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


What Can Those in the U.S. Learn from Colombia: Lessons from Sembrandopaz on Building Coalitions

by Angie Lederach, PhD candidate at Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, Department of Anthropology, Sembrandopaz volunteer and Fulbright fellow with the University of Cartagena
January 22, 2017

In the wake of the US presidential inauguration, accompanied by mass mobilizations aimed at resisting the policies and rhetoric of violence that the incoming president and his administration have already begun to unleash, many people in Colombia are asking what the impact of the new administration will be here. The question is an important one, it requires careful analysis, it demands that we prepare for and remain awake to shifts in policy and alliances, and it calls us to situate this moment in a much longer history of US involvement in violence in Colombia.

However, today, as I watched millions march across the world in solidarity, I want to flip the question on its head – to reflect not on state relationships, but rather, on civil society: What can those in the US learn from the active and organized citizenry found in Colombia?

While there are many lessons that we can draw from the work and vision of Sembrandopaz in an effort to confront the challenges presented by the new political reality – from resisting state-sponsored violence, to collective mobilization, to strategies for organizing in the midst of direct, physical violence – I will focus on the critical role of coalition-building in Sembrandopaz’s effort to build peace in Colombia. It is my hope that these reflections not only make visible the significant contributions of Sembrandopaz in Colombia, but will also serve as a guide for others – particularly organizations and individuals in the US working to define strategies of resistance and transformation in the face of a new political reality.

To build a healthy and democratic political culture, Ricardo Esquivia reminds us, requires that we first recognize that there are institutional frameworks that move beyond the limited and “official” institutions of the state. Government officials and state institutions form what Ricardo calls the “official institutional framework.” This institutional framework is charged with policymaking and governability (enacting laws and policies) and operates within a 4-year timeframe. But there is another institutional framework – that of civil society – formed by the organization of communities. This includes schools, religious institutions, grassroots organizations, associations, and unions. In contrast to “official institutions,” the institutional framework of civil society is not organized around four-year time frames. This is, in fact, the promise and the strength of civil society: the capacity for permanent processes of organized, political action.

Civil society institutions are what shape and allow for governance. An active and organized citizenry must understand these institutional frameworks and operate strategically within and between them, without collapsing the two. They must know the laws and understand how “official” institutions (should) work. They should know the local (municipal and city) leaders, engage in civic forums, demand meetings with their local representatives. But, they should do so within a permanent process of community organizing and political action – to buffer against the currents of 4-year timeframes. The ability to build permanent processes of organizing that cultivate a healthy political culture requires knowledge of civil society institutions and actors – and an ability to articulate actions of diverse organizations.

“If someone yells here and another person yells over there no one will be heard, but if we all yell at the same time, they will hear us,” Ricardo reflected as we traveled together to a planning meeting hosted by Afro-descendent, Indigenous, Campesino organizations, “This is why coalitions are key. Coalitions are necessary. They are also very complicated and never easy.” As we curved around the bends in the road that traverse the mountainous landscape of Montes de María, Ricardo explained that years of community organizing with Sembrandopaz have revealed key ingredients that enable coalitions to thrive. Coalitions, he insisted, must:

1. Maintain the distinct identity of each process, strengthening (rather than weakening) difference
2. Celebrate and work for small successes as well as long-term social change
3. Generate public recognition
4. Create democratic processes where all participants feel heard and can participate
5. Engage in processes of continuous learning, of reflection as well as action.

Hours later, under the palm-thatched and open-air meetinghouse, Ricardo emphasized the significance of collective action to the diverse group that had gathered,

“The only way to continue forward is to unite our forces. But this does not mean that we lose our identities. We must strengthen ourselves from within, but we must do this in a way that articulates with others. And this is the invitation, to join in political action together. We must continuously ask and seek to open spaces that allow us to do this, spaces that generate trust, where we can ask difficult questions and dialogue across our differences.”

The work of Sembrandopaz has much to teach us about building an organized and active citizenry in a context of violence and repression. In particular, Sembrandopaz’s work offers several lessons about how to build effective coalitions that merit attention:

Lesson #1: Institutions are not limited to “official,” state organizations. Civil society is constituted by institutions that allow for and shape governance. In contrast to “official” institutions, the promise and strength of civil society’s institutional frameworks is the capacity for permanent processes of organized political action, rather than limited 4-year timeframes.

Lesson #2: With this in mind, coalition-building requires that we identify, unite, and create permanent processes of reflection and action that build and articulate civil society’s institutionality. Begin with churches, mosques, temples, schools, associations, unions, social movements, and community organizations, which form the base of civil society.

Lesson #3: An organized civil society engages locally: know local action plans, local leaders, and local processes. With this knowledge, participate in city council, meet with local representatives, host public forums, deliberate and shape the political culture within particular localities. Connect and situate particular localities within regional, national, and global contexts.

Lesson #4: Difference is strength. Rather than weaken or minimize differences, the work of coalitions must strengthen and build from diverse identities and perspectives. Know who you are, know your role, know the roles of others, understand that diverse roles are needed, learn to articulate. Or, as the Sembrandopaz team recently reflected at the annual planning meeting: The hand is not more important than the eye, they each play a specific role, yet they each, must also work together. It is in this articulation across difference that the body is formed.

Lesson #5: Celebrate small successes and engage in political actions that generate public visibility and recognition.

Coalition-building is central to Sembrandopaz’s commitment to cultivating a healthy, just, and effective political culture, central the work of building justpeace in Colombia.

In the next blog post, I will explore the ways in which Sembrandopaz engages in building spaces of dialogue across difference, specifically focusing on Sembrandopaz’s participation in the Espacio Regional de Construccion de Paz (Regional Space for Peacebuilding).