Maintaining the People's Joy

Attending an international trainers' conference convinced Leonard Desroches that nonviolence is more than technique

By Leonard Desroches | 1991-11-01 12:00:00

From July 19 to July 26, fifty non-violence trainers-a Palestinian and a Jew, several Americans and Latin Americans, and others from 25 countries-came together in Handel, a small village in the Netherlands where the quiet sound of a farmer on a bicycle is as common as that of a car. We stayed in a former Franciscan monastery now operated by The Community of the Ark, an organization founded in France by a friend of Gandhi's. Organized by the International Fellowship of Reconciliation, War Resisters League International, and the International Network of Engaged Buddhists, the ground-breaking week-long gathering set us the task of exchanging approaches, developing a network of trainers, and devising strategies for local training.

Throughout the week we asked ourselves "How do we do this work in a cross-cultural context?" On the first day, a sample nonviolent workshop from the Philippines brought out the cultural nuances. Narayan noted that "absolute respect for humans" wouldn't work as a starling point in India unless it was set in the context of respect for all life. "In Holland, we very often couldn't start a workshop with singing," noted Magda-she laughed and explained that the Dutch were too stiff, and I was reminded of how often that could be said of Canadians. Nelsa, from Ecuador, remarked that they would not start with any definition of nonviolence, but come to one together.

The common technique of role-playing took on a different value in different cultural situations. In Palestine, the children naturally play roles of enemy and victim, while in Sri Lanka the discipline of some monks forbids them from participating in role-plays.

In cases of extreme repression, as in Chile under Pinochet and Nicaragua under Somoza, the issue was not so much how to conduct the training as how to keep the meetings secret and yet get people out to them.

I realized during the course of the week at least three major ways in which we abuse each other culturally. The first is bashing, and the most obvious example is bashing of the United States. By this I mean an unfocused, cynical put-down, as opposed to disciplined criticism. Secondly, we can romanticize the other, as many did during the struggle in Nicaragua. Finally, as the lone Canadian there, I experienced the third abuse, that of trivializing. There were moments when Canada was lumped in with the U.S., not always by those from the U.S.-in fact one of the Americans explained that as an individual I never felt trivialized in the group, but lumping Canada in with the U.S. made me feel trivialized as a Canadian. I reminded the group that we might ask women whether or not it is destructive to be trivialized (as in aw, c'mon, when we say men, we're including the ladies too! You're just being too sensitive.)

To learn more informally from one another's cultures we had some rich cultural evenings, and also started all our meetings with singing or game playing. We shared work in the magnificent vegetable garden, took turns cleaning up, and chatted together over meals. This was very valuable, but I learned how critical it is to give more time at the onset to storytelling: to share our struggles, hopes and dreams. We recognized what we had missed, and added it to the agenda.

The process of the conference was a far cry from the usual passive format.

On the very first day, the organizing committee handed over the running of the conference to the participants. Agenda, clean-up and other commit-tees were soon set up. We divided up into seven-member affinity groups with whom we could meet every day after the evening meals to check in with each other in a consistent way.

I offer two critiques of nonviolence training which were reaffirmed by the conference. First, I see a very real danger in being full-time, paid "trainers"-at least for any long period of time. It is too easy to come to see ourselves as "experts." It can also become a career. I strongly recommend that we learn simple but valuable work skills that will allow us to take care of the basics of life. And if there is a short period where we are paid to do full-time train-mg, we should at least try to maintain an involvement in the struggle as ordinary members of a group where we are not in leadership.

Although there was an optional time of meditation with the community, I felt there was lack of emphasis on the spiritual dimension of our work in the broadest sense. As I see it, we should never equate "training" with "preparation." Preparation is much broader and involves the whole rich dimension of spirituality. By spirituality I do not mean ideology or creeds or doctrines. I mean spiritual realities like the need for respect and trust. We can do all the "training" we want, but if our "preparation" for nonviolent action and life does not include a struggle with these spiritual realities I do not believe our "training" will last.

Nelsa from Ecuador reminded us of the third dimension by recalling that those involved in the overthrow of the Somoza dictatorship took on the responsibility of "maintaining the people's joy." In Latin America the word "capacitacion" refers to helping people become capable of acting. This presumes the fullest possible preparation, in which "training" can play a vital role. But training is not the whole preparation. If 10 or 10,000 people are thoroughly "trained" in the techniques of nonviolence but there is no respect among them, would any one of us claim it would "work"?

The gathering did succeed in initiating the process of building a transnational network of trainers. And it did provide an opportunity to devise longer-term strategies for developing local capacities for nonviolence training around the world. Asia, South Africa, India and Latin America decided to organize a similar gathering of their own in the near future.

Nonviolence training relies first on "people power," as was demonstrated most recently in Russia. We all left changed again by the power we had shared with one another: the power of "satyagraha," "agape," and "relentless persistence".

Leonard Desroches has done training for nonviolence for many different groups. His wage-earning work is drywalling.

Peace Magazine Nov-Dec 1991

Peace Magazine Nov-Dec 1991, page 13. Some rights reserved.

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