Thinking about ‘Grassroots’

By Sara Barnes

As a community based organisation we often use the word grassroots to describe our efforts, but what exactly do we mean by grassroots and how can we better understand the term to better our efforts?

603067_10151466282707960_1906366589_nGrassroots is an adjective used to describe something which is perceived as ‘natural’ and ‘grows’ from the ground or bottom. In a societal context, the grassroots are building blocks of our society, individual people and their immediate communities. From this, a grassroots issue can be understood as one which directly affects people in a specific community on the individual level. A movement which acts on this issue forms ‘naturally’ when individuals begin organising around it within their community. Thus when we speak of a grassroots organisation we mean an organisation that forms and ‘grows’ within a community in response to the experiences of individuals who belong to that community. In time the movement may grow much larger and collaborate with or reach out to other communities, getting bigger in stages and potentially reaching national, regional or even global levels. The growth of the movement however is initiated from the bottom and moves up. Importantly the focus of the movement remains on this ‘grassroots’ level, focussing on individuals and their communities even though there may be a wider network connecting these efforts. The bulk of activities continue to take place via interaction with individuals or small groups and their immediate communities.

Most often grassroots organisational structures are described in opposition to organisational structures which begin as regional, national or global initiatives and are initiated from the top, down. Here the organisation begins with an individual or group who first identify an issue they would like to change, then gather funds and set up an organisational structure and procedure before reaching out on one or more levels to struggle for the change in society that it seeks to initiate. Examples include government or corporation initiated campaigns and some NGOs or agencies which initiate programs from the top. While it is possible for these initiatives to interact with the grassroots level, unless they have links to a particular community and put considerable and energy into giving ownership of the initiative to the people. It is more common for a grassroots initiative to begin because of experience of individuals with regards to a particular issue. These individuals mobilise within their community and build organisational structures up and across reaching out along the way to others who may have had similar experiences or have an interest in the cause. In sum a grassroots movement is a community-based movement that is initiated because of specific concerns over a particular issue that affects, or threatens to affect, a local population. With community-based initiatives, local people usually remain involved through continuing to advocate for the issue at hand and build and maintain support networks. Often, this extends to community education and focusses on particular goals and long-term benefits.

Bottom-up organisation has certain advantages. First, it is a collaborative process which organises around the already existing ‘natural’ relationships that local activists have with the people in their communities. Second, as the work is carried out by potentially affected people within their own communities, costs are often significantly lower, there are fewer overheads. Third, local people have more control over the movement and can channel energy and funds towards activities that will have the most impact. Funding can come from outside or from within the movement. Fourth, localised control means decisions can be taken and implemented quickly. Lastly as the movement belongs to the community there is direct investment which helps to sustain efforts. There are of course disadvantages or challenges in grassroots organisational models. First, the model depends heavily on a shared realisation or perception that there is an issue. Communities may not perceive issues such as reproductive health as affecting or concerning them even though individuals within the communities are affected negatively. Second, related to this the movement will only continue as long as the perception that there is an issue remains. Third, as movements grow it can be hard to maintain the grassroots connections and the affected communities may become disillusioned and alienated overtime as projects become to ‘big’ to hear their voices. Fourth, although costs are likely to be lower it is difficult to expect the community itself to meet these, outside funding may be sought and with that funding often come conditions which can affect the management of the project as well as the sense of ownership that the community has of it.

Can you think of any advantages or disadvantages that I’ve missed? What does this understanding of grassroots mean to our organisation?

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