Enumerating the Grassroots

by Jim Britell

Summary:   Presently there is no accurate roster of grassroots groups - a proposal to inventory them.


Those who work with the eclectic aggregation called "the grassroots" encounter the practical problem that no accurate roster or data base of grassroots groups currently exists. What information we have is fragmented, obsolete or incomplete. A half dozen magazines provide information and several fax and Email alert networks can get the word out to subsets of the national grassroots community when we are faced with some national emergency like a rescission bill, but we lack a dependable system to reach out to all of them when we need to.

The task of rebuilding the environmental movement in the US can begin with an inventory of forest activist groups in this country to answer these questions:

  • Who are they?
  • What do they do?
  • How many members?
  • Who has telephone trees?
  • Who puts out a newsletter?
  • What is its distribution?
  • Who is putting out information in local newspapers?

Once every group in the country is enumerated and surveyed, and the results collected, organized and put into a usable form, the basis to begin serious grassroots organizing will exist.

A thorough national inventory of grassroots groups could:

  1. Ascertain the current fax and email capability of each group to determine how extensive an effort is required to provide them all with on line communication capability.

  2. Identify active telephone and letter trees to enable the narrow cast or more selective distribution of alerts to those groups most likely to respond.

  3. Cross index local newspapers to active groups to encourage letters to the editor and op-ed pieces in all the newspapers in the country. This would establish the capability to systematically rebut the misinformation routinely promulgated by weeklies in rural areas where we have been losing the information war.

  4. Identify groups within each individual congressional district willing to conduct public education, and provide them with feedback about activities and votes of their representatives.

  5. Identify the specialized interests of each individual group in order to refer relevant information and suggestions for partnerships with other groups whose interests are similar. Groups could use the inventory to send their own requests for information and assistance since many times organizations far from each other, or even in different countries, work on the same issues, face common foes and are reinventing the wheel.

  6. Provide effective support to embattled activists.If the radical right should go too far and injure an activist, the capacity would be in place to mobilize aid. Since our government is reluctant to defend their own employees who are threatened in the course of conducting routine management of government land, it is unlikely they will care much about people whose civil rights are violated over the same issues.

The methodology to do the census discussed below is not just a thought experiment; it was used a few years ago in the Northwest to create a three state mailing list. The telephone surveys discussed were piloted with about 50 groups. Although the project was discontinued, the methodology seems sound enough to use as a beginning point to develop a national census, or at least provoke the basis for discussion. Material used in that effort (lists, surveys, instructions, final data base printout, etc.) are not included here but are available.

Grassroots capacity building schemes surface periodically as components of new campaigns or "forest reform" efforts , but enumerating the grassroots needs to be done for its own sake, not for the sake of any particular issue, policy, legislative vehicle, campaign or movement faction. A census or inventory of grassroots forest activist groups is a basic organizing task and an idea whose time has come. It would be relatively uncontroversial and not carry the baggage of any of the movement factions which seem, for the present, in a rare state of armistice.

A Closer Look at the Makeup of the Grassroots
The aggregation of groups that make up the grassroots forest protection movement are a crazy quilt of as many as 3000 national, regional, and independent organizations.

They include:

  • about 500 Sierra Club and 500 Audubon chapters;

  • many regional or state umbrella organizations; and

  • a host of unaffiliated local independent Forest Watch, Friends of, and local watershed groups.

  • Each group has its own unique alliances, networks, capabilities and problems, and fills a separate niche.

  • In some communities environmental centers have formed where many small groups share space and common functions.

  • Student environmental activist organizations exist on perhaps a thousand campuses, and in some high schools although I have not seen any lists below the college level.

  • Local independents at the organizational level below the nationals and regionals are a host of local independent organizations. They are organized around a forest, a single Ranger District or BLM district, or devoted to a watershed or river.

  • Fishing and religious organizations are often overlooked although recently some have been outspoken in support of the environment and are functioning just like grassroots activists.

  • "Partnerships" and "Talk and log" groups. One development causing mailing list obsolescence is the formation, in the last eighteen months, of partnerships, round tables, and watershed associations affiliated with or instigated by various levels of government. Ten have formed in my neighborhood alone. Some are little more than extractive industry fronts, but others are genuine partnerships which are producing solid results.

A few years ago one could assume that a watershed group was a pro-environmental organization, not anymore. Increasingly it could also be a local group devoted to preventing watershed improvement. At least two "watershed groups" in my neighborhood reflect ranching and agricultural interests exclusively and one even denies participation by environmentalists. Care must be taken to exclude front groups from grassroots activist lists.

A "grassroots group" may be anything from an organization of 50,000 with offices, staff and publishing operations, to a tiny watershed group of two people. Its very diversity gives it strength through redundancy.

Enumerating Grassroots Groups
The logical way to approach a national enumeration is on a state by state basis because that is the way many existing lists are maintained. The actual process is somewhat more complicated than discussed below, but the following gives a general idea of the approach.

Step 1. Compile a number of current grassroots address lists used by the large organizations within each state
We can assume that among them they will contain most of the individual groups in the state. We cannot rely on any one list; in doing the project for three Northwestern states we found that typical lists contain as much as 40% error or omission of the name, address or telephone number of the group or key contacts. After several raw lists have been assembled, they can be reviewed, edited and merged into a single rough list, with the entries coded to reflect the type of organization.

The list should be compiled with standard naming and data base conventions so it can be used by any popular data base program and the final product carefully reviewed by long time local activists to be sure that no industry front groups have crept in, or other obvious mistakes or omissions have occurred. A Northwest inventory in 1992 identified 86 bona fide forest activist groups in Washington state, 107 in California and 177 in Oregon.

Step 2. Survey Groups
A list alone would not provide any information about the size, capability, or interests of the groups, so the next step would be to survey the groups to confirm the original information and determine additional information: Does the group maintain, or would it form telephone/letter trees; does it lobby; publish a newsletter; have a fax number or Email address? Current projects should be reviewed and recorded.

This survey should be more than mere data collection; it should take advantage of the contact with each organization to encourage the formation of phone and letter trees, and lobbying and responding to alerts, if this is not already happening.

Actual interviews took only about 20 minutes each during a prior effort where we piloted a telephone survey with 50 groups, but we found that a lot of time was spent tracking down group spokespersons. However once people were located there were few problems with cooperation; most were very happy to see that someone was taking an interest.

Looking Ahead
Based on trends in information processing and technology, the grassroots network of the future will likely be a virtual organization in cyberspace. Its currency will be information, and its location everywhere and nowhere, a collection of Email, fax, and Web Page addresses. Its leadership will be in flux, self motivated, self selecting, opportunistic and situational. Strategies and agendas will constantly be evolving and ever changing. The development of this form of organization has begun, and it appears to be a voluntary "drop in" national association. With encouragement it can grow into a national information network whose interconnected telephone and letter trees instantly and universally respond to environmental threats.

If there is a "product" foundations could pursue that would be useful to environmental activists it would be to encourage rational, low cost information links between self-supporting, independent, grassroots groups so they could freely communicate with each other. If foundations help the grassroots create the communication structure, the grassroots will know what to do with it.

©1995 Jim Britell
All rights reserved.
May not be reproduced without permission.

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