GRASSROOTS ADVOCACY: "But do they really care?"

June 2024

I’m a talker. To horror of family and friends, I’m the type of person who will chat the entirety of a cross-country flight if you’re up for it. (I’ll also leave you in peace to watch a movie or sleep if you prefer). 

Sure, sometimes chatting with a stranger means just exchanging pleasantries, but 9 times out of 10, what some dismiss as small talk actually opens the door to a meaningful conversation – which is precisely what happened between me and a nurse at a recent medical appointment in Texas.

While checking my height and weight, we remarked on the weather and the waiting room. As a gizmo on my finger read my pulse, we talked about walking trails. While adjusting the blood pressure cuff, she asked if I ever felt down.

“Well, I do watch the news,” I quipped before thanking her for including a mental health screening in a standard checkup. What I meant as a lighthearted remark ended up opening a conversational portal.

“I don’t like watching the news,” she said while pumping up the band around my upper arm. “Hearing about politicians feels so discouraging. They don’t seem to care about people, especially if you make under certain income. I mean, do they really listen? Do they really care?”

“I have thoughts about that,” I replied cautiously as the cuff deflated, “I have a lot of thoughts. Getting people to listen – and care – is the stuff that gets me out of bed in the morning. But I don’t want to keep you – do you have time?”

“Sure do,” she said, setting down her clipboard and rolling away from the computer screen.

In short, if people talk in a way those ‘in charge’ will hear – like really hear – then, yes, they will listen,” I began. “I won’t make excuses for elected officials, but we must keep in mind they are generalists, right? Take a member of Congress in Washington, for example. They need to keep up with everything going on back here in their district. They aren’t experts on every topic – they can’t be – and there could be things they don’t know about… unless we tell them.

“And here’s where it gets complicated,” I continued, “Many of the groups I work with want you – someone who lives in a particular state or district – to use your voice on an issue because your vote matters, which means your voice matters. They may use the term ‘grassroots,’ meaning people care at the local level. Hearing from people a policy impacts is different than having policy wonks float ideas around Washington, DC or the state capitol building or anywhere else. Having grassroots support means an idea has popular support – and that matters.”

She nodded, saying “I get emails now and then telling me about problems and asking me to ‘join their movement,’ and sometimes I still get flyers in the mail.”

“These groups mean well and really want – and need – your involvement,” I replied, “But so many of them don’t have enough time or people to make the most of your voice. Let’s say, for example, I ask you to send impersonal email to an elected official - one of those platforms where you sign your name to a pre-written message that sends hundreds of identical messages to lawmakers.”

I took a breath, feeling intensity and urgency in my voice, but she seemed genuinely interested, so I kept going.

“If I’m an organization asking you to make time to support a cause on top of all you already have going on in your life, I owe it to you to make sure you understand the bigger process. As a small example, you should understand if you’re supporting a concept no one has heard of yet compared to if you’re supporting a bill that will be voted on next week. And if I’m asking you to ‘share your story,’ I should be making sure you know how to tell a powerful story in a short amount of time in a way that’s memorable and clearly connected to a proposed solution. As an organization, have I made sure that you know how important it is to follow up with your lawmakers? All of this takes time – yours and theirs – but it’s so darn important! If you chose to take action on an issue, I owe it to you to make it a good use of your time.”

“Because who has time to waste these days?” she asked rhetorically.

“Exactly. But it’s even more than that,” I said, recognizing I was fully on my soapbox and squeezing in one more thought before stepping back down, “if an organization doesn’t prepare you as a grassroots advocate, they are setting you up for frustration. If they don’t make sure you know the full process, you may lose faith in the system altogether. If they let you down, you may never want to use your voice again and that’s exactly the opposite of what our country needs right now.”

I paused as those last words hung heavy in the air.

“If you took my blood pressure again we’d get awfully different numbers,” I joked, feeling sheepish for bringing the health of our entire democracy into our small exam room.

Turns out, thoughts about democracy were already there. It was my turn to listen as she shared a powerful story about how officials had taken the only house her grandmother had ever known by eminent domain. She told me about the incredible stress the entire process caused her grandmother, who suffered several strokes that she – a practiced nurse – suspected wouldn’t have otherwise happened.

Her tone shifted between exasperation, disappointment, and anger as she outlined how poorly the officials and agencies involved handled the matter.

“They just sent letters,” she exclaimed, “when their offices are one mile away! Why not come down – one mile! – and see what’s actually happening in the community?”

“That is not how public servants should treat people,” I commiserated. “Interacting with public servants should be a two-way street – and in this case they literally didn’t go down the street to your grandmother.”

I wish I could tell you I’m making that up, friends, but I’m not. In her experience, her grandmother and other people in her neighborhood lost their homes without ever having a conversation with or hearing explanation from a public official.

I’ll end this blog the same way we ended our conversation:

It doesn’t have to be this way. And the good news is we have examples of alternatives that work.

There’s a growing movement to repair what’s broken in our current political system. An increasing number of groups support shifts that would make elected officials in our representative democracy more representative of – and accountable to – the people who elected them. That includes things like citizen assemblies (see this video from The American Public Trust's video), ranked choice voting (see Veterans for All Voters), and even a new Amendment to the Constitution (see American Promise), alongside efforts to depolarize politics starting with how we talk – and listen - to each other.

Across the 50 United States, we have examples of these approaches already working, like open primaries in Alaska, automatic voter registration as Oregon first implemented in 2016, and the annual Town Meeting Day in Vermont.

Do you have more examples of efforts to ensure elected officials do care about building a just, equitable, and peaceful future for all of us? We’d love to hear from you. Please share your thoughts in the comment form below.

- Piper Hendricks, Founder & CEO

Our June 2024 webinar shared how data can help organizations avoid common mistakes that end up frustrating grassroots efforts. You’ll find the recording on our YouTube channel.

(Photo of bright green grass with sparkling dew drops by Ochir-Erdene Oyunmedeg)

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