“When spider webs unite, they can tie up a lion.” ~Ethiopian Proverb
Non-violent grassroots community organizing is a well-proven and inspiring means of mass social change. Movements in India, the United States and Poland demonstrate how grassroots initiatives can make monumental shifts, despite social and political environments that oppose grassroots organizing.
Mahatma Gandhi saw the results of more than a century of British rule and set about to reform that system. A strategy of civil disobedience on a mass scale began by exposing and defying the British salt tax. The salt tax was a powerful symbol of engagement as salt is a necessity to sustain life. These tax laws placed a great burden on the poor. His protest began with a 240-mile march to the salt beaches, including dozens of journalists who provided a world stage. It was well planned with scheduled speeches at the villages along his journey, and each of the 24 days the march gained notice and momentum. By the time of Gandhi’s arrest and the bloody protest at the salt works, India as a nation had changed.
Millions of citizens realized they did not have to subjugate themselves to a corrupt system and they could peacefully refuse to participate. The citizens could co-create a system that served the communities instead of an elite few. A powerful force was unleashed that eventually brought the British Empire to its knees. The symbol of salt now represents India’s independence as tea does for the United States.
“We need to renew our willingness to go back to community based systems. Become involved in a community initiative.”
Twenty-six years later students at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, began attending a workshop given by James Lawson, a student of Gandhi. Lawson was a minister sent to that area by Martin Luther King, Jr. His objective was to desegregate this racially divided city. He organized a grassroots group by introducing common disciplines, strategic planning, insight into non-violent philosophy, and a systematic approach addressing a wide range of scenarios and contingencies.
The first demonstrations started at “whites only” lunch counters. Subsequent arrests galvanized the black community and encouraged a broader community involvement that expanded into a boycott of the downtown district. In a short time, the grassroots unity that developed was more powerful than their police force, attack dogs, prisons, repressive curfews, beatings, or threats. When the black community boycotted, downtown sales dropped 40%. Within six months of the initial workshops, an oppressive apartheid system that had been in place since the town was built, was changed. The movement spread throughout the US resulting in civil rights legislation that reformed the old system.
Another inspiring grassroots movement began in August of 1980. Workers at the Gdansk Shipyard in Poland organized a non-violent strike led by Lech Walesa. The strike was well orchestrated and included lines of communication throughout Europe. The strike quickly expanded to include forty additional factories. Workers demanded free trade unions and the right to strike, and increased wages and benefits. They became unified around their declaration of worker’s rights and formed an organization they named, “Solidarity”. They worked diligently and strategically staging rallies and networking. Within four months, Solidarity grew to ten million strong. This grassroots movement was too powerful. Solidarity’s constant pressure resulted in the fall of the corrupt communist regime that had its grip on the population for sixty years. Through Parliamentary Elections, Solidarity defeated the government in power by a vote of 10 to 1.
Our global history is filled with examples of this grassroots power at work. These social shifts happened because people decided to unite around a cause, were well organized, utilized the public media to their advantage, and had an inspirational leader or a team who helped guide strategic action. The real power base are people coming together in community, taking action, and holding the belief that they will achieve their vision.
From the largest movements of social change to the smaller ones involving a town ordinance, it comes from the people. The power of community is a global change agent. Community provides something all of the ancient tribes new intuitively. It is where their strength lies.
This power is not a metaphor—it is experienced when group endeavors become a conduit for action that benefits their community. You can find it in a Volunteer Fire Department, among people who serve food assistance needs in the pantries and meal sites, among a community hit by a natural disaster, or a group searching for a missing child. But once we understand the ingredients that bring about this heightened sense of working together we can apply them in our groups’ endeavors.
The Elite know that by breaking this community connection they break the only true power that can defeat them. The breaking up of clans, local family farms, the neighbor hood stores, long-term jobs, busting the middle class all contribute to the breaking of community. We need to renew our willingness to go back to community based systems. Become involved in a community initiative.
To become powerful, allow your community to be powered by All!
By Paul Deslauriers