Ear to the Ground Project

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Ear to the Ground Project is a survey and analysis of the mainly Freedom Road Socialist Organization affiliated US left. It lead to the organization LeftRoots.[1]


The two coordinators of the Ear to the Ground process are N'Tanya Lee & Steve Williams.

After more than two decades of on-the-ground organizing in distinct organizations, the two of us have spent the last sixteen months on a unique journey together. We conducted more than 150 interviews with movement activists, read the work of movement intellectuals, and spent a lot of time in conversation with each other— in doing so, we pushed ourselves to imagine the world, and our own work, in new ways.
The Ear to the Ground project became a national research effort and a profoundly transformative process for us as individuals. While the project led to this final report, it’s political impact lies less in the words on these pages, but in the relationships and conversations created over the last year, and the ideas for new initiatives that emerged.

It’s been a year of ‘on-the-ground’ study that no book or report can replace or properly represent, but we hope that More than We Imagined, the report from the Ear to the Ground project, conveys the sense of the possibility that we feel.
Like many of you, and in fact alongside you, we have worked to build a movement capable of exerting the power necessary to transform the world. For us, much of that work has taken place through community-based organizing. Each of us built or re-built grassroots organizations in San Francisco— Coleman Advocates and POWER (People Organized to Win Employment Rights) which continue to wage important campaigns to make the City more livable for working class people and people of color. We won important victories around workers’ rights, education reform and expanding public services. Our organizations allowed us to strategize and take action with amazingly talented and courageous people. Yet conditions in our communities and in the world around us were getting worse.
For similar and distinct reasons, we both decided to leave our positions as Executive Directors at the end of 2011. Neither of us knew what was next, but we knew we were hungry for more. Though we were leaving our respective organizations, we knew that our fundamental commitment to social transformation remained. The historic events of 2011 challenged us both to take a leap.
Despite this project’s breadth, ultimately we did not get to connect with all of the important work that we wanted to that is happening across the country. The United States is a big country, and the Ear to the Ground project was by no means a complete assessment of the entire social justice movement. We spoke to 158 people involved in some of the most important social justice struggles today...[2]

"Why mobilize"

Answering why e mobilizations and actions were seen as significant, participants cited these factors:

  • Mobilized massive numbers of people for longer than a single day (33%)
  • Shifted public discourse to the left (30%)
  • Used militant and creative forms of direct action (20%)
  • Directly critiqued the ruling elite and/or the capitalist system (18%)
  • Emboldened others to take action, created a new sense of what is possible (17%)
  • Engaged sectors beyond ‘usual suspects’, like the white working class (15%)[3]


Build an Engaged and Engaging Left

As this phase of the Ear to the Ground comes to a close, we have decided to prioritize one particular area of the work— to create a vehicle for leftists engaged in social movements to come together, to answer the hard questions of the day, while building community with one another. We’re calling this project LeftRoots, and with comrades in the Bay Area and across the country, we hope to contribute to something that we think is absolutely critical— reigniting an engaged and engaging Left.[4]

Freedom Road connection

We are encouraged by the emergence of several initiatives that seem to be bringing activists together on an ongoing basis to sharpen their individual and collective responses to these critical questions. Projects such as the Organization for a Free Society, Freedom Road Socialist Organization’s ‘Ask a Socialist’ and the many activist study groups that have been popping up across the country make us optimistic that we could soon be developing bold, multi-sectoral strategies that grow out of a deliberate assessment of our current conditions.[5]

New Party

30 There should be, roughly speaking, a truly mass third party, but not one specifically focused on elections, led by working class people of color…We need a structured, strategic, organized break with the Democratic Party as the central gathering point of progressive politics in the U.S.

31. We need a new labor federation that includes community-based worker center organizations on an equal basis to traditional labor unions.
32.We need a new Left party. A united party for socialism. Not primarily an electoral vehicle. Should be explicitly anti-capitalist, a bridge between generations, training activists. An eye on the fight for people’s power. Without a hard left you have a weak middle. I don’t mean dogmatic, but it’s clear that capitalism does not have the answer to the world’s problems and we need a socialist alternative.[6]


We would like to express our deep respect and appreciation for everyone who took the time to talk with us, and the organizations that generously hosted us during our travels. Interviews were confidential, but the following people have agreed to have their names listed for this publication:

Aaron Hughes, Adam Gold, Adriann Barboa, Adrienne Maree Brown, Ajamu Dillahunt, Alex Tom, Ali Issa, Alicia Garza, Amie Fishman, Amisha Patel, Andrea Cristina Mercado, Angelique Gonzales, Anthony Thigpenn, Aracely Mondragon, Ayoka Turner, B. Loewe, Beatriz Herrera, Bill Fletcher, Jr., Bill Vandenberg, Bill Gallegos, Charity Hicks, Chelsea Boilard, Chip Berlet, Cindy Wiesner, Clare Bayard, Dana Ginn Paredes, Dawn Phillips, DeAngelo Bester, Deborah Gibson, Denise Perry, Dione Rocha, Dorsey Nunn, Drew Christopher Joy, Eduardo Lalo Montoya, Emery Wright, Eric Mann, Fernando Marti, Gary Delgado, George Goehl, Gopal Dayaneni, Gordon Mar, Guiliana Milanese, Guillermo Quinteros, Hany Khalil, Harmony Goldberg, Henry Serrano, Holly Fetner, Ife Kilimanjaro, Ilana Berger, James Tracy, James Mumm, Jane Martin, Jardana Peacock, Jaron Browne, Javaid Tariq, Jed Brandt, Jeff Ordower, Jerome Scott, Joanne Kim, Jon Liss, Joo-Hyun Kang, Jose Luis Pavon, Joshua Kahn Russell, Juanita Valdez-Cox, Judith LeBlanc, Justin Ruben, Kai Barrow, Kali Akuno, Kamau Franklin, Karen Lewis, Kathleen Coll, Khalida Smalls, Kitzia Esteva Martinez, LeeAnn Hall, Lian Hurst Mann, Lily Haskell, Linda Burnham, Lisa Adler, Loretta Ross, Lori Hurlebaus, Lucia Oliva Hennelly, Ludovic Blain, Luke Newton, Makani Themba-Nixon, Malkia Cyril, Manuel Criollo, Maria Poblet, Marisa Franco, Mark Randazzo, Mark Liu, Marqueece Harris-Dawson, Matt Ginsberg-Jaeckle, Max Elbaum, Max Rameau, Max Uhlenbeck, Max Berger, Maya Wiley, Melanie Cervantes, Michael Leon Guerrero, Michelle Mascarenas-Swan, Mike Casey, Michael Premo, Mimi Ho, Mona Lisa Trevina, N'Tanya Lee, Neva Walker, Ng'ethe Maina, Nijmie Dzurinko, Pam Tau Lee, Paris Hatcher, Patrick Reinsborough, Paul Boden, Paul Getsos, Paulina Helm-Hernandez, Peter Hardie, Pilar Schiavo, Rachel LaForest, Rama Ali Kased, Richard Healey, Rickke Mananzala, Rinku Sen, Rishi Awatramani, Saladin Muhammad, Sara Mersha, Sarita Gupta, Saulo Colon, Scott Kurashige, Scot Nakagawa, Sharon Cornu, Sharon Longo, Shaw San Liu, Shy Oakes, Sondra Youdelman, Stephen Lerner, Steve Phillips, Steve Williams, Steve Meacham, Steven Pitts, Taj James, Tarso Ramos, Terry Valen, Tim Fisk, Tomas Garduno, Tony Romano, Toussaint Losier, Trishala Deb, Van Jones, Victor Quintana, Wanda Salaman, William Isom, Bill Lipton, Willie Baptist, Xochitl Bervera, Yotam Marom.

We are deeply humbled, honored, and inspired by the wisdom and generosity in our movement.

We would like to extend special appreciation to Lucia Olivia Hennelly for her generous and thoughtful contributions to the Ear to the Ground Project. We couldn’t have done this without you.

We would like to thank the people and institutions who financially supported this project: the Center for Third World Organizing, the Movement Strategy Center, the Marguerite Casey Foundation, the Mitchell Kapor Foundation, the Common Counsel Foundation, the Solidago Foundation, Steve Phillips and Susan Sandler, Quinn Delaney, and Connie Cagampang Heller & Jonathan Cagampang Heller.

We would like to thank Coleman Advocates for Children & Youth for being the project fiscal sponsor. The generosity of key staff made the project possible in many ways.

We would like to thank Jennifer O’Day and Mana Nakagawa for answering our many questions around qualitative research methods, particularly regarding the coding process.

Much appreciation goes out to Alicia Garza for making sure that “our i’s were dotted and our t’s were crossed”.

Our deepest thanks goes out to Josh Warren-White and the Design Action Collective for making this report as visually compelling as we hope the movement will be.

Finally, to our partners and kids for keeping us grounded in love and the sweetness of life, and for their strong comradely support for this project despite the time away from family that was required to complete it: thank you, Mei-ying Williams and Amil, Ayoka Turner and Khalil.[7]