By Dudley Cocke, drafted in response to a series of meetings he facilitated in New Orleans on the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, August 29, 2006
Effective grassroots organizing around issues of social justice invariably begins small. The basic unit of such organizing is the individual discovering through experience, reflection, and study of his or her own truth of the issue, then testing and developing that truth in dialog with others who also have knowledge. Aggregate and organize this knowledge about an issue and movement for change can develop.
Such a movement can only be sustained when this grassroots process of individual and collective learning continues to inspire and shape awareness and action. Conversely, when people and their organizations lose touch with such knowledge as the shaping force of reform, the movement will begin to collapse. This philosophy of change holds that those who directly experience a problem must make up the generative base for devising and enacting the solution. Sometimes tarred as political correctness or social engineering, grassroots organizing is in fact an antidote to both.
This bottom-up philosophy of change provides a critique of some progressive art work. For example, an artist with a formidable liberal & progressive reputation has an exciting idea for a performance that addresses some aspect of social justice. Funders are attracted to the artist and his or her “cutting-edge” conception. A grant is made, and the artist begins working with the community to realize the performance. The problem, from the perspective of our philosophy of change, is that the artist’s conception is not tested and re-conceived by people in the community based on their individual and group knowledge of the issue. The project is launched some distance off the ground and eventually floats away without affecting the problem it seeks to address. It fails because those most affected, those with the problem, are not the generative base for devising and enacting solutions.