Greener Grassroots – Knowledge Really Is Power

One of the values that I’ve tried to live up to is to teach whatever I learn. When I understand how something works, I share that with other people, especially in politics. It’s one of the reasons I write this column on Greener Grassroots; the things I have learned to do, anyone can learn to do, and I want to make that easier on others, and perhaps shorten the learning curve.

In nearly two decades of political activism, though, I have often come up against the opposite value – the habit of keeping information closely held by just a few people. And it makes me furious.

Part of that is probably due to my naivety, and taking people at their word. For instance, if a political party is supposed to have a representative on the ground in every precinct, I take them at their word and expect to see someone recruiting to fill vacancies. But in the past I’ve encountered the strangest sort of resistance. ‘Oh, if we fill all those spots, it will take more people to make a quorum to conduct business of the party at meetings, and the meetings will be longer.’

We don’t need more boots on the ground in underserved areas, they were saying, because it makes it harder to conduct business at meetings four times a year. I can only shake my head at this logic.

So when I started the local tea party, one of the things I made sure we focused intensely on was training. We held meetings all over the county, and across the state when we were invited, to teach people how to become those grassroots political party contacts in their precincts. We brought them the applications to get on the ballot to run as their precinct chair, where that was required. We trained people to get involved in their political party’s convention cycle. We helped hundreds of people embed themselves and their values and ideas into the political process. In my county alone, the first year we held these trainings, we brought over 175 new applicants to the county wanting to serve as chairs in their precincts.

The local Republican party had no mechanism for recruiting people on this scale at the time. If you wanted to get involved and you looked them up online, you had to wade through a lot of noise to get anywhere. Meanwhile, the local Democratic party had whole training manuals available online to download, and just about everything you needed to know to join up, save an engraved invitation.

It can be difficult to find out things you need to know to be effective as an activist. There are procedures for so many things – like forms to fill out to be able to speak at public meetings, or forms and filing deadlines for running for office. And often it’s difficult to find information like where official election results are posted, or how to locate the minutes of the local school board meetings. What’s worse, the people who should be making it easy to find that information – party officials, elected officeholders – sometimes set themselves up as gatekeepers of that knowledge. They actively prevent you from discovering it, or make you jump through hoops to get it.

That’s despicable. It’s also where you can multiply your effectiveness as an activist.

You may have to struggle quite a bit to find out things you need to know. Dig out the information, and document it fully, making it easier for the people who come after you. Post it online, print it up in handouts, create a booklet to pass around; however you can disseminate that information. Make an effort to become the source for getting involved. This policy will accomplish several things:

  • You’ll gain credibility as a source for information
  • You’ll gain influence over people who turn to you for help
  • You’ll continually be renewing your knowledge as you update it and pass it on
  • You’ll become an authority on getting involved in your area
  • You’ll begin to build a local coalition of people who care about getting involved
  • You’ll shame (and alarm) the gatekeepers of this kind of information
When you start showing other people how to do things, things that nobody else is showing them, you open up their possibilities. You teach them that they can do something to make a difference in their community. You embolden them to try new avenues to make headway on issues they care about. You put tools in their hands that give them hope and purpose. You kick open doors that prevent people from becoming involved in their local area. And you make allies that may become invaluable in your own pursuits.

If knowledge really is power, and you become the source that democratizes that knowledge, you give power to the people. That’s something the gatekeepers can’t prevent, and they can’t take away.