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'There is no Map. Follow me': Grassroots Strategies for Creative Social Change

(Photo courtesy of Rae Abileah)

“Where is Salle B?” I ask through the torrential downpour of rain. “Come with me, I will take you there,” says the Tunisian student volunteer. I follow him through crowds chanting liberation slogans for Palestine and Argentina, past the frozen flash mob of Tunisian students demanding university rights, around the African dancers ringed by smartphone-clad onlookers capturing the moment, and along rows of tables with piles of literature blowing around like confetti in the strong storm winds. We reach the classroom where the workshop is taking place and my guide, a Tunisian engineering student, says, “You are welcome.”

Getting lost, asking for help, and navigating through a maze of classrooms is a constant activity here at the World Social Forum in Tunis. Despite over 88 pages of workshop listings and information, the Forum guide has no map to the University of Tunis El Manar campus. My frequent bouts of frustration at not being able to find sessions seem to always be interrupted by the presence of one of the friendly students offering to take people wherever they need to go. And surely being personally escorted to the destination beats following GPS on a cell phone and tripping over the sidewalk on the way, right?

Perhaps this is an ample metaphor for the state of many social movements: we know where our destination is, but don’t have a clear map of how to get there. In session after session, panels of brilliant activists, analysts, and organizers elaborated on the problems and challenges we face globally — from land grabs, to climate change, to inequality, to bonded slave labor, to repressive regimes and state violence, to colonialism and a bloated military arms industry, to consolidated transnational corporate power… and the list goes on. Understanding the scope and breadth of the problems is key, but so too is having a vision of what we are working to achieve. The slogan of the World Social Forum is “Another world is possible.” But is the goal of the Forum to expose the current world, or to create space to imagine and strategize toward a future possible world?

People before profits

Across almost every issue, critiques of the current challenges that movements face inevitably point toward a broken economic system, as Adriano Campolina, chief executive of ActionAid International wrote:

“The big picture — an entrenched political and economic elite willing to manipulate laws to prevent us from challenging them, and a society hurtling toward climate catastrophe in the absence of global leadership willing to face the facts — is too plain to ignore… The siphoning of money away from people and governments and into the pockets of super-wealthy corporations and individuals has reached proportions that few of us can fathom. The system, in the shape of its most successful exploiters, is consuming itself while marshaling its forces to silence those who sound the alarm.”

It’s a damning indictment of a broken system. On the eve of the World Social Forum, ActionAid issued a joint call with the Association for Women’s Rights in Development, Greenpeace, Civicus and Oxfam to tackle the damaging power of the 1%. The statement affirms:

“Faced with this challenge, we need to go beyond tinkering, and address the structural causes of inequality: we cannot rely on technological fixes – there is no app for this; we cannot rely on the market – unchecked it will worsen inequality and climate change; and we cannot rely on the global elites – left alone they will continue to reinforce the structures and approaches that have led to where we are… We need to help strengthen the power of the people to challenge the people with power.”

How will we strengthen people power in grassroots and frontline communities where the long arm of neoliberal capitalism is threatening daily livelihood and basic existence? Many groups at the World Social Forum propose striking at the jugular vein of power: targeting the root causes of inequality by going after corporate interests. Economic justice groups address tax dodging and labor rights. Palestine solidarity groups focus on boycott and divestment campaigns aimed at stripping international support for the Israeli occupation. The conversations on climate change turn from despair over the UN climate negotiations to the hope found in campaigns for divestment from the fossil fuel industry, and in other tactics to expose the corporate lobbyists obstructing governments from making real, binding agreements on emissions reduction.

But it isn’t enough to issue broad statements; countering the powerful interests of the wealthy elite requires skill, strategic coordination and solidarity among movements and issues, as well as the leadership of those most impacted. We need new and innovative ways of creating change, and a renewed dedication to political and tactical education to make the campaigns of the diverse struggles around the world more effective.

Creative resistance to challenge political circumstances

It’s noon on Friday, March 27, the third day of the World Social Forum, and Salle B is packed with people — from Tunisia, Uganda, Zimbabwe, Belgium, Sweden, Turkey, Algeria, and beyond — leaning forward to hear the stories of creative resistance presented by “Beautiful Rising.” Sofiane Belhadj and Zied Touzani speak about utilizing cartoons and coordinated Internet customer pressure to overturn Internet censorship in Tunisia and hold the new government accountable to youth; Thinzar Shunlei Yi shows real-time photos of protests in Yangon, as they are being posted, condemning violent police attacks on and imprisonment of students on March 27, national Revolution Day in Myanmar. The room erupts into circles of story sharing, with participants teasing out key lessons, tactics, and principles from each story.

Norman Tumuhimbise shares his story of releasing pigs doused in yellow paint inside the Ugandan Parliament in protest of massive government corruption. Grace Atuhaire from Zimbabwe poses questions about how to plan jail support for activists engaging in civil disobedience and how to outreach to conservative audiences to join a flash mob. Ronnie Murungu, also from Zimbabwe, says that in order to have these kinds of conversations beyond the World Social Forum, we must “use as many platforms as possible, from Facebook to printed books to other online platforms… to deal with very elusive regimes.”

These ideas and questions are at the root of Beautiful Rising, a joint project convened by ActionAid Denmark and Beautiful Trouble, which recognizes the importance of increasing movement capacity to catalyze effective change, and is building a toolbox of stories, tactics and resources for organizing. Throughout this year, Beautiful Rising is convening front-line activists and movements from hot spots across the global south to articulate the most effective approaches and latest innovations in creative activism.

As the expression goes, “If a tree falls in the middle of the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” Imagine how much more effective our movements could become if each action was amplified globally so that tactics and tools could be more easily shared between countries and issue areas. The Beautiful Rising toolbox aims to do just that by bringing to light grassroots stories from around the world: cartoons and digital hacks utilized to counter Internet censorship in Myanmar and Tunisia; strategies for showing visible opposition to a repressive regime such as the Black Monday action in Uganda; and methods for increasing media coverage of local struggles, from village marches in the West Bank to youth uprising in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. By sharing these stories, activists around the globe can learn from each other and discover tactics and strategies to apply in their own movements and struggles.

At the end of the discussion, Jay Naidoo, former General Secretary of the Congress of South African Trade Unions, steps to the front of the room and proclaims, “Song, dance, acting, everything was about culture. It kept us strong when we faced the tanks and the police. Why don’t we sing now?” After a rousing round of song led by activists from Zimbabwe, the classroom is transformed into an action space, moving from a powerpoint presentation to project a protest message on the wall: We support Myanmar students! No more arrests! No violence! The World Social Forum. Everyone stands with the projected banner to take a photo as part of the Burmese student social media tactic to generate global support. In less than five days they already have over 25,000 supporters on their Facebook group. Make that, after this workshop, over 25,050, and growing.

As we face shrinking political spaces for civil society the world over, these kinds of creative tactics offer hope and illuminate the path forward. After the workshop, I embark on the next journey to find Salle 9, only this time there are no guides to help, as the Tunisian students have mobilized to demand pay and rights from the World Social Forum. Shunlei joins the students and they take photos, holding the banner she penned during the workshop, in solidarity with the Burmese student movement. Just as there is no map to the campus at the World Social Forum, and while we may not have a single map for our movements to follow toward a more just, equitable sustainable world, we can take one another by the hand, and help guide each other by supporting each other’s struggles and offering insight into what is working, city by city, day by day.

This is the world we live in. This is the world we cover.

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Rae Abileah

Rae Abileah is, along with Medea Benjamin and Jodie Evans, a codirector of CODEPINK

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