Maximizing Participation in Nonviolent Action
by Janet Chisholm
Fellowship Magazine – Column on the U.N. Decade for a Culture of Peace and Nonviolence
“I’m not sure I should be here because I’m not ready to go to prison for civil disobedience or to withhold my taxes.”
“What we really need now is someone like King or Gandhi who will lead us.”
“I want you as an expert in nonviolence to lecture, instead of lead exercises and role-plays.”
In every nonviolence training, I hear similar concerns. So many in our culture feel powerless. And the powerlessness seems contagious! In the FOR nonviolence training program, we try to avoid reinforcing the cultural patterns that disempower people. Our content and the learning process may appear somewhat counter-cultural.
We do not encourage holding up as models of nonviolent social change only those same individuals, movements, and individual actions which have been promoted for years. To emphasize in articles, talks and pictures a few famous male leaders inevitably sends a negative and inaccurate message about female leadership and about group action. In the civil rights movement, for example, there were many grassroots groups providing the initiative and strategic recommendations, even groups of women. And what about all those who worked with Gandhi or Chavez? What about the People’s Revolution in the Philippines and today’s women in Nigeria pressing the oil corporation or working with International FOR in Zimbabwe and other lands?
Participants in training begin to name a variety of movements including those most famous, but they gradually come to include recent movements, new movements, movements of mostly women and social change movements in the U.S. They may note similarities of struggle, sacrifice and achievement in a current movement to combat domestic violence and an historic movement to abolish slavery, both involving underground escape routes, safe houses, demands for change in police behavior and the law. They name as nonviolent social change movements the efforts to stop child abuse, discrimination against homosexuals and barriers to people with disabilities. And the efforts for equal inclusion of women in sports, for community greenways and for recycling.
Similarly, participants in training learn that successful strategies of the most famous nonviolent movements cannot be “photocopied” and set down in another time and place. They are not prescriptive but illustrative. Too narrow a focus on them could dissuade individuals from the hard work of analyzing and applying the nonviolence principles to a new context.
In nonviolence training, we dispute the perception created by the peace movement that a long prison term or numerous arrests are the best or only ways to signify one’s full commitment to nonviolent change, or that they are the goal and the epitome of nonviolent action. Such a perception devalues other acts of conscience and risk, the loss of income, property, housing, health, relationships or public reputation. If steps on the path leading to such an action are the only steps that count, many will be dissuaded from even beginning!
We must not convey that we require a single, gifted leader or an unusual group in history or a long term in prison to take effective nonviolent action. Accepted as truth, such inaccurate portrayals will disempower those of us who are ordinary people. We will bide our time, awaiting an extraordinary leader and refuse to accept that “We are the ones we have been waiting for.”
The Learning Process
In the nonviolent training program, the popular education approach we use differs significantly from traditional, didactic teaching. It poses a challenge for some participants and even for some Facilitators. Our culture has elevated “experts” as the dispensers of knowledge to eager learners down below, which means teachers are supposed to “pour in” the lessons until the learners are “filled up.” This top-down model corresponds to the dominating and dogmatic behaviors of a power elite culture and devalues the relevant knowledge, life experiences and wisdom already acquired by ordinary people.
The popular education approach considers all participants, including the Facilitator, as equals and as both learners and teachers. Paolo Freire, working with base communities in Latin America, and Myles Horton, working with labor and civil rights movements at the Highlander School in Tennessee, made popular education famous as an effective instrument in social change movements.
A skilled nonviolence training Facilitator begins by eliciting and affirming individuals’ experiences and wisdom. She maximizes participations and along the way helps categorize and summarize, and contributes stories, definitions, concepts, and resources. She promotes analysis, synthesis and generalization. Finally, she provokes participants to consider how they will work together to apply new insights and learning in their own context and guides them in action-planning. Beyond the concepts, skills and strategies that participants bring away, they also leave more self-confident, aware of the extensive resources and creative potential of others and of the whole group, and ready for nonviolent action.
“To paraphrase Einstein, we cannot create a new partnership society with the same mentality that created the present dominator society. If we do not change ourselves, we cannot change the world.” (Bill Moyer in Doing Democracy.)
May we disempower no one,
rather awaken the power in each one;
participation by every one
is absolutely essential!