How can grass roots people win victories in rural, conservative states?
ENVIRONMENTAL POLITICS, LESSONS FROM THE GRASSROOTS--a short book on
grassroots victories--provides intelligent, inspiring and practical
answers to that question. Although it is focused on victories in a
single state (North Carolina), the strategies and tactics described in
this book can work anywhere.
The book is organized into 11 chapters, 10 of them case studies of
successful local fights waged against great odds by ordinary people,
plus a summary called "Lessons From the Grassroots," which draws
conclusions from the 10 case studies and answers the question, "What
are the keys for successful organizing in a conservative state?" Here
we outline some of the main points from that summary chapter, but we
urge you to get and read the entire book (122 pages). Our summary omits
the human stories, the rich detail, and the specific tactics that
produced victories in North Carolina.
1) Select the best way to reach, educate and motivate people in your
local area. Marches and rallies may not be the best way to contact
people; maybe a barbecue, or a gospel sing makes more sense in your
locale. And choose your words carefully... for example, people
understand "conservation" because it goes back to New Deal days, but
"environmental" may connote outsiders who don't understand local issues
2) Connect your "environmental" issue to its broader (a) public health,
(b) economic and/or (c) recreational consequences for a specific
community or constituency.
"In virtually every situation we studied, the original activists were
made to feel hopeless and isolated by the powers-that-be (elected
officials, the media, regulatory agencies, etc.) to whom they took
their problems. They were put on the defensive, ignored, or called
troublemakers; sometimes they were called liars or a 'fringe element'
or irrational, or were otherwise personally attacked and had their
motives questioned. They were frequently told nothing could be done to
change the problem they wanted corrected (stopping an expressway from
coming through a Durham neighborhood, blocking the siting of a
radioactive waste incinerator in Bladen County) or that everything
possible was already being done to ensure that the problem was solved
(the development on Permuda Island would not pollute the surrounding
shellfish waters, the evacuation plan for the Shearon Harris Nuclear
Plant was totally adequate).
"Only the right mix of patience and persistence allowed the early
'troublemakers' in these struggles to demonstrate that what some
considered to be a private grievance was in reality a matter of grave
public concern. Ultimately, they impressed the politicians with enough
people, the bureaucrats with enough paper, and the media with enough
drama to transform themselves from isolated victims into well-connected
protectors of the American dream.
"This positive posture of protecting the public's health or the values
of our forebears is a key ingredient in each success story we observed.
A moral undercurrent in each of these struggles was both sustaining to
its inner core of activists as well as compelling to a larger body of
supporters and the public at large."
3) Inspire people to believe they can win.
"Inspiring individuals to believe that they can make a difference
through collective action is critical to building the momentum and
gaining the mass support needed to prove that change can in fact
happen... Middle-class and upper-income whites are generally confident
that they can get attention for an injustice done to them; but too
often their self-confidence tricks them into thinking they can change
anything on their own without an organization. Blacks are less tied to
the system and more willing to fight for their rights, but they get
weary of being asked to follow other people's initiative without
reciprocal support. Lower-income, working-class whites are often
hardest to get involved.... like everyone else, they need (a) positive
reinforcement from their peers and, through the media, the larger
community; (b) fun events that keep their spirits up; and (c) small
victories that prove change can occur."
4) Go public with the issue every way you can.
"Making the controversies highly visible and a matter of public debate.
Issues were popularized and politicized by being injected into as many
public arenas as possible. Each arena had to be persuaded with whatever
special language it understood: politicians listen to voter power, the
church to moral language and to its members, the courts to legal
arguments, the media need drama, action and authority figures; a group
of hunters, blacks or farmers wants to hear how the issue affects its
5) Use the press effectively.
The mainstream press was used to publicize the issue and to pressure
decision makers to address its solution. "In general, reporters are
overworked, competitive, ignorant of the issues, cautious about
covering new or complex topics, and in need of human drama and conflict
that is news." If possible, focus national attention on your problem;
this can cause local media to pay closer attention.
6) Use your own public education channels to reach the people you want
to reach: get out fact sheets; hold barbecues, picnics, auctions and
concerts for fundraising but also to update and motivate people.
Letter-writing campaigns to newspapers, and talk shows (both radio and
TV) are effective. Videotapes of personal stories, expert testimony and
events that cannot be easily duplicated, allow you to spread the word
among your potential supporters.
7) The "public hearing"--whether called by the government or by
citizens leading the opposition--can be (a) an effective place for
organizing a mass turnout; (b) a convenient place for the media to
focus on the issue; (c) an almost mandatory platform for politicians;
(d) an arena where the sponsors of 'environmentally risky business' can
be easily put on the defensive; (e) an education event on neutral turf
that attracts interested but undecided people; (f) a chance for the
environmental group to exercise its outreach, public education, media,
speaking, planning and research skills.
8) Focus attention on local politicians who can in turn pressure state
and federal agencies.
9) "Understandable, well-documented technical information is obviously
another key to success, but many groups fail to realize that
information alone will not win their fight.... It is difficult to
overestimate how flexible [decision-makers] can become in interpreting
or reforming existing procedures or laws when they are pressed by a
massive and sustained public outcry."
10) "Direct organizing, door-to-door, person-toperson is another key
ingredient in these success stories. There is no substitute for going
directly to the people who are affected by an environmental problem and
"Very often environmental groups tend to identify a problem, research
it thoroughly, attempt to publicize it through the media, and seek
remedies through the appropriate government channels. They miss the
most important ingredient--the human beings who can articulate how they
are directly abused in a way that arouses others to sympathy and/or
The book talks about using the election process to advantage, and it
discusses building multi-racial coalitions to strengthen the community
while winning environmental fights.
This book is a sparkling jewel. Everyone who cares about the Movement
for Environmental Justice could benefit by reading it.
Get: Bob Hall and others, ENVIRONMENTAL POLITICS: LESSONS FROM THE
GRASSROOTS (Durham, NC: Institute for Southern Studies [P.O. Box 531,
Durham, NC 27702], 1988. $7.00. Phone: (919) 688-8167.
Descriptor terms: citizen groups; citizen activism; strategies;
tactics; elections; coalitions; radioactive waste; citizen success
stories; incineration; landfilling; pcbs; wetlands; nc; shellfish;