Living Democracy

Human dignity and grassroots leadership
are fundamental to effective organizing efforts

One of the articles in We Can Do It! (IC#33)
Originally published in Fall 1992 on page 34
Copyright (c)1992, 1996 by Context Institute

In many communities, citizens feel powerless to affect even the most basic conditions of their lives, much less the direction of national or world events.

But some groups have found ways to use their collective strength, both to win improvements in their communities and to foster a sense of dignity and self-worth among their members.

Working under the auspices of the Institute for the Arts of Democracy (see IC #30), Trena Cleland has been researching grassroots organizing efforts in California to find out what makes some of them so effective. In the following article, she describes the key lessons she learned from these groups. For a complete version of Trena’s case studies, write to the Institute for the Arts of Democracy, 36 Eucalyptus Lane, Suite 100, San Rafael, CA 94901.

Bernie Knox, a single welfare mother raising three children in Santa Rosa, CA, had never been involved in public affairs. Then she attended a meeting to show support for local people who were pressing the sheriff to deal with street crime in their neighborhood. She was amazed at the assertive and confident way that people like herself took the sheriff to task and succeeded in holding him accountable to his promises. Intrigued, she found herself drawn to subsequent meetings.

Then, a subject of immediate concern to her family motivated Bernie to try out some of that same assertiveness. Concerned about heavy traffic in front of their children’s school, she and another mother used some of the organizing skills they had seen demonstrated, and mobilized a group to pressure school and town officials until a new street light and crossing guard were in place. The friends she had made at the crime meetings backed her up in her campaign.

Bernie is thrilled to discover the power she has to effect change. "There’s a lot of things we feel we can’t do anything about, that we really can," she says.

Now Bernie is eager to take on bigger challenges, starting with the unsatisfactory bus system in Santa Rosa. She tells others who are still unsure about their own capacity to make a difference to, "Go to meetings, follow an action, and see what happens. Talk to the people who are leading it and find out what they’re like. And you’ll find out they’re just like you. You’ll see that you can do the same things."

What makes successful grassroots organizing efforts work? I’ve recently explored this question by researching 13 groups for the Institute for the Arts of Democracy. The organizations I studied are part of a growing number of citizen groups that use creative, heartfelt, and truly democratic techniques to draw people into public life and tackle issues that affect them.

The strategy of these groups is to empower a broad base of citizen leaders by showing them how to achieve tangible goals that address their immediate needs. The focus is on organizing rather than on activism. It isn’t enough to see a problem, schedule a demonstration, slap a poster up, and expect to change things overnight.

Organizing means working with people day to day on issues that affect them where they live. People get involved when they care about an issue and see it as related to their self-interest.

At the foundation of this approach is the understanding that we Americans have a deep longing for community and want to make a difference with our lives, but are confused and unsure about how to negotiate an overwhelming world of complex social problems. As a result, we often hide our desire for connection behind a front of apathy, cynicism or being "too busy."


In response to this, good organizers focus not only on the political, but on the personal. Political action, they say, is only as effective as the individuals who are involved in it. To be effective, we must feel that involvement is meeting our needs to enjoy ourselves, to add more skills to our personal tool kits, to be valued for our contributions, to have "kindred spirits" in our lives, and to be directly involved in tangible change.

In the new model of citizen democracy, involvement in public affairs is not considered a burdensome obligation. Rather, it holds out the possibility of significant intellectual and emotional growth, heightened personal pride, more friends, and the achievement of our political goals.

Real power emerges when organizations put priority on inclusiveness, shared leadership, the encouragement of disparate talents, and the development of practical skills (creative conflict resolution, meeting facilitation, active listening, and the like).

Dorothy Kwiat of San Diego was invited to a meeting at her church to talk with lay leaders about the city’s skyrocketing social problems. The discussion was led by people like herself – in other words, not by activists.

She liked the fact that the organizers did not "come in like a railroad train" with a flashy presentation and with their minds made up about what the church should do.

Instead, the organizers asked the group, "What are you feeling? What is it that you’re really mad about? What do you want to do about it?"

"They took us seriously, which I think most of us are not used to," says Dorothy.

The church joined nine other congregations as members of the San Diego Organizing Project (SDOP). Dorothy and others conducted interviews with their friends and neighbors to learn about their values and their dreams.

Deep concern about the drug epidemic was the concern most often expressed during the listening process, leading SDOP to take it on in a popular city-wide organizing campaign. A great many of those whose opinions had been solicited were eager to be of help because they felt invested in the group’s work. The organizers knew they had thousands of people on their side – and they had the names and phone numbers of these individuals. When it came time for a public meeting with the mayor, 1,000 committed citizens – all of whom had had personal contact with SDOP – agreed to attend.

The televised meeting was held in a church on SDOP’s turf, and citizens, not the mayor’s staff, controlled the agenda. Several SDOP members, who had been supported to speak and coached by others in the group beforehand, took turns verbally holding the mayor accountable for the city’s plight and telling her the specific improvements and timeline SDOP expected. One elderly woman told the mayor, "I hired you to do a job, and you’re not doing it in a way that satisfies me. You’re going to do this job better!"

This community initiative – which involved research, networking, role-playing, strategy, public speaking, training, and more – eventually resulted in the city allocating $28.5 million to drug education and prevention programs.

"Democracy is what people are doing in their day-to-day contacts with each other," says Rev. John Baumann, executive director of Pacific Institute for Community Organizing (PICO). "The radical part is building relationships, talking to people.

"Often, organizations want to skip those steps because it’s much easier to get that small committee and identify [a problem such as] ‘drugs’," Baumann says. "But if we talk about democracy, unless people are a part of making the decisions, I don’t see where we’re going to change things in our cities."


The "radical" activity that is the foundation of PICO’s many victories is the time invested in the personal development of each individual in its member organizations. Members treat each other with kindness and respect, and focus as much on uncovering each person’s best self as they do on particular campaign objectives.

One finds qualities there that therapists are paid to provide: the validation of each other’s feelings, focused listening when each person speaks, guidance in overcoming obstacles, celebration of personal growth and successes, constructive criticism, and honesty.

Really knowing the members of an organization – where each person comes from, who they are, what they yearn for – may seem like a time-consuming indulgence when the fate of the world is hanging by a thread, but it is necessary in order to establish the solidarity needed for deeply effective, ongoing civic action.

People who are not otherwise attracted to political life will stay with a group if they experience it as a support and friendship network – in short, as community. Speaking in a public hearing or in a legislator’s office is a lot easier with a "safety net" of friends and allies who believe in us. Over and over, one hears words, spoken in relief and delight: "I’m not in this alone." "We’re in this together."


Those who are reluctant to join a group because they feel they don’t know how to do anything are gently coached and supported until they find their niche (then, later, nudged to expand that "comfort zone"). Musicians might perform at a rally or teach the group songs of struggle and celebration; cooks might prepare refreshments for the group; gardeners can brighten the meeting room with fresh flowers; artists can design a float for the local parade or create colorful banners. Fund-raisers and computer operators are always needed.

Evelyn Stuart was brought to a meeting of the Oakland Union of the Homeless by a friend she met when both were staying in a homeless shelter. She loved the Union’s sense of community but was feeling useless as a participant until she was encouraged to sit in the Union’s tiny office and answer phones. She worked her way up to a direct service position and, in the process, gained the confidence and self-esteem she needed to pick herself back up again.

Stuart particularly appreciates the frequent praise she receives from others in the Union. "They don’t just pat you on the back for the big things you accomplish; they pat you on the back for the little things too. That’s inspiring, that’s encouraging," she says.


For many Americans, work life and private life are the only two familiar modes of existence. The creation of a satisfying public life is something new and strange; it takes practice.

Once the range of empowering civic skills is developed, they can be applied in other arenas: the workplace, the family, the school. When emphasis is put on process as well as product, democracy in every sphere can come alive as a fluid, humane, and ever-evolving dynamic – in short, as a practice.


What all of these principles have in common is that they encourage a sense of individual self-respect, an understanding that we are the experts. We know more about our own experience than anyone else. We know what our values are and which problems in our lives and our communities most need attention. And we can each contribute to their solution.

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