The civil rights movement of the 1960s was a powerful example of how local activism can bring about meaningful change. In 1965, activists marched from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, and helped pass the Voting Rights Act of 1965, a major victory for African-American citizens who had been denied the right to vote for more than 50 years in some counties in Alabama. Today, Montgomery County is one of the most diverse counties in the country, with a population of over 1 million and tall buildings that stretch skyward above Bethesda, Rockville, and Silver Spring. Wealthy white landlords have long held sway over development policy in the county, and their activism has focused on a wide range of housing initiatives.
In response to this, the Coalition for Smarter Growth has redoubled its efforts to organize housing advocates in the county and founded the spin-off group Montgomery For All to advocate for Thrive Montgomery 2050 and other housing initiatives. In addition to housing initiatives, local governments are also taking the lead on infrastructure projects. The new federal law adds the largest single injection of capital for infrastructure in many years, but state and local governments allocate even more money for infrastructure from their own revenues and are the ones that decide most infrastructure priorities and specific projects. In the area of public health, California requires counties to control racial and socioeconomic disparities in COVID-19 positivity rates within counties and to submit action plans to address those disparities. This is an example of how local initiatives can have a major impact on public health policy. Other organizations that are leading this local work include PolicyLink, as part of its All-In Cities initiative; Living Cities, a consortium of the largest financial institutions and philanthropic donors in the country, in its work to “operationalize racial equity, especially in local government and intersectoral initiatives”; and New America, a think tank, through its New Practice Lab. For now, local governments are at the forefront of progress, with the federal government making notable strides (at least in the executive branch), and state decision-making showing great potential for improvement, especially when it comes to transparency and basic accountability.
The power of local activism is clear: it has aroused interest among policymakers, policy implementers, and citizens across a wide range of political jurisdictions and domains.