What does effective grassroots language activism actually look like?

Some of my first memories are of my mother organizing activist campaigns. When she was younger, she was a successful community activist, taking on the Boeing corporation and fighting the expansion of the airfield near our home, and I remember the meetings at our house, papers spread around our dinner table and my mother and other women in the group arguing strategy, but even before that, when I was just an infant, my mom had been involved in the McGovern campaign, and she would go door-to-door, canvasing for McGovern, carrying me along in her arms.

Later, inspired in part by my mother’s example, I got involved in the campaign for nuclear disarmament, and in college, I was a founding member of our campus chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, way back in 1989, when Bernie Sanders was still mayor of Burlington, Vermont. After college, I became deeply involved in progressive politics, organizing a number of political cooperatives, opening a radical bookstore, running a community performance space, and a chapter of Food Not Bombs that ultimately took on the city of Worcester, Massachusetts and won.

I’m telling you all this to establish my bona fides, as an argument for why you might want to consider what I have to say, that in addition to researching language revival as a social movement, I am also someone with real-world experience in organizing successful activist campaigns. This combination of research and practical experience has led me to understand language revival in a particular way: as an activist project that only succeeds if it is built from the bottom up. And yet, I have found that in the recent debates about the future of Gaelic development, while many on all sides talk about the need for a “grassroots” movement, most of this discourse is nonetheless founded on very top-down understanding of language revival.

The difference between a top-down analysis and a grassroots analysis can probably best be illustrated by the growth (or not) of Gaelic-medium education provision. GME is a good example because we all need it; from urban networks to island communities, we all need to grow GME as a necessary (but not in-itself sufficient) institutional support for language revival.

There is much debate just now about the best structures and support required to revitalize Gaelic in the Western Isles, for instance, and this is the top-down perspective, but I would argue that new organizations or statutory development frameworks are not really required because folk in the Western Isles already have a democratically-elected political body with far more power and a far larger budget than Bòrd na Gàidhlig or any other proposed development organization would ever have: Comhairle nan Eilean Siar. Folk in the Western Isles are in an enviable position compared to most other minority-language communities around the world. The entire archipelago is under one democratically-elected administration with almost complete control of education provision and provision of government services, basically all the major levers you would need to revive a language.

Nothing is currently stopping the fully-enfranchised population of the Western Isles from organizing themselves into a powerful grassroots campaign that would compel their councillors to take much more substantial action to revitalize Gaelic and to immediately commit to implementing universal GME and full bilingual provision of government services as soon as possible. There would be all sorts of complications, certainly: civil service and teachers’ unions would rebel, finding qualified staff with Gaelic in many posts would be a nightmare, but none of these problems would ultimately derail the project if the majority of councillors, and behind them, the public, were truly committed.

Making this analysis, I want to be crystal clear that I am not criticizing CnES. Many of the greatest heroes of the Gaelic revival are current or former members of the Council, but by themselves, they can’t compel the Council as a whole to act. As a group, the Council is made up of local politicians, and as a group, they will be exactly as radical as their constituents demand them to be and not one iota more. That is just how local governement works.

Indeed, we could make the same argument about most councils in Scotland. Consider Scotland as a whole: surveys have shown that there is significant (if minority) demand for GME all over the country. While about one percent of Scottish primary school children attend GME (Morgan 2020), in a recent survey, 11% of Scottish adults said they would be very likely to send their children to GME if it was available in their area, and a further 17% said they would be fairly likely (O’Hanlon and Paterson 2017: 51). Scotland is a democracy. The large demand for GME has been clear for some time. Why haven’t councils been scrambling over the past twenty years to train hundreds of teachers and open dozens of new Gaelic schools to meet this demand? Other governments, like the Basque Autonomous Community in Spain, have grown minority-language schooling very quickly. It can be done, so why aren’t 28% of Scottish children in GME right now?

The answer is that, even in a democracy, public sentiments by themselves do not translate into political power. Without an organized social movement to turn those sentiments into political pressure, politicians will do exactly nothing. That’s not a flaw in the system; that is how representative democracy works. Generally, politicians don’t lead; they follow, and in a representative democracy, that’s not a bug; that’s a feature. This understanding is at the heart of the different, bottom-up, grassroots perspective I am advocating.

Returning to the Western Isles, the fact that CnES has not acted more forcefully to protect Gaelic since its founding in 1975 forces us, as Gaelic activists, to face an uncomfortable truth: while Gaelic remains deeply important to many in the Western Isles, there is very little appetite in the Islands for getting personally involved in grassroots Gaelic activism at a local level, at least at present. For decades, folk in the Western Isles have been voting with their children, and while numbers in GME are finally edging up some, still, only 40% of primary students are enrolled in GME and 23% of secondary students (Morgan 2020). And also, folk in the Western Isles have simply been voting with their votes. As I argued above, councillors will be exactly as proactive about Gaelic as their constituencies require them to be. To date, the Gaelic revival is way down on the priority-list of local concerns. That is just how it is.

And I can hear the howling already. I understand that there are many reasons for this lack of political organization around the Gaelic language in the Western Isles, and indeed, throughout Scotland. And I am definitely not blaming any Gaelic speaker for this situation, in the Islands or anywhere else. It is a state of affairs with long historical roots and no living individual or group is at fault, least of all the committed development professionals at Bòrd na Gàidhlig or the activist/academics in the Celtic departments in our universities.

The truth is that there is very little you can do from above or outside to change this situation. We’re all desperate to find a way to save Gaelic, and that leads some folk to try to assign blame, but the kind of political organization required to generate power has to grow organically from the grassroots; it can’t be imposed from above or outside. As Gaelic’s main development body, Bòrd na Gàidhlig comes in for particular abuse. As the Alaskan native language activists Nora Marks Dauenhauer and Richard Dauenhauer point out, this is a common dynamic when languages are in decline:

(1998: 70)

Bòrd na Gàidhlig is there to help, and should help, but the actual organization has to start locally; the solution cannot be imposed from outside. Indeed, I would argue that it is arrogant, condescending, and ultimately ineffectual to attempt to dictate solutions to other Gaelic communities. Arguing to change Bòrd na Gàidhlig, or even to replace Bòrd na Gàidhlig with some other structure or organization, no mater where it is based or how it is controlled, is still thinking top-down. The Dauenhauers make this critical point particularly clearly:

(1998: 96-7, emphasis in the original)

This is intensely frustrating for Gaelic activists down south who worry (rightly) about the state of Gaelic in the Islands, but this is the reality. The future of Gaelic in the Islands is squarely in the hands of the people living there. As Alexandra Jaffe writes in her excellent book on the Corsican revival movement:

(1999: 155-6)

So, realizing this, where does it leave us? Well, as a very first principal, we have to accept that all politics is local, and start where we are. Mar a chanadh do sheanmhair: “Think global; act local.” I believe this approach is hard for some urban Gaelic activists because the local Gaelic speakers living around them don’t feel like the “right” kind of Gaels to be organizing. For these folk, Gaels in relatively dense networks in traditional communities are simply more important for the future of the language than urban speakers. I may strongly disagree with that, but if that is your view, and I am not being glib here, there is a very simple first step to take: move to the Islands.

Again, I am not being glib, but honestly, if you want to help revive Gaelic in traditional communities, the best way to do it is to move there, to respectfully and carefully integrate yourself into the local community, build trust with your humility, integrity and hard work, and become part of the organizing effort on the ground there. But if you don’t want to do that, or can’t presently do that, then the first step is to commit yourself to real grassroots organizing for the revival of the Gaelic language where you currently live.

So, what does real grassroots activism look like? Well, first of all, it’s worth pointing out what it doesn’t look like. It doesn’t look like crafting sarky zingers to post on Twitter. It doesn’t look like an online petition or even like this blog post. Real grassroots organizing is almost always face-to-face. The best model for the outlook and approach of a successful language activist is a labour-union organizer building a new union or perhaps a religious missionary building a new congregation. It is based on face-to-face relationships with real people. It involves meetings no doubt (lots of meetings), but also cold-calls to strangers, knocking on neighbours’ doors and talking to them over tea, and spending hours at community events, tabling, hob-knobbing and recruiting support.

Face-to-face socializing is a challenge just now, of course, but once things get back to something closer to normal, it will be essential that we abandon the Zoom meetings and start coming together in the flesh and blood to plan our organization, just like my mom and the other women in her group did, papers spread out on the dinner table, debating strategy. And this brings us to the second key feature of effective grassroots activism: it has a strategy. It is not just a string of unconnected tactics or reactive campaigns. It is a series of achievable, locally-relevant goals of increasing value, tied together by a well-though-out campaign of potent tactics to build power and deliver a motivating feedback loop of significant victories at each step.

The Gaelic revival as a movement often suffers from the sort of strategic haziness that afflicts so many other social movements, a haziness that the progressive activist Waleed Shahid likens to the business plan of the Underpants Gnomes in South Park: 1) steal underpants, 2) ?, 3) profit! (Marantz 2021: 34) Activists see a problem and react to it by organizing a single intervention or perhaps a series of interventions, but with no plan for how these tactics link together into a strategy that leads to power.

But this isn’t always the case. There are plenty of historical examples of campaigns in the Gaelic world that were savvy and strategic. Definitely, the movement to establish a Gaelic school in Edinburgh (1998-2011) is a great example of such a carefully planned campaign. The second iteration of that campaign in particular put together a plan laser-focused on building political power, with face-to-face lobbying of councillors as the main tactic.

The core group of activists in any campaign is typically pretty small, even in campaigns large and powerful enough to topple an authoritarian government, and the Gaelic school campaign was no different in this respect, but the key was that these core activists saw themselves as principally organizing other folk in their community to take political action, not necessarily taking action themselves (although they did plenty of that as well).

At the centre of any good political campaign, there is an Excel spreadsheet of all the potential supporters, and a record of the actions they have taken to date. The key activists in Edinburgh organized parents to personally lobby their councillors over a period of years in support of the school. Their goal was to have every supporting parent personally visit at least one councillor at their surgery (many parents visited several), and they spoke personally to parents to ask them to do this, they provided parents with information and talking points, and then, critically, they called the parents back to make sure that they had actually followed through.

The campaign did lots of other things too, and it wouldn’t have succeeded with just one tactic, but the personal lobbying was at the centre, and overall, it was the tactic that won the day. It said to politicians: this is a committed group of voters that believe strongly enough about this issue to visit you personally and talk to you about it. It said to these politicians: this is an issue that these folks and others will possibly base their votes on, and therefore, this is an issue that you must take seriously if you want to get re-elected. In a representative democracy, that, and only that, is how grassroots political power is made.

So, you need a strategy, a series of well-chosen tactics logically linked together to achieve a concrete, well-articulated goal, and one can also see from this that not all tactics are created equal, that some tactics in a given strategy are more powerful than others. Basically, the more personal effort, social interaction and time a tactic takes, the more powerful it is. Lobbying a councillor in person is more powerful than calling their office, which is in turn more powerful than sending them a hand-written letter, which is more powerful than sending a hand-written email, which is more powerful than sending a form letter, which is more powerful than sending a form email, right on down to an online petition, which is basically valueless.

There is a great story (possibly apocryphal) about Barney Frank, the progressive US congressman, who when presented with a written petition by a group of activists, threw it in the trash and chastised them for wasting his time. It’s not that he didn’t agree with the activists, but a petition is the lowest-value lobbying device, and it was of no use to him in influencing other members of congress to support their cause; and mind you, that was a physical petition with signatures gathered in person. We can only imagine how he would have rated the effectiveness of an online petition.

And context is also key. In some instances, a given tactic may form a powerful part of a strategy, and in other contexts it might be useless or even damaging. Take a protest as an example. Like the Underpants Gnomes, activists often see a problem and immediate exclaim: “lets call a rally!” But it is important to remember that all tactics are a form of communication. A rally sends a message to the general public, and critically, to politicians, but context determines what sort of message is sent. If a half-dozen activists are protesting outside council offices in the rain, holding disintegrating cardboard posters hand lettered with Gaelic slogans, what message does that send? Does it say that this is a dogged group of serious activists that demands attention? Or does it in fact communicate powerlessness? I have been involved in small protests that were very powerful, and relatively large protests that were ineffectual, but the key is – big or small – to ask what message you are sending.

I will stop here. There is much more I could say about the nitty-gritty of effective grassroots activism, and perhaps I will take this subject up again in another post, but I also think we need to come together as a movement and do workshops on activist strategy and tactics, perhaps with talks from experienced community activists from other social movements. As soon as we can all meet together, I think we should definitely organize this.

It’s a weird time just now, but I think there is a lot of scope to build powerful, grassroots campaigns in support of local Gaelic development, in cities, on the Islands, and anywhere else Gaelic activists want to see their language thrive. With any luck, we will be able to start meeting more in person soon, and even small groups of people can make a big change if they approach it right.

The great thing about grassroots activism is that it is so personally empowering. Here we all are, isolated, facing the decline of Gaelic in the middle of a pandemic: no wonder folk are getting discouraged and angry. So, once we can get back out there, go and pick a local, relevant goal for your Gaelic community, build a core group of activists committed to that goal, phone people, set up a table, knock on doors and build an organized network of supporters willing to take concrete, personal action, build a campaign based on achievable steps and a coherent strategy, and together, let’s save Gaelic. We can do this!

Dauenhauer, Nora Marks agus Dauenhauer, Richard (1998) “Technical, emotional, and ideological issues in reversing language shift: examples from Southeast Alaska.” Ann an: Lenore A. Grenoble agus Lindsay J. Whaley, (deas.), Endangered Languages, Current issues and future prospects. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, tdd. 57-98.

Morgan, Peadar (2020) Dàta Foghlaim Ghàidhlig 2019-20. Inbhir Nis: Bòrd na Gàidhlig.

Jaffe, Alexandra (1999) Ideologies in action: Language politics on Corsica. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter.

Marantz, Andrew (2021) “The Left Turn: Are we on the verge of an ideological realignment?” The New Yorker, 31-5-2021, 30‒9.

O’Hanlon, Fiona and Paterson, Lindsay (2017) “Factors influencing the likelihood of choice of Gaelic-medium primary education in Scotland: results from a national public survey.’ Language, Culture and Curriculum 30 (1): 48‒75.

Chaidh seo a phostadh ann an Uncategorized. Dèan comharra-lìn dhen bhuan-cheangal.

5 Responses to What does effective grassroots language activism actually look like?

  1. Thuirt Gille-chrìost MacGill-Eòin:

    A nuanced and thought-provoking post. As regards tactics of grassroots organizing, I agree with almost every word and much of this would be helpful advice not only to Gaelic campaigners but those involved in many other social movements. The group I am involved in, Misneachd, tries to follow much of the kinds of strategies outlined here, and has experienced activists familiar with campaigns in other minority language and social justice contexts. Indeed, I was in a face-to-face meeting only a couple of hours ago, albeit on video chat, sharing ideas with someone involved in the nitty-gritty of on-the-ground Gaelic community work in both island and mainland contexts (you may see us on Twitter, but we do a lot behind the scenes, too). I’m sure some of us would be interested in being involved in workshops of the kind you propose.

    Nevertheless I have a number of misgivings about some of the other points made, regarding the actual material asks to be lobbied for, and some aspects of the wider context.

    1. “I would argue that new organizations or statutory development frameworks are not really required because folk in the Western Isles already have a democratically-elected political body with far more power and a far larger budget than Bòrd na Gàidhlig or any other proposed development organization would ever have: Comhairle nan Eilean Siar.”

    It is certainly true that CnES and other local authorities and public bodies could have much stronger Gaelic plans which could bring real concrete progress in terms of Gaelic-medium services (e.g. in healthcare), Gaelic employment strategies, Gaelic-medium education etc. All of this is important and could indeed be one important focus of local campaigns.

    However, in addition to this, and perhaps more importantly, Gaelic communities (including urban networks) need proactive Gaelic-focused supports, i.e. well-funded services and spaces that councils or other agencies would not be providing if it were not for the presence of Gaelic and Gaelic-specific funding streams. You say CnES has a large budget, but you don’t mention austerity, which has cut council budgets to the bone, and the cuts to CnES have been deeper than any other council in Scotland (28% in real terms between 2010 and 2017, with 16% of staff laid off between 2011 and 2018). They barely have enough money to deliver core services (whether English- or Gaelic-medium), without adding substantive Gaelic community development to their remit.
    Therefore, the additional funding would have to come to the council from Bòrd na Gàidhlig, or directly from the government, and we are left with lobbying for a considerable increase in the national Gaelic development budget (currently £5.1 million p.a., of which £2.5m goes to community development; a pittance compared with the ~£5m budgets of an individual menter iaith in Wales; the £10m budget recommended as a bare minimum for the Bòrd’s budget twenty years ago would come to £17m today including inflation), i.e. what Misneachd is advocating in our new paper, and which I elaborate in a recent article in Bella Caledonia:

    The difference insofar as this pertains to the Western Isles is that you are advocating for this to be administered from Stornoway, whereas we are arguing for more localized units (analogous to Language Planning Areas in the Irish Gaeltacht), together with a support agency to pool resources, support and expert advice where appropriate. Also a local authority focused solution is much less appropriate in the parts of the Gaelic heartland outside the Western Isles (Skye, Tiree) and in Glasgow, Edinburgh, Inverness etc.

    As well as having been lacerated by austerity, Scottish local democracy is widely recognized to be among the weakest in Europe, in terms of number and size of council areas, budgets, and powers (see COSLA 2013 ‘Commission on Strengthening Local Democracy’). CnES admittedly has a smaller population than most, but this is more than made up for by the specific geographical, infrastructural, demographic and economic challenges. We should not be looking to Scottish local authorities as models of democracy and local empowerment, and we should be looking beyond representational democracy itself – if face-to-face campaigning is important, then equally, face-to-face participatory forms of democracy at a more local level should be at the heart of any new supports for Gaelic.

    Yes, there would be a degree of top-down element in setting up and supporting the new structure proposed by Misneachd, and indeed any kind of substantial scheme of any kind, as communities don’t have the capacity to fund and administer everything on their own, but the model would be considerably less centralized that anything administered by a local authority, and offers potential for local decision-making once established.

    2. “I would argue that new organizations or statutory development frameworks are not really required.”

    Well, I would argue one of the most important principles in political strategy is ‘Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth’, or at least don’t let half-open doors close. The new government is proposing to look at a recognized ‘Gàidhealtachd’ and a Scottish Languages Bill – Gaelic activists (again whatever their views) should be leaning heavily into these potential new inflection points for Gaelic policy and using them as a springboard. You say “politicians don’t lead; they follow” – very true, but it is also the case that they are more likely to follow you if you are leading them to something that they can to some extent claim as their own idea or fulfilling their own promises, rather than a proposals that comes entirely from the outside.

    The Edinburgh GME parent-activists are currently making their council and the government squirm partly because of a manifesto promise which puts the authorities in a difficult position. I don’t know if they will win, nevertheless, but I wouldn’t bet against them, because as you rightly point out, they are an excellent model of effective, well-organized activism. Gaelic activists more generally should be exploiting the rest of the government’s manifesto commitments in a similar way (there is more than one side of the debate that should pay attention to this point, by the way).

    It is clearly objectively the case that these changes in the political climate are because of a certain recent book and the ensuing debate, and also campaigning by Misneachd and others, which constitute the main material changes in Gaelic-related political consciousness since 2016. Some people don’t like the aforementioned book very much. So what? They should still turn it to their advantage. Strategically-minded activists don’t choose the opportunities, they choose what to do with them. Those who think the urban contexts are in danger of being neglected in light of new discourses should use the ‘Gàidhealtachd’ discourse to renew the idea of ‘Gàidhealtachdan ùra’; indeed this is what Misneachd’s proposals, and my article, try to do: we recognize that any increase in resources substantial enough to make a significant difference can in realpolitik terms only be won if framed to some extent in national terms, in addition to the moral basis for including both contexts, and their interdependence (often stated, but usually in platitudinal rather than material and strategic terms).

    3. “It is a state of affairs with long historical roots and no living individual or group is at fault, least of all the committed development professionals at Bòrd na Gàidhlig or the activist/academics in the Celtic departments in our universities.”

    I make this point at some length in my own article as well, but I would take issue with the words ‘least of all’. Even the more powerful, influential and experienced leadership figures in the Gaelic world don’t have that much power to change stuff, but they are still more responsible than those with less power and knowledge and shouldn’t be let off the hook entirely. Also individuals can be blameless personally, but still part of the problem structurally (for example, many of those manning Gaelic institutions are at least to some extent afraid to rock the boat and stick their neck out, and understandably so; but this is still a major problem structurally, and one which grassroots activism is one of the solutions to).

  2. Great post Tim. For years I’ve heard people in the Gaelic world say “we need more grassroots action”, “we need more bottom up activism” but when questioned, most of the people calling for it in principle haven’t had much idea of what they’d like to see in practice. So, it’s good to see yourself (and Gillecriost in the comments here and in his recent article) and others doing some serious and creative thinking on the matter of late. I very much agree with your analysis here Tim. Cùm ort leis an deagh obair.

  3. Thuirt highlandfeminist:

    Terrific article, a well considered, insightful and clarion call to those of us who can take action in our communities. Tha mi brònach gu bheil chan eil mi (say any of that) anns a’ Ghàidhlig ach tapadh leibh for making me think.

  4. Pingback: Long-term, is Gaelic viable as a network language? | Air Cuan Dubh Drilseach

  5. Pingback: Gaelic is genuinely popular in Scotland | Air Cuan Dubh Drilseach

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