Sustaining Resistance: A Story of Regenerative Organising

January 6, 2017

The Sustaining Resistance: Empowering Renewal training grew out of a gathering in a remote part of Catalunya to become an open source inspiration for sustainable activism training across Europe and beyond. Gee tells the story of its development.

You might remember: 2009 was the year of the COP15, the United Nations Conference on Climate Change in Copenhagen. Delegates were heading there from all over the world to explore globally coordinated efforts to address the perils of human induced climate change – or the lack of them. The political optimists were dubbing the meeting Hopenhagen.

COP15 was a magnet for Campaign NGO’s and grassroots activists. The scientific consensus had again underscored the evidence: rising carbon emissions are leading to serious devastation of the earth’s biodiversity, and human suffering on a vast scale. Not taken in by the Hopenhagen feel good hype, amongst the grassroots the rhetoric in the air was that this was our last chance to catalyse decisive action.

Some long time climate activists scoffed. For them the maths was clear. It was already too late as far as they were concerned. But for many others it was still worth a last ditch effort to avert climate chaos. The conference became a focus for the passionate exertion of activists across the world for months leading up to the gathering.

Finally, amidst the Scandinavian winter, delegates argued and campaigners lobbied. Activists gathered and planned, generating a wealth of meetings, protests, and actions – aiming to pressure global leaders to do something worthwhile, or to inspire people to take matters into their own hands and side step the political circus in a popular struggle for climate justice.

The Danish police response was unapologetically, if predictably, harsh, repressive, and often illegal. The grassroots were battered, INGO’s shame faced. The outcome of the conference itself was the announcement, amidst self-congratulatory fanfares, that the representatives had agreed to talk more at some point. Basically, no agreement of action whatsoever.

So, the “last chance” passed us by. No meaningful coordinated effort was agreed upon. Economic growth continued to trump ecological security. Amidst the sense that it was now or never for the planet, we missed the “now”, so presumably it was “never”. The last ditch had been overrun.

As people dispersed, bruised and exhausted, there were tears, anger, and disillusionment. Soon enough the theme of climate chaos dropped back in mainstream discourse to phantasmagorically drift in and out of focus (editors must struggle to get the news cycle quite right for the story of the end of the world and our reluctance to face it). And in the following months, the levels of burnout amongst environmental activists soared. The anecdotes tell of action groups falling apart, generalized dismay and deepening despondency.

This was the backdrop to the first Sustaining Resistance course. For many the post-COP slump was deep and devastating. But in some senses it was nothing new. We’d seen repression and the steep uphill struggle for radical change wear down innumerable talented activists and organisers throughout the previous decades. Post-traumatic stress, intransigent group conflicts, under resourcing, and mounting cynicism had led to the haemorrhaging of talent from our movements for years. But the widespread disillusionment of 2009-10 predisposed many activists to recognise that something in their approach had to change. Many of them saw that they couldn’t go on like this – and that clearly this was going to be a long term struggle.

Post-traumatic stress, intransigent group conflicts, under resourcing, and mounting cynicism had led to the haemorrhaging of talent from our movements for years.

I had spent some years exploring how contemplative approaches could resource people for social action. It was obvious that tools for personal development were crucial in supporting people to transform some of the unhelpful tendencies that they brought to their organising – and that left people and groups stuck in unhelpful ruts. It was also clear that the strong altruistic values that motivated activism could energise the work of personal transformation. The framing was key: Personal development need not be seen as self-preoccupation, but instead as a basis for greater effectiveness. Likewise self-awareness was not self-indulgence but a means of transforming ourselves, and to stop reproducing patterns conditioned by capitalism in our own lives and groups. It became clearer and clearer that the personal really was political.

The influence of systems thinking and socio-political theory had also helped me to see that personal development couldn’t be separated out from the social context that individuals inhabited. Group culture and interpersonal ethics also created the conditions for individuals to change for better or worse. As it is remarked in the social sciences, people shape societies and societies shape people.

I was also aware that a focus on self-development all too easily falls into the traps of self-preoccupation and narcissism. I recognised the reciprocity between personal and social change: Personal development could help people make their social engagement more effective and sustainable – whilst commitment to social action helped protect self-development from the traps of overly self-oriented approaches.

Sensing the need and the opportunity, I invited another Buddhist practitioner, Maitrisara, to work on developing a course. We wanted an approach that could explore the mutually conditioning influence that runs between the personal, interpersonal and social levels. Thinking holistically, we asked, how could we design a training that could honour this systemic approach?  Combining systems theory, tools for working with group and organisational dynamics, contemplative practices and deep ecology, Sustaining Resistance emerged.

The title of the course tried to capture a certain zeitgeist. We pitched the course specifically towards people involved in environmental direct action – hence the title and the DIY styling of early publicity. The rate of burnout in those groups was especially high. We thought that it made strategic sense to focus within this activist subculture. The DIY activist culture in the UK was something we were familiar with. It was highly visible, having grown out of the anti-roads protests of the 1990’s, which morphed into actions like Reclaim the Streets and Alter-Globalisation organising. It was dynamic, having recently provided the core of the Climate Camp (later Reclaim Power) initiatives. And constituted an open and yet close knit network of dedicated activists. Those activists communities also served as a primary training ground for activists who often went on to other areas of campaigning (including moving into positions of influence in professional campaign organisations and INGOs). Our aim wasn’t just to run courses on sustainable activism, but to strategically support a cultural shift – something that six years on feels is tangibly the case.

Over the winter of 2009 I worked alongside 16 people renovating an abandoned farmhouse in the Catalan mountains. It was to become a hub from which the Sustaining Resistance work could be developed. The small farmhouse was rebuilt as low-impact, simple off-grid accommodation. We’d raised money for the materials and did the work ourselves. It meant that we had a low cost, low overheads educational centre. We could innovate, take risks and keep the costs down. It became a hub of innovation in activist training – known as the Ecodharma Centre. We set up a large yurt for a workshop space and were still putting the finishing touches as the participants for the first course arrived.

The centre enabled us to create an immersive learning environment. We wanted to be able to go deep with people, so we decided that a 10 day residential course would be ideal. Maitrisara brought competence and experience of popular education methodologies. Her introduction of these approaches was to have a very strong influence over the future design and style of the trainings.

The first year we used a very participatory approach to draw on the experience of the participants to identify the key themes and issues – from which the course design would emerge. We worked hard to create an open and safe space for deep reflection. There were challenges in this. We were working with people who were used to instrumental approaches and applying specific tools to address issues. So, we had to hold people back from problem solving and really emphasise the importance of opening up reflective space to deepen understanding of personal and collective experience – before looking at more instrumental solutions. This emphasis on the importance of deeper personal and collective reflection has become a hallmark of the courses – as well as becoming recognised as a valuable intervention in rebalancing the relationship of action and reflection in activist practice.

This emphasis on the importance of deeper personal and collective reflection has become a hallmark of the courses – as well as becoming recognised as a valuable intervention in rebalancing the relationship of action and reflection in activist practice.

We used Popular Education methods to support people to reflect on their life history as activists, and gave a lot of time for sharing those stories. Only then did we begin to harvest the key themes and issues that the course would begin to address. We found ourselves diving into issues around group culture, identity, psychological conditioning, and emotional resilience. It was a vibrant and creative experience and today we are still working with many of the people who made up that first cadre.

Although most of the themes that would come to occupy key places in the course structure over the coming years surfaced in that first year, the creativity didn’t stop there. Between 2010 and 2015 we sought out and actively drew in other facilitators and trainers to collaborate on course design and delivery. We tried to balance continuity of learning as a team with the introduction of innovative and experimental elements. We tried to manage that balance by ensuring that the facilitation team of each course was comprised of at least two people who had facilitated the course at least twice and that these pairs would bring in a new team member to enrich and augment the work that had been done so far. In this way we ensured a process that enabled numerous people to contribute elements that have enriched the course as it is today.

From the Seeds for Change training collective (now Navigate), Kathryn Tulip brought in the influence of Direct Education, as did Adam (just Adam) from the Rhizome Collective. Pelle Berting introduced approaches to working with conflict and embodied facilitation methods like the Theatre of the Oppressed. Nate Eisenstadt, who was closely associated with the Kebele Social Centre, brought a sharp intellectual exploration of anarchism, self and agency. Louise Hemmerman, a sociological researcher and activist, engaged in extensive research interviews and developed work around identity attachment. Another colleague introduced methods for working somatically with trauma. And Alex Swain brought much appreciated approaches to bodywork. The list could go on. The talent and skills of all of these people have helped shape the training.

The course quickly gained respect within the circles we had focused on, and was consistently oversubscribed. We kept the course numbers down to 15 participants, in the interest of the depth of connection and intimacy needed within a temporary community exploring, what was very often sensitive and emotionally charged issues. But we wanted to be able to make the work more available so began to run the course beyond the original base in Catalunya. So we took the course to the UK, as well as Berlin (with the help of European Youth for Action). The Berlin training was aimed at activists based in Central and Eastern Europe – and raised the profile of the work across a new range of networks. One of the things that became clear to us from that event was that in order to extend the availability of the work we would need to support people to develop the training in native languages and with variants that could address culturally diverse settings.

One direction these considerations took us was the development of trainings for trainers, which we began to offer in 2014. The idea wasn’t to train people to reproduce the Sustaining Resistance course, but to support their capacity to develop sustainable activism training in ways that built on our learning but also included innovation and adaptation relevant to new settings. In this way we took a fundamentally open source approach to our work, which seems to have had a considerable influence. Currently trainers who have attended Sustaining Resistance and the Training for Trainers are offering work that has grown out of the Sustaining Resistance approach across Europe.

Since the first Sustaining Resistance course in 2010 there has been a noticeable shift in activist training culture. Sustainability and the other key issues we focused on in our trainings are now consistently integral elements in activist training. As Hannah from Seeds of Change (now Navigate) put it,

“Sustaining Resistance workshops have made a significant and vital contribution to the health of grassroots organising in the UK. Over the six years the workshops have run, I’ve observed a steady shift amongst organisers to taking more care of ourselves as an essential part of taking care of the world around us. I’ve no doubt that the people who participated on these courses have been influential in making this shift.”

Similar benefits have spread beyond the UK. One of the EYFA staff said, Sustaining Resistance has “inspired other creative training initiatives, especially amongst grassroots groups in our Eastern European network.” And it feels that our work has made a significant contribution to that shift. In the UK our work has supported work by Seeds for Change, Tripod, London Roots Collective and others. In Poland the work of SPINA carries Sustaining Resistance characteristics. Likewise Sustain Resistance participants are developing sustainable activism initiatives in the Netherlands, Germany, Romania and beyond. And back in the Iberian Peninsula we’ve supported the development of a native Spanish speaking facilitation team and the integration of aspects of our approach into the Eroles Project.

And, of course, as well as the influence on approaches to activist training, the work has been carried back into hundreds of grassroots groups and organisations by participants. We have always taken care in the participant selection process to prioritise people with strong connections into networks and organisations where the learning from the course will be actively spread. In large part this spreading of the work has been possible because of the open source ethic and the creative and committed work that it has supported. Clearly we don’t seek to take the credit for all of that work. But we do delight in being able to be part of that creative unfoldment that, in systems terms, is clearly greater than the sum of the parts.

There have been other valuable spin offs. Perhaps most notably was the development of trainings addressing the challenges of collaborative organising. The Sustaining Resistance course was often structured so that the first half of the course gave time for deeper personal reflection and the kind of inner work that can be hard to build-in to some activist lifestyles. We would then move on to explore more inter-personal and group dimensions of sustainability. The world of experience opened up for people in the first stage was usually deeply enriching. Often so much so that people (even though they might have started out sceptical about ‘navel gazing’) could then feel reluctant to surface from that depth of process to look at the terrain of group and organisational dynamics. We found that the depth we were able to bring to exploring the inner dimension was not being matched in the work on organisation and group issues. Most often this was just a matter of limited time.

Given our commitment to work at the group culture level as well as the personal-psychological level we felt that we needed to create additional spaces to deepen that layer of the work. This led to developing trainings that continued to incorporate the personal work, but enabled us to give primacy to the issues arising in the area of working collaboratively. A colleague, Claire Milne, introduced us to Nick Osborne who along with Justine Corrie was developing trainings in a similar direction. We invited them to work with us, to cross pollinate ideas, and to develop collaboration focused residential trainings at the centre. This working ground supported the birth of the Conscious Collaboration organisation and the Transformative Collaboration [link to training description] trainings we continue to develop ourselves.

Now in 2016 we are beginning to adapt the learning of the last six years to reframe the aims. Rather than simply aiming to sustain activism, we are now interested in how to help develop approaches to activism that really bring out the best in people. We sense that, not only should activism be sustainable, it should provide a context within which people can really thrive. Social engagement is a space where people can live deeply meaningful lives. The altruistic motivations help people realise their potential and form relationships that embody their values. Not only should our socio-political work be focused on the future realisation of change, but become a context for living our values in the present. As Nicole Vosper, who attended one of the first Sustaining Resistance courses in the UK, has framed it, activism can be re-envisioned as regenerative. A ‘regenerative’ approach goes beyond sustainability to explore how we can organise in ways that actually “regenerate through processes that restore, renew or revitalize their own sources of energy and materials.”[i]

We are also exploring how the learning can be applied to a wider range and constituency of ‘change makers’, not just proponents of direct action, but also those engaged in community mobilisation, international organising, human rights defence and scaled up organising that involves a blend of grassroots and NGO style organising. Already the demographic of participants suggests this shift is happening organically. Alongside direct action activists we find investigators, researchers, NGO professionals and community organisers. This widening demographic is offering opportunities for bridges to be built between people adopting a variety of strategic approaches to social change, working on diverse issues, and representing a range of political identities. This feels of real value in supporting more transversal and intersectional forms of organising, which at a time of deep challenges for progressive movements is of vital importance.

So the work goes on. At this point much of the learning will flow into the platform of trainings being developed within the recently launched Ulex Project. Perhaps we’ll see you there.

[i] Big thanks to Nicole Vosper for articulating this idea based on her work applying permaculture principles to activism. See her blog post http://www.emptycagesdesign.org/overcoming-burnout-part-10-regenerative-vs-extractive-organising/

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