Grassroots Engagement / Community Organizing

A common thread among the movements and issues we have featured is the commitment to engage at the grassroots level and organize and mobilize communities. This is a conscious choice to eschew top-down or technocratic tolutions to problems. By organizing and engaging at the community level, movements and transformational change leaders are leveraging democratic voice and mass influence to tackle imbalances in power.

The early success of the Black Lives Matter movement, as one example, was tied to the ability of leaders to move beyond a protest hashtag and galvanize members of a marginalized group. Resulting protests – from blocking traffic in New York City to protesting Democratic presidential hopeful Senator Bernie Sanders – were organized and carried out at the grassroots level. Other examples, including successes brought about by organizations such as the Coalition for Immokalee Workers, the Puente Nayero Humanitarian Space (both profiled on this site), or Slum Dwellers International, are a direct result of grassroots mobilization.

“When large numbers of people make decisions for themselves, the results are remarkable: Everyone’s views are heard, policies take all interests into account (as all lasting policy must), and are thus fairer. Facts and science are respected over opinion,” writes former British diplomat and Independent Diplomat Founder Carne Ross. “Decision making becomes transparent (and thus less corrupt), respectful and less partisan—people who participate in decisions tend to stick to them.”

There is an inherent tension between solving problems via top-down or community-led solutions. It is at the heart of most policy debates. Advocates in the international development sphere weigh the critical need for action to save lives with the need to create permanent change. Policy makers in Western countries continue to debate the role of government in dealing with problems of justice, access and inclusion. Movements increasingly recognize that needs are best articulated by the people directly affected by a problem. But it is more than that. There are major limitations to sending out a survey to collect attitudes, or even a more comprehensive ethnographic study. Asking people what they need or want is one thing. Including those people in the process of developing solutions is where movements that utilize community organizing are different. They collaborate with the people they represent. In practice, that leads to more influence and a realignment of power between groups — even within the movement. It renders top-down solutions as a sole method inefficient, unsustainable, and unworkable. Long-term movements and aid/development initiatives are using the principles of community organizing to find success.

Collective Action

Similar to grassroots movements and community organizing, understanding collective action is key to grasping the actual and potential change communities themselves can effect. In a 2015 paper produced under the auspices of his think tank and through a Leadership Grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, Dr. Sulley Gariba (an advisor to this project) evaluated three recent examples of mass collective action in three different African countries, and shows why the methodology must include understanding of local customs if one is to produce effective analysis and evaluation. Collective action is defined within this paper as the actions of social actors who perceive themselves to be part of a collective project of social change and are mutually-responsive in their actions towards that common goal. Intentionality of participation is the defining feature of collective action.

The three case studies Gariba examines are the Tahrir uprising in Egypt in 2011; the 2014 Bring Back Our Girls campaign in Nigeria; and the OccupyGhana Movement of 2014. All the countries are African, but each has unique characteristics that must be applied to analyzing the cause and effect of each of the mass collective actions. Ghana has the most stable democracy, Nigeria is the largest democracy and the most populous nation, and Egypt has “hosted perhaps the most powerful example of a protest movement in contemporary African history.” For each of the case studies, Gariba explains why the traditional social structure of each country previously lent itself to small social actions around the family or community and was limited to non-political issues, while the emergence of social media platforms facilitated collective action by making it possible to network both locally and globally. He goes on to explain the limitations of analyzing the movements exclusively through the lens of social media, while emphasizing how it changed the way Africans engage in mass collective action.

Power Analysis

Power analysis provides development interventions a more robust understanding of the systems that reinforce poverty and marginalization, and to identify positive sources of power and influence that can be applied to tackle inequality.

In a paper with the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA), Jethro Pettit of Institute of Development Studies (IDS), Sussex, explored how power analysis can promote the capacity of development institutions to shift power to disempowered communities and allow them to explore and leverage their own power to advocate for their rights and opportunities.

As Pettit says, “Lack of power – like lack of opportunities, resources and security – is one of the multiple dimensions of poverty… Unequal power relations may also foster acute social conflict, political violence and insecurity. Power is dynamic, so individuals and groups may experience it differently from one moment or place to another. In order to identify opportunities, obstacles and risks for effective poverty reduction, human rights, conflict-prevention, peacebuilding and sustainable development it is important to understand how power works, who it benefits and how it can be changed.”

Intersectional Approaches

Intersectionality is the idea that social categories such as race, gender, sexuality and ethnicity overlap in singular individuals to form complex identities that are products of and distinct from their component parts. Developed initially by Kimberlé Crenshaw of UCLA School of Law within the context of critical race theory, this idea has been used as a conceptual tool for analyzing and describing the ways people are affected by several discriminatory and oppressive systems at once. Implicit in the intersectionality framework is an acknowledgement of power hierarchies that structure social life to the advantage of some identities at the expense of others. Equipped with this framework, one can better understand how, for example, a black woman’s experience of the patriarchy differs from a white woman’s. Intersectionality has been influential in the work of developing nuanced and inclusive strategies for achieving greater social justice.

Framing and Naming

Language is vital to transformational change. The manner in which a movement or intervention is defined or framed influences every aspect of its direction, from resource mobilization, to participation and representation, to enshrining policy.

India’s non-cooperation movement reframed the problem of colonial rule. The term itself, “non-cooperation,” put forward the idea that acting in accordance with colonial rule was a form of support and its proliferation as a term and strategy was a key part of Gandhi’s non-violent opposition to British rule. Acts of civil disobedience during the early non-cooperation protests helped shape the larger demonstrations that contributed to achieving a free India. Similarly, the Black Lives Matter movement grew out of the framing of a protest hashtag that offered a challenge to racial hierarchies in the United States — standing in opposition to “all lives matter” with its stated recognition that before the law and among citizens, black lives don’t always appear to be protected. The framing forced people supportive of equal rights to consider the issue of unequal power between groups.

Some phrases are not confrontational, but are just as effective at reshaping conversations and priorities. Before the phrase “sustainable” was uttered in development circles, programs and recommendations were thought about in terms of improving statistics. Countries counted mortality rates and national income – success was lowering the former and increasing the latter. By thinking about sustainability, development programs shifted their approach to consider what might happen in the long term for a family or community. For example, improving incomes today is no longer assumed to be a success outright if it is at the cost of the environment.

According to Adil Najam (an advisor to this project) of the Pardee School of Global Studies at Boston University, the term “sustainable development” itself is the breakthrough. Prior to its proliferation as a guiding construct, environmental concerns were considered to be the opposite of development, which was clearly seen as the bad actor – anathema to preservation of the environment — but developing countries were hesitant because they thought western countries would hold environmentalism over their heads to keep back development. The term “sustainable development” as defined in the 1990s provided an alternative framework for action that connected climate and development. But terms evolve or fall out of favor because they become hijacked or lose their original meaning. The term “sustainable development” eventually came under criticism for a number of reasons, some of which include the narrowness of its scope, the inattention to power analysis within its bounds, and the concentration on market-driven solutions under its banner. The term has been revived within the context of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), but its feasibility as a construct to meet modern development challenges is still being debated.

Small tweaks in language are effective at helping people reconsider a long-held belief. For example, a rising trend in humanitarian work is cash transfers. It is what politicians might call “handouts.” But by making the phrase more technical, it is helping humanitarian organizations move past their notions that giving people money creates dependency. In the U.S., the universal basic income (UBI) construct is gaining traction as a potential way to deal with automation of jobs and rising inequality. It too is a handout of cash, but the turn of phrase re-frames the purpose of the program and why it may be necessary. The concept of UBI, however, is influenced by who is framing it. UBI forwarded by corporate interests in Silicon Valley, for example, see this as a solution to automation so they can pursue their aims unfettered, while feminist theorists might see it as an advantage for women to have access to their own financial independence. These two aims may be in odds with each other. In other words, as is the case with most frameworks, utility and influence of a term are often a direct result of who is doing the framing.

Systemic Change

The process of systemic change is an approach taken by development leaders and social innovators to address the root causes of the problems they are tackling. They focus on analyzing and changing the different processes, relationships and power structures between the different elements in a system. Systemic change is different from the siloed approaches sometimes used for social impact as it takes into account the various interdependencies and connections that exist around an issue. When a new idea is introduced it pervades these structures and stakeholders to achieve more adaptive and sustainable change, whether the goal is to reduce poverty, improve health services or fight for human rights.

Human-centered design

Human-centered, or user-centered design is a methodology that places the end user of a product or service at the center of each stage of the design process, so as to ensure the product or service meets the real needs and wants of the user. The process relies on user interviews, design inquiry, prototyping, and iteration, often in partnership with the end user.

The methodology has come under some criticism for being duplicative of traditional participatory development constructs without an understanding of those methods, and for giving lip service to immersion and contextual understanding of a community by sometimes prioritizing product development. It is, however, increasingly applied to development interventions, in areas ranging from public health to education to governance. Effective social design has led to deeper civic and cultural engagement, increased creativity and resilience, equity, social justice and improved human health. Along the way to these new social conditions, products and services are often developed, but in successful human-centered design processes, they are the means to an end, part of a larger system that includes invisible social dynamics as well as artifacts.

Resource Mobilization

The Arab Spring protests in Egypt are held up as a recent example of resource mobilization at work. The use of social media to spread information and reach new people in the country is an example of exploiting and effectively using an available resource. Researchers Nahed Eltantawy and Julie Wiest analyzed the protests in the context of resource mobilization theory and concluded that it may be time to reconsider what was once considered an out-of-fashion theory of change.

“Although some scholars believe that resource mobilization theory is past its prime, and although research on social media’s utility in social movements is still in its infancy, their combination would draw on the endurance and strength of the theory while updating it for contemporary times,” they conclude. “We urge scholars to consider and test this potentially useful theoretical framework in future studies, so that we may advance a social movement theory appropriate and useful for understanding social movements in our increasingly media-saturated world.”

The theory was intentionally used to help Nigeria eradicate polio. Recent flare-ups aside, the country worked with the World Health Organization to improve health systems that expanded vaccine coverage and establish tracking systems to detect cases. A re-worked effort that moved from technical to collaborative solutions helped bring on more donors and partnering organizations to assist the Nigerian government. Money raised increased from $35 million in 2011 to more than $160 million in 2015, opening the opportunity for new strategies for the eradication effort.


Finance has traditionally been at odds with or an obstacle to community-led transformational change, inasmuch as finance has often been extractive or exploitative of a community. A series of efforts, however, have begun to emerge that seek to repurpose finance to support transformational change efforts. These range from social activism in the financial markets, divestment, shareholder engagement, impact investing, or the effort to achieve social outcomes as part of an investment.

The organization Transform Finance, which envisions capital as a tool for real, transformative social change rooted in social justice, lays out a framework of three strategies for transformative finance: earned revenue – mission-related income-generating services that allow organizations to supplement or move away from traditional grants; market-based solutions to social problems via mission-aligned businesses; and investor engagement and accountability whereby social change organizations approach investors as allies for social change and the sector demands accountability for non-extractive initiatives. The Rockefeller Foundation (the supporter of the TCL project), has pursued program support for innovative finance solutions—the use of innovative financing mechanisms to mobilize private sector capital in more just ways.

There are other varied efforts to innovate on moving financial resources to support impact efforts along with more traditional sources of financial support from multilateral aid agencies and NGOs, and grants from philanthropic institutions. Blended finance — combining philanthropy, concessionary (i.e., below-market) capital, and private capital to achieve impact — is one mechanism that is being explored. Other methods are more grounded in community and grassroots efforts, such as the sharing economy, participatory lending, participatory budgeting, and cooperativism. Organizations such as Platform Cooperativism, The Working World, Yansa, Buen Vivir, and Boston Ujima Project are all experimenting with various community-based approaches to finance.  

Financial inclusion is another effort of note, aimed at bringing access to instruments such as credit and savings to the poor and unbanked. Microfinance — revolutionized in the 1960s and 1970s by Muhammad Yunus at Grameen Bank, Ela Bhatt at SEWA Bank, and Michaela Walsh at Women’s World Banking — is likely the most well-known example. The microfinance model has had mixed outcomes, coming under criticism for being hijacked by corporate concerns and predatory lenders, but in its purest form can still be leveraged for transformation.

All of these models need further research to understand their possible role in supporting transformational change.

Place-Based Initiatives

Place-based initiatives have been adopted as a method for addressing pressing problems that manifest locally, such as poverty, violence, and housing instability. Their guiding premise is that social problems that are embedded in particular neighborhoods can be met with strategies that organize local economic, political and civic actors to work in concert. Place-based initiatives aim to be transformational. Their objective is to change a place’s social fabric to sustainably improve living conditions for its residents. Place-based initiatives have traditionally been implemented in urban development projects; however, they have also been used to confront humanitarian crises. In these instances, actors seek to organize community to create a space designed to rise above or mitigate against a humanitarian issue that systematically plagues a particular place. When done effectively, these initiatives bring some measure of sustained stability and peace to an exhausted community.


Storytelling is a crucial pillar of transformational change. As a technique, it supports relationships, illuminates context, and broadens ideas about how to build for more progressive futures. When used strategically, storytelling serves three separate functions: As a first and basic matter, it can be used to illustrate the challenges faced by transformational change leaders and a method to convey and broadcast solutions. Second, and perhaps most importantly for community transformation, it can be used by members of affected communities to convey their realities among themselves and to the external world, to illuminate their own political, social, and cultural contexts, to underpin social and emotional learning, and to provide a basis for culturally-relevant, collaborative action. Third, stories can be the catalysts to galvanize, influence, and mobilize people to action. By investing in narrative shift, new avenues for dialogue and action open up and move us collectively toward progress. (We use storytelling and narrative interchangeably in this section, though they are distinct terms.)

The history of the Chicano Movement, for example, can’t be mapped through a single set of linear events leading to a particular outcome. When one refers to the Chicano Movement, one is speaking of an interconnected web of rights and cultural identity, and of organizing around farm workers’ rights, land grant restoration, voting rights, and the preservation of cultural history and ethnic pride. Despite the multi-pronged, dispersed character of the movement, it can still be called simply “the Chicano Movement” because all of these associated phenomena coalesce around a single guiding ideology providing unity: Chicanismo. This concept enabled Mexican-Americans from diverse cities, occupations, and social classes to come together as part of one community and to leverage this commonality to fight for civil rights that could benefit them all. Chicanismo is, at its base, composed of stories, which give Chicanos a narrative basis of belonging, and infuse identity with an ethic of cultural affirmation over cultural assimilation in a way that empowers and unifies.

Other examples abound of successful uses of narrative for voice, representation, protest, and solutions-building:

Josh Fox (profiled on this site), in his documentary Gasland, brings the effects of natural gas drilling on American communities to a national audience. He uses his story to connect with other people impacted by the industry and ultimately to build global grassroots momentum against fracking. Similarly, Skylight Pictures has used film to directly engage in activism. Their film When Mountains Tremble, as one example, was used as forensic evidence in the genocide trial of Guatemalan dictator Efraín Rios Montt.

Ai-jen Poo’s organizations, NDWA (profiled on this site) and Caring Across Generations, both invest in innovative uses of community stories to build empathy and organize community members. Wakiponi Mobile (profiled on this site), Culture Strike, and Breakthrough are organizations creating and using community-led storytelling for cultural shift.

The slogan Silence=Death was created by a collective of NYC artists who came together to build community and raise consciousness around the AIDS epidemic, which had started claiming their loved ones in the face of mainstream indifference. They needed to share their frustrations and heartache, but also to move their community to action, and created the slogan and logo that would eventually become the central identity of ACT UP (profiled on this site). Silence=Death has been named alongside We Shall Overcome, Sí Se Puede, We Are the 99%, and #blacklivesmatter as rallying cries for social justice.

Canana and Ambulante, two separate but related organizations founded by the actor/activists Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna in Mexico, serve to use cultural expression and media production to preserve cultural identity, spur job creation, and move toward rights and development outcomes.

Each example above — all of which represent but a small cross-section of a number of other initiatives — works through the nexus of using media to tell stories that enable transformational change. A rising acknowledgement of the importance of narrative is reflected in the fact that many movement support groups are including storytelling as a part of their services and their skills sets. But the importance of communities telling their own stories and owning the means of production and distribution is crucial to transformational change.

Digital Activism and Social Media

There are a number of ways digital activism has set the stage for change. One such example studied in the context of transformational change is the #BringBackOurGirls campaign. A call to action at a U.N. event sparked a national campaign and global awareness about the more than 200 girls abducted in northern Nigeria. Oby Ezekwesili, then the World Bank Vice President for Africa, delivered a speech in April 2014 urging leaders to “bring back our girls” in response to the kidnapping carried out by the Islamist terror group Boko Haram. Soon the phrase caught attention in the country and eventually #BringBackOurGirls became notable globally. News of the abductions had garnered little attention in the immediate aftermath. It was the viral spread of the hashtag that brought the issue to a global stage. More than 1 million tweets used the hashtag a month after the abductions occurred.

But this wasn’t what led to change. Rather, for more than three years Ezekwesili, grassroots activists, and local communities sustained pressure on the Nigerian government to recover each one of the girls and defeat Boko Haram. They used every means available to them to apply pressure, including social media. The issue was at the crux of the Nigerian presidential election and sparked a renewed military insurgency by President Muhammadu Buhari. In three years, only 22 girls were released, but activists continued their calls for all to be returned. A major breakthrough occurred in early May 2017 when 82 girls were exchanged for 5 Boko Haram leaders held by Nigerian security forces. Buhari reiterated his total commitment to “ensuring the safe return of the “#ChibokGirls” in a statement on Facebook. The political importance of the release necessitated the event – evidence that the campaign effectively expanded beyond a trendy hashtag and into a sustained and successful movement.

Because of its brief yet intense popularity on Twitter, accusations of co-option and questions about the effectiveness of “raising awareness,” #BringBackOurGirls was likened to the media campaign Kony 2012 (#StopKony). While both campaigns gained a tremendous amount of attention, they both failed at engaging sustained activism around their respective causes and at achieving actual success on the ground. Both campaigns were also criticized for encouraging a U.S. military agenda on the African continent when they provoked an international military response. In an article for Slate, Joshua Keating highlighted that media campaigns like Kony 2012 and #BringBackOurGirls are popular because they cause a sense of moral outrage via an easily-identifiable villain while glossing over the complexities of the causes they represent. However, there was one key difference between the Kony and Nigerian campaigns – the latter was locally driven. The success of the effort came despite, not because, of the international attention.

The caution here is community and context. As Kumi Naidoo, former Executive Director of Greenpeace, has said, “Context is really important. At the end of the day, as much as organizations are using social media very effectively right now, we will make a mistake to think we can strengthen social movements and build them by putting all our eggs in the social media basket. We cannot get away from conventional face-to-face organizing. And let’s not underplay the fact that there is still a deep digital divide. And many of the constituencies that we want to have a voice and be engaged, are outside of that digital world. This may change if mobile technology becomes more sophisticated, less costly, and more ubiquitous. But still, even if they had the technology, they may not be able to access it because of being disenfranchised in terms of literacy and education.” In this, as in a number of other technology-driven initiatives, the needs, wants, and limits of the local community take precedence.

Technology for Good

Activists and development professionals are leveraging technology to support their work in innovative, effective ways, and developing technologies that both support the work of transformational change and transform communities directly.

Video streams and recordings capture interactions with the police. New secure communications apps make it safer for people to stay in contact. The use of drones is moving beyond visual capture in social impact and is being tested for development efforts. Mobile technologies and apps and have been tested and used for services throughout the developing world for nearly every aspect of daily living, including financial services, civic participation, health outcomes, personal safety, and farming, among others. Virtual reality and augmented reality are being explored for uses in health care and trauma recovery. Blockchain is being tested for enhanced development outcomes. And data-driven interventions and open governance initiatives are being refined and tested for similar outcomes.

The tech-for-good sectors, often aligning with the civic tech field, are pushing the discourse around and development of technologies in which transformation is enhanced or precipitated by technology-driven interventions. Organizations such as WITNESS, Tactical Tech, and the Engine Room have been studying and building technology for good interventions in the realm of rights, while UNICEF Innovation and Medic Mobile, among others, are doing so in the development and humanitarian contexts.

Technology itself is not an end. An app is not necessarily the solution to every problem in every part of the world. Key to leveraging technology in this context is to have the community lead its design and application, and not vice versa. Technology-led interventions may lead in the short term to large-scale impact, but they don’t lead to sustainable, embedded impact that transforms a community unless community voice in design and application is a crucial element.

Information Access

Innovations in the landscape of media creation and distribution have transformed the way people across the world exchange and access information. Journalists have also expanded their ability to listen (through data) to better understand their audiences. Using these tools well is difficult, and using them ethically poses challenges, but they’ve given journalism the potential to drastically increase its impact, and by decreasing costs of production and distribution, they have fueled the rise of independent journalism.

In the context of transformational change, this is especially interesting when it comes to independent journalism that intentionally aims at social impact. For example, the Solutions Journalism Network is upending the traditional notion of investigative reporting by adopting a rigorous approach to reporting, while also enabling their reporters to push past the end of a story to look for solutions. ProPublica conducts investigative journalism for the public interest, and has pioneered new models for augmenting the impact of a story, sometimes working in collaboration with other news organizations by sharing data and collectively publishing investigative stories that reveal larger patterns and increase reach.

Similarly, the Center for Investigative Reporting, the Under-Told Stories Project, and News Deeply, among others, are bringing new forms of reporting on solutions to the sector, enhancing the way transformational change leaders can both access and deploy information.

Intermediary Support

There exists a group of organizations set up to provide support to other organizations and movements that are on the frontlines. Support comes in many forms. From convening bodies to organizations that make toolkits that help people do their work. There is a more active role than straight philanthropy, which provides support through financing and grants.

Just Associates, for example, takes an active role in helping to support and directly engage with movements aimed at empowering women. Its experience and network helps emerging and existing feminist movements access the information and resources they need to grow and succeed. They use toolkits, videos and other learning tools to promote the development of grassroots movements, rather than imposing top-down ideas on what is best.

Mama Cash similarly views support as more than giving groups money. The topline work of Mama Cash is providing grants to groups led by women, girls and trans people. The deeper support comes from its “accompaniment” initiative to link directly with the groups they financially support through the collection of knowledge and fostering connections. It hosts convenings and enables grantees to attend meetings related to their work. Mama Cash also assists movements as they develop strategic plans, helping them plan how to engage with media and other donors to ensure their work can grow and achieve its goals. “[Mama Cash] helped us intervene and participate in feminist spaces,” say representatives from Mujeres del Sur, a Peruvian sex workers’ organization. “These spaces are extremely important for us. They help us link up with feminist organizations, understand problems from another perspective, insert ourselves into their work plans, and get our issues on the agenda.”

Some support work is less involved. helps citizens and groups create petitions to reach leaders. The platform lowers the barrier to one form of activism, enabling widespread engagement and helping movements reach more potential supporters. The Opportunity Collaboration, as another example, exists to allow the three sectors of journalism, activism and media to come and retreat together. It provides an opportunity for discussion that does not exist between the groups and facilitates the development of collaboration across and within each of the sectors. Run for Something and other groups that emerged following the 2016 U.S. presidential elections are further examples of developing tools that enable action.

All types of movement support are designed to reduce the friction that can prevent or stop movements from taking shape. They may not catalyze transformational change in and of themselves, but the work is made smoother for their existence.