Deepening Activist Learning for More Effective Civil Resistance Movements

(Reposted from: ICNC – Minds of the Movement Blog.  October 16, 2018)

By Steve Chase

One of ICNC’s most downloaded resources is Hardy Merriman’s article, “Movement Building and Civil Resistance: Key Resources for Movement Organizers.” In it, Merriman argues that a major limiting factor to movement success is the worldwide lack of “infrastructure, processes, and information available to prepare organizers for the challenges of one of the toughest (and often underappreciated) jobs in the world.” Merriman then raises the important strategic challenge of finding ways to increase activist learning about “how to successfully organize civil resistance movements.” He also offers one useful response: a specific plan for a “20 hour (or less) self-led course… focused on learning the fundamentals of building unity, strategic planning, and maintaining nonviolent discipline.”

What are other useful responses? As a long-time popular educator serving activists, the author of a dissertation on activist education and training, and the founding director of an activist-oriented university graduate program for grassroots organizers and public interest advocates, I have often thought about Merriman’s larger question. How can activist learning be deepened to increase movement effectiveness?

The Power of Learning by Doing

Happily, one of the reasons civil resistance movements and campaigns have achieved the “relatively high success rate in spite of the challenges” noted by Merriman is that many activists “learn by doing” in the midst of organizing campaigns. During my doctoral research, I ran across the work of Griff Foley, an educational researcher from Australia who has closely examined the role of activist learning and education within a variety of social movements. In his book Learning in Social Action (1999), Foley argues that “social action has a learning dimension” and urges us to appreciate learning by doing.

One of Foley’s case studies is of a successful grassroots nonviolent direct action campaign to stop the Australian government from logging a rainforest in the Terania Creek area of eastern Queensland. While interviewing a dozen or so core activists who led this 12-year campaign, Foley found that, in order to become effective as environmental activists, every one of them had to acquire new skills and knowledge. Their initial knowledge and skill level was simply inadequate to the task confronting them. However, as Foley documents, these activists were able to learn what they needed to know in the course of their struggle, often without being aware of how much they were learning. As he notes:

They developed considerable expertise in rainforest ecology, expertise that they continued to use subsequently. They developed an understanding of the State and its agents (public servants, politicians, judges), and skills in working with and acting on it. They acquired analogous understanding and skills in relation to the mass media. They also developed skills in, and an understanding of the complexities of, building democratic forms of organization and taking direct action.

Based on his research, Foley argues that incidental activist learning plays a significant role in the development of effective social movements. He cautions, however, that such incidental learning has its limitations. By its very nature, incidental learning “is tacit, embedded in action, and is often not recognized as learning … [and] therefore is often potential and only half realized.” Thus, while Foley believes that “the most interesting and significant learning” among activists often grows out of incidental learning in the midst of social action, he also argues that there are advantages to more conscious approaches to activist learning and education.

Can Activist Organizations Promote Deeper Learning?

This reminds me of an interview with Marshall Ganz in Staughton and Alice Lynd’s anthology The New Rank and File (2000). Ganz is a longtime US movement organizer who now teaches a popular online class on “Leadership, Organizing and Action.” In the interview, Ganz describes the contrasting organizational cultures of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in the 1960s and the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee in the 1970s:

In SNCC I had learned by osmosis. In the Farm Workers, organizing was taught as a discipline. There was a method, and you could learn it, and be good at it, and then you could teach others. That consciousness of organizing as a craft and an art, was something special to the Farm Workers. 

Another good example of a movement organization consciously teaching organizing “as a discipline” was the series of workshops run by the Reverend Dr. James Lawson in local churches for activist college students in Nashville, Tennessee in 1960. Lawson offered these workshops over several months to an expanding number of young activists to prepare them to wage a successful civil resistance campaign to desegregate Nashville’s lunch counters and public facilities. These training workshops had a huge impact on the local Nashville struggle and served as a model for training participants in similar sit-in campaigns in other communities. The Nashville workshops have become more well-known in recent years through the 30-minute “We Were Warriors” segment of the film A Force More Powerful, the six-part documentary on civil resistance that is now available in 17 different languages from ICNC for free online viewing.

This video does not just show eye-opening scenes of Lawson’s training workshops. It is also a great activist training tool in itself. I have used this short documentary over 50 times with activists in workshops, face-to-face and online organizing courses, and at ICNC’s Regional Institute on the Study and Practice of Strategic Nonviolent Action last August in Kiev, Ukraine. Seeing the behind-the-scenes of an effective civil resistance campaign in this inspiring documentary always sparks deep and animated strategy discussions among participants. The learning is obvious and moving.

The Four Pathways to Activist Learning

The other thing I learned from Griff Foley’s research is that there are four main ways movement organizers can deepen their learning. As Foley points out, the history of adult education suggests that valuable activist learning can take place in the following ways:

  • The first is incidental learning, reflected in Foley’s case study of the Terania Creek direct action campaign.
  • The second is informal learning where activists work together to deepen their wisdom, knowledge, and skills by making a conscious effort to learn from their experiences through personal reflection, mentorship, group dialogue, action debriefing, and self-study.
  • The third is nonformal education, a planned and structured, though usually short-term, educational program for activists consciously designed by, and often facilitated by, experienced activists acting as educators in informal settings such as people’s homes, union halls, community action groups, or movement training centers. James Lawson’s workshops in Nashville are a good example.
  • The fourth approach—and often the least developed in practice among movement organizers—is formal education, which tends to be long-term, intensively structured, planned and facilitated by educational professionals working in ongoing educational institutions. An example of this fourth approach is the annual, two-month-long, online international ICNC/Rutgers University “People Power” course on strategic nonviolent resistance. This course typically includes about 60 participants from 20 to 30 countries, and as one participant recently wrote me, “This course is much better and more intense than any university course I ever took.”

This simple, four-part, conceptual breakdown allows civil resistance movement organizers and leaders to:

  1. Conduct a useful inventory of the types of activist education, training, and learning opportunities that might be available to them and their constituents; and
  2. Think about what kinds of opportunities could be developed.

This is the very first step for organizers who understand the importance of activist education and training to movement effectiveness and who want to find innovative ways to deepen activist learning.

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