How dare you?

Her admonition, rang clear across the room during the 2019 UN conference. 

At a mere 16 years old, Greta Thunberg stared down scores of world leaders and told them to do better about their climate change policies. 

It was quite an electrifying speech that sparked change in a million young minds across the world. It was also quite unprecedented in the UN – for it came from one so young; A student, who by her own admission, should’ve been an ocean away, studying in school. 

For the heights it reached, Thunberg’s climate protest journey had surprisingly humble beginnings. It started with her sitting outside the Swedish Parliament, with a hand-written board, trying to create awareness about climate change. 

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Thunberg and her friends outside the Swedish Parliament

However, it evolved into a global protest soon enough. In less than 15 months, there were at least two coordinated multi-city protests involving over a million students each. 

Students in Australia, Sweden, US, Europe, and India raised their voices in protest and joined the march to support climate change policies.

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Climate change protests in New York, 2019

Thunberg was the voice, the rallying cry behind the protests, yes. However, each student and youngster who showed up, had a hand in making it the global movement it turned out to be.

How did one young girl’s determination spark a global demonstration? How did it manage to garner and mobilize support across the world? 

The answer grassroots mobilization. It called on individual supporters, the grassroots, to take a stand. In this context, ‘grassroots’ were the millennials. They were the most affected by the situation. They are the generation who had the most to lose and they came out to register their protest. 

If you want your grassroots mobilization to be that powerful, then this blog post can help you get started. 

What is grassroots mobilization?

To put it very simply, grassroots mobilization is about getting individuals together to influence a specific outcome. Usually, this is political in nature. 

The individuals concerned are locals, the community members, who are the most affected by the outcome they are trying to influence. They act together- in a march, or protest or even make calls to various parliament members to voice their support for a particular course of action. 

There are two distinguishing features for every grassroots campaign:

  1. It mobilizes masses (ordinary everyday citizens), to participate in politics: this could be to Get Out The Vote, or vote for a particular cause/campaign.
  2. The communication directly speaks to every individual in the campaign: Door to door canvassing, SMS, phone-calls and emails are usually how every member is contacted. Mass communication tools like TV, radio, and Newspaper are not used.

Thus its main purpose is to encourage community members to contribute to their community by taking action and being responsible for their neighborhood. The medium of communication chosen helps personalize the cause to the individual and get them more involved in the movement. 

How does grassroots mobilization work?

1. Collective action

Grassroots mobilization uses collective action (in the local level) to influence outcome in the national level. The ‘outcome’ is typically a cause or a change that the community wants. If the local political body is opposed to that outcome, then the community works together to get their voice heard and effect that change.

Case Study 1. Abahlali baseMjondolo

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Abahlali baseMjondolo protesters marched to Durban City Hall Picture: Bongani Mbatha

In 2005, Durban in South Africa saw a major housing crisis. A small settlement, known as the Kennedy Roadshack Community was being forcefully relocated to other areas.

The outrage towards this unlawful removal led to the birth of Abahlali baseMjondolo – a grassroots community formed by the locals who still fight for housing rights. 

The AbM developed organically from the road dwelling community and they campaign against any unlawful housing restrictions against the poor. They are the classic example of the locals taking up the mantle to strive for justice for themselves.

Currently, they are the most influential grassroots organizations in South Africa. They act as an organizational hub for other campaigns that aim to improve housing for the poor and economically backward. 

2. Collective leadership

Another aspect of grassroots mobilization is that it is powered by collective leadership. Every single member in the community is equally invested and equally responsible in the cause. They all participate to the extent they can, to accomplish what they have set out to do. 

Yes, there are a few administrative heads – like someone is responsible for communication, and there is usually a figure head for organizing the rallies. However, no single person in the movement is more important than someone else. 

This power of equality that grassroots mobilization brings to politics and the community is instrumental in making every single member give his best and take ownership. 

Case Study 2. Idle no more

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Aboriginal protesterswith #idlenomore

The Idle No More movement is the biggest and most impressive outpouring of aboriginal anger that Canada has ever seen. It started way back in 2013, to protest impending parliamentary bills that were thought to erode Indigenous sovereignty, collective rights, and environmental protections. 

It was (and still is) comprised of a series of teach-ins and rallies throughout Saskatchewan. Any individual member can take up the mantle of organizing the teach-in. Or, they can volunteer to educate the community. 

The highlight of the movement is how it mobilizes indigenous women to protest, raise their voice and be heard – with no single leader. Though it was founded by 3 indigenous women and one national ally, it is clearly an open forum that invites everybody to honor indigenous sovereignty and the land and water. 

However, every single member is given equal ownership. The reason behind such collective ownership is twofold. The first is that the outcome of the protest if for the community (and does not benefit just a single member). So everybody is equally invested.

Secondly, every member is as affected by the parliamentary bills and the environmental laws as the next member. So for the betterment of the community as a whole, every member has to step up and take action – which means collective leadership is the best option.

3. Collective funds

All nonprofit organizations need funds. Grassroots communities are no different. They too need money to organize rallies, to educate the community, and also for everyday administrative costs. 

When I say collective funds, I do not mean that every member in the grassroots community has access to the funds. I mean that every member in the community has the option of contributing to the cause. 

Fundraising is typically done on a large scale – with many people contributing small sums to the cause. It is also done in terms of memberships.

The community members pay a sum to be part of the local grassroots campaign. This money is used for administrative costs (and other educative /fundraising drives). In return, the members get some benefits of belonging to the community (ready assistance if their home is relocated, free legal consult etc.).

Case Study 3. Feel the Bern 

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The 2016 Bernie Sanders Presidential Campaign inspired a “grassroots army of volunteers and small time donors. Since Sanders was competing as an Independent, he needed all the financial assistance he could get. 

This was especially true when he rejected money from Political Action Committees (PACs) – organizations that are usually mired in corruption and conspiracy. 

He appealed to the working class Americans to fund his campaign. And they obliged! In what is seen as a massive grassroots movement, Sanders raised his campaign funds from the masses, one small online donation at a time. 

Even though every donation was small, the number of donations pouring in was big, reaching at one point, a massive 5.2 million a day! That means he had effectively inspired grassroots supporters to financially support his cause!

How can you get started with Grassroots mobilization?

What I love about each of these success stories is how grassroots organization helped every day, ordinary people, like you and me, effect change. 

It could be as simple as just giving a monetary contribution. Or, it could mean taking an educative session to the local community about the relocation options they have.

No matter how small, the efforts amount to a big change because of the scale in which it is done; Also because it is directly at the community level, where it can have most impact. 

If you are inspired by this too and want to start your own grassroots movement, here are some pointers.

1. Identify the cause you want to address 

Starting with the problem statement would seem just common-sense. However, I mentioned it because rarely is the problem statement and the root cause of the problem similar. Let me give you an example.

Say you want to clean the lakes in your city. The problem statement would mean “dirty lakes”. However the root cause of the problem is either effluents by industries, lack of legislation by the government, in efficiency of the Local Government to clean it up and so on. 

So you would first do your research to narrow down which is the actual root cause you want to tackle. For instance, you would want industries to stop dumping their effluents in the lake. 

Then your campaign strategy is two fold. On one hand you would protest outside the industry with your supporters to stop the dumping. On the other, you would try to get a legal bill passed that makes such dumping illegal (if it isn’t already). 

Please note that this was just an example to highlight how nuanced a problem could actually be. What it would involve for you entirely depends upon the issue, how your community responds to it, and the local political climate.

2. Recruit supporters/volunteers

The next step in your grassroots campaign would be to create awareness about your campaign and get some interest from the community. Communication plays a key role here. Door to door canvassing and good old face to face talks help immensely. 

However, to speed up the process, you also need to have a campaign website. It will act as a mascot for your message, and allow interested followers to register, and follow the events. 

Your website also allows a valuable opportunity for you to build a list of supporters whom you can communicate via SMS and phone calls. 

3. Partner with local organizations

At least in the initial stages, to gain some traction see if like minded organizations can lend you support. You could have a 2 minute presentation during their events, have your own campaign booth in their rallies and see if you can build your supporters and your message via that. The partners may be religious institutions, nonprofit organizations, universities, etc.

4. Take the help of community leaders

Either train them or collaborate with them to carry on your campaign message. Community leaders are the most influential within the community you choose. The changes you advocate, the measures you put forth will all be accepted easier if it also endorsed by a community leader. 

This community leader need not necessarily be a part of your grassroots committee (though it is highly recommended that he is), but more like a consulting partner who is working with you toward the same goal.  Religious leaders, local political office holder, the village figure head are all examples of community leaders who can help you. 

5. Implement your plan of action

Conduct rallies, outdoor events, in-house focus groups, educative sessions – any group activity that you think is necessary to effect change. It could be organizing a group of volunteers to talk to the local representative. Or it could be staging a demonstration. 

Regardless of which you choose, the key to successful implementation is communication. Broadcast SMS to your supporters with venue details to increase their participation. Use Peer to Peer SMS to talk to new contacts and see if they can come for the events you have planned. 

Communicate with your volunteer team and organizers to see if everyone is on the same page. You will of course need the help of professional tools to make this work for you. CallHub can help.

Similarly, to keep track of the various events, the volunteers and supporters, you may need a CRM (CiviCRM, that integrates with communication tool like CallHub). 

6. Evaluate success

What is the outcome you are looking for? Do you already have guidelines to evaluate your campaign efforts? It could be as simple as getting 500 people to a rally, or getting a bill passed. Whichever metric defines you objectives, establish it right at the beginning and refer to it throughout the course of your campaign. 

This will also tell you what you can do to improve your campaign next time. For instance, even if 500 people turned up for a rally and you were not able to get the momentum you need, then the goal for the next event would be modified. It would be to get 1000 member sign ups at the rally. So regardless of how many people turn up, if you get the defined sign ups, your campaign momentum will be up!

Best practices for grassroots mobilization

  • To enlist grassroots supporters you need to inspire citizens through several initiatives, events, and campaigns. Make them understand that the cause is worthy of their wholehearted support. People respond to sincere appeals, so persuade them with reason.
  • Education is the backbone of any grassroots campaign as people don’t participate in anything they don’t understand.
  • Once inspired, give your grassroots activists meaningful tasks to do. For example, if your goal is to get citizens to engage with reps, then detail out specific actions to be taken and give each person a meaningful task to do. Some volunteers can give voters the latest information, others can tell them what questions to be asked, how phone calls are to be made, and how individuals can effect change in politics.
  • Personalize all communication through phone calls, text messages, in-person contact, patch-through calls, direct mail, and emails.
  • You must keep your activists, volunteers, and staff motivated and help them if they cannot achieve the set goal.
  • Don’t just raise an issue, tell a story. People must be able to emotionally connect with your campaign so you need to make a human connection through storytelling.
  • You must trust grassroots activists to take initiative. If you want to mobilize grassroots you must nurture an attitude of freedom and creativity.
  • Harness momentum by funnelling supporter engagement into clear advocacy action, both online and offline.

Strategies for grassroots mobilization

Host House Parties Or Meetings

An easy way to mobilize people is to host a party or meeting at a community member’s house. Informal gatherings like these offer a great way for community members and campaigners to get to know each other and discusses the finer points around the issue. People who might be close-mouthed during routine campaign outreach are more open to sharing their concerns in such settings. These get-togethers also increase the probability of people signing up as volunteers in the future.

Engage With People Both Online & Offline

Social media platforms offer plenty of channels for you to engage community members. While these platforms help you reach out to mass audiences they aren’t always effective in engaging them on a personal level. So you need to balance your online interactions with offline activities. These activities can include phone calls from volunteers, personal text messages, door-to-door visits, town halls meetings, setting up information tables in high-traffic areas etc.

Hold Successful Town Hall Meetings

Town hall meetings give your organization or party a chance to meet the community in person and answer their questions. It is also an important part of your grassroots campaign. Therefore, you need to make sure that your candidate is well prepared for the meeting. Since such an event gives you an opportunity to reach out to new supporters make sure you have a registration table or a text-based registration process (eg. Text CHANGE to 52322 for updates!) to keep a track of those who come to the meeting.

Grassroots Advocacy Definition, Strategies and Tools

Use Social Networks For Grassroots Mobilization

You can use social media to enhance your campaign awareness and build relationships with your audience. These networks help you deliver real feedback to strengthen your message. For example, The Tea Party movement is a good example of grassroots growth. It was a community-based initiative that made use of digital media such as Facebook to coordinate protest events and to rally support for the cause. On Facebook, a page was created to share campaign literature and to start conversations around sensitive issues.

Hashtags are another way to influence and organize people. Use hashtags to group together postings from across the network under a unifying message. Some grassroots movements which used hashtags to organize and advocate people on a large scale on social media are #BlackLivesMatter, #LoveWins,#Resist, etc. These tags show how something that starts as a media campaign takes footing to embody a social movement. The ‘#resist’ hashtag was even used by event planning sites like Meetup.com to bring together members of a community that want to get involved politically. #Resist: Dallas is one such example.

Grassroots mobilization helps political campaigns, advocacy groups, and nonprofits encourage political conversation and effect change at a local or national level. It gives you an opportunity to make a lasting impression on communities by constantly engaging with them through conversations that matter to them. The key is to develop a message that works, test it on different mediums, and enlist community leaders to spread your message. Keep these tips and strategies in mind for your grassroots mobilization efforts

Your-Turn

If you have ever dreamed of changing the world, then you know how powerful grassroots mobilization can be to it. However remember that running/launching a grassroots campaign is a tedious and all-consuming effort. 

It is not as easy as it sounds and needs huge investment of time and effort before your cause even bears a semblance of coming to fruition. You can always sign up at your local grassroots community to help – it will give you an idea of what exactly running a grassroots campaign entails. Good luck!

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