Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Where oh where have all the grassroots gone?

Where oh where have all the grassroots gone?

Tom Wolff, Tom Wolff & Associates, Amherst, Massachusetts    May 2013

In my trainings on coalition building and community development to non-profit human service and health providing organizations  I always emphasize the importance of engaging those most affected by the issue - sometimes called the grassroots communities. Depending on the focus of the work this can mean:  youth, immigrants, communities of color, survivors of domestic violence, the LGBT community, etc. We cannot do authentic community work without their voices at the table as shared decision makers. In my experience when we do not have them at the table we develop programs that are more likely to be ineffective.

At the start of my trainings I often explore this issue using an experiential tool called ‘Stand and Declare’. I place a statement on the screen and ask participants to go to one of five stations around the room that are marked strongly agree, agree, neutral, disagree, and strongly disagree. They then talk about why they chose that position. One statement I have used in this exercise for almost a decade is "In our community work we always engage those most affected by the issue and they willingly come to the table and participate actively”.

Working with these non- profit providers over the years I have always received more ‘disagree’ than ‘agree’ statements. The grassroots approach has never been the way that the mainstream of  health and human services have functioned in the last decades. However, recently in the group discussions that follow I have seen a very disturbing trend. Increasingly there are fewer and fewer people who not only disagree but who do not actually even try to engage the grassroots anymore. Although most folks seem to still agree that we "should" do this, in fact very few even try to engage the most affected community.

This is very disturbing for those of us who believe that this is the basic building block of any authentic community building effort in the non-profit, health sectors and beyond. How can we design programs for communities without having them at the table?

One advocate for this grassroots approach is Barbara Ferrer, the Commissioner of Public Health for the City of Boston. She puts it this way: “The role of a public health department is to create a space for residents to come together to define a problem, to define the solutions, and then enter into a dialogue with us—not the other way around. Not we define the problem, we define the solution, and then we invite you in to help us implement the solution, which is what we’re most comfortable doing.”

The ones who succeed at this tell us consistently that there are a series of efforts that we must make to adapt our practices so that the community can come to the table. These include: holding the meeting in the evenings, providing child care and transportation, feeding the group, providing translation services if needed, and even providing a stipend (a coupon for a local grocery store etc.).

So what is happening? Why don't we seemingly do this anymore?
-          Maybe we don't want to share power and no one is pressuring us to do it.

-          Or is it that government and foundation funders seem to demand this kind of involvement less  
often ( in the past it was the serious demands from funders that often drove the nonprofits to bring  
the grassroots to the table). In one state the Sexual Assault Prevention Coalition coordinator told
me that her Rape Prevention Education Grant to the CDC was turned back to her because she
used the phrase “grassroots”. She was told to remove the word if she wished funding.

-          Could it be that the adaptations above (transportation, baby sitters, etc.) are too much to provide?
So it becomes more difficult than the nonprofit world wants?

-          Or is it the arrogance of the helping world is growing during tighter financial times, especially as we
have more large mega-agencies and fewer small community non-profits

 -          Maybe we settle for the usual suspects who are the gatekeepers (i.e. the easy to reach minister)
rather than do the hard work of identifying and recruiting the grassroots community.

I know very well that a small handful of people in the non-profit human service and health world are doing terrific work at still engaging the grassroots community and we should identify and celebrate those efforts (maybe on these pages)

On the other hand if you also have seen this negative trend what is your guess as to why it is happening?

And what can we do about it?   What have you observed?


  1. Tom,
    I do not have a big enough sample to see a trend. At the same time I believe that what you say is true.

    I have been involved with community change and community engagement for some time here in Sarasota. I have been connecting the local foundations and government with the ideas and the resources of those who are oriented to believe that change happens best from the inside of a place/neighborhood/community. This included the John McKnight and Peter Block coming here many times.

    Reflecting on that era, I don't see that those entities really took those ideas up in a way that matters. At best there is "buy in" which is a less than sincere inside-out approach.

    BTW - The Aspen Institute has a similar criticism of CCIs in it report.

    There is a good book that takes a different, but consistent approach. Getting to Maybe.

    In any case, my partners and I started a community change initiative in our own neighborhood with fellow neighbors. It is different in that it is started by neighbors (not in response to outside institutions) and it follows the community building lead of kids.

    It is also really underfunded.

    Let's keep this going.

    Tim Dutton

  2. Hi Tim
    I agree. McKnight's commentary was profound and everyone loved him but they also ignored his directions and went on doing deficit oriented work driven by professionals.
    Your work sounds very exciting. Bravo.
    A description of the neighborhood work would make a great blog.