How to build a grassroots movement

Stephen Noble Smith is a young grassroots organizer educated at Harvard and trained in political action on campus, in Bostwana and Chicago. In "Stoking the Fire of Democracy: Our Generation's Introduction to Grassroots Organizing," Smith lays out the steps to effective political action for his generation. The book describes how grassroots organizations are built and deployed and what can be learned from both success and failure.

GUEST BLOGGER: Stephen Noble Smith

Who will lead us to a better world?

Can the Democratic Congress lead us there? How about well-meaning rich folks like Bill Gates and Michael Bloomberg or the Goldman Sachs Alumni Association? What about this new generation of Internet entrepreneurs and social innovators? Experts? Pundits? Celebrities? Will Barack Obama lead us there?

Who will lead? The field of grassroots organizing offers us a simpler answer: We will. And we're already doing it.

Who will fix health care? Everyday people -- organized through their churches and schools and small businesses -- wrote and won universal health care in Massachusetts. They didn't wait around for the federal government to lead. After more than a year of house meetings, they put their best ideas together in a bill. Then they used their large numbers drawn from every corner of society to push legislators to do the right thing. Their coalition is called the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization.

Who will fix education? The Harlem Children's Zone is a constellation of everyday folks holding each other accountable -- from birth to pre-school through high school -- to educate their children to achieve more than society might expect.

Decent wages? We can learn from organizing in Baltimore that led to passage of the first "living wage" ordinance -- ensuring that every city worker lives above the poverty line.

It's no wonder that everyday people, united across race and class, can lead better than anyone else. Who knows our problems better than we do? Who knows better the solutions? And who else will refuse to be derailed by the press, the pundits, or the need to be re-elected?

Why is grassroots organizing necessary? Because in a democracy no one can govern us as well as we can govern us. And no one will.

So, why don't we organize? Because it's so much easier not to. Instead of taking action, we settle for being "informed." Instead of running for office or supporting others who do, we criticize our politicians for being "all the same" and "a bunch of crooks."

Instead of the hard work of uniting with allies from different races, classes, religions and ideologies -- we blog, tweet, and "friend" those who agree with us.

It's terrible that we give away our power to change the world. In doing so, we rob ourselves of the best leaders we could ask for. But the saddest thing is that we miss out on the joys of small "d" democratic organizing: the joys of fellowship, glory, and efficacy.

In 2005, Rene Delgado, 21, stood at St. Francis Church in Chicago and told his story to a state senator. Mr. Delgado could have been angry about a lot of things (no health care, racial profiling), but the story he told was of his best friend who couldn't stay in college because of state cuts to financial aid. Delgado had spent the past six months meeting with legislators and researching the issue, and he was now surrounded by 215 young leaders who were ready to back him up.

Delgado paused after his story. He had rehearsed this next moment for weeks, trying to make sure his feet didn't shuffle, his voice didn't crack. With the press listening and with masking tape on the floor to remind him to stay put, Delgado cleared his throat, paused, and turned to the senator: "Sen. Collins, we have some questions for you."

One by one, the senator agreed to his requests to support restoring financial aid and recruiting other legislators to do the same. That spring, after much hard work across a number of organizations, $38 million in financial aid was restored.

While Delgado's friend stayed in school, I dare say it was Delgado himself who was most transformed by the moment and by the campaign. Nothing can replace the confidence that comes from changing the world.

Who will lead? Rene Delgado will. Will the rest of us?

By Steven E. Levingston |  January 20, 2010; 5:30 AM ET Politics , Steven Levingston
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