From the bottom up

( – promoted by buhdydharma )

I’ve recently had some experiences in my professional life that validate the “bottom up” approach to change. I thought I’d share them with all of you to see if there are any threads of learning in them that can help us understand the ways we can work together to grow a movement.

Back in 2000, the non-profit I work for was asked to be part of a coalition with St. Paul Public Schools to write a federal Safe Schools/Healthy Students grant proposal. Our coalition was funded for three years. The role of our organization was to have staff on-site in three middle schools to work with students who are chronically suspended for fighting and/or bad behavior. We all know that sending these kids home for a few days relieves the school of safety concerns, but does little or nothing to address the behavior. In fact, for alot of students, getting a few days off from school is a reward. Our staff were there to work one-on-one with these students when they came back to school to provide structure and accountability – but also support and guidance.

The problem with this kind of coalition is that it dies once the three years of funding are up. That’s exactly what happened here. But the schools in which we participated were especially supportive of the service we had provided over those years and desperately wanted us to continue. After long and hard discussion (its difficult to continue work when you don’t know where the funding will come from), we scaled back to two schools and “hit the streets” to fund raise for these efforts.


Several times we had internal discussions about trying to get the school administration on board with all this. We even had one meeting at district headquarters, but they showed no interest at all. You see, this problem is one that is felt by the people in the school buildings. Folks at the administrative level don’t feel it – so their default (as former teachers) is to focus change efforts on curriculum and classroom staffing.

Over the years, we did expand the program into 4 schools as principals came to us asking for help. We eventually saw that if this idea for improving school climate was going to get anywhere, it would be by building up enough “steam” from the bottom up until school administration could no longer ignore the movement.

About a month ago, we received confirmation that this strategy was working. I got a call from the Director of Middle Schools asking to meet with us to talk about expanding the program into one of our middle schools that is seriously failing on many levels. And, what do you know, they came up with the funding for the position as well!!! Seems the Director, who meets regularly with the middle school principals, kept hearing about what a difference our staff make in the climate of the school buildings. And she was finally convinced…by them…that she needed to work with us.

Without going into alot of detail, we’ve had the same experience with the City after working with the library across the street from our office to help them work more effectively with kids who were causing disruptions in the library. The change was so dramatic that first of all, library administration asked us to work with two other libraries where things had gotten almost completely out of control. After a summer of tremendous success with these efforts, I got a call last week from a woman in the Mayor’s office saying she’d heard about what we’d done and wants to explore other partnerships with us.

I am convinced that if we had started at the top with school administration or the Mayor’s office with efforts to engage them in what we wanted to do, we would have been received with a pat on the back as we were shown the door. But working from the bottom up and getting results spoke more loudly than we ever could have with words alone.

Some of the things I learned from this experience are:

1. It takes patience. Doing the work in the trenches to produce results takes commitment over time. That means that you have to REALLY believe in what you’re doing to maintain the level of commitment that’s necessary.

2. The focus must always be on the mission and/or goals. Its very easy for individual egos to get involved in the need for recognition. But once that happens, the movement gets lost.

3. People that feel the problem on a daily basis are the best allies.

4. Relationships that can be used to identify common goals and deal with the inevitable conflicts that arise between people/institutions are critical.

5. There will always be those who are threatened by success. Paying attention when that happens without getting involved in the inevitable power struggles that ensue is perhaps the most difficult skill to learn (and one, by the way, that I struggle with almost daily).

There’s probably a lot more, but those are the ones I can think of right now.  

I’m thinking about all this as I contemplate our situation from a broad political and cultural standpoint. Most of us are acutely aware of the fact that this election will not produce the results we’re look for. So I keep going back to Buhdy’s work on The Maddow Movement. And I wonder if we set our sights more often on things we could accomplish down here at the bottom, we might eventually get a reputation for success that would be hard to ignore.


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  1. its all just another way of talking about ripples again.

    • Alma on August 27, 2008 at 19:34

    The mediation technique my kids middle school implemented when my kids were there.  A few of the kids were trained to be mediators, and the kids could either go to detention, or mediation.  It really seemed to help some of the kids stay out of future trouble.

    The other thing it reminds me of is when our city was going to stop having fireworks on the 4th of July, because of some problems.  My daughter, then in 5th grade, when to the city council meetings, and spoke for keeping the fireworks.  Some of the city council members tried to bribe her with new playground equipment instead.  My daughter didn’t fall for that and told them if there were problems maybe they should fix them, and handed out printouts of ideas she had come up with to solve the problems.  She then got a petition going, and a few others went to the meetings and spoke out too.  The city reinstated the fireworks, and made my Katie the Grand Marshall of the parade.  She made the local Newshearld paper while she was doing it, and was also the front page picture for the year end in review that December.

    So going after things, and accomplishing them are doable.  It helps if you have a cute kid in the lead, but not mandatory.  Katie didn’t leave them a way out.  She came prepared with answers to all of their problems.

    Funny thing…Now she hates fireworks, and wishes they didn’t have them.

    • Viet71 on August 27, 2008 at 23:21

    37 years ago, I observed that problems at the grunt level were solved by grunts.  Higher-ups thrashed around and wasted money, but got medals and promotions.

    The thing I worry about re bottom-up changes is dispersal of force.

    I’d rather see the netroots unite to defeat one dem — Nancy Pelosi — than to spread their support among various dem candidates.

  2. One of your best.

    Change can only come from the bottom up. It takes hard work, focus, connection and most of all commitment.

    Keep up the great work NL. Keep fighting the fight.

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