its own leadership, strengthen social
relationships, and function more effectively
• does not attempt to redistribute resources or to reduce power dis-
• “power holders could be organized to effect change” (Beck and
CD has three goals
• problem resolution
– (e.g., creating a community garden, organizing a
neighbourhood crime watch, producing afford-
able housing, or generating employment
• capacity building
– through the establishment of effective GCOs,
• and the development of social solidarity
– “the ties that bind.”
• brings people together to
– pressure, or
• external decision-makers to meet collective goals
either to act in a speciﬁed manner or to modify or stop
• less powerful groups to transform themselves from
objects of oppression to subjects able to act in unison
to challenge dominant elites (Freire, 1973)
• Is redistributive in nature
SA has 3 goals
• problem resolution
– (e.g., obtaining curve cuts, modifying the
Informed Consent Policy, or eliminating illegal
• building a power base
– Through the development of a strong GCO, and
• decreasing power disparities
– Between community members and external
• a vacant lot in a multiracial low-income neighbourhood.
The land—owned by the city—has become a dumping
ground with old mattresses, furniture, appliances, and car
parts littered across the full expanse. Weeds, broken glass,
and patches of briars ﬁll out the scene.
• CD= cleanup day, and perhaps there might be an effort to
persuade the city to provide some equipment, as well as a
truck to remove the debris. But the actual work would be
done by residents themselves
• SA=begin with door-to-door recruitment, “rubbing raw the
sores of discontent” (Alinsky, 1969)by engaging residents in
agitational conversations about the city’s fail-ure to provide
adequate management of this parcel of land
• The most basic goal of grassroots community
organizing is to bring about social change.
• CD is limited because it fails to
• “deal with underlying issues that are caused by
polarized interest, such as banks that redline the
community, corporations that abandon
it, absentee landlords who run it down, or
private/public policy that undermines it at almost
every turn” (Fisher and Shragge 2000 pp.8–9)
Goals of Community Development
• Problem Resolution
• Capacity Building
• Social Solidarity
Goals of Social Action
• Problem Resolution
• Building a Power Base
• Decreasing Power
Miller’s 1971 3T’s of power
– Elimination of the worst abuses, such as police brutality,
racial proﬁling, predatory lending, or unfair evictions
– To replace some decision-makers with “their own people.”
– Restructuring of relationships such as the passage of a
mental patients’ rights bill, creation of a housing trust fund
(cf housing benefit and private rents, establishment of a
Living wage (London Living Wages and the Olympics)
10 tools for taking power
• Doing It Yourself
• Developing Persuasive
• Raising Awareness and
• Using Existing
Laws, Policies, and
• Creating or Changing
Laws, Policies, and
• Generating Publicity
• Exercising Electoral
• Affecting Appointments
• Exercising Consumer
• Disrupting “Business As
Tim’s advice: its easier to ask forgiveness than permission!
Role of the Organiser
Locate and Relate.
Motivate and Integrate.
Facilitate and Educate.
• Organiser is not (always) the community leader
• organizer’s job to get other people to take the
• “Coaching is the essence of the organizer role”
(Moshe ben Asher 1984)
• Organizers facilitate the process through which
community members begin to analyze the
circumstances of their lives and then think about
making changes in institutions and power
Time & Location
• Bulk of an organizer’s time is spent working
either with individuals
– In their kitchens, on their front doorstops, and over
• Or with small groups
– In an endless array of meetings for recruitment,
action research, community education, leadership
training, executive decisions, grassroots fundraising,
strategic analysis, action planning, negotiating,
lobbying, and evaluating organizational actions and
Don’t be dragged in…
• it’s easier to do things for people,
– saving time and
– getting personal ego satisfaction in the
• Yet such shortcuts only reduce
organizational growth by robbing the
members of ownership and control
• do their work without creating relationships
of dependence and overreliance.
• Decision-making power must remain with
the full membership.
• Much of the work can be done through the
skilful use of Socratic questioning, which
helps focus discussion
Can’t You Hear Me Knockin’?
Organizing Models and Methods
membership, leadership, staffing, structure,
goals, target systems, strategy & tactics
employed, ﬁnances, allies, and communications.
WHO: membership, leadership, staffing
• direct membership
– primary recruitment
– loyalty to cause
• organization of organizations (O of O)
– Team of teams (ashoka)
– congregation model
– loyalty to primary organisation
– Active, not paper, participation is essential
– No, FB ‘likes’ don’t count….
– But…. Alinsky (1971) “the illusion of a group’s power often
is more important than its actual strength”
• 1st line leaders
– core activists—regular participants in the group’s
meetings, activities, and events.
• 2nd line leaders
– links between the 1st line & rank-and-ﬁle members,
– energy, creativity, and fresh perspectives.
– Slow down “The Iron Law of Oligarchy” as 1st line
leaders become more powerful
– "Bureaucracy happens. If bureaucracy happens,
power rises. Power corrupts”- iron law
• (Freire, 1973) enables organizational leaders
• to actively reﬂect about their personal life
• to recognize similar experiences shared by
• to develop a political critique of systemic
• to prepare to act collectively to challenge and
change the conditions of their lives.
• its purpose, mission, history, track
record, opportunities, and challenges are.
• Long-Range Goals-aspirational
• Middle-Range Goals- concrete
• Objectives are measurable outcomes within a
speciﬁed time period
‘Target System’ or Stakeholders
• Internal: establish a positive reputation and
credibility among its own constituency
• External: either
– (CD) efforts to enlist the assistance of external
– (SA) mobilization within the community with
pressure directed at external decision-makers
• a GCO goes about attempting to achieve its
mission and goals— strategy and tactics,
ﬁnances, allies, and communications
• strategies to engage and motivate community
members to take collective action, as well as
• ones designed to convince or coerce
organizational targets to act as the group
• Cf Ten Tools for Taking Power
• Does the organization understand the dynamics of community
development versus social action, as well as the appropriate
strategic continuum from collaboration to confrontation?
• How often have the various types of strategies been used, and with
• Have errors been made using strategies and tactics that either were
too weak or too militant?
• What new strategic and tactical abilities and skills have
organizational members, leaders, and staff developed?
• Is the GCO able to mix, match, and modify its tactics as needed?
• Has the group learned to overcome common counter tactics from
• “Whoever pays the piper calls the tune.”
– from sources such as dues, door-to-door
canvassing for contributions, and a variety of
grassroots fundraising projects (such as
raffles, banquets, dances, carnivals, bake sales, ad
books, or potluck suppers)
• Grants, funds, trading
4 phases of organising
– gather basic information about the community and begin analyzing the power
dynamics at work within it
– Door knocking, questionnaires, meetings
– use face-to-face recruitment methods in natural settings where potential
members are accessible and feel comfortable interacting.
– Who else is active in the field?
• Developing an Organizing Committee (OC):
– initial core group is needed to provide leadership and direction for the
• General Recruitment Drive:
– Systematic recruitment is launched with the active support and participation
of the Organizing Committee members.
• Formation Meeting:
– The organizing drive culminates with a formation meeting where temporary
leadership is elected and organizational action is planned
• Key Institutions.
• Powerful Actors.
• Existing Issues
• Potential Issues
• Political Trends.
• Gatekeepers- who
• Opinion Leaders.
• Credentialing – who can
vouch for you?
• Discovery- where does
their self interest lie?
• Visioning-what’s in it for
• Commitment- big favour
• Building Momentum
Analyze, Strategize, and Catalyze
Issues and Strategy
• Is the issue consistent with the long- and middle-range goals of the
• Will the issue be unifying or divisive?
• What is the GCO’s capacity to undertake this issue campaign at the
• Will the campaign help the GCO grow?
• Will the campaign provide a good educational experience for leaders and
members, developing their consciousness, independence, and skills?
• Will the GCO receive credit for a victory on the issue, improve its
credibility, and increase its overall visibility?
• How will the campaign affect organizational resources?
• Will the campaign develop new allies and/or enemies?
• Will the campaign emphasize collective action, producing new strategies,
tactics, or issues?
• Will the campaign produce a signiﬁcant victory
• Power isn’t only what you have, but what the enemy thinks you have.
• Never go outside the experience of your people. This will produce
confusion, fear, a collapse of communication, and a lack of ownership of
the tactic. Keep things simple and logical.
• Wherever possible, go outside of the experience of the enemy. Keep them
off balance by doing the unexpected. Don’t become predictable in your
• Make the enemy live up to their own book of rules.
• Ridicule is one of our most important weapons.
• A good tactic is one that your people enjoy. Have fun!
• A tactic that drags on too long becomes a drag.
• Keep the pressure on with a variety of tactics and actions.
• The threat can be more terrifying than the thing itself.
• Develop operations that will maintain a constant pressure on the
opposition. The pressure produces a reaction from the target,
setting the stage for further organizational action and subsequent
• If you push a negative hard and deep enough, it will break through
to its counterside. The real action is in the enemy’s reaction. The
enemy, properly goaded and guided in its reaction, will be your
• The price of a successful attack is a constructive alternative. Be
prepared to offer an organizational solution to the issue if called
• Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it.
• Tactics, like organization and like life, require that you move with
the action. Be ﬂexible and imaginative. Have contingency plans for a
variety of responses by the opposition
Innovative direction action
• squatting, street blocking, citizen’s arrests,,
pledges, subpoenaing opponents,
• creative use of e-mail and the Internet,
• “people’s hearings,”
• buying mainstream advertising,
• “billing” the city for services done by the
What the target will do
• The Seven D’s of Defense”
– Discredit, and
The best defense
• solid research methodology and a good media
strategy to carry your message to the general
• number of people actively involved in the
campaign and the track record of legitimacy it has
established over time
• strong allies, solid legal assistance, a stepped-up
media campaign, and aggressive direct action can
add up to an effective counteroffensive
Preparation for Action
• Research on Target
• Logistical Plans
• Action Planning Meetings
• Formulate Demands
• Prioritize Demands
• Divide up Roles
• Role Play and Practice
• What happened?
• Why did this happen?
• What did we do well?
• What might we have done differently?
• Where do we go from here?
Speaking truth to power
• Quaker Milton Mayer 1955
• mainstream approach to community
involvement usually is predisposed toward
limited input—such as reactions to
predetermined institutional decisions
• self-appointed “grasstips” leaders—recognized
by outside authorities but neither respected
nor trusted within their own communities—
are designated to speak for a particular group.
• handpicked as “window dressing.”
Representation in power
• Grassroots Community Organisations should be
given precedence over unattached individuals
when various types of institutional decision-
making structures are constituted
• such representatives should comprise a large
enough portion of the total seats/votes to form a
• representatives from GCOs should be given the
requisite orientation and training, so that they
can function as knowledgeable and active
Operating Policies and Procedures
• a relatively decentralized management
system is most consistent with bottom-up
• multiple access points for community groups
to have inﬂuence on truly signiﬁcant
institutional decisions and behaviors.
• policy of long-range planning that
incorporates a central role for community
• Community obligated institutions (Coins) like
local authorities or hospitals that show the
– Centralised power and decision-making
– Single points of ‘customer relations’ or ‘complaints
– Short-term reactive planning
• Are usually ‘playing at’ community
• Key programmatic stages of:
– implementation, and
• In COINS are essential points of involvement
– assessing needs as well as assets
– community buy-in and ownership
– close monitoring and active evaluation of institutional
programs by GCOs
Making public policy
• Elected decision-makers make different
decisions when watched by the affected
• Get the right information to the right person
at the right time.
• Public policy-makers weigh opinion as equal to
So what… of community research
• When panning for gold, don’t discard the diamonds
• ‘Spin’ning makes the world go round.
• Follow the money.
• Who is connected to whom ?
• Only believe what you see with your own two eyes
• have your eyes examined regularly.
• If you can’t ﬁnd an insider, make one.
• Know the rules/laws for access to (public) information
After Words, Take Action
For the powerless, there’s only one
course to follow.
Organize! Struggle! Become powerful!