Summer 2023 /Historic Causes/

Roots of Change

Continuing a long tradition of organizing among Pomona students and alumni, Jacob Merkle ’18 and Niles Brooks ’20 created Rhizome to equip the next generation of leaders.

Roots of ChangeThe yearning to build a better world may be innate, but the skills to become an effective organizer often need to be learned.

Jacob Merkle ’18 believes in the potential of young people to create the world they want to live in: They just need structure, encouragement and clear paths to opportunity. To provide those things, he founded Rhizome, a grassroots nonprofit for emerging high school leaders to learn how to organize and create civic communities.

Jacob Merkle ’18

“So many young people, especially today, really genuinely want to take on high-impact work, want to make meaning with their time,” says Merkle.

An international relations and politics double major from Seattle, Merkle first became an organizer himself while at Pomona. He reveled in “the feeling when you’re shoulder to shoulder with folks that aren’t just talking about making the world a better place but are actually taking active steps toward making that happen.”

While Merkle says that the most meaningful parts of his time at Pomona were the conversations he had over meals at the dining hall, he also graduated with top accolades in both of his majors, winning the Fred Krinsky Prize in Comparative Politics and the John A. Vieg Prize in International Relations.

Professor of Politics Heather Williams says of Merkle, “He is one of those ‘immortals,’ or students whose presence, thought and writing rise above their peers. He’s one of the most likely politics alumni to become a major thought leader and public intellectual.”

After graduating, Merkle worked for Michelle Obama’s organization When We All Vote, where he helped register 38,000 students to vote. While doing that work, he realized the untapped potential of high school and college students. He enrolled at Cambridge University and earned a master’s degree in sociology, with his dissertation focused on the language used by history’s most persuasive nonviolent movements to motivate people into action.

“This research offered a personal, practical blueprint for how to organize sustainably over the course of my lifetime,” Merkle says.

Shortly after that, in 2021, he founded Rhizome ( The impetus was “to be a part of building something that was authentically student-led, that was sustainable, that was collectively owned.”

He began calling people he had worked with in prior organizing efforts and eventually had 90 co-founders. These student organizers continue to vote to shape the goals, vision and work environment of Rhizome.

One of the people Merkle tapped was Niles Brooks ’20. Brooks, an international relations major from Memphis, Tennessee, headed Building Leaders on Campus (BLOC) at Pomona as well as Young Men’s Circle, a community outreach program. The two knew each other through playing together on the Pomona-Pitzer men’s soccer team. Merkle saw Brooks serving as a “spiritual center” for Rhizome, calling him “one of the most morally wonderful people” he has met.

Niles Brooks ’20Others at Pomona apparently agreed. Brooks won the Ted Gleason Award, given annually to the student who made a warm-hearted contribution to the community life of the College through traits such as sympathy, friendliness, good cheer, generosity and, particularly, perseverance and courage.

Brooks’ nonprofit work is partly inspired by his grandparents. “I learned from a young age what it meant to not have basic civil liberties in this country. My grandparents were folks who grew up in Jim Crow segregation,” he says. “Anytime I can leverage my experiences to help others, I will do that.”

Brooks believes in the work of Rhizome because “the younger we become civically engaged, the more likely we’ll treat civic engagement as a lifelong leadership activity.”

Through the support of Merkle, Brooks and other mentors, more than 600 students in organizing fellowships at 125 high schools have taken on campaigns such as advocating for safety policies in their cities, feminine hygiene products in their school bathrooms or spreading information about democracy vouchers—a recently developed finance method that allows voters to select recipients of public funding for political campaigns. Additionally, fellows helped more than 7,000 peers register to vote last year, and Merkle hopes to build on that number this year.

“Whatever it is that fellows care most about, we want to provide support for them to take action around those ideas,” says Merkle.

Merkle repeatedly strikes a spiritual tone as he speaks about his work. He and Brooks trained with the James Lawson Institute, a program for organizing movements and nonviolent action. (The Rev. Lawson, a contemporary of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and a leading architect of the civil rights movement, spoke at Pomona along with Myrlie Evers-Williams ’68 in the inaugural Payton Distinguished Lectureship in 2018.)

“I think organizing is at some level always an act of faith,” Merkle says. “A belief in things unseen.”

This faith could be applied to Merkle’s long-term vision for Rhizome as well. In it for the long haul, he says, he hopes to make local chapters of the organizing fellowship accessible to students in every community across the country someday.

“We are in the nascent stages of building something that we think is going to get really big and beautiful,” says Merkle.

Rhizome (rai•zowm)

“Rhizomes are root systems that grow horizontally in unpredictable directions without beginning or end. Rhizomes are always in-process, always growing, always adapting to form symbiotic relationships with existing forms of life. We are a self-organizing system; deeper than grassroots.” Projects

Miami, FL: Advocating for access to free public transportation systems

Cary, NC: Organizing for feminine hygiene products in bathrooms

Newark, NJ: Meeting with the mayor on how to reduce peer-to-peer violence

Seattle, WA: Sharing information about how to use democracy vouchers

Nashville, TN: Joining James Lawson Institute for an intensive four-day training

Raleigh, NC: Running mutual aid campaigns to reduce youth food insecurity

Newark, NJ: Participating in a mental health forum with local city council