From August 4th – 7th I attended the 6th International Vietnamese Youth Conference (DaiHoi6) organized by the Len Duong International Vietnamese Youth Network. The conference was held in the Philippines and brought together approximately 100 Vietnamese youth from around the world (Australia, United States, Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam, Belgium, Canada, Great Britain, France, Germany, and Norway). The theme of this year’s conference was, “Access Now! Digital Activism for Social Change” (download full program).
While there, I also facilitated two workshops both focused on nonviolent struggle. The first was titled, “Why Nonviolent Struggle?” and it explored the strategic elements of nonviolent action that movements have used throughout history. The second was called “Case Studies from the Arab Spring,” and looked at nonviolent struggle within the context of the recent uprisings throughout the Middle East and North Africa. Other workshops offered at the conference focused on topics such as internet circumvention, leadership skills, digital activism inside Vietnam, and social media for social change. Continue reading to learn more about the workshops I facilitated and some of my take-aways from the workshops I attended.
The first workshop, “Why Civil Resistance,” had about 35-40 people in it. I co-facilitated it with Cecilia Lero, a Filipino activist and organizer currently working towards her PhD in political science at Notre Dame. She has also done some nonviolent training work with the Center for Applied Nonviolent Action and Strategy.
We began the workshop by introducing ourselves and what got us interested in the field of nonviolence. I then facilitated the first exercise, which looked at the foundational ideas of power at the root of strategic nonviolence. Normally, in nonviolent trainings, I’ve used and seen other trainers refer to Gene Sharp’s monolithic vs. pluralistic views of power to lay the ground work for how nonviolent movements conceptualize power structures. However, having been recently re-introduced to Starhawk’s three conceptions of power (power over, power with, and power within) by nonviolence trainer, Arthur Romano, I felt this would be a good venue to use this framework instead, since I find it to be a bit more tangible.
To explore these three conceptions of power I first facilitated a visual and kinesthetic exercise involving three chairs. I had the entire group sitting in a circle. I placed the three chairs in the middle of the circle and lined them up next to each other. I then invited participants to come into the center of the circle, one at a time, and re-arrange the chairs so that one was in a position of power. After about 5 minutes, several participants had shifted the orientation of the chairs – placing one chair in front of the others, stacking chairs on top of one another, removing all but one chair from the circle altogether, connected all the chairs into a triangle, laying down two chairs on the floor in front of another (as if they were bowing), etc. The goal was to spark the entire group’s thinking on how they view power – as domination (power over), as influence, unity and numbers (power with), or power as internal and spiritual (power within). At this point in the exercise, I had not yet introduced Starhawk’s three conceptions of power, yet it was fascinating to see how the different chair configurations the participants came up with and the comments from those watching in the circle manifestations of those three conception of power. So, in fact, most people are already aware of these conceptions of power, this kind of exercise helps them tap into that knowledge and and reflect on their own views and assumption. Training for Change has a great write up of this exercise.
After we stimulated our thinking on power with the chair exercise, we upped the intensity a bit. We continued our exploration of power, but this time I invited participants to enter into the middle of the circle, one at a time, and place themselves in a position of power, creating a human sculpture. After each person entered the circle and got into their pose they were to remain in that position. Hence, when new people entered the sculpture they could position themselves in relation to others in the sculpture. So, for example, the first person that entered the circle stood in the middle, spread his legs shoulder width apart, and flexed his muscles. The next person who entered the circle actually jumped on the first. The third person climbed on top of a chair and put his foot on the shoulder of the first person. As others entered the circle, the human sculpture began to reveal, once again, different conceptions of power.
After about 10 people made themselves part of the sculpture, I then went around, while people remained in their poses, and tapped them on the shoulder one at a time. Once they were tapped they were asked to explain to the rest of the group why they considered their position to be one of power. They began their explanation with, “I am powerful because…” This gave voice to what people had been viewing and experiencing visually in both exercises.
After several people shared, I then introduced Starhawk’s three conceptions of power and asked the participants to connect these conceptions to some of the chair configurations and poses in the human sculpture. I connected these conceptions of power to Gene Sharp’s idea of consent-based power and its importance in how nonviolent movements approach and analyze the power structures they seek to change. I did this by first showing the pyramid diagram associated with the monolithic view of power – an individual or elite group of individuals standing at the top of the pyramid, while “the people” stand at the bottom. The person at the top, exercising power over, decides through their rule and dictates how the people at the bottom are to live their lives and what they can and cannot do. This power-over structure is common practice in authoritarian regimes, be they governmental, institutional, or corporate.
I then connected the “power with” conception to Gene Sharp’s pluralistic view of power. I did this by flipping the pyramid diagram upside down so that the “ruler” was on the bottom and the people were on the top. There is a similar flow of power in this diagram in that the ruling elite is deciding and enforcing the rules of society, but with this orientation that hold on power looks much more precarious and fragile since the entire structure and this flow of power rests on a small point. And so depending on how the people exercise their power with one another, they can shift the balance and wield collective power. They can tip the balance and dissolve the power structure all together in hopes of creating a newer one that’s more accountable and just.
The other element to this upside down pyramid diagram, which adds a bit more complexity to the simplified metaphor above, are the pillars of support that power holders rely on in order to maintain that balance and perpetuate the status quo. I represented the pillars of support in the diagram as buttresses on either side of the upside down pyramid, propping it up on either side and giving it stability and balance. I asked participants to provide some examples of pillars of support that help keep a power structure in place. Examples such as media companies, military/security forces, business community, educational systems, and religious institutions were given. I placed these on the diagram. I then outlined how nonviolent movements identify the key pillars of support that are propping up the unjust status quo, and then target those pillars with specific campaigns comprised of diverse nonviolent actions – strikes, boycotts, mass demonstrations, alternative media, etc. – that are designed to shift the behavior patterns of those who make up the pillars. Persuading or coercing those individuals to change the way they act and removing their support for the status quo is what can ultimately cause a power structure to change or dissolve altogether. In Gene Sharp’s words, “if the people do not obey, the ruler cannot rule.” By withdrawing consent, disobeying, and refusing to cooperate, mass nonviolent mobilizations of societies can be and have been victorious in changing and removing even the most brutal and oppressive power structures.
This led into Cecilia’s portion of the workshop, which looked more specifically at her experience in nonviolent campaigns. She also spent some time looking at the rich history of nonviolent action in the Philippines, particularly with the 1986 People Power movement that brought down Ferdinand Marcos. Cecilia also fleshed out the pillars of support analysis by breaking each one of the pillars down into sub groups. Lastly, Cecilia talked about the importance of incorporating humor into campaigns and actions. She said, “being part of a social movement should be fun,” and that humor brings that dynamic into play. She shared a couple examples of how the demonstrators in the Philippines have used humor and then I shared a video about how Otpor, the youth movement that helped bring down Serbia’s Slobodan Milsosevic, used humor in their actions.
The second workshop, “Case Studies from the Arab Spring,” had about 25-30 people in it. I wasn’t even supposed to facilitate at all, actually. The original facilitators were supposed to be two amazing activists and bloggers, Sami Ben Gharbia from Tunisia and Dalia Ziada from Egypt. Unfortunately, both of them ended up pulling out at the last minute and so I was brought in to replace them. Given the short amount of time I was given to prep, I ended up doing another version of the “Why Nonviolent Struggle” workshop, but I used a different exercise that explored pillars of support and nonviolent tactics more closely and used Egypt at a case study for analysis.
To start, and give a brief intro to the whole nonviolent struggle phenomenon, we watched the Civil Resistance: A First Look video. I then jumped right into looking at pillars of support. To represent this idea more visually I had a mattress brought in and I rested it on six different chairs, each representing a specific pillar. After the participants identified 6 pillars of support that prop up regimes like Mubarak’s in Egypt, I broke them up in six equal sized groups. Each group was assigned one of the pillars and I asked them to think about (1) what specific individuals/sub groups within that pillar they would target and (2) what kind(s) of nonviolent actions would they take to apply pressure on that target in order to create shifts in how those people behave with regards to their support for the status quo.
After each group was given 15 minutes to talk among them selves, we then went around the room and each group shared what they had discussed. All the groups demonstrated great insight into targets and tactics. For example, the group focused on the military said they would target low level soldiers with fraternization tactics – convincing them that the objectives of the regime which they serve are unjust an immoral and that those of the nonviolent actionists are just and right (Sharp). The group that focused on the business community said they would implement targeted boycotts – using the public’s purchasing power by withdrawing it, ergo putting pressure on business to change their practices. The group focused on the security forces said they would target family members of the officers seeking their support and asking them to use their familial connections. It was at this point that I brought up the little known, yet often effective, lysatratic nonactions (sex strike), where wives refuse sexual relations with their husbands unless they change their behavior. I referenced recent lysatratic nonactions that Colombian women have taken in order to get a road built in their small town.
The construction of the mattress and chairs came into play during this exercise in that after each group presented, one of their members came to the middle of the circle and removed one of the chairs, symbolizing the removal of that pillar given their targeted nonviolent actions. As chairs started to get removed from under the mattress I, as the dictator, would quickly reassemble the remaining chairs to try and keep the balance and stability.
By the time all the groups had gone and the last chair had been kicked out from underneath the mattress, the group had generated a great list of targets and tactics. Stepping back and reviewing the entire exercise, they group had formed a series of nonviolent campaigns.
I was very pleased with how this workshop turned out, especially considering that it was planned last minute. It was the first time I had facilitated the mattress exercise on my own and was happy that it played the role it was intended to play. Each group was eager to kick out their pillar and it added a fun, symbolic, and kinesthetic element to the whole process.
In addition to facilitating the workshops described above, I also had the opportunity to attend other plenaries and workshops. I would liked to have attended them all, but some were held in Vietnamese only, a language I do not speak. Below are short descriptions and take-aways from those plenaries and workshops.
Digital Activism for Social Change
Speaker: Duy Hoang
Description: Each one of us has a dream for Vietnam. How can we use technology, specifically the internet, to promote social changes? One of the conference’s keynote speakers, Duy Hoang, will discuss the opportunities and challenges for digital activism in Vietnam and the work of Viet Tan in this field.
One of the key take-aways from this plenary was Duy’s outlining of the four ways regimes crack down on internet use – (1) blocking sites, (2) attacking sites, (3) hacking accounts, and (4) arresting netizens – all of which are commonplace inside Vietnam. Blocking sites means denying internet users access to specific sites. In Vietnam, as in other countries, sites like Facebook have been blocked by the government. Attacking sites could mean overloading the site with a surge of requests, forcing it to crash or to load at extremely slow speeds. It could also mean attacking the servers that host the site with viruses making it inoperable. Hacking accounts means getting access to passwords and other information about users of specific sites and services like Facebook, Gmail, and Twitter in order to mine data about the individual’s networks and online actions. And arresting netizens means actually tracking down digital activists and imprisoning them for their actions or just physically beating and intimidating them.
Another key take-away from Duy’s presentation was when he said, “internet circumvention is civil disobedience for the 21st century.” In countries where its been made illegal for people to access websites (used for legitimate civil society purposes albeit in opposition to the status quo), to live in accordance with these unjust laws and policies is to support them. To actively defy these laws by circumventing firewalls and blocks put in place by unjust regimes is not only a necessity for those who use these tools for activism, but also duty of those interested in fighting against injustice.
Speakers: Bobby Soriano, Sebastian Hahn, Angelina Trang Huỳnh
Description: What do cute cats have to do with web circumvention? Despite the attempts to block Facebook and other web content in Vietnam, millions of Vietnamese are still accessing the internet. What are the tools for circumvention and how can we help netizens stay ahead of the censors?
One of the key take-aways from this workshop can from Tactical Tech’s Bobby Soriano when he talked about how it is impossible, particularly with each computer and location being tied to an IP (internet protocol) address, to change the underlying structure of the internet. Ergo, security is not intrinsic to that underlying structure. It is important, therefore, for activists using the internet to know what steps that can and should take so as to not leave themselves totally vulnerable to the threats mentioned by Duy in his plenary session.
Sebastian Hahn, from the TOR Project, gave a great presentation on anonymity software – a special browser people can install on their computers that allows them to circumvent firewalls and surf the internet anonymously so their online actions cannot be tracked. In explaining how anonymity and proxy servers work, he, along with Bobby Soriano, gave me a much better understanding of how the whole internet system functions – where the vulnerabilities lie, how to protect yourself, and how to combat restrictions on how its used.
Angelina Huynh runs the No Firewall Blog, which shares information about digital activism and internet security in Vietnamese for activists all over the world, but primarily inside Vietnam. She talked about how they strategically hosted the blog using Blogspot. Blogspot is one of the most common blog hosting services inside Vietnam, so if the government wants to shut down the No Firewall Blog they would also be shutting down the tens of thousands of other blogs that are hosted with the same service. If they were to do that, it could put the government in a tough spot, potentially angering all the other bloggers who rely on the same service.
It was a real honor and a privilege to be a part of this conference and to meet all the amazing, dedicated activists and organizers working to advance human rights, democracy, and positive peace. I learned a lot and was fortunate enough to try out some new exercises and activities in the two workshops I facilitated. I look forward to staying in touch with all the new friends that I made. Check out the video below that one of the conference organizers put together. It definitely captures the excitement and fun that was experience throughout the conference.