A new paradigm is emerging about US politics. It is rooted in understanding that transformation is necessary—and that this will require the shifting and sharing of power. This vision is hardly a consensus position, even among liberal politicians. But it is coming into view—driven by organizers, activists, scholars, and others who share the goal of dismantling white supremacy and structural racism. As my colleague Felicia Wong and I detail in our recent report—titled “A New Paradigm for Justice and Democracy: Moving beyond the Twin Failures of Neoliberalism and Racial Liberalism”—today’s racial justice movement itself is converging on core values that could form the basis of a new politics rooted in freedom and liberation, repair and redress from historical harms, and material equity.
Those of us who are inspired by this vision and care deeply about achieving racial justice know that a more just economy and society are far from inevitable. Despite great strides in the mainstream narrative about racial justice, weaponizing racial backlash has become central to the right-wing agenda—and mainstream institutions and liberal political leaders continue to underestimate the very real threats it poses. At the heart of these threats is an agenda that serves a powerful few seeking to prevent a multiracial majority from governing for the common good.
Throughout US history, social movements have helped elevate a higher vision for our country, and in so doing have been part of transforming our political and economic institutions. Today, grassroots base-building organizations are doing the work of movement building, creating the conditions for this new narrative for racial justice, and delivering concrete material wins for people.
Even as federal efforts to address voting rights, the pandemic, and critically needed public investments stall in Congress, there is a lot we can learn from the base-building groups who are building sustained power—and demonstrating every day against the odds that a new politics is possible.
Base Building and Community Power
Almost every major gain in progressive policy reform has come because of ecosystems of base-building organizations and people-powered movements building the political will to enact change. From the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee launching the sit-in campaigns that advanced the civil rights movement, ACT Up bringing about investment to end the AIDS epidemic, and the United Farm Workers transforming the working conditions for immigrant workers, the disciplined work of these organizations began at the grassroots.
A base-building model of change is rooted in the understanding that politics builds on relationships at the community level. Learning and meeting local constituent needs is central to this concept. Centering community members in the work enables those most impacted by political decisions are able to affect those decisions. Base building thus advances both self-determination and democratic practice.
Today there are a growing number of base-building groups that are creating avenues for marginalized people to counter corporate, white-dominated institutions. Base-building organizations, as NPQ has noted, focus on leadership development of ordinary people into powerful agents of collective change in their communities. These organizations focus on building power with and for a particular community of people, rather than simply a focus on transactional relationships or electoral campaigns. Base building creates vehicles for people who individually may not have enough power to change their material conditions, but collectively can transform power relations.
Importantly, these grassroots organizations serve as microcosms for democracy building. As Doran Schrantz, a veteran community organizer from Minnesota, observed after the 2020 election:
[T]he majority of institutions rob us of our agency, fostering individualism, dependency, and obedience. The real reason that many grassroots leaders or union members stay involved in organizing for years is not a particular issue; it is about having power and agency, maybe for the first time.…Organizations are spaces to rehearse and practice democracy—collective action, negotiation, aligning interests, understanding power, knowing one’s social position regarding race, gender, and class, learning to be in solidarity with others who are different.
All around us there are examples of grassroots organizations doing the work to sustain movements, improve people’s lives, and transform their communities into more democratic places. The struggles happening on the ground driven by grassroots organizations offer a blueprint toward a more equitable and inclusive multiracial democracy. As Sendolo Dimanah of the Carolina Federation observes, base building is not a one-off tactic, but works in combination with other strategies such as labor organizing and electoral mobilization. As Dimanah puts it, “we need the systematic, the relational, and the scale for our people to wield the power that they need to address things, at the scale of the economy.”
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A New Politics is Possible
Over the last few years, we have seen historic examples of base-building organizations translating movement energy into power, material equity, and transformative change.
The racial justice uprisings of 2020 were the largest mobilizations in US history. Community organizations, many of which have been a part of the Black Lives Matter movement in their communities since 2014, organized to deliver policy and cultural wins that could result in concrete change after the historic protests dissipated. In Cleveland, seven years after 12-year-old Tamir Rice was killed by Cleveland police, grassroots organizations like Black Lives Matter Cleveland and the Ohio Organizing Collaborative worked together with the Rice family and others who’ve lost loved ones to police violence to pass one of the strongest police oversight initiatives in the country.
A record share of eligible voters turned out for the 2020 election. Base-building organizations are transforming the way people take part in elections. They do civic engagement work in their communities 365 days a year and translate their participation into sustained power that can deliver for people.
The New Georgia Project (NGP), a grassroots organization that works to register and engage voters in the political process, is one example. Since its founding in 2014, the NGP has registered more than 250,000 new voters, especially young people and people of color. But the NGP is not just about registering voters. Organizers in Georgia and indeed throughout the South have had success connecting people to campaigns and issues that they care about—from health care access to environmental justice.
Union organizing is on the rise. Labor organizing shifts the balance of power in the workplace and is essential to a thriving democracy where power lies in the hands of the people. While union membership has been declining for decades, today a new interest is growing in unions, with union popularity higher than it has been in over 50 years. Labor unions and worker movements have delivered improved conditions for people in the midst of crisis throughout the pandemic.
There has been a rising number of strikes and increased public attention on labor campaigns over the last two years. Several historic labor firsts have been organized, such as the Retail, Wholesale, Department Store Union’s (RWDSU) Amazon union drive in Bessemer, Alabama, and the successful union drive for the first-ever unionized staff of Starbucks in Buffalo, New York.
Building community power and centering the care economy. A strong democracy means ensuring that everyone has a voice and the freedom of self-determination, including those who are often marginalized and overlooked in our economy and society. Campaigns like Caring Across Generations are working to bring people impacted by care—family caregivers, care workers, and others—together to transform our systems of care. These are grassroots-led, multisector collaborations that shift how society thinks about community power and have deep roots in movements for racial, gender, and economic justice.
Action That Meets the Moment: Building and Sustaining Power at Scale
The push and pull of US political structures means that organizing wins are always vulnerable to reactionary forces. When hard-earned wins are thwarted, hopeful energy can be difficult to sustain. Cynicism is deeply felt, and disillusionment is real. But base-building organizations operate with a longer-time horizon than the 24/7 news cycle, laying the foundations for a new kind of politics over a period of years. Base-building approaches create lasting power to advance agendas rooted in community demands, and there are concrete steps that all of us can take to support this work.
Philanthropy has an important role to play in helping to grow and sustain these organizations. Funders should always recognize that the people closest to the problems need to be driving policy solutions. Rather than providing short-term grants with narrow policy goals and strict reporting requirements, resources should be directed to movement organizations doing work on the ground through multi-year operating grants and long-term investments. Foundations must also reckon with the racism and discrimination that persists within the nonprofit sector, and do more to fund, invest in, and support Black, Indigenous, Latinx, and AAPI-led grassroots organizations that are often overlooked and under-resourced.
From philanthropy to policymakers to nonprofit leaders to movement activists, all of us must do the work to build a multiracial democracy. There is no silver bullet solution. It is an ongoing struggle. National politics remain important, as do state and local policy. But true transformation begins at the neighborhood level—where nonprofits and movements come together—and where the long-term work necessary to build the future that the families and communities that we come from deserve and desire can occur.