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Today, we can see student led movements around the world from the Québec Student Movement led by students impacted by their debt, to the Chilean Student Movement, to Occupy on campuses led by indebted students in the US.  These movements have the potential to be transformative and bend the arc of US educational history.  They deserve our support and recognition.

A dynamic, successful social movement is really the confluence of many movements--smaller, more local, narrower or different in focus. Another example, one local tributary of the U.S. immigrants’ rights struggle, is the Student Immigration Movement (SIM), a Massachusetts-based youth organization that uses student-led, community and electoral organizing to press for equal access to higher education.

Great visions cannot be realized without self-organizing from the ground up.

Most significant structural social transformations have been largely led by those most affected by the structured inequality, whether class, gender or race based.

As Nelson Mandela explained about grassroots organizing:
“As we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

The broadest-based and longest enduring transformational movements grow from the grassroots up.  In his book Why We Can’t Wait, Dr. Martin Luther King discussed how the civil rights movement affected the Kennedy presidency. While the Kennedy brothers had helped King and the Southern Christian Leadership Council early on, during the first two years of the Kennedy Administration the Kennedys vacillated on civil rights and took the Black base for granted (as Obama does now). It was only after Birmingham and the strong push from the grassroots that the Kennedy Administration responded to the call from below.

People can march against war, advocate universal healthcare, or fight for education equity without generating a “sense of movement;” most often leaders in these situations neglect the passion and intellect of those most impacted -- key ingredients in the alchemy of transformation. And the organizations they lead can sometimes be part of the problem.

Before women gained the right to vote it took . . . 56 different campaigns for state referenda, 408 campaigns to urge legislatures to put women’s suffrage on the ballot, 47 campaigns for state constitutional conventions, 30 campaigns to urge presidential party platforms to include women’s suffrage as a plank, and 19 lobbying efforts with nineteen successive Congresses before the 19th amendment was proposed in Congress in 1919 and ratified August 26, 1920. -- Judith Niles, Nine Women

The extensive grassroots efforts leading to women’s right to vote is a compelling portrayal of the fact that social change movements are like rivers with many tributaries. Transformative movements emerge from a multitude of struggles, campaigns, organizing and other popular initiatives. The combination of many small victories builds the momentum for success. A movement of many movements has deeper, larger roots among the population and has a much richer base of ideas and activities that allow it to grow.

While “it takes all” to create a powerful transformative movement, the key to success is that the most excluded, those pushed to the sidelines and to the bottom need to lead. Those who are most marginalized are often the underserved, underrepresented, poor and subject to the yoke of repression on a daily basis. Movements fail when those who are most excluded are sidelined.  It is vitally important that that those who are most affected by the issues that the movement is trying to address are propelling that movement. Their perspectives, leadership, and organizations must drive and be central. In addition, their contributions should be broadly acknowledged as the movement achieves gains; their stories must not be marginalized after success.

Avoiding professionalization and non-profitization

Today, with the non-profitization (and accompanying professionalization) of movements, we have lost much of the autonomy of grassroots movement building. Foundations and other nonprofits have become “the environmental movement,” “the school reform movement,” or the “anti-poverty movement.” Community activism on such issues has been partially supplanted or co-opted by Washington-based organizations with recognized brand names, fundraising prowess, and an approach to social action not unlike other top-down entities. They are often led by professionals much like those in business -- executives drawing on “expert” opinions to determine how change should unfold.

Rarely do foundations fund grassroots activists and communities to build upon their self-empowerment and self-governance. Funders rarely create spaces for the inspiration and energy of those outside certain elite and/or educated circles. Social change movements do require considerable resources, but they cannot be consigned to direction by large 501(c)(3) organizations or 501(c)(4) organizations.

The leadership, membership, base, and spokespeople of a successful movement need to include those most affected by injustice: the poor, workers; youth and students; people of color, LGBTQ. Leaders must include people from the groups most affected by an issue, and must not be dominated by wealthy, educated, and well-meaning allies. The wealthy can be allies who bring resources but they have to know when and how to take a step back.

To win, successful transformative justice movements draw on strategic contributions by a diversity of people.  For example, the NAACP was created by Jews and Christians, as well as African Americans -- but its leadership remained African American. The abolitionist, yet aristocratic, South Carolina sisters, Sarah and Angelina Grimke, spoke out bravely to demystify slave owners’ claims that slavery was benevolent.  But the abolitionist movement was driven in many ways by former slaves and the sons and daughters of former slaves.

Hypothesis #3:  Bottom-up Organizing; Transformative movements Can Only be Realized with Authentic Grassroots Leadership

bending the arc of educational history. This post involves a set of hypotheses we view as crucial and connected, that of self-emancipation and leadership from below. -- Greg

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Comment Preferences

  •  I'm showing my tween grandchildren (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    ballerina X

    how and why I pay close attention to politics/voting ----
    because we all pay taxes to have good schools for them, firemen, policemen, etc.

    I point out bad local choices and national errors like NCLB which directly make their life worse.  

    I recently needed to explain why I get SS check without "going to work".    And why it would be hard on them if mom & dad had to take care of me without that cash --- what they would need to do without themselves if I couldn't help pay household expenses.  

    They already knew about my grumpy granny days when my pain is so bad that I warn them to tone town their rowdy spurts like I do when they feel bad.    

    In small doses of reality -- including why I proudly wear my "I voted" sticker all day  --- and that part of being "grown up" is to use their precious vote.    

    We actually READ the part of Constitution which applies ---- when they learn about or question historical or current events.

    Propaganda is easier --- tv ad made toy look great. They spend money they earned for toy.  It is a dud.    Politicians can be like that --- pay close attention to the small print.

    Each one teach one, or more, that EVERY vote counts.

    De fund + de bunk = de EXIT--->>>>>

    by Neon Mama on Fri Aug 31, 2012 at 04:13:23 PM PDT

    •  Every Vote Counts... well maybe (0+ / 0-)

      Thanks for your important comment.  Yes showing up, whether at the polls or school meetings or protests are key actions.  

      I listened keenly on Democracy Now as, Civil Rights Icon, Rep. John Lewis spoke on the Struggle to Win–and Now Protect–Voting Rights in U.S.  For all those who wonder about the role of voting, listen or read his words on Monday at

      Many votes are not being counted which now makes voting an act of resistance -- but not quite like it was during Lewis's early days.

      And yes as Aviva Shen points out, the Democratic Platform is very different from the republicans in that it embraces immigration, marriage equality, and unrestricted abortion rights, stops “Citizen’s United,” etc.

      And I also know, voting is very limited in this country. As Chris Hedges says, “Politicians, including Mitt Romney and Barack Obama, serve the demented ends of corporations that will, until the final flicker of life, attempt to profit from our death spiral. Civil disobedience, including the recent decision by Greenpeace activists to chain themselves to a Gazprom supply vessel and obstruct a Russian oil rig, is the only meaningful form of resistance. Voting is useless.”  

      I don’t believe its useless, but it is practically useless if we don’t show up at the protests and stand up for what is right.

      Voting is only a very small step in a participatory democracy.  We have a representative democracy, not a participatory democracy in this country.  So, we have to force our voice into the conversation since the system discourages participation.  Nonetheless, voting is important whether you vote for the lesser of two evils, Jill Stein and the Green Party or just leave it blank.  But never believe you have done your duty just because you wear the "I voted" sticker.

      Keep sending your comments, we really appreciate it.

  •  Would love to read a diary or series of diaries (0+ / 0-)

    about examples of number 3... there have to be some in the US that are active now.

    My experience with the charter school movement in CA showed me that many of the CA charter schools were built through grassroots movements. Then non-profits and for-profits came in to take advantage of the model. Now all charters are getting attacked. It's tough out there in the grassroots world.

    •  Bottom Up Change (0+ / 0-)

      Thanks for your important comment Angela Jean.
      For examples of Hypothesis #3, there are many active now from the US based Student Immigrant Movement to the Quebec Student Movement to some of the more innovative teachers unions.  

      For past examples, check out Judith Nies, 9 Women, Portraits in the American Radical Tradition, who is quoted above.

      I am working on documenting for, a book and wiki-like site, past and present examples in "The Art of Transformative Movements."  So if you have examples or hypothesis to share, i would love to see them.

      I am sure many readers and I can provide more examples.


    •  Charters and the Grassroots (0+ / 0-)

      Hi Angela Jean,
      I agree, the for-profits and others took over the grassroots potential of charters.  Charters, while they had the potential to become good places for parent participation and democracy, quickly became policy driven by the most ideological of the super-wealthy and corporatized.  Check out my post at Education Week, Kids Mean Money.

      As Jack Jennings points out about charters,
      "They are similar to private
      schools in that they may be free from requirements placed on public schools in such areas as choosing their student
      bodies and employing non-union teachers. They are also mostly controlled by boards that are not publicly elected
      and can be managed by profit-making companies as well as non-profit entities."  This can make them less democratic and less open to parent and grassroots participation than public schools.

      Jennings goes on to say, "Only 17%of charter schools produced higher test scores than comparable
      public schools, according to a comprehensive national review of such schools. Moreover, 37% of charters
      produced lower scores than public schools, and the remainder showed no difference from regular public schools... The choice movement shows no signs of slowing down, despite evidence that its promise of producing better education
      has not been realized. Parents may be pleased with their choice of school, but in general their children’s
      achievement is no greater than if they had stayed in the regular public school. It is an interesting case of convictions
      trumping evidence."

  •  The first step in improving, transforming, etc (0+ / 0-)

    your school is to go to the meetings.

    Whatever meetings there are, go to them.

    Class/fundraising meetings
    School Site Council
    School Board

    This is how you find out what is good and what is not, and where you start to get the lay of the land. Either you'll learn that there are good people doing good work, that there are good people who need help, or that there are people who need to be replaced.

    A community has a lot of power it can use, simply by showing up. I promise you the community outnumbers the staff and administration.

    Fry, don't be a hero! It's not covered by our health plan!

    by elfling on Fri Aug 31, 2012 at 10:28:59 PM PDT

    •  Going to School Meetings (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      I agree Elfling, it is important to use all the avenues possible to participate in these important institutions.  It is a great place to, as you say, learn the lay of the land, and to practice your meeting, speaking and organizing skills.  And it is a great way to, as famed Brazilian educator, Paulo Friere talks about, to test the limits of what is possible.  For instance, the PTA or School Board meetings likely do not have the ability to dramatically raise a poor community's access to equivalent school dollars as a wealthy community.  To rectify that unfairness, one has to organize all the people at the meeting to make demands of the state legislature and federal government like the Opportunity to Learn Campaign (that I am very involved in) is doing in many states.

      Thanks for your important comment.

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