Understanding Grassroots Organizing

Grassroots organizing – organizing people at the local level – is an important part of any campaign to stop pollution.

The information in this chapter will help you get your neighbors and concerned community members to join you to protect your environment, your health, and your families. If you can keep people together, there is power in numbers!

Even when the law is on your side, you may not win in court. This could be because of many variables: judges and juries are people, which means they have unconscious biases and are responsive to social pressure, and major polluters tend to have nearly unlimited resources to fight lawsuits. Because environmental advocates are often the underdog inside the courtroom means that in addition to having a sound legal argument, you want a movement outside of the courtroom that demonstrates the need and support for the change you want.


Importance of Public Support: The Story of Curtis Flowers


Although different circumstances require different tactics, the following elements are usually necessary to achieve the most successful results:
  • A Good Lawyer
  • A Good Scientific Expert
  • A Good Organizer
  • A Dedicated Community Group with Effective Leadership


A Good Lawyer

When bringing a legal action, you want to have a lawyer that knows the kind of law that governs your issue. However, a lawyer can be a valuable ally even if you do not intend to file a lawsuit. In addition to representing your organization in court, a lawyer can help with the following:

    • Notify you of key deadlines
    • Answer questions about the permitting process
    • Assist you in developing your public comments, requesting a public hearing, or completing an open records request

Also, remember that while lawyers won’t always understand your lived experience, many will genuinely want to help you. So don’t be too discouraged if they are slow in responding to emails, or if conversations with them seem stilted or awkward.


A Good Scientific Expert

You will probably have scientific questions that are outside of a lawyer’s expertise. A good scientific expert can answer your questions and help you understand the full impact that a given facility or development may be having on the environment.

When drafting comments or waging a powerful media campaign, it is important to know the facts and have specific information about the environmental or public health consequences of increased pollution or a new facility.

A good expert should be able to offer this information and may provide information on possible alternatives to the proposal that you are challenging or standards that should be met when cleaning up pollution.


A Good Organizer and a Dedicated Community Group with Effective Leadership

The people involved are the most important part of a campaign. The EJ Green Book is a guide to environmental law, but the most successful campaigns against polluting facilities are rarely won entirely in a courtroom, and they certainly never start there.

Generally, the persuasive power of a dedicated community that uses traditional grassroots organizing techniques in addition to a legal strategy, produces the best results.


9 Steps for Grassroots Organizing

The following steps are ordered sequentially, but you should think about these steps in whichever way makes sense to you. There are many ways to approach grassroots organizing, which is an inherently creative task that involves building enough power to achieve successes that are difficult to imagine, let alone create.

What is most important is that you remain persistent, and develop a sense of confidence, strength, awareness, and togetherness that can weather the ups and downs of grassroots organizing.


1. Gather a Core Group

Tackling environmental challenges, like taking on a polluting facility, can be a lot of work. Finding a few people who share your concerns can help you get your campaign off the ground.

Gather people to help you brainstorm and strategize about how to grow your support base and get your message out to the broader public and local regulators. It will also be helpful to have emotional support as these campaigns are often filled with thankless work that can feel discouraging.

Research whether there is already a group in your area working on your issues so that you can avoid reinventing the wheel. Consider joining an existing group and proposing that they help develop and adopt your campaign. You can find a list of various environmental, social justice, and community groups in Appendix B.


2. Call a Community Meeting

If there is not an existing organization advocating for your cause, much of your early work will be educating your neighbors and concerned community members. Often the best way to do this is to call a general community meeting.

Once you have gathered people, you can introduce them to the issues of concern and elicit their help and support. Even when people are impacted by issues, getting them to engage with you can be tricky. You may want to use social media such as local Facebook groups to spread your message. Consider making flyers and passing them out or posting them around your community. You may also want to consider knocking on doors and speaking to people directly.

When you are making your first connections with community members, be sure you frame your issue in a way that demonstrates how working with you can add value to their lives. Let them know, for example, that by attending a meeting, they will learn about things that they can do to protect themselves and their community from the dangers and negative impacts caused by excess pollution. People will be much more likely to attend your meeting if they think they are going to hear information that will equip them to act.

Once you have your meeting, it is important that you give attendees concrete action items so they feel they are participating in the solution to the pollution problems. Ideally, people leave the meeting knowing exactly what they should be doing.

Be sure to collect the name and contact information of every person that attends so that you can keep a running list of your supporters. This list may come in handy when you need people to turn out for events.


3. Choose a Campaign and Be Specific

Before trying to organize the people around you, it is important that you can articulate your campaign’s exact goals. When defining your campaign, be specific about the relief you are requesting. If you state your campaign goals too broadly, people may not grasp the full depth of what you are aiming to achieve.

So, instead of broadly defining your goal to “clean up Pine Hills neighborhood,” specifically define it as “bringing the Pine Hill power plant into compliance with air quality laws.”

Similarly, people will be more motivated to work on your campaign if you have a solution to your stated problem. For example, instead of focusing your campaign on a polluting facility being a bad neighbor, focus your campaign on demanding the cleanup of a polluting facility.

It will be much easier for you to get exactly what you are looking for if you are able to specify this early on.


4. Create and Communicate a Consistent Message

Adopt and share a consistent message so that people understand what your organization does and wants. The last thing you want is for different people to be representing your interests in different ways. People consume so much information that it is easy to lose interest in a confusing message.

The entire group should create the message but there are many ways to control messaging. Although you may select one spokesperson, social media allows groups to have many messengers and mediums through which to spread their messages.

Meticulously crafting a message, and then maintaining discipline to stick to the message is crucial to ensuring your organization is consistently presenting its purpose and goal.


5. Do Your Homework

Before you begin organizing around an issue, it is crucial that you are well-informed on the issues so you can effectively communicate them to people who don’t see what you see.

Some people naturally tend to trust that big facilities are obeying the law and trying to be good neighbors. Others are skeptical about the goals of people who oppose polluting facilities. How well you communicate your ideas determines whether you are able to persuade your community.

It is important to stick to the relevant facts and to ensure your message is rooted in the truth. This will help you avoid getting trapped in a situation where you are spending time defending yourself and your group’s credibility rather than advocating for the change you hope to see.

Research all the information you can about the relevant laws and regulations so you understand the regulatory framework that the facility is operating under. The EJ Green Book contains several chapters that offer valuable information about various legal permitting frameworks and is designed to be an excellent place to start researching.

Once you have a general understanding of the regulations, speak with a member of the agency, department, or committee involved in the permitting or planning process to help you fill in the blanks. For more information, consult Accessing Public Records and Meetings and the contact information for state and federal government agencies provided in Environmental Agencies in Georgia and Appendix B.

Be honest and, if asked, transparent about your concerns when gathering information from an agency. However, you don’t have to state your position on a project — you might be able to get more information if you keep some of your feelings about the project to yourself. Approach agency employees with respect and friendliness to establish a relationship with them. They have the information that you need, so you want them to feel generous. A friendly contact who will work a little harder to help you can be very helpful for a campaign.

Most environmentally damaging projects proceed successfully because no one shows up to object at key points in the permit process where projects are the most vulnerable.

Stay aware of deadlines and opportunities for public comments or public hearings so that you do not fail to take appropriate action. Discover and set calendar reminders for all the project-specific approvals, permitting, or other decision-making process periods that an agency or developer must go through.

Pay special attention to opportunities for public involvement. Seize these opportunities when you find them and be sure to take appropriate action by submitting public comments in writing or attending public hearings to make verbal comments. Often, to lodge a formal lawsuit or other complaint, you will have to show a vested interest in the matter. This is easily established if you have been actively involved in the process. See Submitting Public Comments for more information.


6. Frame Your Issue in a Way That Motivates People to Act

Decide what makes your campaign important and distill those things into a powerful slogan or memorable image that is difficult to argue with. For example, the concise and visceral slogan Black Lives Matter conveys the many ways Black Americans are treated as if their lives matter less than other Americans. The use of the slogan correlates with a historical change in how everyday Americans understand racial justice.[4]

Consider your audience when considering how to frame your issue.

When talking to mothers about air or lead pollution, you could frame your issue in terms of the health impacts on children. When talking to business leaders, you may want to frame your issue in terms of the negative impacts that pollution has on your local economy, such as on property values.


7. Develop an Action Plan

Community building and democratic processes of understanding problems are important, but these must work in tandem with direct action. For a sample action plan, see the end of this chapter.

The best way to keep people involved is to give them clear goals that are SMART:
    • Specific
    • Measurable
    • Attainable
    • Relevant
    • Time-Based

Many well-intentioned groups fall apart after only a few meetings because people start to lose sight of what they should be doing. Ensuring your tasks are well thought out will allow you develop an action plan at your very first meeting that will help your campaign stay organized and on track. If the members of your group feel purposeful, they are likely to sustain their motivation. Action items need not be overly complex and involved. They may be as simple as typing up the minutes from the meeting, getting two people to call local leaders, gathering contact information for key officials, designing a flyer, brainstorming fundraising ideas, etc. After drafting your action plan, look it over and start delegating tasks to help advance your SMART goals.

Remember to delegate.

By developing an action plan, you will be better able to delegate tasks effectively. Remember that organizing is inherently collaborative and that no one person can take on every responsibility. Sharing that responsibility allows others to feel like they are an essential part of the group and will help keep you from feeling overwhelmed.


8. Take Care of Yourself and Each Other

Remember, the corporations and governmental institutions you are grappling with have far more resources than you do, in addition to experience weathering grassroots opposition. You will probably not be able to quickly defeat a proposed facility or bring a facility into compliance with controlling regulations. It will take time to defeat a proposal or enforce compliance, and you will likely have to cope with the frustration that comes with challenging entrenched power.

If you don’t find joy in the victories along the way, you will burn out. If you don’t take care of each other, you will fall apart. So, try to appreciate each other and each accomplishment—they are truly hard to come by.

Also, expect to take some losses. Polluting facilities are counting on you running out of steam, and hope that you give up and go away so they can do what they want to do without problems. You must be persistent and show them that you are not going anywhere until you are satisfied with the environmental protections afforded to your community.

Always remember that you can call SELC, Hummingbird, or the Turner Environmental Law Clinic if you need help, support, or even just a little motivation!


9. Act

Here are some possible action items. This list is not exhaustive, and we encourage you to be creative!

Action Items

Sample Action Plan

[1] Radley Balko, There’s Overwhelming Evidence That the Criminal Justice System Is Racist. Here’s the Proof, The Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2020/opinions/systemic-racism-police-evidence-criminal-justice-system/.

[2] In the Dark, Season 2, https://features.apmreports.org/in-the-dark/season-two/.

[3] Parker Yesko, Mississippi to pay Curtis Flowers $500,000 for his decades behind bars, APM Reports (March 2, 2021), https://www.apmreports.org/story/2021/03/02/mississippi-to-pay-curtis-flowers-500000-settlement-for-decades-behind-bars.

[4] Michael Tesler, The Floyd Protests Have Changed Public Opinion about Race and Policing. Here’s the Data, The Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2020/06/09/floyd-protests-have-changed-public-opinion-about-race-policing-heres-data/ (June 9, 2020).