Fighting Poverty with Passion
|Grassroots Organizing (for What?)
All AmeriCorps VISTAs have sponsoring organizations with which they work during their term of service. I work with the Gulf Restoration Network, whose Mission Statement is, “The Gulf Restoration Network is committed to uniting and empowering people to protect and restore the natural resources of the Gulf Region for future generations.” The main method for achieving this mission is grassroots organizing.
When I’m asked, “What do you do as a VISTA?” I usually say something about grassroots organizing. This answer usually satisfies, which puzzles me. Why should a term as meaningless as grassroots organizing satisfy the question of what I am doing in my work? Also, why do I consider grassroots organizing an adequate response to the question?
I call grassroots organizing a meaningless term when in fact it is full of meaning. Yet the meaning usually comes from the person who hears the term, not from any agreed upon meaning of the word that is shared amongst many people. As I learned at a recent panel discussion on grassroots organizing, there are even different methods of grassroots organizing. If the term means something different to everyone, then it is meaningless.
Perhaps I answer with grassroots organizing because I suffer from a confusion of ends and means, a common confusion in the environmental movement. Ends are the intended products of our actions while means are the actions we take to achieve ends. Grassroots organizing is not a product and therefore not an end. It is instead a means to an end. I should not respond to the question, “What are you doing?” with grassroots organizing only. This is akin to a journalist asking a yachtswoman competing in the World Cup, “What are you doing?” and getting in response, “I am yachting.” There must be discussion of the end, the why for the what.
So why grassroots organizing? More importantly, organizing for what? What am I trying to get the grassroots to do? And there can be no doubt, especially in the environmental movement, that grassroots organizing is a means with which to get people—grassroots usually being a euphemism for a particular group of people—to do something they would not otherwise do. The end is action of the people, the means grassroots organizing.
An immediate objection to this might be that the end of grassroots organizing is not convincing people to act but instead helping people do something they want to but cannot do. The latter conception of grassroots organizing has birthed a new vocabulary of which the hallmark words are empower—as in GRN’s Mission Statement—and enable. We might even contrast two models of grassroots organizing, one based on persuasion and one on empowerment.
These two models are not mutually exclusive. It is easy to imagine a grassroots organizer sitting at an outreach table persuading one person of the need to act and, immediately after, empowering a different person who is already convinced (persuasion is the means, convinced is the end) of the need to act. I encounter this difference each day I engage in grassroots organizing.
I return to the initial question, “What do you do as a VISTA?” Yes, I grassroots organize. Yet following the above I am prepared to consider the end of my organizing. Is my end a convinced people or an empowered people?
What do I do as a VISTA?
I convince. -Nick Poggioli, AmeriCorps VISTA