Olympia Fellowship of Reconciliation 

Working for peace, social justice and principled nonviolence since 1976

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Organizing Grassroots Power for Effective Nonviolent Action

~ Glen Anderson


Essay #4 in the “Building an Effective Peace Movement” series:

This is the fourth of a series of articles exploring various ways the peace movement can strengthen itself and become more effective. These articles recognize that:  (1) The way to win peace and social justice is through grassroots organizing to build an ever-larger movement of the general public;  (2) To win public opinion, nonviolence is both necessary and powerful;  (3) We need to strategize carefully to build this movement through a variety of smart campaigns and activities;  and (4) Details that might seem small can mean the difference between success and failure.

The articles are posted on the Olympia Fellowship of Reconciliation’s website, www.olyfor.org


Grassroots Democracy’s Alternative Models About Power:

Most people think about power as a pyramid with “powerholders” on top and ordinary people on the bottom. Typically people try to influence the “powerholders” and ask them to do the right thing. But the “powerholders” on top might or might not do what we ask, so the people on the bottom remain powerless with little recourse.

Nonviolent grassroots organizers reject the traditional pyramid in a very Jeffersonian way. “We the people” are in charge!  In order to meet our needs in the larger society, we grant political and economic leaders only very limited powers – and only tentatively, so long as they exercise delegated powers justly. Since “we the people” retain our inherent power, nonviolent grassroots organizers make change by building people-power from the bottom up.

One way to do this is to organize public opinion into a strong majority that compels political and economic “leaders” to obey the public’s leadership or else we withdraw from them the limited powers we have granted.

Grassroots democracy and grassroots organizing recognize that our primary task is to build a movement that wins larger and larger portions of public opinion – ultimately a strong majority – to our side. Our strategies include helping the public recognize that the current “powerholders” are doing things that violate widely held public values and violate the public trust. The grassroots movement needs to show – through our words and actions – that we serve the public interest and uphold the widely held public values. We actually compete with the current “powerholders” to win the public’s hearts, minds, and support. This is why we must remain strictly nonviolent in our attitudes, words and actions. We need to convince the general public to trust us – and to join with us – rather than the current “powerholders.”

Therefore, we need strategies and activities that will reach out to the general public in a friendly, open way with a spirit of nonviolence and welcome more people – and more kinds of people – into the movement. If we show anger or rudeness we’ll frighten the people away and hurt our movement. But if we show the general public that we share important values – and we can develop human connections with each other – we can welcome them into the movement, and we can win.

Another powerful grassroots method is “direct action” – doing something specific ourselves rather than asking (or waiting for) governments or other official power structures to do it for us. The difference is largely between whether we settle for a mere republic (in which we vote for people to make governmental decisions and take governmental actions for us) or whether we practice democracy directly by making decisions and taking actions ourselves.

EXAMPLE #1:  Instead of merely asking Congress to provide more funding for nutrition for poor people, a “direct action” alternative is to do what Food Not Bombs does:  provide nutritious food directly to hungry people.

EXAMPLE #2:  Instead of waiting for governments to approve same-sex marriages through laws, some people hold ceremonies and proclaim themselves married and assertively exercise their rights as married couples, challenging obstacles along the way. This kind of direct action steps up the pressure on institutions that have not yet moved ahead on this matter.

EXAMPLE #3:  Instead of paying war taxes to the IRS, many people refuse to pay and give the money directly to homeless shelters, food banks, environmental restoration projects, and other worthy causes that suffer financially because the government spends so much of our tax dollars on war. This kind of direct action makes the contrast clear and wins public opinion to our side.

Gandhi practiced “direct action” in what he referred to as his “constructive program.”  Gandhi said that the resistance for which he was famous was about 10% of what was needed for India’s independence from the British Empire. The other 90% was his “constructive program,” through which he taught and organized people to take care of their own needs (decentralized economics, local self-sufficiency, public health efforts, better nutrition, etc.). He did not want India to be dominated by British elites or by Indian elites. He did not want any top-down hierarchies at all. He wanted people to produce their own food, their own clothing, their own simple technologies, etc., and he wanted villages to be self-sufficient. In that way they could become independent in ways more profound than merely the nonviolent national liberation struggle. He worked hard to organize powerful grassroots alternatives to centralized power. Gandhi told people to “be the change you want to see in the world.”  That approach empowers grassroots people to create the new reality!

The methods explained above promote democracy more profoundly than merely voting in elections. Democracy is something that we practice in our daily lives as grassroots supporters of peace, nonviolence and social justice. Over the decades the electoral system has been largely hijacked by two big hierarchical political parties and by wealthy special interests that finance political campaigns. If we are to reclaim democracy, we must fix our corrupt political system. But without waiting for that, we can go ahead with the kinds of profound grassroots organizing explained above – and we can use this kind of organizing also to organize solutions to the corrupt electoral system.

These methods go far beyond mere voting, because these methods keep the people empowered at all times, not just on election day. With such profound year-around democracy, voting is only about 1% of what democracy means. The other 99% of democracy consists of keeping informed of important issues, analyzing information, collaborating with other people to figure out what we want, organizing people at the grassroots to reclaim our power and to demand the changes we want, organizing nonviolent resistance to oppressive institutions and systems, creating alternative democratic institutions and systems (cooperative businesses, alternative media, etc.) that meet our needs while abstaining from the oppressive ones.

Grassroots Organizing Really Works!

Almost every positive political and social change that has occurred in the U.S. was achieved by organizing nonviolent grassroots movements!  None was a gift from the government, big business, or any other privileged elite. Workplace safety laws, women’s right to vote, environmental protections, racial integration, GLBT rights, and many other positive political and social changes all came from nonviolent grassroots movements. We are powerful at the grassroots – if we organize nonviolently and strategically.

Nonviolent social change movements are not on democracy’s periphery or margins. Nonviolent social change movements are at the core of what democracy means – social change movements are the very essence of democracy!

Organizing is reaching out to other people and working with them to make good things happen.

Organizing is working strategically to make progress toward social and political change.

~ We need to set goals and strategies, so we wage social movements, not just drift from crisis to crisis.

~ We need to work strategically, nonviolently and effectively toward our goals.

~ We need to define our own identity, our own values, and our own progress. Don't let our opponents or the media define who we are or how well we are doing.

Success happens all along the way as we move from one objective to the next, not only at the final goal. We need to recognize and celebrate our successes along the way. Effective grassroots movements help their people stay inspired, positive and effective, and protect them from despairing or burning out. 

Latin America:  “Relentless Persistence”

Despite systemic injustice, military dictatorships, and brutal repression, nonviolent activists in Latin America have made tremendous progress in working for democracy, human rights, and social and economic justice. The movements for which we English speakers would call “nonviolent action” they use a Spanish term that translated into “relentless persistence.” In contrast to an American society that focuses on instant gratification and lose interest if success is not immediate, Latin American activists understand that political change requires a determined long-term struggle. (Indeed, a book full of Latin American success stories is titled Relentless Persistence. (Phil McManus, a co-author, is a California FOR member with extensive experience with Latin America’s nonviolence movement.) We’re seeing the fruits of Latin America’s long grassroots struggles now with many new governments that identify with poor and working classes, respect human rights, and pursue economic and other policies that serve ordinary people instead of the elites. Grassroots organizing with “relentless persistence” is paying off.


For more information, resources and workshops

on effective grassroots organizing – contact

the Olympia Fellowship of Reconciliation at

(360) 491-9093 info@olyfor.org   www.olyfor.org


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