One year ago this month, after George Floyd was murdered, activists began the largest set of protests in American history. And the uprisings of 2020 are only the most visible example of how the potential for collective action has changed under our feet over the past four years. Across the country, grassroots organizations in big cities and small towns have had standout success winning ballot fights, advancing policy priorities, and challenging entrenched power structures.  

The scale of that work also creates an opportunity for understanding: because there’s so much good organizing happening in so many places, it’s actually possible to identify trends in those successes. 

And that’s exactly what Hahrie Han, Elizabeth McKenna, and Michelle Oyakawa set out to do in a book getting published later this summer

When organizations think about what it takes to build power, they often focus on scale or resources — the number of people an organization can reach or the total dollars they can raise. They think about proximity — who has access to those who make decisions. 

But the organizations that Han, McKenna, and Oyakawa identify are building operations and winning campaigns by making a different set of motivations their priority. 

The leaders of the organization they profile obsess over accountability. They will compromise other priorities in order to maintain an authentic relationship with their base of supporters.  

Doran Schrantz — a leader with ISAIAH in Minnesota (a multi-racial, nonpartisan coalition of faith communities working for social justice), for instance, described passing over grant dollars and national reach to maintain her group’s freedom to set their own priorities. 

“I’m of the opinion that there’s not going to be a significant, people-powered, independent movement funded by foundations,” she said. “It’s just that [the philanthropic world] has its own momentum and its own set of priorities.” 

For many leaders like Schrantz, accountability to membership is a source of clarity

When LUCHA launched a campaign to boost the minimum wage in Arizona, some of their allies stressed that success was impossible — and that failure would “set Democratic politics back in Arizona 10 years” by upending the support that Democratic campaigns received from business leaders. 

But the membership of LUCHA pushed for action because they viewed the issue as one where progress could not wait. 

So their organizers got the issue put on the ballot, forged relationships with small-business owners in the state to help make the case, and built a winning coalition that passed Proposition 206 in 2016, with 58 percent of the vote. 

LUCHA’s leaders saw an opportunity where others did not because their supporters demanded a different perspective. 

Because skepticism from the political establishment is a shared experience for many of these social movement organizations, they often see access to policymakers as ephemeral. And that’s yet another reason why so many of these groups work to invest in long-term relationships with their respective bases. Even if allied lawmakers vote in opposition on a key issue (or get voted out of office) a connection to a real constituency offers a durable vehicle for power. 

For all that this kind of organizing offers, it requires leaders to make a sacrifice, too. Accountability is only possible when you’re willing to trust your supporters — and bring them into the decision-making process. It requires that you give up a measure of control over your priorities and your work. And that’s why it’s hard for many to adopt this sort of approach. 

But the benefits from true grassroots participation don’t just accrue for the organizations that facilitate it. The more people who are engaged in the broader democratic process, the stronger our democracy.

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