40 Activists Confront Differences and Learn New Skills

40 Activists Confront Differences and Learn New Skills

Field Report from George Lakey, July 20-27, 2002 Director of the Philadelphia based Training for Change (TfC)

How to take the nonviolent direct action experience gained from toppling dictator Slobodan Milosevic and apply it to cleaning up a polluted Serbia? This is the question of four young Belgrade Otpor activists who are launching the new movement “Greenfist.” For a Roma activist the task is rebuilding relationships between younger Roma and their elders. For two students at the University of Bulgaria, the challenge is bringing together Albanian and Macedonian young people who fear and distrust each other, while a team of four from Croatia are campaigning to democratize the University of Zagreb.

For the second summer, The Johns Hopkins University Bologna Center and the University of Bologna’s Center for Constitutional Studies and Democratic Development (CCSDD) gathered nearly forty young adults representing ten South Eastern and Eastern European countries. We worked in the town of Brasov, Romania, near the Transylvanian Bran Castle made famous in Bram Stoker’s novel. Participants were competitively selected from a pool of more then 125, by the CCSDD and co-sponsor the Youth Action for Peace (Brussels).


Is reconciliation happening?

Even though the challenges in the region are enormous, we saw changes. In July 2001 Training for Change (TfC) Board member Claudia Horwitz (director of stone circles) and George Lakey traveled to Vukovar, Croatia, and then in October led a follow-up train-the-trainer program in Bologna. (See www.TrainingForChange.org for reports.) Today, while Milosevic is on trial at the Hague for war crimes, while United Nations troops hold sway in Bosnia, and while an alarming brain drain of talented young people seek jobs outside the Balkans, we were amazed to find the youths in the Romania training showing a remarkable optimism. In contrast to the despair expressed by participants in prior CCSDD trainings (Vukovar and Bologna) where open animosities from the recent wars remained vivid. This group was eager to put what they called “the old mentality” behind them and create new structures for living.

One of the many signals of this was during the group initiated culture-sharing evening. Young people from parts of former Yugoslavia acted out their recent history: sitting in small circles defined by nationality they portrayed growing suspicion and hostility, the event peaked in a mock war, then exhaustion, then the ringing voice of a Roma man singing an old song everyone knew which was picked up first hesitantly then robustly. The event ended with Balkans youth singing arm and arm, insisting that animosity towards one another’s ethnic cannabis groups were now a part of the past.

That’s where these young people want to go. Our challenge as trainers is to give them tools to get there, including the tools to address the pain of the journey. As humanistic psychologists sometimes say: “The only way out is THROUGH!”


The fear of difference

Find the common ground among people in conflict: that’s a popular currency in conflict resolution. Unfortunately, common ground is only half the coin. The other half is: “Acknowledge the differences!” Until a group (or a couple) engages difference, conflict transformation is not possible.

Yugoslavia itself provides a tragic example. Decades of Communist Party rule led by Tito stressed the common ground approach. As long as the one party-state remained dominant, Yugoslav differences were muted. The world knows what happened when the lid was taken off. The fear and distrust buried along with the differences were called forth by nationalist politicians grabbing for power, and neighbor turned against neighbor in “The Killing Time.”

We trainers were empathic with the participants’ reluctance to engage difference, given what they’ve been through. After all, even conflict resolution professionals, Quakers, and others are known for conflict aversion and an emotional attachment to harmony. Nevertheless, we designed a series of steps leading away from the initial garden of our common ground into the wilderness of difference.

First, we created “dialogue groups” of six from different nationalities and religions, staffed by process observers who gave feedback to the groups each day on their risk in venturing beyond common ground.

Gradually increasing the risk, we did role-plays. These role-play challenged most participants’ who wished to avoid conflict, and built skills in the application of nonviolent action we call Third Party Nonviolent Intervention.

Again stepping farther into the wilderness, an exercise which creates a series of one-on-one encounters. The task: one participant acknowledges a difference s/he notices between them. The exercise allows a range of risk and self-disclosure, enabling each participant to venture outside their comfort zone as bravely as they can. This also was debriefed, including both affirmation and challenge, following the experiential learning model which TfC trainers use (Experience, then Reflect, then Generalize, then Apply.)

By this time the group’s courage was still higher and we invited volunteers to come to the front of the room and be interviewed by a difference they have. Trainer Claudia Horwitz used the classic three questions as the basic structure of each interview: “what do you find positive about your difference? What’s hard about it? If there are people here who would like to be your allies, what do you want them to know?” These steps, albeit appear simple in text are far more complex (and occasionally explosive) when managing the broad range of emotions and experiences of a group of young activists many of whom have survived recent wars.

The result of assisting young leaders in moving out of their comfort zones was that the evaluations revealed the pedagogy that focuses on allowing groups to process issues of conflict and difference appears unique in South Eastern Europe. As one Romanian participant noted, “conflicts are born from differences, I am realizing the differences between us that have created conflict, but now I am beginning to accept these differences and I like them in many ways. Being different gives us an opportunity to learn from one another. This work is very challenging.”


Engaging difference back home

While participants were visibly moved both by the information and by the vulnerability shared by those who were interviewed, we wanted to be sure that everyone could apply their growing capacity to engage difference back home in their organizations and in their divided communities. We therefore moved to a TfC-invented exercise, “Mainstream/margin,” a complex sequence of activities in which the participants themselves generate specific tools and practice using them.

Psychologist Arnold Mindell has expressed the organizational development assumption which underlines the exercise. He believes that an organization grows through its mainstream’s engaging with its margins and re-negotiating its relationship with them. The Youth Organizing Institute consists of young people who are in various ways on the margins of their own societies, yet also share mainstream characteristics AND define the mainstream in their own grassroots organization. The exercise provides internal leadership development (managing the mainstream and margin aspects of themselves) and at the same time gives them tools to grow their own organizations through engaging differences which have been marginalized there.


Sharpening the projects

Since these young organizers came to the Institute with community based projects in mind, the staff worked intensely with them to strengthen their work. Assets Based Community Development (ABCD) gave us our basic model. The ABCD model has shown much success during the past 30 years in Chicago and in the past decade in India and Central America. The model is new to SEE. The ABCD format allowed participants to expand their projects’ vision, message, and mission. Staff challenged the teams and individuals to revise their projects in light of best practices both internationally and in SE Europe’s own experience of nongovernmental and civil society groups. On the final day the projects were presented one by one, exposed to challenge by other Participants as well as staff. From Albania to Serbia, from Romania to Turkey, from Montenegro to Bulgaria, the teams shared their visions and timelines.

The summer 2002 Youth Organizing Institute was co-sponsored by the CCSDD and the Youth Action for Peace (YAP) international organization which has roots dating back to 1928. The CCSDD and YAP partnership aims to expand their training opportunities in the coming year to reach more young activiss. To facilitate this Institute TfC trainer Claudia Horwitz and I joined Todd Waller, director of the Johns Hopkins and University of Bologna’s CCSDD, Valery Rey Alzaga (Mexico), and Sandra Palong (Romania). An additional five experienced former YOI participants from four countries created a back-up team to support the entire training and its logistics. Training for Change (TfC) supports the Balkans work also by inviting young Balkans activists to its Super-T in Philadelphia each June; the invitee in 2002 was a trainer for Otpor who participated in Vukovar and Bologna in 2001.

For other articles on TfC capacity-building abroad for democracy and nonviolent action, see www.TrainingforChange.org. We are grateful to the TfC community of support, including Central Philadelphia Monthly Meeting of Friends (Quakers), for making this work possible.