Thursday Sep 21

REVIEW OF Roots to Power: A Manual for Grassroots Organizing, Third Edition By Lee Staples: Fundamental and Critical Organizing Skills for Today’s Troubled Times

Lee Staples provides one of the most comprehensive and relevant step-by-step guides to grassroots organizing in the third edition of his book. Staples writes with clarity and passion to motivate and equip contemporary organizers to address today’s critical and pressing organizing issues, including globalization, climate change, immigration, inequality, gentrification, etc. In the preface, Staples states that “this is a how-to-do-it book about grassroots organizing” (p.ixx). His goal is “to put more tools into the hands of more people to organize for more power to achieve more progressive social change” (p. xxiii). Each chapter provides guidance, tools, and updated current examples in this third edition of Staples long-standing book on grassroots organizing.

Staples structures the majority of the book into 6 chapters focusing on key organizing methods, strategies and tactics, which flow directly from his “own experience as an organizer, supervisor, staff director, trainer, educator, evaluator, consultant and coach” (p. ixx). The examples in each of these chapters demonstrate the breadth and depth of Staples experiences and his work collaborating with other organizers in a broad and impressive range of fields, including community development, immigration, health, mental health, environmental justice, organized labor, education…. etc. For Chapter 7, Staples invited authors with expertise in specific organizing types, methods and tactics to contribute their knowledge and experience.

Chapters 1 and 2 focus on his basic organizing philosophy and goals, and the role of the organizer. Staples defines grassroots organizing as “a bottom-up philosophical approach to social change, not simply a method to achieve it” (p. 2). He explains the six arenas in which grassroots organizing is typically concentrated (e.g., turf, faith-based, communities of identity, issues, shared experience, and work related) and divides the organizing field into two routes to power: social action and community development. These two distinctions of social action and community development offer clean and concise ways to frame grassroots organizing; however, contemporary community practitioners have recognized that organizing is more complex. In the most recent edition of The Handbook of Community Practice, 2nd edition, the editors, including myself, present eight models of community practice in which a community organizer can work to advance social change (Weil, Reisch, & Ohmer, 2012). Thus, it would have been helpful to demonstrate how grassroots organizing could play a role in these more contemporary and current models of practice in Staples’ updated edition. The idea of power is also presented more linearly – assuming people in power will not give up power rather than presenting how to constructively and thoroughly analyze power to determine the appropriate organizing strategy. However, Staples “10 tools for taking power” can be used by organizers no matter what their view of power is (e.g., framing persuasive arguments, popular education, and using, creating or changing laws, policies and processes). These 10 tools are very relevant and important for today’s organizers. The role of the organizer as described in chapter 2 could apply to all eight models of contemporary community practice, including the organizers underlying principles (e.g., building relationships) and the role of insider vs. outsider organizer positions.

Chapters 3 and 4 provide detailed tools and techniques for organizing, including how to structure organizing campaigns, the process of organizing, and selecting issues and strategies. The example in Chapter 3 clearly illustrates how a coalition of community, labor and faith-based organizations was organized and how the coalition worked together to win passage the highest minimum wage and strongest earned paid sick time laws in the U.S. I found the discussion of how to form an organizing committee particularly helpful, including how to deal with gatekeepers and opinion leaders. The recruitment section provides well thought out and tried
and true strategies for engaging people in your organizing effort. Chapter 4 provides a series of critical questions organizers should ask when identifying organizing issues, as well as strategies for cutting and framing issues, including how to use a SWOT analysis. The example clearly illustrates how parents identified and organized to advance full-day kindergarten. The tables are very useful in illustrating the driving forces behind the issue of full-day kindergarten, as well an analysis of potential supporters and detractors and the SWOT analysis of the issue.

Chapters 5 and 6 focus on creating and implementing action plans, and organizational development and maintenance. Staples defines organizing tactics as “the latent leverage of strategies, tools, and handles by bringing a degree of pressure to bear on the Action Group’s target(s)” (p. 143). A discussion of how to develop sound tactical decisions is followed by a description of Staples’ Seven D’s of Defense to counter any defense that an adversary might employ: Deflecting, Delaying, Deceiving, Dividing, Denying, Discrediting, and Destroying (p. 182). Timing, recruitment, preparation and assessment in developing and implementing action plans are also discussed in great detail. Chapter 5 includes another very helpful example of how to use tactics and counter-tactics in organizing campaigns by illustrating ACORN’s campaign against household
finance and predatory lending. Chapter 6 demonstrates the importance of developing and maintaining the organizations that conduct grassroots organizing. This is an essential chapter because without a strong and capable organization, grassroots organizing campaigns cannot be successfully implemented nor sustained. Staples provides guidance on how to broaden an organization’s base, develop strong leadership and staffing, and the importance of both the product and process of organizing. There is also a very detailed and helpful section on how to conduct successful meetings. A great example is included in Chapter 6 demonstrating how a mental health advocacy and service organization developed and implemented successful organizing events that helped them accomplish their goals and build a “more powerful and effective organization” (p.255).

The first six chapters of Staples book would be complete in and of themselves, so Chapter 7 on “Nuts and Bolts, Some Do’s and Don’ts” is a huge bonus and wonderful addition to this book! Staples invited experts in various areas of organizing to contribute their knowledge and experience to help organizers address crucial issues and develop successful organizing initiatives. Chapter 7 includes articles on how to develop sponsoring committees using methods developed by Saul Alinsky and the Industrial Areas Foundation; strategies for conducting one-on-one meetings developed by the PICO National Network; using social media; forming coalitions; popular education and participatory action research; research for organizing; the law as leverage; public policy campaigns; the media; community-labor coalitions; negotiation; fundraising; and voting and electoral politics. Staples argues that all of these tools are critical and should “contribute toward and complement the building of an organizational power base” and that together “they can help hold together the engine of a powerful people’s machine fueled by the energy of collective action” (p. 272).

I have personally helped to develop a model of organizing called consensus organizing which is more closely aligned with community development. However, I strongly believe that organizers must be equipped to utilize a range of methods, approaches, strategies and tactics. Organizers must thoroughly analyze the issues, power dynamics, potential supporters and detractors, as well as the wider economic, political and social context to select organizing strategies and approaches that have the most potential for success. Lee Staples provides a comprehensive manual for grassroots organizers that every organizer and community organizing student should have in their box of tools! I am looking forward to using the new edition in my community organizing classes and training programs. We need more books like Roots to Power to equip organizers to fight the battles we face in today’s world.

Roots of Power is available from Praeger at

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