ACKnowl-EJ members host Transformation Lab to learn from grassroots transformations

Learning from grassroots transformations for sustainability through the conflict transformation and alternatives frameworks

A blog originally posted on the Transformations To Sustainability page by Neema Pathak, Iokiñe Rodriguez, Meenal Tatpati and Mirna Inturias.

Across the world, resistance movements are playing a key role in shaping the future of the planet by confronting destructive development practices and bringing forth their own narratives of alternative ways of being, which focus on the wellbeing of humans and non-humans rather than ‘growth and development’. What lessons can we learn from these movements about the challenges and opportunities that resistance offers for bringing about transformations to sustainability? And what analytical and methodological tools can we use to learn from these experiences on the ground?

This was the topic of a daylong workshop we organized on the 29th of September 2017 at the University of Dundee, Scotland, as one of the five T-Labs that took place prior to the Transformations Conference 2017.

Transformations Frameworks: learning from and with resistance movements

The session brought together people from the UK and other countries to discuss two frameworks that are being developed in the Global South with precisely the aim of learning from and with resistance movements about the transformations brought about by their actions. These are the Conflict Transformation Framework, developed by Grupo Confluencias from Latin America, and the Alternatives Transformations Framework developed by Kalpavriksh from India. While the first framework has emerged out of experiences of resistance movements in Latin America, the second one is grounded in grassroots alternatives that are being put in practice in India. Both frameworks are being expanded and tested by theACKNOWL-EJ network. The T-Lab provided an opportunity to share the frameworks with activists and academics from outside of the ACKNOWL-EJ project and get their feedback.

Prior to the workshop, we asked participants to come prepared with case studies from sites that they are involved in to test how useful the frameworks can be to them. Two participants responded to this call, both from the UK. One was Adrian Ely from the STEPS Centre who shared the case of mobilizations in the UK against patents on life and Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs). The second wasJessica Northey from the Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations, Coventry University, who shared with us her knowledge on the conflict and mobilization against shale gas extraction (fracking) in Lancashire.

Together with a team from Grupo Confluencias and Kalpavriksh, the participants analyzed these case studies in the light of the Conflict Transformation and Alternatives Frameworks. We also shared how we have been using these frameworks in our own cases in Latin American and India. We used participatory group dynamics to do this, focusing on three main themes:

A) Understanding power structures in environmental conflicts

B) Strategies used in these conflict and resistance situations for transforming power dynamics

C) Evaluating the resistance and alternatives that may have emerged.

These activities were interspersed with open discussion and reflections from all the participants.

Neema Pathak introduces the Alternatives Framework.

Power, conflicts and alternatives to development as elements of transformation

The T-Lab or the workshop, as we the coordinating team see it, was helpful in a number of ways. For the Transformations Conference 2017, we felt that it brought into discussions some key elements of ‘transformation’ which were not very centrally discussed in the conference itself, as Susi Moser reminded us in her keynote during the conference inauguration. These were elements of power,conflicts and alternatives to development. Our frameworks focus exactly on those issues, attempting to go deeper, unpack the language and deepen the transformations discourse based on grassroots experiences.

We think the discussions were also helpful for the participants in analyzing their own conflict situations through the lens of the power structures and strategies used by social movements to transform, and in exploring how coherent and holistic the emerging alternatives have been in each situation.

For the team working on the frameworks, the T-Lab provided much to reflect upon, analyze and continue working on in the near future. For example:

  • Both the frameworks have emerged from on-the-ground grassroots engagement. However, power structures and causes of conflict are not always local: their roots often lie in international politics, macro-economic policies, corporate interests and global power dynamics. We had very interesting conversations about the need for a deeper reflection, discussion and experimentation on how these frameworks would apply across different scales (local, regional and global), for example in analyzing where the policies and push against GMOs are coming from, and how the emerging alternatives engage with different levels and types of transformation.
  • We agreed that the teams developing the frameworks need to work more on effective ways of communicating the frameworks to those who have not engaged with them before, and also to those who are not familiar with the context of resistance and alternatives movements in the Global South.
  • There were discussions on the frameworks being complex and difficult to communicate with communities on the ground. How can these be simplified? What could be a few key questions that would bring out the elements that the frameworks are seeking in local discussions? What other methods – such as art forms – could be used for their communication?
  • Some participants raised the concern that resistance movements are often stretched for financial and human resources to address and develop strategies for what are very immediate concerns and day-to-day struggles. How would they find the luxury of time to carry out such intensively reflective processes as those required by the frameworks, and particularly the alternatives framework?
  • The teams were also asked whether they had considered how these frameworks will be used by actors other than Kalpavriksh and Grupo Confluencias. Considering that the frameworks have such subjectivities, are there guiding principles for using the frameworks for those new to them?

Our T-Lab session captured in prose

We were fortunate to have the conference poet, Caren Gilbert, with us during the whole session participating in our discussions, listening and translating the content of our conversations, emotions and intensions into prose. Caren’s presence and contributions reminded us of the urgency of erasing the frontiers between science, art, literature, theatre, etc. in the transformations we are trying to achieve. The symbols and languages ​​used for transformation must be diverse, and must transgress other spaces beyond academia in order to enable dialogue and connections between people. Poetry, music and art can help us achieve this in ways that academia cannot. To our surprise, poetry can also be used to synthesize the content and outputs of working sessions in very effective ways, as can be seen from the poem that Caren wrote during our session and read to us at the closure of the day:

Continuous Complexity

You have come further than you think, even if you don’t know
that now is the time for your gifts.
We are poor targets again and again,
through spring, summer, autumn, winter; through the clouds
which don’t let us see all that is before us.
Think of this day. Think of this day. Think of the exchange, the passion and the work.
Speak the language which allows you to express what is in you.
Travel the pathways, the perspectives and places
where you can transform conflicts and contexts of resistance.
Enter your understanding, enter your visibility; feel your frustrated power
and adapt to the simultaneous pull of people and future.

In dimensions of exhaustion, we emerge in our values of hope and struggle.
The structures that underlie what defines our reality are reflections,
that must bridge the spaces in our autonomy and doubt.
Tell the long stories of the past,
the boundaries of history which enclose our communal freedoms.
Slow down and still yourself in the battles which never go away;
pivoting in the strengths and weaknesses that focus our lives.
Determine the visible forces that contaminate cultures of interconnection
until the dynamic changes.

Be the ground which overrules the democracy of separation,
the generations of struggle.
Let the explorations be questions
which embody flourishing alliances
in the everyday complexity of existence.
Expect blessings in unexpected places;
try not to fall asleep in your empowerment.
This is your origin, a tradition that demands consciousness and leadership.

Ask what you have gained and what you have lost.
You were once complete, and now you wander and fight;
fragmented by pride and control.
We are products of misinformation and the professionalised elite;
the unintended consequences of living in the future
as it seeks the spiral of the continuous complexity of truth,
and the discernment of the good that is good enough for all.

Captured by Caren Gilbert during Transformations 2017 T-Lab: “The Conflict and Alternative Transformation Frameworks”. Dalhousie Building, Dundee, 29 August 2017

Thank you Caren!

The interdependency of conflicts and alternatives

After the T-lab the teams reflected on all the discussions, including other thinking that has gone on on these issues in India and Bolivia, where the frameworks emerged. We realized that some of the discussions during the T-lab also connected with discussions and discourse on alternatives back in India and Bolivia. For example, the discourse in India that ‘Sangharsha’ – or Struggle/Resistance – and ‘Nirman’ – or Creation/Alternatives – are not delinked. Together they both need to be part of the process for transformations to take place. Resistance without alternatives can lead to fatigue and alternatives without resistance can lead to stagnation. There is no such thing as reaching an “ultimate transformed destination”. In fact transformation is a continuous and dynamic process. The emergence of power structures within which injustices play out is also continuous, and hence alternatives and resistance cannot and must not be delinked. In addition, it is important for social movements to see that continuous thinking, reflexivity, learning and adapting are integral parts of their resistance and alternative movements. We realize that these frameworks could play a role in such processes of reflection and moving ahead.

Sharing the framework beyond the T-Lab

Conference Artist Neil Paterson captured the presentation of the T-Labs’ findings in a plenary session.

Following the T-Lab, we were able to share some of the results of our session in a plenary session at the Conference that brought together all the T-Lab organizers. We would very much welcome comments and suggestions on how to continue improving our work, trying to learn from those who throughout the world are struggling to bring about transformations for sustainability from the bottom up.