Taking policy to the grassroots

For all the talk in politics about "listening to voters" and "mobilizing the grassroots," people who have worked at both the public policy and grassroots community levels know that there is a vast divide between the two worlds.

Policy decisions -- and policy wonks, no matter how good their intentions -- are often far removed from the day-to-day lives of "regular" people and the issues they face. In the fast-moving realm of politics and pundits, talking to such ordinary folks is often treated as a waste of time or, at best, a media opportunity.

From the grassroots side, even the most engaged community leaders struggle to keep track of the issues sailing through city councils, state legislatures, and the halls of Congress -- decisions which will intimately effect their lives.

The internet and blogs have begun to close the gap. In North Carolina, online activists can turn to places like NC Policy Watch to keep track of the policy debate.

But the reality is, for many ordinary folks, nothing beats a face-to-face conversation. This is a critical piece that's missing from many of the conversations about building "progressive infrastructure" -- infrastructure for who? A broad progressive movement has to go beyond the inside-the-beltway crowd, and even the "netroots" -- a growing but still very small sliver of the broad constituency that will make up any powerful progressive movement.

Progressives -- especially research, media and "idea" people -- need to find creative ways to bring their message and resources directly to the communities that will benefit most from their expertise. They should also view this as more than "outreach;" it's an opportunity to learn and enrich their own perspectives about the issues that really matter. (An example: if more progressive policy people listened to the day-to-day needs of ordinary folks, affordable child care and universal health coverage would probably be at the top of the progressive agenda.)

At the Institute for Southern Studies, we use a variety of strategies to get our investigative reports, policy research, and other information and ideas out to a broader audience: e-newsletters, print reports, community forums, this blog, etc. We also work closely with groups who we think will find our resources useful in their community work -- for example, the New Orleans Network for our Gulf Watch project.

Another group that's working to bridge the policy/community divide: the North Carolina Justice Center, an excellent policy and legal center in Raleigh, which just announced a state-wide "legislative briefing tour" in seven NC cities. The forums will talk about the 2006 budget passed in the state legislature, and what it means for the issues community people care about.

It's a good model for how policy groups can share their know-how at the community level -- and how policy groups can learn from the grassroots.