What Can Those in the U.S. Learn from Colombia (continued): Lessons from Sembrandopaz

What Can Those in the US Learn from Colombia (Continued): Lessons from Sembrandopaz on Coalition-Building

by Angie Lederach, PhD candidate at Kroc Institute for Peace Studies and Department of Anthropology, Sembrandopaz volunteer and Fulbright fellow with the University of Cartagena
January 29, 2017

In light of the new political reality emerging in the US, I am taking time to reflect on Sembrandopaz’s decades long work to build peace in a context of social unrest, political instability, and state-sponsored violence to explore the question: what can those in the US learn from the active and organized citizenry found in Colombia? In a previous post, I outlined Sembrandopaz’s overall framework for building a healthy and active political culture that ensures community participation.

In the wake of mass mobilizations of citizens across the US, many are asking how “moments” become “movements.” While this requires a multidimensional and dynamic approach, coalition-building is central to sustaining an effective nonviolent movement. In the words of nonviolent theorist and activist, George Lakey, we must find ways to “create a movement of movements.” I want to continue to explore lessons from Colombia’s active and organized citizenry in this post, identifying daily practices that permit the building of a “movement of movements.” In particular, I will focus on Sembrandopaz’s participation in the Espacio Regional de Construcción de Paz (Regional Space for Peacebuilding, Regional Space). Comprised of over 39 Afro-Descendent, Indigenous, Campesino, and women’s social movements as well as state bureaucrats, university professors, private sector foundations, faith-based organizations, and (I)NGO workers, the Regional Space represents a broad and unlikely coalition dedicated to building peace in Montes de María – and there is much to learn from their process. A recent experience unearths both the ongoing challenges that coalitions like this one face as well as a set of practices they engage in to respond constructively to these challenges.

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In late October, movement leaders from the Regional Space traveled to Bogotá to present proposals to the national agencies charged with implementing policies and programs focused on land and rural development. Land rights and rural development form one of the strategic and shared priorities that members of the Regional Space recognize as central to the work of building peace in Montes de María. While the Regional Space attempted to organize these meetings as a collective, the state’s approach to a “differential focus” – which seeks to redress historical and differential treatment of marginalized communities in Colombia – served, instead, to divide the coalition: Campesinos met with one sector within the agencies – and the Afro-Descendent and Indigenous representatives with another. Reflective of ongoing marginalization and violence, the Afro-Descendent and Indigenous leaders were not given equal attention or care. Relegated to a hallway corner for a shortened and informal meeting, the state’s approach violated the dignity, rights, and demands of the very groups it purports to serve. These everyday state practices also threatened the Regional Space’s fragile coalition.

The monthly circle dialogue, which is the foundation of the Regional Space, provided time to reflect, discuss, and form a plan of action based on the experience. Grievances were aired, differential experiences (otherwise unknown) were brought to the surface, and there were explicit and renewed commitments to address the concerns raised by Afro-Descendent and Indigenous leaders. On November 26, 2016 the Regional Space hosted a follow-up meeting with the Colombian National Land Agency (ANT). This time, however, the meeting was held in the Regional Space’s meeting room in El Carmen de Bolívar, rather than the national offices in Bogotá. People sat in a circle, rather than across office tables and desks. The dialogue was carefully facilitated to ensure everyone had an opportunity to speak. Concern for the unequal treatment that Indigenous and Afro-Descendent leaders received in Bogotá as well as the divisive state approaches to such meetings were raised and echoed not only by Afro-Descendent and Indigenous leaders, but also by Campesino leaders and ally organizations who participate in the Regional Space. In concluding remarks, a member of the Regional Space demanded changes in the practice and approach of the National Land Agency:

“What we have proposed here implies a challenge for the National Land Agency. Here, we work with an intercultural dynamic and this must be understood and reflected by the Agency. We cannot be sectorialized – this only creates internal conflict. What you see here is not the work of one day, but of many years where we have sat together – Afro, Indigenous, Campesino – to look at the issue of the land in an integrative way. And that is how we are here today. The Agency, similarly, must work in an integrated manner. In our next meeting, the Agency must attend to us in a way that reflects how we organize ourselves here.”

Sembrandopaz helped to form the Regional Space with the explicit proposition to engage in a continuous process of “dialogue between improbable actors” as well as to animate spaces of “re-encounter – or re-union – between equals in discord.” With this in mind, they built a coalition comprised of leaders from 39, diverse social movements in the region. Recognizing that mobilization requires continuous engagement with all of the actors who influence the dynamics in the region, the Regional Space did not isolate their coalition from, but instead chose to commit to creating spaces of dialogue between “improbable” actors, whom would not ordinarily meet together often or to collaborate. To this end, the Regional Space includes participation of not only social movement leaders, but also state bureaucrats, university professors, private sector foundations, and (I)NGO workers, who meet together every month.

How are such unlikely alliances built, maintained, and strengthened for political action in the pursuit of peace with justice?

Lesson #1: Map the social terrain. Understand all of the actors who influence the dynamics of the region or community where you work. Do not isolate, but rather engage key individuals who represent all of the major spheres of influence in the region and invite them to become committed participants in a permanent process of dialogue.

The building of this “improbable” coalition did not emerge organically, but required intentional, thoughtful, and committed work. The Regional Space began by mapping the social and political landscape of Montes de María, identifying all of the major actors in the region – from grassroots processes to universities to state officials to private, multinational corporations to international organizations, like the UN. From there, they identified key individuals. They sought people who listened well, people open to learning and change, people who represented wider processes (rather than individual ambitions), people willing to be uncomfortable, and, above all, people who were dedicated to the shared goal of peacebuilding in the region. They invited them to participate and commit to a process of permanent dialogue.

Today, this unlikely group meets together every month. They engage in a facilitated, circle dialogue process that includes reflection and analysis as well as the articulation of actionable agendas.

Lesson #2: Transformative dialogue requires analysis of power and a commitment to amplify, prioritize, and support the agendas of those on the margins. Dialogue, here, is not focused on interpersonal relationships (though those inevitably emerge), but rather on structural and social transformation in the pursuit of building a lasting and just peace.

Despite a shared commitment to peacebuilding, the Regional Space includes participants with highly divergent and often conflicting approaches to building peace. The response is not to isolate or abandon, but rather to provoke continued – and, at times, uncomfortable – analysis of the ways in which violence can subtly weave itself into the very frameworks used to build peace – to collectively deliberate highly contested theories of change, conceptual frameworks, and everyday practices represented by the groups that form the coalition. Reflected in the meeting with the National Land Agency, monthly dialogue also allows members to identify shared points of collective action.

The Regional Space does not engage in dialogue under the false assumption that everyone enters into the space as equals. Histories of violence, marginalization, classism, racism, sexism, and repression of social movements through violent tactics do not permit false notions of an equal playing field, and such dynamics of inequality are frequently named in the space. Instead, the Regional Space is explicitly committed to amplifying and supporting the agendas and goals of grassroots social movements and community processes on the margins: those building peace in communities that have (and continue to be) most affected by violence. Explicit recognition of the power embedded in relations across Montes de María – and within the Regional Space – orients and enables dialogue across differences in a way that serves to transform structural violence.

Lesson #3: Name, change, and engage daily practices that fail to disrupt violence. To act in a way that disrupts structural violence is not easy – and there are times when people will fail to do so (and fail to see their failures to do so). Be attentive to the daily habits and practices used in these processes – make sure they are reflective of the coalition’s wider goals.

Inequality is not built through grand actions, but through everyday practices that are normalized, shaping and legitimizing structural violence. If structural violence is shaped and maintained through everyday practices, approaches to disrupt and transform violence must also emerge through repetitive processes capable of reshaping these daily habits and practices. This work is hard. To render visible, name, and act to change normalized, everyday practices of structural violence requires vigilance and commitment to a permanent and continuous process. Transformative dialogue, for the Regional Space, is not about (inter)personal relationships, but rather about systemic and structural transformation – the building of a just and lasting peace.

Lesson #4: Be explicit about identity, social location, and power and commit to permanent and repetitive processes of dialogue that combine reflection and action. Processes of reflection expose the differential experiences of particular communities and clarify strategic and ethical action.

The Regional Space begins each monthly dialogue with a facilitated, collective analysis of the current political context, which centers and orients action. Jointly produced social and political analysis exposes wider, structural forms of violence at work – and enables clarity for collective action. For example, before the plebiscite election, to speak about peace, for some in the Regional Space, was “trendy” (de moda) within professional and personal spheres, while for others, advocating for peace represented a “dangerous” (peligrosa) endeavor. Grassroots leaders throughout Colombia have and continue to face increased threats as a result of engaging in peace advocacy. In fact, nearly 100 social leaders were assassinated in 2016 for defending human rights and advocating for peace – and countless more faced grave threats to life. Understanding the subtle (and not so subtle) ways communities differentially experience social, economic, and political realities allows for comprehensive analysis and strategic action based on relationships of care. Again, these relationships emerge from a commitment to continuous, repetitive processes of dialogue and trust-building.

Lesson #5: Cultivate, continuously, deep and daily practices of care, trust, and relationship. Attend not only to the health of the coalition, but to the health of each of the processes that constitute the coalition. Listen carefully to the base communities. Prioritize, with time and resources, those relations.

Finally, one of the biggest challenges facing coalitions is finding a careful balance between internal and external processes. Each of the members of the Regional Space respond to their own processes and organizations, which requires time and commitment. This balance requires transparency, reflection, and relations of care. What are the needs, challenges, weaknesses, and strengths of each movement and organization? How does the coalition – in this case the Regional Space – care for and strengthen each of the processes represented? How is the work of the coalition reflected in the actions, health, and processes of the bases? The Regional Space also has a facilitating committee whose role, aside from logistics and facilitating the monthly dialogue, is to provide concerted attention to questions like these in a way that ensures the health and effectiveness of the coalition.

Sembrandopaz has long centered coalition-building in their work for peace and justice in Colombia. Building a healthy and participatory political culture – one that recognizes the power of an organized civil society – is key to transforming structural and direct violence. The lessons that emerge from Sembrandopaz’s decades long experience with coalition-building offer significant insight and a set of flexible, guiding practices for those seeking to engage in sustained, nonviolent action in the pursuit of justpeace. These practices warrant careful consideration, particularly for those in the US who are engaged in the daily work of building a “movement” out of a “moment.”

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The morning after the Colombian peace accords were narrowly rejected by popular vote in the plebiscite election, the Sembrandopaz community gathered together. For those who had dedicated their lives to building peace, the defeat of the accords and the uncertainty left in its wake represented a daunting challenge to the community. Yet, Ricardo urged the community to sustain the hope that has guided their work in the face of such challenges. “This is an important opportunity,” he reminded those gathered, “There are three things we cannot lose in this work: hope, patience, and honesty.” May these words guide us all in the days and years to come.