What is grass roots organizing?

August 2005

Dear Laura

I read a lot about grassroots organizing on the internet, on the Farm Aid website and all over really.  I sort of understand what the term means but I am not quite sure.  Where did it come from?  What exactly does it mean and can anyone get involved?


Right on!  Good question.  For most of the people who work here at the Farm Aid office the concept of grassroots organizing is almost second nature.  More than half of our nine person staff came here with a background in grassroots organizing from labor standards to fair housing campaigns.  I have to admit that when I came here right out of college, I felt a little behind the curve: “grassroots organizing” was right next to “counter cyclical payments” on my list of things to look up.  Lucky for you, I can handle the grassroots; now, crop payments on the other hand, I am still working on!

According to Wikipedia, an internet-based encyclopedia, grassroots organizing is about “ordinary people doing extraordinary work to improve the world we live in.”  The entry continues to say that such movements are about “recruiting, training and mobilizing people to raise awareness and advocate for positive change.”  Change on this level is not accomplished through high budget campaigns or lobbying, instead many, many hardworking people distribute flyers, hold town meetings, go door to door to talk with their neighbors and call friends and family to educate interested parties and to react quickly when issues arise.

Grassroots campaigns can be local to a small town or they can be national issues.  The single commonality is that "grassroots" means the work of many towards a mutual goal. This work is not glossy.  However, it does create widespread visibility and it is often quite compelling because the issues are close to home and the representatives are telling their story.  In many cases it is about the very quality of people’s lives rather than a job or an obligation.  The solution is often found among the very people who are experiencing the symptoms of a public problem. 

This means that anyone can get involved.  Look around your community.  Are there things you would like to change?  If so, chances are other people are thinking the same thing; they may even already be thinking about how to get more people involved.

But where does the term come from?  What do grass and politics have in common?  I had to really think about this question before sitting down to write.  I had some reading to do also.  So forgive me if this train of thought is a little organic (pun intended) but it should make sense in the long run.

The word itself comes from the German term “Graswurzel” which appears to simply be a literal translation.  So then I started thinking about the biological function of roots.

For each plant that exists above the soil line there is a complicated and unique system of roots that anchor and nourish the rest of the organism.  Grass seems like a fairly simple crop but the root structure underneath is complicated, intermingled and responsive to changes in atmosphere, moisture and light exposure.  When you think about it, a movement based in the work and lives of many different members of the community serves the same function. Each person is connected to the issue in a deep, personal way and this keeps them rooted in truth, speaking with an authentic voice and ensures that the group is highly responsive to sensitive issues.

This is the kind of work that organizations like the Campaign for Family Farms and the Environment did when they brought together 24,000 American hog producers to oppose the controversial pork checkoff and other regulations that gave unfair advantage to corporate livestock facilities over family farmers.  Similar work led to three counties in California and nearly 100 New England towns passing local ordinances restricting the use of genetically modified organisms in agriculture in response to growing concern, on the part of local citizens, about the ecological and human health risks associated with this particular form of biotechnology. For twenty years, Farm Aid has been working with and funding citizens working on grassroots campaigns to educate people about the potential damages of industrial agriculture and the benefits of family farming.  There is a place for policy but we know that real change happens when grassroots organizations all over the country are speaking out, telling their stories.  So go out, get involved!  I want to hear about the good work you are doing now that you know grassroots organizing means speaking out to change something that you care about.

Don't forget to email me with your stories - asklaura@farmaid.org

Until next time,

Laura - The Farm Aid Shopper/Researcher/Question Answerer Extraordinaire!