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The history, power and community of FSI

From June 16-22, the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict will hold its eighth annual Fletcher Summer Institute for the Advanced Study of Nonviolent Conflict — the world’s only executive level education program in the study of civil resistance. ICNC is currently accepting applications to attend this institute and encourages individuals from around the world to apply. There are also a limited number of scholarships available.

As an ICNC staff member, this will be my fifth FSI in a row and it will no doubt continue to be a highlight of my year. The story of how I became involved with ICNC and welcomed into the FSI community is one that still amazes me to this day and, in many ways, captures the power of how and why people from around the world learn about this method of struggle.

In 2002 I was an undergraduate student at Middlebury College, a small liberal arts school in Vermont.  This was a transformative and life-defining year for me for a number of reasons. First, the terrorist attacks of September 11, were very fresh and present in the thinking and conversations on campus, throughout the country, and around the world. Second, as one’s college experience will ideally do, I was being exposed to the myriad issues, injustices and challenges communities around the world face on a daily basis. Third, as a result of these conversations and this exposure I began to develop a strong and principled anti-violence, pro-peace political and social identity. I became more politically active and aware. I participated in campus actions against the impending war in Iraq and I became a weekly op-ed contributor to the campus newspaper, writing on a variety of social justice issues. In short, a life’s purpose began to form.

There was, however, an important and difficult question with which I was still grappling. On the one hand, I was adamantly opposed to violent conflict, but on the other hand, I realized and appreciated the need and desire for people to fight back against oppressive structures and combat injustices of various kinds — in a sense, engage in conflict. The question was then, how can people fight and combat violent policies, governments, structures and systems without themselves relying on the “power” of violence? I knew that people should not have to sit back and passively accept injustices and violence that are being imposed upon them, in hopes of a peaceful end. People must act and react in these conflicts, but in what way?

During my final fall semester in 2003, one of my favorite college professors and a mentor of mine, Dr. Guntram Herb, offered a “Geography of Peace” course. One of the required texts for the course was a new book by Jack DuVall and Dr. Peter Ackerman titled, A Force More Powerful: A Century of Nonviolent Conflict. Little did I know, at the time, that this book would shape my professional trajectory in the years to come.

A Force More Powerful captures the history and in-depth stories (often untold and marginalized) of several nonviolent, civil resistance movements and campaigns throughout the 20th century, ranging from Danish resistance to Nazi occupation during World War II and India’s Independence Movement to the Anti-Apartheid struggle in South Africa and the Polish Solidarity Movement.

The one chapter that was most enlightening for me was the story of the lunch-counter sit-in campaigns in Nashville in 1960 that sought to end the practice of segregation and institutionalized racism in that city and throughout the American South. This campaign introduced me to the work and trainings of Methodist minister, Rev. James Lawson.  In the 1950s Lawson had traveled to India to learn about Gandhian nonviolence, brought these ideas back to the United States and was recruited by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to teach and train legions of young activists and organizers in the history, theory, strategies and methods of nonviolent action and in turn inspire a movement armed with nonviolent weapons and discipline to combat injustice.

Lawson’s work and the thousands of nonviolent action takers that emerged from his trainings helped shape many of the civil rights struggles and campaigns in the ensuing decade. This story uncovered a method of struggle — a militant and organized way to fight against injustice — that did not resort to using violence.  This man, this story, and the greater knowledge of these nonviolent campaigns addressed that fundamental life question I had been seeking to answer. Nonviolent civil resistance, too often reduced to just street demonstrations, was an actual method of struggle with a rich history, strategy, and arsenal of tactics that had been used by people for generations. I needed to learn more.

Daryn Cambridge (left) with Rev. James Lawson (middle) at FSI in 2009. (WNV/Daryn Cambridge)

Daryn Cambridge (left) with Rev. James Lawson (middle) at FSI in 2009. (WNV/Daryn Cambridge)

Seven years after reading the book and learning about Rev. James Lawson, I found myself at my first Fletcher Summer Institute. As soon as I arrived to the opening banquet, Jack DuVall, president of ICNC and co-author of A Force More Powerful, greeted me and immediately walked me to the other side of the room to introduce me to none other than Rev. Lawson.

As one can imagine, it was a monumental moment in the life of someone committed to the power and potential of nonviolent action — a commitment born out of the book Jack had co-wrote and the life’s work of Rev. James Lawson. That evening I spent time chatting with Rev. Lawson and then watched him deliver the keynote address. He shared stories, insights, and wisdom from his experience as a nonviolent action taker and connected the meaning and significance of these experiences to present day struggles for justice and liberation.

I now see Rev. Lawson at least once a year and have the privilege of meeting and collaborating with new FSI participants each summer, many of whom have been on the front lines of contemporary nonviolent movements across the globe. It’s a rare, unique and special group of international participants gathering around the core ideas, history, and strategies of waging nonviolent struggle. It is six days of inspiration, learning and collaboration around civil resistance found nowhere else.

This is just one man’s FSI experience, but an experience that is shared by anyone who also grapples with the need to address violence and oppression in our communities and around the world while at the same time making the choice to eschew violence as a means to a peaceful end.

If you would like to be a part of the experience and community, ICNC encourages you to apply before the April 5 deadline. And, as I said above, there are a limited number of scholarships available, so the sooner you apply the better.