Rio Grande Road Trip Part 3: Digging For The Grassroots


After the literal definition, The Oxford English dictionary defines the term grassroots as “the fundamental level; the source or origin”. This definition alone would help one understand what the idea of a “grassroots movement” is; one that draws its strength from its “source or origin”. However, the definition is then elaborated upon, with a much different implied meaning. “Polit. Used spec. to describe the rank-and-file of the electorate or of a political party.”

Rank-and-file, “belonging to the ordinary members of an organization or social group (esp. a political party or trade union), as opposed to its leaders.” Thus, by this definition, a grassroots movement is a contradictory one; a movement led by those who “aren’t leaders”. However, grassroots in the modern political landscape is often a term given to any major social movement, even those whose actions and existence are overwhelmingly structured to serve the movement’s inner elite. Are these two opposites really the legacy of the term grassroots brings to mind? When people look back on the grassroots civil rights movements of the 1960’s and 70’s, do they truly see them as no more them a militant campaign led by an intellectual core or as a series of well timed mob actions? And is it this mindset that allows political campaigns dreamed up and funded by politically minded billionaires to describe their efforts as “grassroots”? When I started this project, I wanted to get as far away from DC as possible without leaving the country, to find a place with a strong history of alleged “grassroots” efforts, where the stakes of political struggle had very real consequences on the lives of the so called “rank and file”. This desire to try to find a truer definition of grassroots organizing than the one used so often around the Beltway’s sphere of influence was one of the key driving forces behind my preliminary research of organizer networks  this summer, and is what led me to volunteer, shadow, and interview with non-profit community organizers across the Rio Grande Valley.

For the purposes of trust and confidentiality, I can’t share the specifics of much of the knowledge I was gracious enough to have gleaned from this journey, (this time!) but if there’s one thing I can say, it’s that the grassroots spirit of the United Farm Worker’s movement in the 1970’s is still very much alive in the Valley. To quote civil rights legend Ella Baker, the idea that “The movement made Martin rather than Martin making the movement.” is one many organizers both practice and preach.  Leadership is often seen as a shared responsibility; as something that is to be cultivated in all those individuals and communities affected by the goals of a movement. And this means that even as immigration debates rage in Congress that threaten the stability of the Valley, time is still made to help individuals ranging from mothers to migrants to realize their power and raise their voices to conquer everyday challenges. Thus the Valley and its organizing networks contribute to an alternative definition of grassroots than the ones that have colonized the modern political scene: “Pertaining to social and political acts carried out by a community in order to achieve a change in the life of its residents, that build webs of social ties and civicly empower residents.”