October 2, 2009

What Do We Mean by "Grassroots"?

I'm still thinking about last week's visit in Vermont with the New England Grassroots Environmental Fund (NEGEF).

I was in Vermont to say a few words at a funder's briefing that NEGEF hosted. Benno Friedman, NEGEF's board chair, kicked off the morning by asking everyone to define "grassroots". I was paying close attention because I was speaking next, but more importantly, because we (Grassroots Grantmakers) both ask and are asked that question regularly. And what we hear varies tremendously.

Before I get to definitions shared that morning. here are other definitions we've heard along the way:
Grassroots = people of color
Grassroots = low income people
Grassroots = disenfranchised people/people at the margins
Grassroots = activists (with the implication that activists = bad)
Grassroots = angry people who are hard to work with
Grassroots = opposite of "grasstops" or people who sit in lofty towers of privilege
I've had my own definition in mind that didn't exactly jive with anything of these. So it was with real excitement that I heard these definitions last week in that rural inn in Vermont where we were meeting (and keep in mind that these were funders speaking, and that the definition was evolving with each person who spoke):
  • 22 parents working on something together
  • people who work on something they care about without pay (volunteers)
  • people coming together to make something happen
  • living room groups - people together around a shared challenge
  • local action that leads to empowerment
  • a way we work together for self-determination
  • a seed that grows
  • you know it when you see it
  • when people whose lives are affected work together to solve the problem
  • people based, the essence of democracy
  • inherently local
  • starting from the community with people who understand local context and dynamics
  • everyday people who are not connected to an organization or cause, but mobilize to act
I was inspired by what I heard and have been trying to weave the words that I heard into my own definition.

Here is where I am with my definition of grassroots:
Grassroots = people who are drawn together by something that they have in common that has both personal and community consequences, and grant themselves the authority to solve the problem they are facing or create the future that they desire.
Continue the weaving by posting your own definition. How do you define "grassroots"?

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