Rising Tide At The Grassroots

Local organizations on the front line
in the struggle to end poverty and environmental destruction

One of the articles in Caring For Families (IC#21)
Originally published in Spring 1989 on page 6
Copyright (c)1989, 1997 by Context Institute

The world’s citizens are not taking hunger, poverty, and environmental degradation lying down, reports Alan Durning in a report from the Worldwatch Institute ("Mobilizing at the Grassroots," 1776 Mass. Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20036). The last decades have seen a dramatic increase in grassroots activism on many issues, in developing countries as well as in the industrialized nations.

"Local organizations form a sort of ragtag front line in the worldwide struggle to end poverty and environmental destruction," writes Durning. Small efforts to plant trees or improve literacy in villages, neighborhoods, and shantytowns around the world may seem modest in isolation, but their collective impact is monumental. Some efforts are not so small: for example, citizens of the Villa El Salvador community in Lima, Peru have planted half a million trees, trained hundreds of health workers, and built 26 schools, 150 day care centers, and 300 community kitchens.

Interviewed by the Christian Science Monitor (14 Jan. 1989), Durning mapped out parallels between conditions in the U.S. and the third world spurring on this increased activity. Both are experiencing "tightening conditions of life" and stagnating (or declining) living conditions. Both feel increasing threats in the areas of poverty and the environment – though on vastly different scales. Finally, in both regions there has been "a general failure of government" to address these very difficult challenges.

The rising tide of community groups is a direct response to these needs, and it differs from traditional political organizing and political movements in its pragmatic, self-help focus. Three million Sri Lankans, for example, participate in the community movement Sarvodaya Shramadana (the words mean "village awakening" and "gift of labor" respectively) doing everything from building roads to draining malarial ponds. The benefits of these grassroots actions go far beyond their tangible effects. As Chilean writer Ariel Dorfman says in a quote from the report, "How do you measure the amount of dignity that people accumulate? How do you quantify the disappearance of apathy?"

The "backbones of the movement" are in large measure women, says Durning, whose "traditional nurturing role may give them increased concern for [future] generations" and whose "subordinate social status gives them more to gain from organizing." But countless men are involved as well, and Durning’s report ends with a call for all of us to become "seeds of change." He is quick to point out, however, that these bottom-up efforts must be matched by the top-down cooperation of governments and international institutions for civilization to be put on a sustainable base.

In the meantime, we can all learn from the words of Angeles Serrano, a grandmother and community activist in Manila’s Leveriza slum: "Act, act, act. You can’t just watch."

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