Practical approaches to nonviolence

The Quaker group Turning the Tide works with communities in the UK and Kenya. Edward Dingwall caught up with Steve Whiting.

June 11, 2014 · 9 min read

Non-violence(sculpture in Borås, Sweden, photo credit: Mikael Ejdemyr)

‘We campaign, and work towards social and political objectives. But if we’re not living in a way that fits the world we want to make, then we’re not going to get there … How we do our work is as important as what we do,’ says Steve Whiting, a staff member at Friends House in London.

Whiting works on Turning the Tide, an outreach programme of Quaker Peace & Social Witness, begun in 1994, which has helped groups – focused on the environment, anti­capitalism, co­housing and more – develop their own nonviolent approaches to radical change and social justice.

For Quakers, violence ‘isn’t just physical’, but can include damaging economic, social or belief systems. ‘It’s anything that prevents human flourishing,’ Whiting explains. ‘Every one of us internalises the violence of the culture we grow up in. When we looked around, we felt that a lot of groups didn’t have the sense of depth to overcome that.’

Turning the Tide’s workshop methodology reflects a belief in self­realisation. ‘We don’t teach non­violence, that’s important. It’s a process of inclusive, participatory learning … It’s about drawing out what people already know, and getting them to consider that, often in a new way.’

People healing their communities

Turning the Tide recently completed a three­-year collaboration with the Kenyan organisation CAPI (Change Agents for Peace International), working in communities that had experienced significant post­election violence.

Starting in 2010, the two groups established partnerships with local people who would take the lead on running the programme, which included residential training and meetings every few months to address problems as they arose. Work began at Khayega, in the Western Region, before moving into Nairobi, then to the northern Rift Valley.

‘Following the post­election violence in 2008, we found many people working to rebuild and heal their communities … However, there were common frustrations they would keep coming up against: corruption, nepotism, impunity, non­judicial killings. Overcoming problems like those requires sustained effort.’ The end goal, Whiting says, was to give more individuals and groups the skills, competence and credibility to build campaigns.

‘Volunteers and participants contributed to planning from the start, so they saw from the start that it was inclusive … We asked questions and made sure they were involved at every stage, facilitating sessions, reflecting and giving daily feedback … If you have one Kenyan woman from a previous workshop tell a new group “I was sat where you were, and this is what I’ve achieved,” it makes a powerful difference.’

Walking through fences

British and Kenyan participants learned much from each other over the three years. Some aspects of Turning the Tide’s approach were new. Whiting says they ‘insisted on equal numbers of men and women, which was unusual. There were some issues because we didn’t pay participants, like many NGOs do. But we explained: you won’t be able to pay the supporters you need when you are running workshops and campaigns. Change has to come from our motivation for justice.’

Ideas and perspectives had to be translated into mutually understood terms. Sometimes it was a simple matter of adjusting language. ‘In Kenya, the term “activist” means only means only those who are involved in violence.’ Other times, it was the message. ‘The weekend we started work, our hotel room was burgled, we lost a lot of equipment,’ Whiting recalls. ‘We were placed under armed guard and it took a lot of explaining that as a group learning nonviolence we didn’t want it.’

Often for the British staff, it was about understanding a different kind of experience. ‘There was a minor fire in the hotel, no one was hurt, but it brought memories to the surface. Some of our participants’ homes had been burned in the violence, some had fled into even worse circumstances. There was a level of trauma there which we could only imagine. It was incomparable, but once we understood, that actually allowed us to go much deeper, much more quickly, it made the space feel safer for everyone,’ says Whiting.

In some ways, the sessions mirrored those held with countless groups in the UK. ‘We find ways to put people outside their comfort zone, where the best learning happens … Sometimes it’s a simple matter of partnering them with someone who has taken action before. Other times in the UK we might say, “what would it feel like to cut that fence and walk through?” ’

Some workshop content was also adapted, as Turning the Tide found that participants could not immediately relate to some of the conceptual models used in the UK. The solution was to begin with participants’ stories and worked outward towards broader themes.

The Kenyan participants have now established a network of volunteer trainers and campaigners, which they’ve also called Turning the Tide, and are growing from strength to strength. Community campaigns have won legal victories against household evictions, dealt successfully with issues of corruption at a hospital, stopped bank foreclosures, forced an international quarry company to repair local buildings damaged by their explosions, and encouraged boda­boda motorcycle taxi drivers to assert their rights as workers.

Whiting feels the collaboration in Kenya resulted in a unique, culturally transferrable model of working. ‘We want to have that same sustained involvement here at home, with hubs that bring different campaigns together.’

What props up injustice?

This new approach draws on twenty years’ experience and activism. Turning the Tide has its roots in the peace movement, particularly the direct action campaigns of Trident Ploughshares and Faslane 365. The Religious Society of Friends, Quakers, have opposed war for more than 350 years. Whiting emphasises though, ‘There is no rule that says members must be pacifists, that tells them what to believe. Each generation has to learn it for themselves.’

Pacifist and nonviolent beliefs often meet with opposition, criticised for their refusal to engage in the realities of conflict, or to be persuaded by apparent moral justifications. ‘The Quaker response comes through experience, both spiritual and historical,’ says Whiting. ‘Sometimes we’re very unpopular, but we don’t simply reject violence and sit smugly with high principles, we actively seek alternatives. We try to reach a deeper understanding, then ask: what can we practically do about it?’

‘We have always put ourselves in those positions, in a lot of hot conflicts, to test whether what we call our “testimony to peace” is real and viable. There is often an automatic assumption that violence is inevitable. We explore alternatives and plant a flag at the other end of the spectrum, and open that space for debate.’

Whiting picks an example to demonstrate Turning the Tide’s practical approach. ‘If we’re dealing with a campaign group, one of the first things we’ll do is a power analysis. We want the group to feel empowered from the start, to discover what their part will be in making change come about. There are simple ways to do that.’

‘They’ll be asked to analyse the dynamics of the situation, opponents, allies, power relationships – whether it’s fracking, nuclear weapons or benefit cuts. Who has the power to make the change you want, and how do we build our own power and strategy for change to make it worthwhile for them to negotiate.’

Other techniques help to identify specific, achievable action points of a campaign. ‘Do you want to gain more support from your natural allies, or convince the neutrals? If your goal is “global socialism”, that’s pretty unrealistic at village level. But we help to trace down from that overarching idea to things you can actually do on the ground,’ says Whiting.

‘A single injustice is like the point of an upturned triangle of oppression, which must be held up by a series of props, maybe the military, the police, supply lines and so on. You name them, choose one and work to remove it as a prop to injustice. Keep going, and move onto other props. Quakers, like many others, have a sense of natural law, where the triangle stands on its base.’

Turning the Tide’s work has diversified as activist groups have evolved, and it has stretched out through the international Quaker network. Whiting remembers notable success with human rights monitors and accompaniers in Israel and Palestine. ‘We’ve helped prepare people to accompany others through checkpoints, workers out in the olive harvests, children going to school, potentially very hostile situations. But many of them came back and told us how much our training helped.’

No matter who the participants are, the programme emphasises the need for groups to develop an understanding of their own dynamics in order to deal with internal and interpersonal conflicts. As Whiting sees it, ‘In any set of people, you’ll have different sensibilities, different boundaries and ideas of, for example, what violence or nonviolence is. With direct action, does it include property damage, deceiving a trusting security guard? What about unaccountable actions? What happens if members end up being arrested or in jail?’

‘We can’t say where those lines should be, or what ought to happen, but we set up scenarios which bring those into the open, where the group can acknowledge different understandings and decide on an inclusive way forward. We’re always taking a long­term strategic view. The deeper the change you want to make, the longer it will take.’

Resources on nonviolence are available on Turning the Tide’s website.

Edward is a freelance writer, editor and organiser with a background in education and community engagement. @ER_Dingwall

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