WHY DOES SOLIDARITY MATTER?
As we know all too well, our activism and organising work sits within a global and historical system of interlinking forms of oppression. These shape the material, relational, and psychological conditions that influence every one of us. Unfortunately, as many of us will have witnessed, this means that within our groups and organisations, we are likely to reproduce mechanisms of oppression in terms of gender, racism, ableism, and so on. This often leads to personal and collective difficulties with the emergence of various kinds of trauma responses, anxiety, and the erosion of trust. Without the skills to identify and transform these things, they can give rise to tensions and misunderstandings, seriously undermining organisational resilience, and our ability to work together to achieve effective change and address the root causes of issues we organise around.
Unless, as activists, we are willing and able to bring transformative awareness to our own attitudes and practices, we are likely to be perpetuating cycles of oppression, albeit unintentionally.
We think addressing these dynamics plays a crucial part in the struggle for social, environmental and economic justice.
Ulex Project’s work aims to support social and environmental movements to create regenerative cultures and bring about deep and radical change in the world. So it’s important that addressing the core issues of current systemic injustices remains a key part of our work and the training we provide. We also recognise the importance of applying this thinking to the way we function as an organisation and in the culture we create as a team.
This document is a statement of our commitment to active solidarity and outlines some of the ways we approach this in practice. In the interest of reflective growth, we have also identified ways and areas in which we think we could still do better.
WHAT DO WE MEAN BY ACTIVE SOLIDARITY?
We understand active solidarity in the most general sense as all the work that has to do with naming, identifying, deconstructing and transforming existing power dynamics related
to the systems of oppression we function within – capitalism, racism, ageism, ableism, patriarchy, cis-heteronormativity and others.
Active solidarity is a transformative practice requiring both energy and patience. We need to be able to recognise that oppression does real and immediate harm, that must be addressed through acknowledgement and accountability, and that deep transformation of these tendencies is a long-term process that also involves mistakes, forgiveness, developing emotional literacy and a gradual deepening of mutual understanding. This is a lifelong practice and there are no quick-fix solutions. We are committed to continuous learning and deepening of our practice. We want to be held accountable to our commitment, and to continue developing our solidarity practices as we evolve as an organisation. We recognise that being accountable for our fallibility is an important part of the learning process, and to this end we are committed to staying open and being responsive to feedback.
KEY PRINCIPLES OF OUR APPROACH
We organise our approach around key principles, which we list below.
1. Basic Education
An obvious starting point is to ensure that everyone has at least a basic knowledge of how gender, race, class, sexuality, neurodiversity, and body and mind abilities influence power dynamics and what can be done to work consciously and skillfully with these issues. This can help to reduce problems that often arise due to lack of awareness.
Oppression dynamics are almost always more visible to those who are institutionally and socially marginalised, because their negative effects are felt much more keenly. Unfortunately, this means that often the responsibility and energy of bringing these things up, naming them and educating others about them is deferred to those most affected and harmed by them. This is exhausting work!
It is important that our groups do not rely on members of unprivileged or marginalised groups to do the emotional labour of educating others. It is so important that we find ways to support each other in creating cultures of responsibility and engagement around solidarity, equity and empowerment.
Some examples of how we do this in practice: engaging in team study, active solidarity sessions embedded in our courses and wider educational methodologies, production of widely accessible educational materials.
2. Acknowledging power and privilege
Social privilege is an unearned advantage that a person is either born into or acquires during their lifetime, often linked with conforming to social norms such as gender or able-bodiedness.
The way we are treated and perceived by other people is always, at least partially, happening through the lens of our social privileges and, as we have seen, when we have privilege, it is often invisible to us. It is crucial for members of our groups to understand and become aware of privilege and the dynamics associated with it, in order that we avoid its unhealthy reproduction.
Being socially privileged (like being socially marginalised) is not an individual characteristic – it is a systemic characteristic that shows up at an individual level. It is not chosen by an individual but ascribed to them by society, based on (constructed) social group membership. Recognising social privilege is not about blaming those who benefit from it, nor about feeling guilty or ashamed of our social positioning. It is about becoming aware of the existing dynamics, in order that we are better able to transform them and more fully support one another’s empowerment and flourishing for the benefit of everyone!
Some examples of how we do this in practice: reflection on and keeping track of identities over and under represented in our team constellation, among course participants and groups and organisations we work with; recognising and acknowledging barriers to participation in our courses (and doing our best to address the root causes of those!); critical reflection on our outreach, networks and communities we work with.
3. Emotional awareness, building trust and embracing discomfort
To be able to engage with this work sustainably, we need to develop awareness and emotional literacy and learn how to build and rebuild trust in our relationships and groups. This emotional intelligence helps us to work creatively with symptoms of wounding, defensiveness (our own and that of others), and the anger and fear that often surface when we engage with these issues. It is a requirement for supporting the necessary processes of healing. We will need to become competent in working with discomfort, guilt and shame, as well as in cultivating courage and openness.
In a world inscribed by exploitation and abuse, building trust can be a slow process. Within groups where people carry histories of oppression and discrimination, we can’t really be surprised if trust and safety don’t come easily. It is important to remember that our capacities and tendencies in this area will be strongly influenced by our life experiences, socialisation, where we are on the neurodiversity spectrum and our early experiences with relationship building.
Some examples of how we do this in practice: dedicating enough time during trainings to ‘container building’; emphasising the importance of relationships, trust and mutual care in our everyday work as a team; embedding emotional literacy and relationship building into our educational methodologies.
4. Addressing oppressive behaviour and dealing with conflicts
There is no best strategy for addressing oppressive behaviour. The strategies we adopt need to be based on analysing a variety of factors: the wellbeing of the person being affected; what is best for the group/community involved; factors that led to the event; and the particular situation of the person who caused harm (there is a difference between a person repeatedly causing harm and refusing to be accountable for it, and a person commiting a mistake and being willing to change their behaviour).
In most cases people act in oppressive ways out of ignorance or lack of knowledge and not out of ill will. We need to acknowledge this, while at the same time not ignoring the oppressive behaviours.
The most important thing is to see, acknowledge and name the damage caused by oppressive behaviours – and to protect people from further harm. These are the first and necessary steps for healing and rebuilding the safety in a group. This isn’t always easy when a multiplicity of forms of oppression can be operating simultaneously in a situation, or where harm is experienced as functioning at the same time in multiple directions. We need to consider whether and what kind of space we make to address the issue. We might hold a specific session on anti-oppression work or on a specific kind of antagonism or discrimination; we might need to hold a conflict resolution or restorative space for the group; we might need to come back to our group agreements and adjust or improve them.
We need to use accountability mechanisms that are rooted in core values of care and compassion, rather than reproduce a culture of shame, blame and individualisation.
Some examples of how we do this in practice: adopting an approach of emergent, responsive design on our trainings; constantly improving and revisiting our internal team feedback mechanisms; examining our motivations and supporting each other to grow within our core team and within training teams.
5. Failing, giving and receiving feedback, and establishing accountability structures
As we have said, acknowledging fallibility and the high chances of “getting it wrong” at times, is really crucial to healthy engagement with active solidarity practice. We need to embrace making mistakes and learn how to fail with an open heart! The first step is to understand the bigger picture and connect with the deeper motivations for doing work on active solidarity. If our motivation can come from a place of love and commitment to a better world, rather than obligation and fear of doing something wrong, we are more likely to stay inspired and resilient, even when failing at it.
Key to this area is creating structures and mechanisms for sharing experience and giving feedback.
We need to make it easy for one another to communicate about what we need and what is and isn’t working for us in terms of active solidarity. We need to know where to go with this stuff when it comes up, and, ideally, we need to be clear and explicit in what our shared commitments to these things are.
Some examples of how we do this in practice: dedicated Solidarity and Support team on some of our courses, establishing various feedback mechanisms for participants on our courses and internally within our team, as well as with our trainers network and with our partner organisations and networks that keep us accountable around our work.
6. Moving beyond polarisation
The dominant traditions of Western thought have been highly dualistic. Good-Bad, Right-Wrong, Us-Them, Masculine-Feminine, Body-Mind, Matter-Spirit and so on, pervade our ways of seeing. These dualistic frameworks can give rise to blame, shame and essentialism, which can get in the way of a deeper transformative approach to active solidarity.
Of course, in our lives and political work it is important to be able to identify the existence of
antagonism, differences of power and responsibility, and the presence of conflicting demands or needs. Dissolving differences into a non-discriminated ‘oneness’ can be damaging, disempowering, and reactionary. Nevertheless, it is common in activist and solidarity groups to reproduce polarising ways of thinking that are very unhelpful. Those who fail to uphold certain behaviours, views or standards (which have become norms in activist ’woke’ culture) are often treated as ‘bad’ and ostracised or ’othered’ in ways which directly correspond with wider social patterning. Unhelpful binary categorisations emerge (“either you get it or you don’t”, “either you’re an ally or you’re an opponent”). We do this kind of ostracising and othering with parts of ourselves too!
The wounding, trauma and anxiety present within activist groups, as a result of existing and historic oppression, can feed into these tendencies. As a way of protecting ourselves and asserting boundaries needed for personal safety, we can often shut down and fall into simplistic ways of thinking. This is understandable and its necessity or usefulness in certain moments needs to be acknowledged. Nevertheless, the gradual deconstruction of these polarising tendencies is important in our work to heal oppression, trauma and the impacts of violence.
We need to become more adept at holding the complexities and (often irresolvable) tensions of things never being as simple as This-or-That (while maintaining a reasonable amount of discernment!). This means embracing both a less polarised way of looking, while developing the emotional capacities to tolerate discomfort.
Some examples of how we do this in practice: keeping our networks wide and diverse; adopting a broad understanding of activism and social engagement; basing our educational and strategic approaches to activism in complexity and systems thinking.
THINGS WE COULD HAVE DONE BETTER
We realise that it’s an important practice to own our mistakes with humility, so that we can continue to reflect and evolve, and truly enable the kind of systemic change we are working hard to support. With this in mind, we’re highlighting some of the existing limitations of the project and some of the ways we haven’t always got it right.
Firstly, we recognise that Ulex trainings are inaccessible in a variety of ways:
The length and format of some of the courses we host might create limitations of access for people who take care of dependent others, are in precarious economic situations, are neurodiverse or are dealing with chronic illnesses.
The location and physical spaces of our training centres also create barriers to accessibility for those with various levels of physical abilities, and those who are not able to travel for various other reasons.
Most of our training courses are held in English, and so have generally only been accessible to those who already have a high degree of fluency in English.
Historically, many of our networks were connected to western European movements that focussed more on environmental issues and less so on issues of race, class and gender identity. This has been reflected in the demographic of participants on many of our courses – being predominantly white and less diverse in various ways. We have worked hard to address this and make our courses more widely accessible to a more diverse base of participants, however, we recognise that there is still a lot of scope for improvement.
We acknowledge that the range of lived experiences or identities of the training teams facilitating our courses isn’t always as broad as that of the groups they are training. We also recognise that there has been scope for improving anti-oppression skills amongst some of our trainers. At times, we haven’t been able to create as much safety on our courses as we would have liked for participants who already experience marginalisation and oppression within society, which has on occasion been experienced as harmful.
We are working to address some of these limitations, and making an effort to ensure our work is made available more widely than just the courses we host, so that it can reach well beyond those who are able to come to our centres.
SOME MORE EXAMPLES OF WHAT WE ARE DOING
We want Ulex to take diverse perspectives, voices and points of view into account, especially of those that might be underrepresented in activist communities or social movements, and disempowered in the wider social context. Having recognised the limitations of our outreach, we are aiming at improving the diversity of perspectives and experiences inside the core team, in our facilitators network and among the participants on the courses. We are proactively reaching out to underrepresented communities and keep a commitment to discover barriers and blind spots that might create limitations for people to engage.
We want our facilitators network not only to include diverse experiences, identities and perspectives but also to be literate in the topic of anti-oppression and creating safer spaces that are more inclusive. To ensure that it is happening we ask all our facilitators to use our Anti-oppression Toolkit document as a guideline for best practice. Let us know, if you think it is lacking something!
We have a process of ongoing, proactive anti-oppression support and accountability mechanisms for our facilitators and trainers. Literacy in active solidarity practice is one of our basis requirements when bringing training teams together.
We incorporate a holistic, intersectional approach into our trainings and thinking about social change. Our trainings use a variety of methodologies and approaches to suit different learning styles and needs.
We are making efforts to be strategic about who we support with our trainings, and with whom we collaborate on our training projects. In the current political situation of the rise of the far right, one of our priorities is to support organisations and communities who are most impacted. We are proactively reaching out to LGBTQI+ communities, activists in eastern Europe, BPOC communities and migrant solidarity organisations to find ways to support their struggles. To this end we have been developing some programmes of training exclusively for trans activists, BPOC activists and LGBTQI+ activist, recognising the importance of creating spaces where people with shared lived experiences of structural oppressions can learn together more safely, and in doing so can help build capacity for leadership amongst these marginalised groups.
We are aware that activist spaces and social movements are often based on and amplify perspectives of those who hold a lot of privilege – white, able-bodied, middle-class westerners. We are committed to changing this, visibilising and incorporating views, methodologies and perspectives of those who are silenced by systems of oppressions.
We do not believe that it is possible to guarantee any space is 100% safe, because existing systems of oppressions are so pervasive that the potential for unconscious bias and oppressive behaviour is always present. We do however want to keep working to ensure our courses and working environments can be courageous and caring spaces, created on the basis of respect, for people to come together and listen deeply to each other, assume positive intent and take responsibility for what they say, think and feel. We want to create space for accountability, vulnerability and transformation. We are committing to holding conflict and injustice with love and courage, supporting empowerment and visibility of those experiences that are disregarded in a capitalist, patriarchal, racist and ableist society.
We want our training centres to become more physically accessible. We are working hard on generating the funding to convert one of our training centres to make that happen. You can learn more about our centre’s location and facilities here.
The functioning of our project is based on a solidarity economy, which encourages redistribution of wealth and helps to ensure that economic precarity and background are not obstacles to participation in our courses, by securing funds to support travel costs for participants who can’t afford to travel to our training centres.
We are committed to holding ongoing reflective work as a team and a wider organisation, to support each other in better understanding and dismantling systems of oppression, including working with our own unconscious biases and power dynamics based on social privileges and lived experiences.
Finally, as a team, we are regularly dedicating time to monitoring, visioning, researching, planning, training and creating materials on active solidarity.
We want to stay responsive to feedback we receive around our active solidarity practices and ensure we adjust our practices and methods accordingly. If you would like to feed something back to us, please send an email to: firstname.lastname@example.org