Roots to Power: A Manual for Grassroots Organizing

Roots to Power: A Manual for Grassroots Organizing by Lee Staples

In recent decades, community organizing has become an increasingly powerful force mobilizing low- and moderate-income Americans to improve their neighborhoods. When those most shut out of power and benefits create an organization that is able to strategize, negotiate, promote legislation, demonstrate, engage in civil disobedience, work the media, and turn out voters, the result is that banks and corporations, school boards and lawmakers, developers and gas companies are forced to undo injustices. When organizers facilitate the development of leaders within low-income communities, and those leaders train more leaders and recruit more members, the powerless begin over time to develop real strength.

This is not just some nice sounding theory. This is the reason banks invest in low-income neighborhoods, the reason loan sharks are forced out of business, states and cities pass minimum wage laws, cities and counties pass living wage ordinances, struggling public schools remain public and accountable to parents, utility companies are prevented from raising their rates without limit, developers are required to produce affordable housing, public transit does not serve only wealthy neighborhoods, polluting industries in poor neighborhoods are forced to clean up their act, and the social safety net is not completely shredded.

During the 30 years since the massive opposition to Jim Crow policies known as the Civil Rights Movement, community organizers have been slowly building multi-issue political power in low-income and minority communities. At the same time, of course, national U.S. politics has drastically shifted wealth and power to those already most wealthy and powerful. We now have a nation in which organized and active residents of our poorest neighborhoods can command the respect of their city councils and bring the nation’s major corporations to their knees, but in which the federal government is heedless of public opinion, prostituted to wealthy interests, and eagerly undermining local gains through disastrous national policies.

The coming years will tell a tale of national disaster or of a rebirth of democracy, depending not on who occupies the White House or what nations they choose to bomb in what order, but depending on whether community organizing has come of age and grown large and sophisticated enough in time.

How do you do community organizing? How do you sign poor people up, convince them to pay dues, persuade them to do most of the work themselves, guide them into winnable campaigns, and educate them while yourself learning from them what needs to be done? This work involves a dedication and psychological wisdom unlike any other. The ability to improvise and to influence without controlling requires wit and humility that not everyone can find immediately.

Fortunately, Lee Staples has given us a manual for organizing. If you want to do this work, keep this book in your back pocket. If you want to understand democracy, read this book and then go and actually observe some of the work described.

Organizers rarely pause in their endless work to share what they have learned. Journalists and academics hardly know this mountain of knowledge is out there. But Lee Staples has collected much oral knowledge and put it in a book for us.

No one could count the books that advise you to make your life useful and beneficial to society. Here’s one that spells out exactly how you can do it.

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