Blog

Want to learn how movements succeed? Apply for the Fletcher Summer Institute

Thousands of citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina took to the streets in June 2013 to demand accountability from their political leaders. (WNV /Roska Vrgova)

Thousands of citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina took to the streets in June 2013 to demand accountability from their political leaders. (WNV /Roska Vrgova)

Do you have an interest in social movements? Have you ever wished you could learn about them from leaders of past struggles? If you apply for the 10th annual Fletcher Summer Institute for the Advanced Study of Nonviolent Conflict, or FSI for short, you may just get the chance. Applications are still being accepted (until February 16) for a weeklong gathering — held June 7-12 at Tufts University — of activists, journalists, civil society professionals and academics ready to learn about civil resistance.

I first heard about FSI back in 2010 through the Peace and Collaborative Development Network, but it wasn’t until 2014, following massive protests the previous year in Bosnia and Herzegovina that I decided it was time to apply. Having documented and taken part in movements and actions that were unable to achieve their full goals, I knew I needed to learn more about how to use tactics and strategies if I was going to contribute to the development of better-organized and more successful movements.

The informative lectures provided just what I needed. Given by top academics and practitioners in the field, I found much of the “conventional wisdom” about civil resistance challenged in helpful ways. For instance, the perception that some amount of small-scale violence can help a struggle was countered by actual data — presented by esteemed political scientist Erica Chenoweth — showing quite the opposite, that nonviolent movements succeed twice as often as their violent counterparts.

Although I had spent time researching social movements, this spurred me to study them even more closely. Each session during the weeklong gathering had many thought-provoking discussions, particularly because participants came from all over the world.

Hearing first-hand the experiences of Ivan Marovic — a leader of the movement credited with bringing down Slobodan Milošević in Serbia — as well as listening to Rev. James Lawson — one of the key strategists in the U.S. civil rights movement — was truly humbling. They were only two of the many living examples at FSI who showed that change is possible, if one is willing to struggle for it.

FSI participants in discussion between sessions. (ICNC)

FSI participants in discussion between sessions. (ICNC)

However, some of my most formative experiences at FSI involved fellow participants sharing their stories. One participant, a solidarity activist and photographer who spent many years in the West Bank, opened my eyes to the struggle of the Palestinian people. Another colleague spoke about her anti-corruption work with local youth in Vanuatu. I also had a chance to illustrate the Bosnian movements by presenting my photography.

These presentations, and other informal discussions with the participants, helped me situate my own struggle in a more global context, and it instilled in me a sense that I was part of a global community — and that together we’re fighting for democracy and a better life. Suddenly, the movements around the world seemed tangible. We continue to learn and support each other in our global struggles, both online and off.

After FSI, I felt compelled to share the knowledge and skills I gained with my colleagues back home so that they too could feel inspired. In October 2014, my colleagues from the Institute for Research and Social Innovation – Impact and I, in partnership with the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, organized a seminar called Nonviolent Civil Movements: Theory and Practice for Activists and Civil Society Leaders in Macedonia. In only half a day, the seminar helped transform the way participants discussed movements, and they were able to reflect on their work in a more constructive way. Currently, I am pursuing an opportunity to present my experience and knowledge of social movements in the Balkans at a university in Poland.

I came to FSI because I wanted to see the movements that I had spent so much time documenting, succeed. I came out of FSI with the understanding that with planning, strategy and perseverance, any nonviolent movement can succeed. FSI is a program for anyone interested in social movements. It is an invaluable learning experience for people actively engaged in building and protecting democracy in their local communities. The bonds it creates among people, the curiosity it stirs, and the awareness it raises is contagious.

If you’re involved in a movement that you believe in, but that is faltering, you will be given a new framework for approaching it. FSI highlights the complexity of movements, and teaches that they should not be seen as single events. Instead, movements should be understood as an evolving process. As a result, I now understand that the movements and actions I’ve been involved with — that were perceived as unsuccessful — are really just the building blocks for something bigger and more powerful yet to come.