Nonviolent Action Workshops in Cambodia


For the past ten days my colleague, Althea and I were in Phnom Penh where we facilitated two workshops on nonviolent civil resistance. We were invited by a diaspora based group called Khmer Unity whose mission is advocating for democracy, human rights, and territorial sovereignty/integrity in Cambodia.  They network and collaborate with other nongovernmental organizations both domestically and internationally for the betterment of Cambodia.

This was an amazing experience for a number of reasons. First, this was my first time in Cambodia so I was constantly soaking up the history, culture, and environment while I was there. Second, the process of designing and facilitating a workshop on nonviolent action for learners whose mother tongue is  Khmer – a language very different from English – posed some challenges that helped me and Althea think in new ways about how to talk and teach about the topic. And third, it was an opportunity that brought me into contact with so many amazing people who are organizing around a myriad of issues.

Below are some descriptions of some of the exercises we facilitated, concepts we covered, and things that we learned.

IMG_3502Clearly stating the goals and having them displayed in the front of the room throughout the workshop was very helpful to the learning. First, it laid out the purpose of the workshops. Second, the goals (in the second workshop) were phrased in the form of a question, which turned them into “objectives” in a sense, in that participants would be able to answer these questions by the end of the workshop. And third, as we went through the day and flowed from topic to topic, activity to activity, we were able to refer back to the goals to ground everything we were doing.

Laying out our teaching principles was also a good idea because it prepared the participants for the kind of learning experience that was ahead. It was also a set of principles rooted in the hopes that the participants would be able to carry these ideas out into their own communities and do the teaching themselves.

IMG_3439Group Spectrum / Establishing our Learning Community – This exercise is designed to explore and appreciate the experience, knowledge, and potential already present in the room – before any “teaching” has taken place. It is step one in adhering to the principle that we intend for participants to learn just as much from each other as they do from the facilitators and to recognize the power and unique nature of the group.

In the first spectrum Althea had participants line up from youngest to oldest and then asked people to volunteer to share their age so that the group could get a sense of the range. The point was then made that as a group there is almost a thousand years of experience into which we can tap and rely on over the course of the workshop.

In the second spectrum Althea had participants line up from most amount of siblings to least amount of siblings and then asked people to volunteer up how many siblings they had. We had as low as one and as high as eleven! The point was then made that there are already hundreds of people with whom we are connected that may be open to hearing and learning about the ideas that will be shared and explored in the workshop. There may only be 45 people physically in this room, but there are family networks totaling over 100 people who could also learn these concepts.

In the third spectrum Althea had participants line up by geographic location – those who traveled the farthest from their home to be at the workshop to those who traveled the least to be at the workshop. Althea asked some participants to volunteer from where they were coming. The point was then made that we have come from all parts of Cambodia, facing a variety of issues, to gather around the ideas of civil resistance and how they can be applied to a range of issues and contexts and that this workshop is an opportunity to start experimenting with these ideas in those contexts.

IMG_3453Visions of Tomorrow / Group Drawings – One of the first exercises we did in small group was for participants to discuss their “vision of tomorrow” for Cambodia and to then create a drawing or visual representation of that vision. This exercise served two main goals. The first was for issues and problems within Cambodia to emerge and be discussed within the small groups. The second was for these issues (and the conversations that raised them) to be visually present during the entire workshop to better inform and remind not only the participants, but also the facilitators, about what is motivating and driving the learning in the room.  Each of the drawings were hung up around the room and remained there throughout the various sessions. There were several occasions where some of the drawing were referred to during later mini-lectures and discussions – the fish one in particular. This is an immediate way for participants to gain ownership over the learning experience.

We didn’t do vision of tomorrow or “affinity groups” for the first workshop, but was useful, unity-building, and building blocks throughout the 3 days.

IMG_3460Approaches to Conflict / List-Making, Debate and King Quote – In this exercise, participants first worked in pairs coming up with 5 words or phrases that they associated with word, “conflict.” They wrote these words and phrases down on their notepads. After about 5 minutes of paired discussion, we went around the room and each pair was asked to share one word from their list and to then decide if they thought that word/phrase was a negative word, a positive word, or a neutral word. Based on their decisions that word was then placed on a chart.

After we had gone around to each group, we took a quick look at what had been put up on the chart – how many words/phrases were in the negative column? How many in the neutral column? How many in the positive column? We then went around the each pair again, but this time they could either add another word/phrase from their list to the chart or they could challenge where a word already up there had been placed. In other words, if “disagreement” was a word that had been put up there and it was in the negative column, another pair could then disagree and make a case for why “disagreement” is not necessarily negative, but in fact positive or neutral.

This conversation and the insights from the participants unpacked the idea that conflict if oftentimes viewed as and assumed to be inherently negative and violent. Ergo when conflict is studied or covered in the news its approached in 1 of three ways. First, conflict equals violence, so if we want to know how to wage a conflict against an adversary we must then learn about violent or armed conflict. Second, if conflict is violent and negative then it is something that needs to prevented or resolved, hence the popular fields of conflict resolution and management. Third, if conflict if violent and negative then its something that many people want to avoided all together and so the challenged authority or creating conflict is seen as destructive and bad. Nonviolent conflict adds a fourth approach. Conflict is unavoidable and oftentimes necessary in order for any kind of change to occur.  The question is then how can one create, wage, and even intensify conflict albeit without using tools of violence? So, in short, nonviolent conflict is not about resolving or preventing conflict. It is about waging conflict with civilian-based nonviolent methods.

To summarize this approach we showed an image and quote from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. taken from his Letter from a Birmingham Jail:

“But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word tension. I have earnestly worked and preached against violent tension, but there is a type of constructive nonviolent tension that is necessary for growth…So the purpose of the direct action is to create a situation so crisis-packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation.” – April 16, 1963

IMG_3473Conception of Power / Power Chairs – We used this exercise to bring the participants into conversation around our conceptions and assumptions about power. This was done right before we introduced monolithic and pluralistic views of power. There were three chairs placed in the middle of the circle and one participant at a time was invited to come into the circle and arrange the chairs into a configuration that they felt represented power or a power structure. After they arranged the chair they were given a little bit of time to explain the configuration. 6-8 participants came into the circle all with different configurations for the chairs.

The configurations they put together and the explanations they gave were then used in explaining Sharp’s monolithic and pluralistic views of power, since elements of the configurations were connected to those theories. It was very helpful for us to refer back to the chair configurations when explaining these views.

IMG_3487Conceptions of Power / Human Sculptures – In this exercise we assigned each group to a conception of power – power over, power with, and power within – and then asked each group to create a sculpture using their bodies that represented that conception. The goal of the exercise was to think about the various ways power can manifest itself and to be able to identify those manifestation within ourselves or in other people. Each group was given a certain amount of time to discuss and create their sculpture, a process that helps spur valuable discussion and insights on these conception. Then when each group presented their sculpture to the rest of the group, everyone else was invited to walk around the sculpture and observe it from various angles, pay attention to facial expressions, body language, and other choices the group made to represent that conception.

The point was made that its important to explore conceptions of power and definitions of power, because how we define our reality shapes our reality. If we are made to define power as looking a certain way or manifesting itself in a certain form, that can lead us to only see of recognize power in that form, when in fact in make take on other manifestations. So defining those other conceptions and theories and embodying them in these sculptures helps internalize those definitions and make them more real.

IMG_8350Methods of Nonviolent Action / Slideshow – It’s one thing to read a list of methods of nonviolent action (even if its in your mother tongue). It’s another thing to see these methods in action by movements across the globe. For this exercise we played a 5-10 minute slide show of about 30 different nonviolent actions and methods that have happened around the world. We played music in the background as we clicked through the images. Participants were asked to look out for images that they found particularly inspiring or thought-provoking and to signal their reaction by waving their hands in the air in silence.  This gave us a visual cues into what images were resonating with the audience so we knew which ones to touch upon and jump into once the slide show was over. It also keeps the participants engaged and present during the slide show since they are being asked to recognize their reactions to particular images and seeing others in the room react as we go through the slides.

IMG_8396Methods of Nonviolent Action / Participation and Risk Assessment + Gallery Walk – In this exercise, each of the small groups were assigned a spectrum on which to analyze and discuss the various methods of nonviolent action that were presented earlier. 4 of the groups ranked the methods along a spectrum of high risk to low risk if these methods were to be employed in Cambodia. 3 of the groups ranked the methods along a spectrum of high participation to low participation based on if these methods were employed in Cambodia. The point is to open up discussion and debate around the various methods to them expose the complexities of each one as they relate to a particular issue, community, culture, etc.

After each group was given a set amount of time to place the methods on their spectrum, all participants were invited to go around the room and look at the other group spectrums. They were asked to write down on their notepads any decisions one of the other groups made that they disagreed with. In other words, if one group had a method as high risk but the participant actually thought it was low risk, they would write that down.

IMG_8439Methods of Nonviolent Action / Fishbowl Debate – After the gallery walk we brought everyone back to the larger circle. We then placed four chairs in the middle of the circle – two facing two. We asked for one person to raise a challenge or question about where one of the groups placed a method on their spectrum. That person and a partner then entered the circle, sat in two of the chairs and were tasked with sharing their reasons for why they think that method should have been placed differently on the spectrum. Two members from the group whose spectrum was being challenged also came in the circle and sat in the two other chairs. They were tasked with defending and further explaining their rationale. A debate and conversation among these four people was allowed to go on for about 10 minutes, while everyone else (not in the “fishbowl) just listened. Anytime a comment or argument was made the those sitting on the perimeter agreed with they shook their hands in the air to show support for the statement.

IMG_3416 Training of Trainers – After facilitating many learning exercises we debreifed the process and content by asking, what did we do as facilitators to present ideas and engage you in a learning experience around those ideas?

This is a list of what we did, step-by-step, during the first workshop. Not only to review what we covered that day, but also to take a look at the different approaches we used to do each of them. E.g. small group discussion, large group discussion, pairs, listing, mini-lecture, visual representations, sculptures, film showing, energizers, etc.

This also provides an opportunity for participants to step out of their role as “learners” and into the role of “educators/facilitators” – not only analyzing it from the perspective of what it was like to learn during each of these activities, but also how much thinking/planning went into designing just one day of the workshop (from the educator’s perspective)

IMG_8204Small Group Work / Hearing the Knowledge in their own Voices – Organizing the large group into smaller sub groups allowed time and space for the participants to hear and re-present the knowledge in their own voice – a proven teaching strategy that helps the learning stick. It is also an effective way to check for understanding. We would bounce from group to group and have them explain to us what they were discussing through the translator to see if the ideas and concepts had gotten through accurately in our presentations and exercises. These small group work sessions also helped give ownership of the learning and teaching to the participants and not feeling like the outsiders were coming with all the information or relevant discussion points. Some of these ideas, if not all of them, once presented need to be unpacked and discussed by the group that intends to apply them to their struggle, otherwise the opportunity for indigenous experience and insight to advance the knowledge is lost.

IMG_8481Icebreakers and Warmup / Tuning the Group – We incorporated various fun energizers throughout the workshop to continue building community and maintain a healthy level of energy. Dr. Martin Seligman explains the value of energizers in his book, Flourish:

“The ‘basic rest and activity cycle,’ or BRAC, is characteristic of human beings and other diurnal (awake during the day) animals. On average, we are at our most alert in late morning and mid evening. We are at the bottom of our cycle – tired, grumpy, inattentive, and pessimistic – at mid afternoon and in the wee hours of the morning. So very biological is this cycle that death itself occurs disproportionately at the bottom of BRAC…I can’t say enough now for frequent energy breaks in the classroom itself. It’s not just kindergarten kids who need them: the older we get, the more they help us to learn and to teach.”

IMG_8537Pillars of Support / Workshop Analogy Discussion – We also did some “mini lectures” especially when getting through some of the more theoretical knowledge. We felt that this content was best taught through presentation and then leading into practical application of those ideas.

We also had learned from the first 2-day workshop that we needed to use metaphors to explain some of these complex theories. We used the metaphor of the workshop itself to model the theory and ideas.

Then we had them apply the theoretical framework to their own situations/scenarios. We broke it down into three different parts. First we did pillars of support, then we did loyalties within one pillar, and then we did mapping of those loyalties into a spectrum of allies.

IMG_8296Outside of the workshop we actually got the opportunity to meet up with Nora Lindstrom who works for an organization in Phnom Penh, Sahmakum Teang Tnuat. She was also, at that time, a student in the online Rutgers course that we were in the process of facilitating.

She took us to Boeung Kak Lake to learn more about the conflict around foced evictions (which her org addresses) and to meet some of the families and community members who have been impacted by the forced evictions and have been on the front lines of the resistance.

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