In an age of increasingly consolidated media, where local papers and television stations increasingly rely on centrally-produced reports of broader interest, it can very easily seem that all the “real” action only occurs on a national stage. But look closer at the issues that get taken up by the mainstream media – state immigration laws and local sherrifs gone wild, state, and even municipalities voting on gay marriage rights; nutcase congresspeople spouting off in embarassing ways. The national hasn’t eliminated the local – the local has become the national.
But unfortunately, we increasingly have big, well-funded groups that may be wise on the national scene, fielding spokespeople and star-studded galas, but turn out to be woefully ineffective on the local level. There’s something a bit backwards about this, as local change not only is more obtainable, but can also drive the national dialogue and have a viral effect. We tend to think of iconic events, like the March on Washington in 1964 for the civil rights movement, and forget about the thousands of freedom riders, sit-ins, local resolutions and petitions, and countless smaller actions that made that defining moment possible.
Instead of starting nationally, and then “parachuting in” to try to affect local issues, it’s better to start local and build from there. Forge alliances with like-minded groups in other areas – it’s the grassroots knowledge and involvement in a community that can make the difference between an effective campaign and a failure that plays well nationally, but meets rejection locally.
I’m not about to name names (and risk making enemies) here, but I’m sure you can think of some recent political campaigns, for instance, that successfully used small-scale, local organization and independent cells to defeat an established, “expert” (read: Washington-based) opposition. I’m sure you can think of some states that have enacted, with little advance fanfare, laws that make a big difference for the LGBT community, on the stregnth of state and local groups. And I’m sure you can think of states and localities that pointedly havent, after attention-hungry national groups jumped into the fray with lots of money and media, and little local know-how.
It’s those local battles that build the possibility for broader acheievement. Even those with a hunger for the spotlight would do well to remember that – few people who have changed a nation have emerged like Athena from the crown of a prestigious, full-grown national organization. The Kings, the Gandhis, the Lincolns, the Harvey Milks – all started with what they could do in their own backyard. If what you’re doing is good, and the way you’re doing it is effective, the political spotlight will eventually find you.