The Backyard Revolution by T. Ambrose Desmond If you want something done right, sometimes you have to do it yourself. This is the spirit of a new wave of progressive activism exemplified in organizations like Planting Justice. This new wave can be understood as a departure from recent trends in progressive politics in our country. Throughout our nation’s history, progressives have focused most of their energy on trying to convince government to better meet the needs of the people, rather than organizing to meet those needs themselves. Progressive efforts to take matters into their own hands have been relatively small although extremely powerful when they have happened. While dozens of examples of this do-it-yourself progressivism can be recounted (Black Panther free food programs, Brown Beret free medical clinics, etc.), they have always been less popular and certainly less publicized than efforts to pressure policy makers.
I believe we are witnessing a new revival of this type of politics and I would like to offer the possibility that it may be a better use of energy than trying to influence government. I would also offer that the common pattern in grassroots movements – build power until government is willing to concede to your demands, then allow government to implement your agenda – leads to much less fundamental change than would be possible if the same movement maintained responsibility to implement its own agenda.
The key difference I am trying to convey here is between a group of people taking responsibility to do something as opposed to demanding that the government do it. I contend that the former is a much stronger position.
During the Independence Movement in India, Gandhi was a fierce advocate of do-it-yourself progressivism. He called these efforts “constructive programs” and according to Bharat Mahodaya, Director of the Institute for Gandhian Studies, he spent more than 80% of his time and energy building them. These programs were mainly focused on building local economies through growing food and spinning cloth as well as creating social harmony. While Gandhi is best known for his marches and fasts, these publicity-generating actions were always in service of his constructive programs and never focused on trying to pressure government to do more for the people. The Salt March was an extension of his desire to have an Indian-run salt economy, which had been banned by the British. His most famous fasts were a plea to the people of India to make peace with each other rather than a plea to government to make peace for them. Through his writings and his actions, it can be seen that Gandhi was focused on organizing people to build the world they wanted rather than trying to pressure the government to do it for them.
I see Planting Justice as sharing Gandhi’s focus on constructive programs. Through their main objectives of creating local food, jobs and community, Planting Justice seeks to organize people to take the responsibility upon themselves to create a better world.