By Lindley Mease

The members of the CLIMA Fund have been supporting grassroots movements for decades. We’ve learned that ‘grassroots’ means coming from, led by, and accountable to the people most impacted by a problem, as depicted in this new infographic unpacking our learnings. Grassroots organizing has been a central strategy of almost every major social and economic transformation in world history—from ending apartheid to the recognition of Indigenous rights to women’s suffrage globally.

Yet, the term ‘grassroots’ gets thrown around loosely and it is beginning to become watered down (but not in a way that supports grass roots). Defining and understanding this term will help funders and others in civil society in supporting grassroots change, and creating our own structures of accountability.

A common misconception is that grassroots means small or local, and the idea that they could build enough power to actually tip our human communities towards justice and equity is romantic. We’ve learned differently.

With varying structures, reach, size, and scope, grassroots groups might be dozens of people rallying public support to elect public officials or hundreds of millions advancing a more sustainable way to feed people and sustain Earth’s resources. They may work within, outside, and beyond the dominant political system that makes decisions about our economies and culture.

For example, grassroots groups work beyond the system to provide direct services to communities in need or uplift alternative governance structures to support communities outside the state, especially during this pandemic moment. For example, the Landless Workers Movement (MST) in Brazil has reclaimed land the size of Massachusetts on which they sustainably produce healthy food for dispossessed peoples. They also independently govern themselves, building their own schools and providing education to hundreds of thousands of landless workers, and electing gender balanced representatives to govern each local (10-15 families), regional, state, and national decision making body. Since the spread of COVID-19, MST has converted a training center into a field hospital and is distributing 23 tons of food weekly, filling the gapping hole in public services for communities across Brazil.

Grassroots groups work inside the system to elect public officials, draft and pass policy, and secure human and environmental protections. For example, through their advocacy aimed at promoting the autonomy of Indigenous women, the Women’s Association for the Development of Sacatepéquez in Guatemala won their rights to ancestral intellectual property of Indigenous Mayan weaving designs and clothing, paving the way for Indigenous Peoples around the world to protect their collective rights to their intellectual property. As we saw at Standing Rock, Indigenous Peoples are rising up to demand – and codify – protections to land, water, and culture globally. 

And grassroots groups work outside the system to hold governments accountable, shift political will, oppose injustice, and oppose moral wrongs when the state fails to do so. For example, in Malaysia, logging and the construction of mega-dams are increasing, ignoring “Free, Prior, and Informed Consent” laws protecting the rights of Indigenous Peoples. After winning a landmark victory in the courts to punish consent violators and stop extractive industries, grassroots groups Sahabat Alam Malaysia and the Borneo Project continue to map violations to ensure protections.

What is common across these groups is that they are coming from, led by, and accountable to the people most impacted by the crises they face. In the times of COVID-19, grassroots organizing is even more important as grassroots groups are on the frontlines of filling infrastructural gaps, directly meeting the immediate needs of communities, and advocating for long term change. As funders seeking to support grassroots work shifting the status quo towards justice and ecological vitality, we can learn much from the grassroots about building accountability into our own practices. This can start with listening to grassroots voices from Kenya to Perú, from changing laws to moving cultures.

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