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David Alton and William Tur­man are found­ing mem­bers of a mul­ti-issue grass­roots group in south­ern Ontario called GroundUp Water­loo Region. Scott Neigh inter­views them about their com­mit­ment to what they call messy activism” and about the group’s work sup­port­ing oth­er grass­roots groups, fill­ing com­mu­ni­ty gaps, build­ing grass­roots infra­struc­ture, and hold­ing politi­cians to account.

Alton and Tur­man both have back­grounds in urban plan­ning and they live in Water­loo Region, an Ontario juris­dic­tion com­prised of three cities and four town­ships. Tur­man cur­rent­ly works as a plan­ner, while Alton does com­mu­ni­ty engage­ment and facil­i­ta­tion work in less for­mal­ized settings.

GroundUp WR got its start when the two were out for a walk in the city of Kitchener’s down­town, in an area with an emp­ty mall, a shut down bus sta­tion, and a num­ber of huge park­ing lots. It was a space that seemed to them to be emblem­at­ic not only of a sort of gener­ic gov­ern­men­tal fail­ure but also a more spe­cif­ic sort of fail­ure of insti­tu­tions, gov­ern­ments, and elect­ed offi­cials at all lev­els to be tru­ly account­able to com­mu­ni­ties. They were, in Alton’s words, rant­i­ng” about it. How­ev­er, he con­tin­ued, there was more sub­stan­tive­ness to it than just rant­i­ng.” Both had been periph­er­al­ly con­nect­ed to dif­fer­ent kinds of grass­roots work in the past, but nev­er real­ly in the mid­dle of it, so they weren’t quite sure what they could do or what they want­ed to do – but they knew they had to do something.

Their first step – done, in fact, while still mid-rant – was to cre­ate a Twit­ter account. They were well aware of the lim­its of online-only activism, but thought it might be a use­ful place to start. Alton said, There is a cer­tain almost vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty that peo­ple in pow­er have online. Like, it’s a place of their egos … We could almost manip­u­late that vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty to try and cre­ate some lever­age and cre­ate some oppor­tu­ni­ties for these oth­er grass­roots orga­ni­za­tions that were doing so much great work on the ground.”

In that ini­tial phase, but also since then, they have used social media to, most impor­tant­ly, ampli­fy voic­es and calls to action from oth­er local, grass­roots groups work­ing on lots of dif­fer­ent issues. As well, they use the account to assertive­ly and relent­less­ly iden­ti­fy politi­cians who are not being account­able to their com­mu­ni­ties, and to facil­i­tate res­i­dents putting pres­sure on them.

Social media inter­ac­tions with oth­er local activists and orga­niz­ers soon turned into con­ver­sa­tions – about the issues, about the com­mu­ni­ty, about col­lab­o­ra­tion, and about what GroundUp could do to sup­port the impor­tant work that was already hap­pen­ing. As well, they began to have con­ver­sa­tions with oth­er peo­ple in the com­mu­ni­ty who were not already active, but who want­ed to be. Some of those got involved in oth­er groups after learn­ing about them through Ground Up, but some got involved in GroundUP itself – which, pret­ty soon, went from two ran­dom white guys with a Twit­ter account to an active, thriv­ing grass­roots group in its own right.

Anoth­er pri­or­i­ty for GroundUp is to iden­ti­fy and, where pos­si­ble, fill grass­roots com­mu­ni­ty gaps. An impor­tant ear­ly instance of doing this also end­ed up being a use­ful step in build­ing trust with oth­er activists and orga­niz­ers in the region.

The Town­ship of Wilmot, the rur­al area of Water­loo Region where Alton lives, has seen what he described as some fair­ly egre­gious sex­ist and racist actions” in recent years. He used that phrase to char­ac­ter­ize things the township’s may­or had done, but then went on to describe sim­i­lar­ly trou­bling actions by a range of com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers and politi­cians, includ­ing chron­ic sex­ist mis­treat­ment of women who were on town coun­cil, and con­sis­tent white suprema­cist harass­ment through the sum­mer of 2020 of Indige­nous-led mobi­liza­tions push­ing for the removal of a stat­ue of Sir John A. Mac­don­ald from the front of town hall.

In the spring of 2021, word start­ed to cir­cu­late that white suprema­cists intend­ed to orga­nize a ral­ly in the town­ship. Local anti-racist orga­niz­ers were already burned out and had faced con­sid­er­able hos­til­i­ty due to oth­er work in recent years, so in con­sul­ta­tion with those orga­niz­ers, GroundUp decid­ed that they need­ed to step up and do some­thing. It was a chal­leng­ing process, not least because it was hap­pen­ing in the mid­dle of the provin­cial COVID-19 stay-at-home order, and ini­tial buy-in from at least some politi­cians and com­mu­ni­ty lead­ers turned to hos­til­i­ty and back­lash. But they planned a range of COVID-safe ways for peo­ple in Wilmot to demon­strate their oppo­si­tion to racism, and the action was a success.

These days, the group meets week­ly. It is a mix of peo­ple par­tic­i­pat­ing as indi­vid­u­als and oth­ers tak­ing part as rep­re­sen­ta­tives of groups. GroundUp’s top pri­or­i­ty is always respond­ing to any requests for sup­port or action they have received that week from oth­er grass­roots groups – that can be any­thing from pro­mot­ing cam­paigns to lend­ing a hand at actions to devel­op­ing com­mu­ni­ca­tion mate­ri­als, and lots more. As well, when they have the capac­i­ty, they work on their own projects to fill grass­roots gaps and build grass­roots infra­struc­ture – from a project to push the munic­i­pal­i­ty to make side­walks more acces­si­ble by clear­ing snow, to longer-term visions for bring­ing grass­roots groups and com­mu­ni­ties togeth­er through an alter­na­tive munic­i­pal bud­get process and a dig­i­tal com­mu­ni­ty plat­form to facil­i­tate grass­roots action.

In all of this, they act in the spir­it of what they call messy activism.” They are very clear that they are not expert activists or orga­niz­ers. But, giv­en the urgent issues our com­mu­ni­ties face, they think it is impor­tant for all of us to take action any­way, with­out feel­ing the need to meet unreach­able stan­dards of activist puri­ty or per­fec­tion. Cru­cial­ly, though, doing that in a way that isn’t just going to make things worse means you have to build rela­tion­ships, you have to lis­ten, and you have to engage in the work with humil­i­ty and account­abil­i­ty. Alton said that the group’s approach has been one of just mess­i­ly doing and con­sis­tent­ly show­ing sol­i­dar­i­ty” and of only ampli­fy­ing the grass­roots and only exist­ing for the grassroots.”