Grassroots Change
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Grassroots Health

November 19, 2010

Whatever you think of the outcome, the 2010 elections remind us of the power of the grassroots in American politics. This should not come as a surprise to the public health community:  In her 2007 book Disease Prevention as Social Change, Constance Nathanson wrote, “The strength of [the American system] lies in its citizens’ capacity for collective action.”

As we define it, a grassroots health movement is a collective effort to prevent disease or other threats to health and safety, comprised of activated citizens and organizations that support them.   Understanding and supporting grassroots movements may be the single most important thing that the public health community can do to achieve meaningful progress.

We know that grassroots health movements can build power outside of DC and the state capitols, but there are other benefits that may be less obvious.  By empowering citizens, health movements promote civic engagement and create innovative, sometimes experimental, solutions to public health problems. Grassroots movements enable diverse communities to adopt diverse solutions. Grassroots movements can educate and, if strong enough, permanently change social norms (as in the case of cigarette smoking).  Finally, grassroots movements, in public health as in politics generally, build citizen power without the money and lobbyists that are synonymous with power in the Congress and the state legislatures.

Whether in public health or other priorities, there is ample evidence that waiting for Washington to take care of us is not enough. Instead, we need to build and support powerful grassroots health movements on the issues that matter most to families and communities.