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Syndic Literary Journal

Organizing A Grassroots Campaign

By LeRoy Chatfield

” Creative Tension” – In 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote in his Letter From Birmingham Jail, that creating nonviolent tension was necessary to change unjust laws that forbade African American citizens in the Southern States the right to register to vote and then exercise that right to vote in local, state and federal elections. Dr. King’s lesson applied not only to the Civil Rights Movement, but indeed to any social injustice that need to be confronted and corrected.

I witnessed first hand this need to create such tension in order to secure the rights of California farmworkers to organize their own union, despite the fact  the federal government had specifically excluded them them from any  and all protections of the National Labor Relations Act that applied to all other industrial workers in the United States.

Change is difficult.

None of us like change. Organizations, government, society, churches, even one’s neighborhood does not take kindly to change. And yet, change is necessary. The question becomes, if no one wants change, but change is necessary, how can change be effected?

Change has to begin at some point on the top-down or bottom-up scale.  Most change is created from the top down. Those with regulatory authority, e.g., elected officials, judges, police chiefs, etc., impose change through legislation, legal rulings, code enforcement, and the like. Change is imposed, and while it may ultimately be appealable through future elections or higher courts, such appeals are costly, time-consuming, and tightly controlled by legal and government processes.

For others, like myself – and most other people, I think – who possess no regulatory standing, we have no choice but to rely on  leverage – creative tension – created and generated by grassroots organizing. In other words, change that is generated from the bottom up.

Creating change through grassroots organizing is a daunting challenge, and most would-be organizers soon fall victim to discouragement. Walking uphill on the mountain of status quo, disinterest, and apathy soon leads to emotional exhaustion and personal discouragement. The organizer is often times confronted with the reality that no one cares about creating this change except the organizer, but because the organizer is only one person, what change can possibly be accomplished? If this one person possesses no authority, no standing, no police powers, how can he/she be a majority of one?

The saving grace for the experienced grassroots organizer is the fact that change – creative tension –  can be generated by a very small number of like-minded people. There is no need to convince or corral a majority of people, only a handful. The challenge is to find these committed, like-minded people. Where are they? How does the would-be organizer contact them? What can they do?

There is no one formula to the exclusion of all others, but whichever strategy is used, you can be sure that it will require a long-term personal effort, a sustainable level of commitment, a willingness to put one’s own self-image up for public scrutiny and ridicule, a dogged determination to succeed, and a high tolerance for the risk of personal defeat. Do not be deceived, it is hard work, thankless work, and very time-consuming.

Creating change through grassroots organizing begins with one person – you. If you are unable or unwilling to motivate yourself, you will be unable to motivate another person. The fact that you show yourself to be so committed, so confident, and so determined empowers other individuals to believe in you, join your cause, and accept the challenge to create change. However, it is very unlikely that any other person who joins with you will ever be as motivated to create the change you espouse. It falls to the leader of the grassroots effort to bind people together by the sheer force of his/her unshakable belief in the cause at hand.

Where to begin? Assuming the grassroots organizer can explain what the issue is and articulate why it is important for the change to be made, there is no other place to start than with the people. The organizer must reach out to people – individuals and small groups – to make the case for change, and ask for volunteer assistance. Reaching out, explaining, and asking for help are the keys to recruiting a handful of people to create change.

I will use my Rescue Land Park as  a case study in grassroots organizing.

The social justice issue. For many years, Sacramento City College had been using William Land Park – a 250 acre Regional Park in Sacramento –  as a 1000-car parking lot to augment their lack of parking on the college campus.  On its face, such a use is ludicrous and a blatant violation of City Ordinances that advocate and protect the use of Open Space for the benefit of its citizens.

My first thought was there must be some written agreement between the City and the College District that lawfully permitted this high-impact urban use.  I contacted Jimmie Yee,  my 3rd term  City Council Member whose district included William Land Park, and he responded  he was not aware of any agreement that would permit the use of a parking lot in the Park.  I contacted the City Manager’s office and received a vague  justification for the parking lot use. something to the effect that, we share the same goals as the College District in providing education.

I had my answer.  This use of a Regional Park for a college parking lot was unauthorized, illegal and had never been subjected to a public hearing to debate whether or not, the City Council would, or would not, vote to change the 85-year old zoning from Open Space (park use, urban forest,recreational use, etc.) to that of high impact urban commercial  use. 

How could this be?  Welcome to Local Government corruption, this is what it can look like.  The City Manager and the College District made one of those “Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell” and a “Wink and a Nod” silent agreements that says:  if Sacramento City College happened to use the Park as a parking lot (7 AM to 10 PM),  the City Manager would   happen to  ignore Open Space code enforcement. Yes, of course, City Council Members were well aware of the illegal use of the Park,  but as long as the matter was never put on their Agenda for public  discussion, they would happen to ignore it.  The fix was in for many years.

To challenge this status-quo and restore the use of William Land Park to the citizens of Sacramento I decided to organize a grassroots organization   I called it: Rescue Land Park.  To find enough volunteers to help, I would need to reach out to people to see if I could find them.

Reaching out to people meant going door-to-door throughout the neighborhoods surrounding the park to tie a Rescue Land Park informational leaflet to front doors. For the first two weeks, I was the only person distributing the flyers; in the third week I picked up my first volunteer, and by the fourth week I had picked up three more. For three months, two hours each morning, this small band of volunteers walked door-to-door tying leaflets to front doors – a total of 7,000 homes. (One of the volunteers quizzed me about tying the leaflets instead of leaving them on the front stoop, which, she said, would make our work go faster. Yes, faster, I agreed, but tying the informational flyer to the front door is a communication; leaving it on the stoop is littering.)

Even a seasoned veteran like me was discouraged by this first Rescue Land Park salvo. The response to our request for help was minimal at best. Most residents didn’t know about the college parking in the Park and didn’t much care when they found out about it. A few people were hostile because our campaign, they said, threatened the college education of poor students who parked in the park because they could not afford to park on campus. In the end, the grassroots campaign attracted only 30 people who were willing to participate. (If you count  spouses, the Rescue Land Park rolls would number 60, I rationalized.) Hard work, money for leaflets out of my own pocket, but I found my grassroots handful of people.

Our first break! Because of our extensive neighborhood leafleting, Rob Fong received a Rescue Land Park flyer. He called me to say that Jimmie Yee was going to retire and  he was a candidate for Yee’s council district seat. If he won, he assured me  he did not believe the Park should be used as a City College parking lot and if elected, he would work to change the status quo.

Yes, good news and affirming too,  but this was the reality: the election was four months away and even if he won outright with 51% of the vote, he would not take office for another 6 months. And if he did not win the council seat, he would not be in a position to provide enough leverage to be of much help. We had to press on.

Those most impacted by the 1,000-car student parking  (7 AM – 10 PM) were those residents who lived in the neighborhoods immediately adjacent to the Park and a few of them  responded positively  by becoming supporters of Rescue Land Park and donated  money to support it.

Another  leafleting campaign, the Land Park Neighborhood Association took an interest and they too authorized funds to pay for thousands of leaflets. Unbeknownst to us – we found out much later – because of our ongoing leafleting campaign, many residents called the City Council Member’s office to complain about the college students using the park as a parking lot. Little by little, we were mounting some pressure on the City.

I spare you the stories of frustrations, small victories, setbacks, the weeping and gnashing of teeth, the shouting on all sides that transpired during the course of the grassroots campaign. But after two years of holding on, speaking out, and agitating city government, the city council voted unanimously to restrict college student parking through the use of two-hour time zones.

Worth it? It depends on how much you believe in the issue, how many years you are willing to give to it, how tolerant you are about participating in public controversy, and how persistently confident you can be in the face of discouragement, indifference, and inertia.

Not every grassroots campaign is successful, far from it. Luck, timing, the morality of the issue, fundraising, and the quality of the organizing all play a role in the outcome. The point is, a successful grassroots campaign will cause  the change you believe is necessary. You do not have to be part of the power elite to create change, but you must be able to set aside your fear of failure and of putting yourself on public display.

Fear not, it can be learned. It takes practice. 











Compiled/Published by LeRoy Chatfield
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