What Is a Grassroots Movement? Definition and Examples

US capitol building with grass plant in the foreground symbolizing grassroot political movements.
US capitol building with grass plant in the foreground symbolizing grassroot political movements. iStock/Getty Images Plus

A grassroots movement is an organized effort undertaken by groups of individuals in a given geographic area to bring about changes in social policy or influence an outcome, often of a political issue. By harnessing spontaneous support at local levels to bring about policy changes at local, regional, national, or international levels, grassroots movements are considered bottom-up, rather than top-down efforts—much in the way grass grows. Today, grassroots movements work to influence social issues such as racial injustice, reproductive rights, climate change, income inequality, or affordable housing.

Key Takeaways: Grassroots Movements

  • Grassroots movements organize and mobilize individuals to take actions intended to influence social and political issues.
  • Undertaken at local, regional, national, and international levels, grassroots movements are considered bottom-up, rather than top-down efforts.
  • Often growing from “kitchen table discussions” to global networks, grassroots movements can influence issues ranging from racism and voting rights to abortion and climate change. 

Grassroots Definition and Strategies

More specifically, grassroots movements are self-organized local-level efforts to encourage other members of the community to participate in activities, such as fundraising and voter registration drives, in support of a given social, economic, or political cause. Rather than money, the power of grassroots movements comes from their ability to harness the effort of ordinary people whose shared sense of justice and knowledge about a given issue can be used to influence policymakers. In growing the seeds of an idea into a flourishing cause through increased participation in the political process, grassroots movements are often said to create democracy—government by the people.

Drawing their power from ordinary people, grassroots movements need large numbers of participants. By making phone calls, sending emails, posting on social media internet sites, and putting up posters, an activist group of just five people can contact 5,000 people in a week. Grassroots organizations increase their size and power by recruiting and training new volunteer leaders and activists.

The leaders of grassroots campaigns must master a wide variety of skills, such as public relations, developing flyers, writing letters to the editor and letters to lawmakers, and posting on social media networks. Leaders eventually become organizers, who are responsible for choosing issues, running campaigns, and training new leaders.

Grassroots Strategies

Grassroots campaigns succeed by raising money, increasing public awareness, building name recognition, and increasing political participation. To accomplish these goals, grassroots leaders employ a wide variety of strategies including:

  • Raising money to pay for political advertising
  • Putting up posters, handing out flyers, and going door-to-door
  • Conducting letter-writing, phone-calling, and emailing campaigns
  • Gathering signatures for petitions
  • Holding get out the vote activities and helping people get to polling places
  • Organizing larger rallies and marches
  • Posting information on online social media networks

Over the last decade, the prominence of online social media networks in grassroots activism has skyrocketed. Online apps such as Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Vine provide grassroots movements with eager audiences for their causes. The social media technique of hashtags (#) has become an especially effective way of grouping postings from across the network together to present unifying messages. Two of the most influential recent hashtag campaigns were the #MeToo movement in response to allegations of sexual assault and abuse against prominent entertainment industry figures, and the #BlackLivesMatter movement in response to the killing of unarmed Black suspects by White police officers.

Examples

Since the early 20th century, grassroots movements have been commonplace in both the United States and in other countries. Notable examples of prominent grassroots campaigns include aspects of the American civil rights movement of the 1960s, the East German peace movement of the 1980s, and the 1988 political uprising in Myanmar. Some other examples include:

Women’s Suffrage

One of the modern world’s defining grassroots movements, the women’s suffrage campaign lobbied for women’s right to vote, a victory it won in 1920 with the enactment of the 20th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Like all great grassroots movements, women’s suffrage had charismatic leaders, such as Inez Milholland Boissevain who, riding on a snow-white horse, became the iconic image for the major suffrage march in Washington, D.C., on March 3, 1913. At its height, the movement had over 2 million members who helped stage massive parades of as many as 20,000 women.

Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD)

Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) volunteer holds up picture posters of drunk driving victims during a 20th anniversary rally outside the U.S. Capitol, September 6, 2000.
Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) volunteer holds up picture posters of drunk driving victims during a 20th anniversary rally outside the U.S. Capitol, September 6, 2000. Michael Smith/Newsmakers/Getty Images

Founded in 1980 by Candy Lightner, whose 13-year-old daughter was killed by a drunk driver, MADD works to raise awareness about drunk driving and to strengthen drunk driving laws. From a handful of similarly grieving mothers in California, MADD soon grew to several hundred chapters across North America. By 1982, more stringent DUI laws had been enacted in 24 states. Just a year later, at least 129 new DUI laws had taken effect. Later in 1983, MADD succeeded in getting the legal drinking age effectively raised to 21 nationwide, when President Ronald Reagan signed the Uniform Drinking Age Act into law. In 2000, after years of lobbying, President Bill Clinton signed legislation lowering the legal blood alcohol level in the U.S. from .12 to .08. Today, the annual number of drunk driving deaths has decreased by over 50% and MADD stands as one of the largest and most successful grassroots movements in recent history.

Me Too

The Me Too movement is a grassroots effort to combat sexual abuse and harassment. Organized mainly through social media under the #MeToo hashtag, the movement was started in 2006 by American sexual harassment survivor and social activist Tarana Burke. Me Too rose to prominence both online and in traditional media in 2017, after several well-known female celebrities shared their personal experiences with sexual harassment in the entertainment industry. Since 2017, the Me Too movement has served as a source of understanding, solidarity, and healing for women from all walks of life who have been the victims of sexual harassment, typically perpetrated by their male colleagues in workplace or academic settings.   

Love Wins

Arising after the 2015 U.S. Supreme Court’s 5-4 Obergefell v. Hodges ruling legalizing same-sex marriage nationwide, and organized under the social media hashtag #LoveWins, this grassroots campaign mustered vast new support for the LGBTQ community and the overarching cause of gay rights. Moments after the ruling, President Barack Obama tweeted his praise. The response was so great that Twitter created two gay pride emojis that appeared whenever people used the hashtag #LoveWins. At one point, Twitter reported getting over 20,000 supportive #LoveWins tweets per minute, including 6.2 million tweets in the first four hours after the Obergefell v. Hodges ruling.

Bernie Sanders 2016 Presidential Campaign

On May 26, 2015, United States Senator Bernie Sanders announced his 2016 presidential campaign based on a platform of reducing income inequality by raising taxes on the wealthy, guaranteeing tuition-free college, and creating a single-payer healthcare system. Lacking the resources needed for a traditional presidential campaign, Sanders turned to the grassroots efforts of organizers across the nation. Inspired by Sanders’ vision, a network of millions of passionate volunteers succeeded in elevating the campaign to challenge Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton, before ultimately losing the nomination. The Sanders grassroots campaign collected contributions averaging $27 from more than 7 million people, exceeding the previous individual contribution record set by Barack Obama's 2008 campaign.

Podemos (Spain)

Translated as “we can” in English, Podemos is a grassroots protest movement dedicated to reforming the political and economic system in Spain. Organized in 2014, Podemos’ stated goals are to heal the economy, promote individual liberty, equality, and fraternity, redefine sovereignty, and recover agricultural land from exploitive industries. A few of their most notable demands include a universal basic income, higher corporate taxes, constitutional reforms, and reduction of fossil fuel consumption. Since gaining more than 50,000 members in its first 24 hours of existence, Podemos boasted more than 170,000 official members in 2015 and stood as Spain’s second-largest political party.

Sovereign Union (Australia)

Sovereign Union is a grassroots coalition of First Nations Indigenous peoples from communities across Australia and their supporters. Organized in 1999, Sovereign Union seeks freedom from colonial bondage in the form of a treaty restoring the original sovereignty of Australia’s indigenous Aboriginal peoples. Having never officially surrendered the sovereignty taken from them during the British colonization of Australia, the continent’s Indigenous peoples continue to seek the right to live true to their traditional culture. In January 2017, a proclamation of Aboriginal sovereignty spelled out the Indigenous peoples’ rights in law and their demands for sovereignty within Australia. As of 2020, however, no treaties between the Australian government and the Indigenous peoples had been enacted.

Sources and Further Reading