Each one of us is a grassroots advocate.
Simply put, being a grassroots advocate means that we—no matter who we are or where we are—have each other’s back, in good times and in bad.
I was reminded of this beautiful synergy when I recently sat in on a meeting of The Cameron County Project team in Emporium, PA. A small coalition of citizens who are transforming their county into a Heart & Soul Community in partnership with the Pennsylvania Humanities Council and the Orton Family Foundation, these everyday women and men—accountants, teachers, an environmental specialist, school custodian, factory laborer, nonprofit director, bank teller, school nurse, stay-at-home parents, small business owners, retirees, and others—are each a blade of hope doing their part to sow seeds and improve the lives of their friends and neighbors.
In just the few years since The Cameron County Project’s Community Heart & Soul initiative launched, they’ve connected one-on-one with over 500 of their neighbors to gather stories and taken part in 20 outreach events. Collectively, they’ve identified the local attributes that are most important to them: sense of community, nature, local economy, arts and culture, accessibility, and safety.
According to The Cameron County Project’s leader Jessica Herzing, at the very top of this list are the genuine, kind people who live in this rural area of The PA Wilds. “We were all surprised at the amount of people we didn’t know that live here,” she said. “We have about 4600 residents, and you feel like you know everyone, but even in a small county, that isn’t true. There are demographics here that are surprisingly wonderful!”
And more recently, The Cameron County Project pivoted down yet another new pathway, adapting to more immediate needs by launching a Facebook touch-point effort called the “Cameron County – Covid 19 – Community Resource Group.”
As grassroots advocates, we are planted in the soil of our backyards, neighborhoods, and the many communities to which we belong and with which we most identify. Broader still, we each are a thread uniquely sewn into the tapestry of our country and our world, with a purpose and mission beckoning us to go above and beyond.
Our single thread—an original sliver of color and light—helps hold all the others together. And occasionally when our own thread snaps, the others hug and hold us in place.
From our single thread the world radiates, and the sun, moon, and stars dangle and shine.
The Cameron County Project team members are prime examples of how our individual and gathered threads of living, breathing grassroots advocacy—even as minute as they may seem amidst the larger patchwork of life—truly can move mountains and shift tides. Our efforts can reroute darkness and divert disaster, or simply bring a smile to a stranger’s face on the street. This being the greatest gift we, as grassroots advocates, can give to one another: the gift of connection, of letting others know we are all in this precious orbit called life together.
Our threads can, and do, make all the difference.
I always sit in awe of folks like those leading the charge of progress at The Cameron County Project. I look into their eyes, and see the hope of today and the bright light of tomorrow reflected back.
I love them most for even taking that first step to impact a need they see.
I admire their perseverance through challenges, like the often-arduous task of initially getting strangers and neighbors alike onboard to understand the mission at hand amidst the noise and clatter of misinformation and disconnection.
I applaud their willpower in moving forward one step at a time to first form the portrait of a need, and then to strategize a blueprint for how they can best steer from there into a more promising future.
And, I respect the very personal, gut-level struggle many of these modest folks confront as they sometimes question their own worthiness and abilities in leading a marathon of good works. This journey can often feel more like the trenches of battle than goodwill. Still, even amidst incoming missiles of misunderstanding and petty grievances from others—whose hearts these grassroots advocates will have to work a little harder to convince—they walk with heads held high.
“YOU ARE HEROES!” I told The Cameron County Project team, as we sat around a table at the Cameron County Chamber of Commerce office on a Thursday night a few months ago. “You’re too humble to call yourselves that, but that’s what you are.”
They looked at me wide-eyed, carefully and slowly letting the recognition set in. Compliments aren’t a currency most grassroots advocates barter in, or even expect. For them, it’s about a higher calling than that. Even so, kind words and gratitude are deserved and hold value at the heart and soul level.
“Yes, you are true heroes!” I repeated. “Your names may never be carved into monuments, nor will streets or auditoriums likely ever be named for you. But your footprints here, and the work you are doing right now, will outlive you. You embody the essence of what it means to be authentic grassroots advocates at their very best!”
A pause . . . then they finally accepted my compliment with smiles in return.
I’ve learned that sometimes being a grassroots advocate myself simply means being the cheerleader in the room, helping to rally others forward.
Each one of us has a skill set, natural gifts, and a reservoir of passion. By rolling this foundation of heart and soul down the sidewalks and streets just outside our front door, or channeling it through our fingertips tapping across a keyboard, we can ignite change, in ways great and small.
As a longtime member of the Pennsylvania Humanities Council’s Board of Directors—where I’m surrounded by even more of the most awesome grassroots advocates, I’ve especially gained an indelible appreciation for the sheer power that emerges at the crossroads of storytelling and advocacy.
Time and again, like during my visits with the team in Cameron County, I’ve seen how both the telling of and listening to our individual stories, our community’s stories, and our universal stories translate spoken and written words into unstoppable calls to action. Through these stories emerge transformative roots to the past, a firm grounding in the present, and the glistening seeds of innovation that we then get to plant as we ourselves pass this way ever so briefly.
My own evolution as a grassroots advocate began by me looking deeply at what passions really make my heart sing and then looking at what platforms I have available to me as an author, artist, and educator. I challenge you to do the same: What are your passions, and what are your available platforms, and where can these resources cross paths to help others, even in the quietest, unseen corners?
No matter who you are, or where you are, you have a voice, and a heart, and a platform. It can be a one-on-one connection—face-to-face, or via text, email, or handwritten note—or a more extensive outreach and involvement within your community, state, nation, or world.
You, my friend, are the pebble that can launch many ripples in the water.
As an author writing books across multiple genres—memoir, essay collections, entertaining/culinary, history, how-to, and next up children’s literature, I discovered that I have the opportunity to connect with many different audiences across the country and advocate for things like healthier living, adopting rescue dogs, ending abuse, embracing forgiveness, cross-generational friendships, creativity, or simply reminding people to have fun.
Just as I’ve been blessed to be placed in front of millions of people during appearances on programs like The Ellen DeGeneres Show, Hallmark Channel’s Home & Family, Bravo’s Watch What Happens Live, EWTN’s The World Over, and home shopping’s behemoth QVC, I’ve also had amazing one-on-one interactions. Whether it’s a single person in the aisle of a supermarket who stops me because they need a hug and someone to just listen to them or audiences watching on the other side of that TV camera when the green light flashes on as I’m sitting on a set in Hollywood or New York, each of these platforms is an opportunity to connect and to advocate.
As an artist, I’ve discovered the impactful possibilities of creating Participatory Art projects that everyone can come together to create, either in-person or via social media. These include THE SMILE THAT CHANGED THE WORLD (is yours) and the 5 Day PEACE Challenge / #5dayPEACEchallenge. Whether exhibited in the bustling flow of a museum as the first was for one of its many installations or performed quietly along an old dirt road where I planted my final PEACE letter during the early days of the National Emergency amidst the Coronavirus outbreak, each has been a chance to reach out and to advocate.
And, as an educator and professor at the University of Pittsburgh at Bradford, I quickly became a #1 Fan of Generation Z—young people born between 1997 and 2012. The unprecedented courage of these young people in sharing their truths out loud—especially regarding their mental health challenges—and, in doing so, flipping the script on stigmas and stereotypes, has energized me as a grassroots advocate on behalf of Gen Z and mental health.
Looking at the platforms available to me to shout this new mission from the rooftops, I penned two essays—“Who is Generation Z?” for Huffington Post and the cover story “X meets Z” for Portraits Magazine—to start putting the faces on this extraordinary new generation. And now, wherever I travel, I always sit down for roundtable discussions with Gen Zers and mental health experts, and other audiences to further these discussions.
Gen Zers have even emboldened me to step out more than ever before as an advocate and, for the first time, to share my own family’s legacy of suicide: my great-grandfather and two of his brothers all died by suicide. I’ve watched the impact of those deaths shower down through every generation of my family, often festering as stigmas, mental and behavioral health issues, addiction, and still more tragedy. Sharing my family’s story has helped open the door of healing for others to also walk through.
As grassroots advocates, we are learners just as much, if not more, as we are teachers and doers. We are listeners just as much, if not more, as we are communicators.
The Cameron County Project’s team leader Jessica Herzing puts it this way: Grassroots advocates are “people who steward their influence, in such a way, to help others grow theirs. They’re just community bridge builders, creating more accessible ways for more people to be heard.” Big thumbs up to that!
So in this moment, I invite you to ask yourself:
What passions do I have?
What gifts do I have?
What platforms, great and small—social media, professional contacts, community relationships, etc.—do I have?
What needs do I see that could use my help?
And, if you are already active as a grassroots advocate—first off, thank you!—then I suggest asking yourself a question I ask myself every day: What more can I do?
Then, look deeply within and know that you are the thread meant to pull all those answers together into action and hope.
And also please know, by doing so, you too are a hero!
5 Super Easy Ways Anyone Anywhere
Can Be a Grassroots Advocate Right Now
At the core of being a grassroots advocate—locally, regionally, nationally, or globally—is connection. Whether you are new to recognizing your potential as a grassroots advocate or a seasoned pro at it, simply smiling and waving, and perhaps offering a kind word, to more people—friends and strangers alike—as they pass by is Grassroots Advocacy 101.
USE YOUR VOICE!
Our words—spoken, texted, emailed, or however shared, and no matter how articulate—can be very powerful and encouraging. Talking to friends and family about positive causes, issues, and organizations you believe in can send many ripples out into the world.
EMBRACE YOUR ONLINE PLATFORM!
Whether you have one follower or 100 million, you can be a social media influencer. Use whatever social media you’re active on to both follow and share information about causes, issues, and organizations that inspire you.
Being a grassroots advocate means being a teacher and a student in ever-reversing roles. It’s important, and personally motivating, to take a few minutes here and there to research a cause, issue, or organization that speaks to your heart in order to further inform yourself and to better help you spread the message.
SAY THANK YOU!
Yes, money talks, but a well-deserved “Thank You!” speaks even louder at the heart and soul level. Combine the best of both by writing a check to a favorite charity (giving whatever works for you) and including a note thanking the staff and volunteers for their incredible service in making the world a better place.
About John Schlimm
John Schlimm is a Harvard-trained educator, advocate, artist, and the author of 19 books. He has served on the Board of Directors at the Pennsylvania Humanities Council since 2015. For more information or to connect with John on social media, please visit: www.JohnSchlimm.com.