The Nature of Grassroots Organizing

I wrote this based in part on my undergraduate thesis, “Power in Interpersonal Relationships: A Synthesis of Popular Approaches,” University of Northern Iowa, Department of Individual Studies, May 1978. This paper was used as chapter 8 of Rural CRA Organizing: A Manual for Using the Community Reinvestment Act in Rural Communities, Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, draft, January 28, 1994.

This chapter addresses part of the question: What is organizing? Organizing is often misunderstood. The misunderstanding of organizing is a barrier to its effective use. For this reason, a strong emphasis is placed here on explaining several aspects of organizing which are involved in common misunderstandings. These are the role of power in organizing, the role of vitality (“anti-bureaucracy”) in organizing, and the priority of grassroots people in organizing.

The key to grassroots organizing is people. People are important not only because their needs and rights are at stake, but also because they provide the power for organizing. For example, grassroots people provide the power needed to win effective CRA agreements. “People power” makes up for the lack of other kinds of power: economic, political, legal, etc. A misunderstanding of power is on aspect of the misunderstanding of organizing.

Organizing also sometimes goes against the way things are usually done in middle class society. It makes more sense to middle class people if it is seen as a response to bureaucracy and as a response coming from relatively powerless people.


Power means “the ability to influence.” Organizing is a way of empowering people to influence community decisions which affect their lives. For empowerment to be meaningful, however, community people must use it themselves and they must use it against opposition. As Rollo May stated:

. . . Power cannot, strictly speaking, be given to another, for then the recipient still owes it to the giver. It must in some sense be assumed, taken, asserted. For unless it can be held against opposition, it is not power and will never be experienced as real on the part of the recipient.1

The organizer, therefore, cannot give power to the people. The organizer creates or manages the situation so that people can more effectively exert their own power. Furthermore, empowerment does not come easy. The reason that power is needed is that the opposition, those making decisions which affect communities, do not go around giving away power to neighborhood people. The classic statement about this reality came from Frederick Douglass, an ex-slave who fought for the end of slavery in America:

Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did, and it never will. Find out just what people will submit to, and you have found out the exact amount of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them; and this will continue till they have resisted with either words or blows or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribe the endurance of those who they suppress.2

The Misunderstanding of Power. Power has often been misunderstood. Power is misunderstood when it is viewed only negatively: as domination, intimidation and manipulation. “Power corrupts” we are told, “Absolute power corrupts absolutely.”3

This negative view of power is true as far as it goes. Domination is power. It is power over people. Approaching people with an intimidating “posture” or the use of manipulative tricks are also ways to influence people. They too are forms of power, but they are not the only forms of power.

Fortunately in recent years numerous self help books and programs have presented the general public with a more balanced view of power. In “assertiveness training” books and classes a positive understanding of power has been presented and techniques for its effective use have been taught.4

At the same time additional balance has been given to our general understanding of power as the destructiveness of not using power has been explained in detail. “Powerlessness corrupts,” we now better understand, “Impotence corrupts absolutely.”5 The “nice guy” or “nice gal” role ideal, the person who doesn’t express anger, doesn’t fight back and is afraid to rock the boat has been debunked.

Levels of Power. The first step in understanding organizing is to see it as a positive or constructive use of power. In assertiveness training the constructive use of power is called “assertion” or “assertiveness.” “Passiveness” or “non assertiveness” and “aggressiveness” are the terms used to describe destructive or negative responses to situations in which power should be used. The use of these terms partly over-simplifies the realities of power usage. Assertion and aggression are actually two levels of power.6 In a theoretical sense, assertion has been defined as taking a stand against opposition, drawing the line and protecting one’s “territory.” Aggression, on the other hand, means striking out into the territory of the other, which is a stronger level of power.

As levels of power, both assertion and aggression may be positive or negative, depending on the circumstances in which they are used.7 In grassroots organizing, for example, people are generally fighting for rights and services which are rightfully theirs to begin with. They are fighting to take back their neighborhoods and communities. They are fighting for a “fair shake” and a fair share of that which the power elites have taken for themselves. In this context, assertion by the power elites in the form of defending their practices of redlining is a clear a misuse of power. When community people use power to “take back their own territory” by challenging banks to stop redlining their communities, on the other hand, they are using power constructively.

Institutional Change. While assertiveness training information can be used to help people understand the use of power in organizing, organizing takes empowerment a step or two further than most of assertiveness training. While assertiveness training teaches people how to confront other persons (ie. at home, at work and while shopping,) organizing enables persons to confront and change institutions.

In CRA organizing persons confront banks and other financial institutions. These institutions may control large sums of money and represent great concentrations of power. Assertiveness training skills, while helpful, are not adequate for this challenge. Something more is needed. That something more is an organized group, a power base from which to confront the institutional and bureaucratic powers which are practicing redlining and other forms of disinvestment.

In part, organizing goes contrary to American ideals of individualism. We often celebrate the lone hero, the strong person who stands alone and wins the day. this ideal may be especially prevalent in some rural areas where farmers and other small business people are very independent. In another context we idealize those who beat the competition in the “struggle for existence.” The strong survive, we are told, while the weak are weeded out. This view too has had influence in rural areas.

The ideal of the lone hero has been criticized by those organizing the poor. According to Charles Hampden-Turner, “man-alone-against-the-system” is an example of “middle class ideals, which have more to do with the personal predilections of creative writers to remain at their desks than empowering their ideas through action.”8 In the everyday world of people whose neighborhoods and communities are experiencing disinvestment and other problems it is much different. For example, with regards to one government institution, Hampden-Turner stated: “The reality pits an institutionalized professional, preaching individuality against an uninstitutionalized client, experiencing bureaucratization.”9 Similarly Milton Kotler stated:

What ordinary man, or for that matter exceptional man, wants an individual relationship with government in its might? . . . Instead he seeks a closer relationship to government through his group, where there is enough collective human strength to further his interest and defend him from State power. It is the group which relates man to the State for self-defense and the good life.10

These statements provide a basis for criticizing the ideal of survival through individual competition as well. More often, we are now told, those fittest to survive in nature and culture are those who live by other rural and American ideals: mutual aid and cooperative citizenship.11 Here again, organizing is rooted, not in the tough talk of individual competition, but in what really works for tough and effective action: people joining together in an organized way to exert power.

Confrontation, Negotiation and Action. Assertiveness training and other self-help programs identify three key steps in using power: confrontation, negotiation, and action.12 Confrontation means facing the opposition and stating your case, or as one book on assertiveness put it: “stand up, speak out, talk back.”13 Negotiation involves dealing with the response of the opposition and working toward an agreement. Action is what you may need to do if they won’t budge.

These same three steps are central to the negotiation phase of organizing. Confrontation initiates the negotiation phase. Initially power is used to win their willingness to talk with you and enter into negotiations which can lead toward an agreement. Then power is used to win the negotiations. If more power is needed to move into negotiations or move the negotiations forward direct action is used.

Preparations and Follow up. Important preparations for the use of power are made prior to the negotiation stage of organizing. during the grassroots stage a power base of committed grassroots people is developed. A developed power base is needed if ordinary people are going to successfully confront and negotiate with financial institutions or other places of bureaucratic power. Additional preparations are made during the second phase: gathering information and planning a strategy for using power. These two preparatory stages then lead to the negotiation stage.

After an agreement is reached and changes are made the stage of monitoring begins. Monitoring serves as a “feedback loop” as grassroots people continue their involvement and new information is gathered which may be used in planning a strategy for further confrontation, negotiation and action as necessary to achieve real success, real institutional change for the community.

Creating Tension. When power is used, tension is created. Change does not come easily, especially institutional and bureaucratic change. The tension is created by those who initiate the confrontation, those who call for the change. The creation of this tension is thus a natural part of organizing.

Creating tension is not in itself bad. It is a normal outcome when power is used constructively and positively. In fact, the creation of tension through the exercise of grassroots power has often been an ethical act of the highest order.

Nevertheless, grassroots organizing is frequently criticized as a negative or destructive act. The fact that organizing initiates tension is a key reason for this scorn. The status quo does not hesitate to make these criticisms as they defend their positions, privileges and practices. They themselves may appear calm, rational and nice as they redline and disinvest, drawing the economic lifeblood out of rural communities. It can sometimes be hard to believe that such nice, apparently well-intentioned people could be, through their actions helping to destroy one’s home neighborhood or community. This is especially true if, as happened to CCI recently, a prominent religious leader in the community joins in the criticism without knowing the facts.

Perhaps the best answer given to that kind of criticism was Martin Luther King’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail.” He wrote this letter when he was accused by religious leaders of abusing power. In the letter he answered a number of specific criticisms related to the use of power in organizing. On the question of tension King stated:

You may well ask: “Why direct action?…. Isn’t negotiation a better path?” You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. My citing the creation of tension as part of the work of the nonviolent-resister may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word “tension.” I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth.14


The process of organizing is often misunderstood. In part, as explained above, the use of power has been misunderstood. One way is to explain the use of power in organizing in relation to assertiveness training, as has been done above. Some of the misunderstandings, however, go beyond the basic questions about the use of power. That challenge can perhaps be effectively met by explaining organizing as a response to bureaucracy.

People understand bureaucracy. Bureaucracies are mechanistic. They are characterized by impersonality and hierarchy. Change comes slowly unless it comes from the top down. The lone “person-against-the-system” may be idealized for expressing humanness, but this person generally doesn’t get far except in running around in circles and in being offered red tape.

Organizing can be better understood by keeping bureaucracy in mind. Organizing is an antidote to bureaucratization. Where bureaucracy is mechanistic, organizing is organic and humanistic. Organizing confronts the mechanistic system of bureaucracy with the real world of humanity. Real live human beings prod the bureaucrats out of their routines, stopping the “run-around” and cutting through thr red tape. The creation of tension is an important part of this process.

Anger. Assertiveness training teaches that the expression of anger is an important and necessary part of constructive confrontation. Authentic human anger is anti-mechanistic. Anger can help bring out the humanness in people. It can bring negotiation to a deeper level as bureaucratic superficiality and artificial niceness are left behind.

Organizers find that ordinary people who are willing to confront bureaucracies are generally not afraid of anger. When given a fair chance they can state their case and express their anger without anything getting out of hand from their point of view. Having trust for ordinary people in these situations is important in organizing. With this approach, there is no need to go around trying to calm people down. People are naturally angry about injustice and about their frustrations in trying to deal with bureaucracies on their own bureaucratic terms.

Personalizing the Confrontation. Another way to counteract bureaucratization is by personalizing the confrontation.15 Find the people behind the bureaucracy, those who have the power and authority to make decisions and hold them accountable for the behavior of the institution. On the basis of your research, expose their dirty laundry. Keep the pressure on.

One way to personalize the issue is to counteract the tendency of bureaucrats to compartmentalize their lives, separating the redlining portion, for example, from the neighborhood portion or church portion.. One way organizing can break through this mechanistic facade is by confronting those in charge of the redlining with the humanity of the angry neighborhood people coming in the redliner’s own neighborhood.

Provoking a non-bureaucratic response. One goal of confrontation and action in organizing is to provoke a non-bureaucratic response: to get them to react in the face of authentic anger and confrontation.16 According to Saul Alinsky such a reaction can be “your major strength.”17

The bureaucratic response is well known: be calm, be nice, be rational, deny the problem, and put off doing anything about it. In this way a bank may hope to keep looking like the “good guy” while investing all their money in government securities and not making any loans where they’re most needed. When a different reaction is provoked the bureaucratic executive begins to expose more of what may be really going on beneath the surface. This may include contempt for the ordinary people who are criticizing the institution and a willingness to use domination, intimidation and manipulation to protect their position.

When reactions of this type begin to show through grassroots people can better see what they’re up against and create an appropriate and effective response. More of the cards are on the table and better progress can be made. At this point organizing becomes much easier as, for example, the need for power becomes clearer. No longer are grassroots people dealing with the apparently nice banker. Instead they are dealing with someone willing to use and/or abuse power to protect the bank’s practices of disinvestment and redlining.

Keep Things Moving. Another way to avoid bureaucratic traps is to keep things moving, keep the pressure on.18 Bureaucracy generally wants more time (although CRA deadlines may not allow that). Typical bureaucratic responses include such familiar phrases as:

We’ll think about it.

We’ll take it under advisement.

We’ll form a committee to look into it.

We’ll conduct a study of the situation.

We want our lawyers to look at it.

We’ll take it to our board.

Given time a bureaucracy can better deal with you in a bureaucratic way. They can also put a tremendous amount of resources against you. If they do it their way you’ll have a harder time breaking through the institutional facade and moving forward with constructive negotiations.

Vitality and Assertive Humor. If “anti-bureaucratic” is the negative term describing this aspect of the organizing process, “life” and “vitality” are positive terms for the same thing. The formal, mechanistic, bureaucratic routine is, if anything, a deadening process. It works like a machine set to keep on running in the same grooves. It lacks two key aspects of humanity: free choice and the ability to suspend its own assumptions.19 Organizing brings into the picture “real live” people motivated by their vital interests, to encounter the persons behind the bureaucracy who have the authority and the power to make changes.

Simple research and real people with passionate, real life stories about how they have been turned down for loans can be an effective counter to stacks of dry bureaucratic research. People working together on vital issues can provide a creative spark to convince the persons behind the bureaucracy to see things differently.

The effective use of humor can help keep this vitality in the forefront. Self-help books stress the importance of assertive humor, even calling it “the highest level of skill” during confrontation.20 Assertive humor can be the most effective antidote to bureaucratic barriers and bombast.21 It helps cut through the mechanistic facade, break the negotiations out of the formal grooves and bring them up (or down) to a human level so that people’s real needs can be addressed.

In short, have some fun with it.22 Be creative. Allow peoples’ imaginations to work freely to find ways to bring the human spirit into the confrontation and action in order to enliven the encounter between your grassroots people and the representatives for the bureaucracy. As Alinsky said, “A good tactic is one that your people enjoy. If your people are not having a ball doing it, there is something wrong with the tactic.”23

A Few Words About Relationships. One of the reasons for using power to break through bureaucratic facades is to develop a constructive relationship which will help move negotiations along. As suggested above, the usual bureaucratic relationships are unemotional, nice and unauthentic. Relationships of this type are conducive to preserving the destructive practices of the status quo, not to initiating constructive change for neighborhoods and communities. Trying to “out-nice” them and win their approval by refraining from expressing anger, taking action or otherwise creating tension does not lead to good relationships in power situations. These practices are more likely to lessen their respect for you and lead to abuses of power against your people.

These principles of relationships are thoroughly described in assertiveness training and other similar self-help approaches to using power. In a popular book on negotiation Roger Fisher provided the classic example of the failure to develop relationships of respect:

You may give the other side the benefit of the doubt or get angry and promise yourself never to deal with them again. For now, you hope for the best and keep quiet. Most people respond this way. They hope that if they give in this time, the other side will be appeased and will not ask for more. Sometimes this works, more often it fails. This is how Neville Chamberlain, the British Prime Minister, responded in 1938 to Hitler’s negotiating tactics. After Chamberlain thought he had an agreement, Hitler raised his demands. At Munich, Chamberlain, hoping to avoid war, went along. A year later, World War II started. 24

The positive side of this issue is that effective relationships in conflict situations are more likely to develop through authentic confrontation, as real conflicts are placed on the table and worked through. As organizers repeatedly find, the best, most positive and cooperative relationships between powerful institutions and grassroots groups typically come after the toughest conflicts have been fought through.


If the key to organizing is people, the first responsibility of the organizer is to stay tuned in to and take care of the grassroots people. If the organizer is a college educated product of the middle class, and the people are mainly working class folks without a college degree, what the people want and need may be very different than what the organizer would want and need in similar circumstances. They may not share middle class anxieties about the use of power and various non-bureaucratic tactics. Typically they know they need clout and aren’t afraid to use it.

If the people are being organized because of their relative powerlessness, then working hard to develop and protect their power is important. That’s another reason why the organizer must help the group take the initiative in the power arena and keep things moving.

Little things like where you meet (your turf or theirs), how the room is setup to enhance your power, and who controls the agenda may seem like easy issues on which to concede, but they may be very important to the assertion of power by ordinary community people against bureaucratic executives. Similarly, a few abusive power moves by the opposition may seem easy to overlook because an organizer knows what is happening and won’t give in to it. But to ordinary folks this abuse, if not answered, could contribute to a tendency to give up and give in. And being chummy with the opposition may likewise seem harmless and insignificant, but this kind of atmosphere may make it difficult for some group leaders to get tough and thoroughly confront the bureaucracy.

For all of these reasons, paying attention to the “rules” of power and non-bureaucratic encounter is serious business for the organizer. There will be plenty of unplanned mistakes. The organizer must not add to them by allowing a lot of avoidable mistakes to accumulate. Doing so will likely weaken your power base of grassroots support, prolong negotiations, and reduce the benefits which you can win. Remember, “nothing succeeds like success.” With a series of well acknowledged victories, grassroots empowerment develops and spreads. This series of positive precedents thus sets the stage for the renewal of rural neighborhoods and communities.

Keep in mind also that your people are volunteers with lives of their own. They won’t want to play the bureaucratic game of artificial encounter and superficial communication that goes on and on and on. In this regard, keep in mind two of Saul Alinsky’s tactical rules for organizing: “A tactic that drags on too long becomes a drag,” and, “A good tactic is one that your people enjoy.”25

In the end it is the grassroots people who must feel comfortable with power and with organizing in order to be successful.26 When grassroots people see that their vital interests are at stake in particular issues, they generally understand that power must be used to address these issues. They also generally sense that going “outside the experience” of the bureaucrats (with their impersonal run-around and red tape,) is necessary in order to bring humanity and reality into negotiations on these issues.27 In the end though, it is the people themselves who must decide what to do. Part of the organizer’s job is to: “Never go outside the experience of your people.”28 The approach used must make sense to them and, hopefully, be fun for them.


[1] Rollo May, Power and Innocence: A Search for the Sources of Violence, (New York: Dell Publishing, 1972), p. 145.

[2] Frederick Douglass, quoted in Shel Trapp, Dynamics of Organizing, (National Training and Information Center, Chicago, 1976), p. v.

[3] “In fact the correct statement is: ‘Power tends to corrupt, absolute power corrupts absolutely.’ We can’t even read [Lord] Acton’s statement accurately, our minds are so confused by our conditioning,” Saul Alinsky, Rules for Radicals, (New York, Vintage Books, 1971), p. 51.

[4] The techniques of assertiveness training, while relevant to organizing, are not discussed here.

[5] Rollo May, Power and Innocence, op. cit., pp. 23-24; Edgar Friedenberg, Coming of Age in America, (New York: Random House, 1965), pp. 47–48.

[6] May identifies 5 levels of power: power to be, self affirmation, self assertion, aggression, and violence. Ibid., pp. 40-45.

[7] According to May, even violence can be “life-giving”, Ibid., p. 191-192.

[8] Charles Hampden-Turner, From Poverty to Dignity, (Garden City, N. Y.: Anchor, 1975), p. 117.

[9] Ibid., p. 118.

[10] Milton Kotler, “Two Essays on the Neighborhood Corporation,” U.S. Joint Economic Committee Report, (Washington, D. C., 1967), p. 185.

[11] On fitness to survive see, for example, Ashley Montagu, The Nature of Human Aggression, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1976), pp. 145-147.

[12] See, for example, William Pietsch, Human Be-ing: How to Have a Creative Relationship Instead of a Power Struggle, (New York: Signet, 1974), pp. 146-149, 155, 161-164, 168-182.

[13] Robert E. Alberti and Michael L. Emmons, Stand Up, Speak Out, Talk Back!, (New York: Pocket, 1975).

[14] Martin Luther King, Jr., Why we can’t wait, (New York: Signet Books, 1963, 1964).

[15] Shel Trapp, Dynamics of Organizing, op. cit., pp. 7-8; Alinsky, op. cit. pp. 130-133.

[16] Shel Trapp, Dynamics of Organizing, op. cit., p. 7.

[17] Alinsky, op. cit., p. 136.

[18] Ibid. p. 128.

[19] Hampden-Turner, Radical Man: The Process of Psychosocial Development, (Garden city, N. Y.: Anchor Books, 1971), p. 153.

[20] Stanlee Phelps and Nancy Austin, The Assertive Woman, (San Luis Obispo, Ca.: Impact, 1975, p. 77.

[22] Note also Saul Alinsky’s statement that “Ridicule is man’s most potent weapon It is almost impossible to counterattack ridicule. Also it infuriates the opposition, who then react to your advantage.” Rules for Radicals, op. cit., p. 128, (emphasis removed).

[22] Shel Trapp, Dynamics of Organizing, op. cit., p. 8.

[23] Saul Alinsky, Rules for “Radicals, loc. cit.

[24] Roger Fisher, Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In, (New York: Penguin Books, 1981), pp. 134-135.

[25] Op. cit., p. 128, 158-161(emphasis removed).

[26] Shel Trapp, Dynamics of Organizing, op. cit., p. 6.

[27] Saul Alinsky stated, “Whenever possible go outside of the experience of the enemy,” op. cit., p. 127.

[28] Ibid.

Leave a comment