In their new book “Your America,” “NOW on PBS” executive producer John Siceloff and writer Jason Maloney chronicle the stories of 12 ordinary citizens who fought for change and successfully made a difference. An excerpt.
Chapter one: The politics of empowermentHow do you get started if you want to make a difference in America?
That’s the question we asked each of the people profiled in "Your America."What’s fascinating is what we didn’t hear. These folks didn’t get their start working for political parties. Their credentials weren’t burnished in think tanks — progressive, conservative or libertarian. They weren’t on the payroll of advocacy groups. They didn’t become grassroots activists because somebody paid them or trained them to do it.
These people began working for change in their communities because they cared passionately about an issue close to their lives. Something wasn’t working, and they wanted to fix it. They became involved.All of them share a special quality that’s almost disappeared from public debate. They are authentic. They became involved because they were part of a community that was directly impacted by a problem. These folks didn’t pull into town one day and start telling people what they had to do to improve their lives. They wanted to fix things because they wanted a better world for themselves and their families and others like them. Their causes vary enormously.
Wynona Ward helps abused women. Rueben Martinez gets books to young Latinos. Diane Wilson pushes chemical companies to stop polluting. They discovered within themselvesthe capacity to make change. Each became empowered.With their actions, they help point the nation toward solutions for urgent policy issues. And that is what democracy is all about — people solving problems. Grassroots activists stand alongside the folks who get elected and make laws. Both are important.
Right now, the civic activists are especially important because many of those elected officials have let us down in the democracy department. They’re on the phone with the guys who sent them fat campaign contributions. When regular citizens dial up, their calls go to voice mail.If you have ever spoken up at a PTA meeting, or volunteered at the local library, you’ve engaged in grassroots activism. It takes all kinds. Case-in-point: Diane Wilson. She took her shrimp boat out to the bay waters where a big company was discharging toxic waste. Her plan was to sink the boat and maybe die in the process. That didn’t happen, thank goodness.
But we’re not all wired to be Diane Wilson. Many of us don’t hear that clarion call for total sacrifice. The good news is that there are lots and lots of ways to make a difference that fit right into the life you are leading today.For those who want to make change happen, what are the lessons of the civic activists profiled in "Your America"?
The first thing that leaps out is what they didn’t do. They didn’t start with banners and barricades. Protest wasn’t their thing. Each found a route to change that was built around action. Some worked within a troubled institution.
John Walsh transformed the treatment of foster care kids by working within the government system that was causing the problems. Bunny Greenhouse, as a top official at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, demanded transparency and accountability in contracting.
Others worked from the outside to make reform happen. Peggy Buryj, mother of a U.S. Army soldier killed in Iraq, pushed the army to improve its handling of casualties. Robert Moses created a program to improve the teaching of algebra to poor and minority kids, and in the process, created a national model for transforming education and investing in young people.How did they achieve success? They built movements. They knew that the power of one was only the starting point. They looked around for others who cared, and got them involved. And the involvement wasn’t simply a matter of signing a petition, or forwarding an e-mail or writing a check for twenty bucks. They called on people to give time and energy — to be active.That’s how empowerment spreads and grows. The activists showed with the power of example that each person can make change happen. Each successful grassroots movement tilts the country toward a healthy future and away from partisan bickering and cynicism.
Who exactly did these grassroots activists recruit for their movements? They started with people in exactly the same situation. Lucas Benitez, immigrant tomato picker, got other tomato pickers to join the effort to get a better wage. But Benitez didn’t stop there. He wanted people who could put pressure on the fast-food companies that bought the tomatoes.
He found some unlikely allies: students and religious groups. The students created the “Boot the Bell” boycott movement against Taco Bell. The religious leaders condemned Taco Bell for exploiting workers and chipped away at its brand image. Moral leadership, consumer power and worker solidarity — together, they made a very effective movement.Other grassroots activists found common ground across divisions of politics and ideology. Lynn and Devonna Owens wanted to save family cattle ranches in the high valleys of Montana. But they knew that ranchers were no match for the real estate developers. They needed allies.
So Lynn and Devonna, ranchers who were the children of ranchers, made common ground with their ancient enemies, the environmentalists, in order to preserve their way of life. Ranchers, environmentalists and wealthy vacation homeowners joined together. They all valued the open range, even though their motivations varied. Some wanted a great view, some wanted a place to graze cattle and some wanted a habitat for predators.For grassroots activists, how do you measure success? The goal for the Owenses was to save the ranching way of life in Madison Valley. Success was all about keeping the developers at bay. Others found success in one community but didn’t stop there. They wanted to scale up their activism and reach more people.
After Lucas Benitez and the Coalition of Immokalee Workers triumphed over Taco Bell, they turned their attention to other fast-food companies. They’ve won against McDonald’s and now they’re setting up for new battles.Bill Graham is using the power of example to spread the word. He turned around the town of Scottsburg, Indiana, by focusing on infrastructure for the digital age. Now he’s on the road all over the country showing other communities how to do the same thing. John Walsh built the Foster Children’s Project to speed troubled children through foster care. Now his project is serving as a “best practices” example for other communities.Not everyone will hear the call to change the entire system, as John Walsh did. There are people who pitch in to help as after-school tutors or coaches for sports teams. Others volunteer as mentors for troubled kids.Service and volunteerism, powered by altruism, often achieve good things. But here lies an important distinction about how change happens. At its core, grassroots activism is not about altruism and helping others. It’s about gaining power to help yourself and others like you to make a better world for all.
The folks you’ll read about in "Your America" told us they didn’t become activists just to plug holes in an ever-more-leaky safety net. They went to work to help build a better way of doing things, to create an America where ideas, priorities and solutions percolate up from the grassroots.The people profiled in "Your America" are among the hundreds of local heroes whose stories have appeared on the public television show "NOW on PBS." For the dozen people who appear in the book, we (the co-authors) went across the country to do new interviews and investigate exactly how they had achieved success. We also asked NOW’s producers and reporters to write first-person accounts about their encounters with these remarkable people. You’ll find their verbal snapshots at the end of each chapter.As we did our research, two themes emerged. These people embraced activism because of a deeply felt need, a personal mission. And they were determined to scale up because they wanted to help lots of people
Wynona Ward didn’t want anybody to endure the abuse that she had suffered. She found a way to help abused women with legal advice and transportation to and from court. She could have kept her activism small scale and personal, driving around in her SUV and working by herself. But she wanted to help more and more women.
She built Have Justice Will Travel into a major force in Vermont and a national example. She spends half her time fundraising and now has a budget that supports five full-time lawyers. Her group has been able to assist thousands of women.Katie Redford, as a novice lawyer, came up with a new legal approach to go after an American corporation doing business in Burma, a country with one of the worst human rights records in the world. When she won tens of millions of dollars for Burmese villagers, lots of folks would have stopped right there. After all, it took Redford years and years of work and endless legal maneuvering to prevail.
But for Katie Redford, that was only the beginning. She and her husband, Ka Hsaw Wa, continued to expand the work of their group EarthRights International, and now have an annual budget of over $1 million. They are using the power of the law to stop unsavory conduct by U.S. corporations all over the world.Jackie Thrasher’s successful run for the Arizona House of Representatives is an example of activism on a national scale. Her victory wouldn’t have happened without years of groundwork to get the money out of politics with a system of publicly financed, clean elections.
There are organizations that promote clean elections all over the country, and they have been prime movers in the successful referendum campaigns in Arizona, Maine and elsewhere. Thrasher and other citizen legislators who have been the beneficiaries of clean elections are the muscle that keeps the movement alive and growing. Thrasher divides her time between teaching middle school and debating laws in the state capitol. You couldn’t invent a better example of a grassroots activist. She and the dozens of others who won by running clean show all the good things that happen when the torrent of private money is eliminated from elections.How did Robert Moses scale up his work helping poor and minority students learn algebra? As a young man, Moses worked all over the South as an organizer in the civil rights movement. But decades later, when he created the math program, he started out slowly. He spent years in a couple of schools, fine-tuning the approach. He networked with teachers and administrators and parent organizations and educational foundations. With these groups, he created a broad, diverse base for the movement.
From the beginning, Moses’s aim was to make the Algebra Project into a national movement. He laid the groundwork by training facilitators and teachers and securing funding sources. When he had all the parts in place, he rolled out the program across the country. The growth has been explosive. The Algebra Project went from helping a handful of schoolkids to working with over 10,000 children a year. And Moses says that’s only the beginning.
You have to hand it to Moses — the man knows how to take a good idea and make it grow. But there’s another lesson at the very core of Moses’ approach. He has always believed in the transformative power of the individual. He doesn’t look at students as “units” that passively accept new information. He believes change only happens through empowerment. In his view. students first have to embrace their own ability to make a difference. He is creating a “culture of change” where students themselves push for more learning, more resources and more opportunities.For half a century, Robert Moses has helped people discover that empowerment is the key to citizenship in our democracy. He is pushing the country toward a better place, and at the same time he is creating a new generation of activists and co-creators of democracy.
It’s an approach that can work for all of us, in communities across the nation. The local heroes of "Your America" point the way forward.
Excerpted from "Your America: Democracy's Local Heroes" by John Siceloff and Jason Maloney. Copyright (c) 2008. Reprinted with permission from Palgrave Macmillan.