What do activists actually need to know? Answers from radical movements across Europe?

by | 6 Jul 2021 | The Blog | 0 comments

Peaceful protestors on I-83 in Baltimore on June 1, 2020 by Kiraface on Wikimedia Commons

By Laurence Cox and the ULEX Project

As the Global North (only) starts to move towards the end of the pandemic, global heating is still intensifying; a rising tide of authoritarian governments and far-right groups threatens democracy and movements around the world; social inequality, femicide and racism are intensifying.

Our movements resist these trends and can challenge them effectively in some places, but we can’t realistically say that we are winning overall, even in high-profile struggles. So how can we organise better – within our individual groups and movements, across movements and between different countries? And what do activists think they need to know to do this?

The Ulex Project is a pan-European training network, building social movement capacity for social justice and ecological integrity, developing systemic responses, deeper reflection and cross-movement connections. We work with movements in over 20 countries through several languages and a wide network of activist trainers and educators. Our key “Ecology of Social Movements” training brings around 15 activists together from across Europe to reflect on their organisations within their wider movement ecologies, their relationship with other movements and the challenges of system change.

A team of Natasha Adams, María Llanos del Corral, Gee, Carol Marin Alvarez and myself are now taking this further as a year-long blended learning (residential and online) course for much larger numbers of activists, aimed at “Strengthening European Social Movement Ecology”. Our needs analysis for this started with a seven-language qualitative survey which got  responses from 109 activists and trainers across Europe; this blogpost gives some initial summary results about what activists actually want to know.

Who responded?

  • Age 18-35 40%, 35-55 38%, 55+ 18%, no response 4%
  • 55% saw themselves as middle or lower middle class, 32% in the working class or precariat, and 13% in the upper middle or even upper class.
  • 46% identified as (cis) women, 45% as cis men, with 9% others including trans, nonbinary, genderfluid etc.
  • 19% were disabled or with a chronic illness; 81% were abled.
  • 88% identified as white, European etc.; 10% were Black, POC, Latin American etc and 1% Jewish
  • Respondents were based in 22 countries, with the UK (24%), Germany (20%) and Spain (16%) over-represented. France, Italy and East and Central Europe in general were under-represented.

Other than age and country we asked open questions about self-identification around gender, class, race, dis/ability etc. and combined responses. There is no easily knowable “activist population” to compare this sample with, so over- or under-representation can only be measured against the general European population.

What movements are respondents active in?

We asked respondents what the main issue/s they worked on are. People could give more than one answer, so these figures are not percentages:

  • Ecology etc. 69, rural 6, animal-related 5
  • Class-related 38, anti-racism 23, gender and sexuality 22
  • Alternative societies 18, organising activities 10
  • Health / mental health 15, education / children / youth 8
  • Internationalist 7, urban movements 5, others 7

Activists’ organisational contexts

We asked people about the main kind of organisation they were active in:

  • Direct action 31, alternative projects 27, community / grassroots 23
  • NGOs 41, mainstream institutions 6
  • Movement-level 22, formal organisations 16, activist training 16

These are largely post-1968 types of movement organisation. Political parties and trade unions etc. are scarce, as are community organising and gilets jaunes etc. In terms of people’s organisational roles:

  • Organising / training 28%, backroom 12%
  • Public-facing / institutional 21%, formal / strategic 17%
  • Grassroots / horizontal organisations 12%; local 6%; other 5%

This range of respondents is obviously shaped by Ulex’s own networks, as well as by what kinds of activist, organisation and movement see a particular need for strategic training – but as can be seen both are fairly wide categories.

The body of the survey then asked activists questions about how they see the challenges, strategic and educational needs facing their movements.

The challenges they identify

  • A major theme is divisions within and between movements (as well as transnational organising problems and narrow movement identities).
  • Individual activists face resource, time and economic pressures (as well as practical and psychological overwhelm).
  • Movement weaknesses mentioned include a lack of clear strategy, the absence of vision / ambition, the inability to communicate vision / alternatives and a lack of strategic skills and knowledge around movement building / history (as well as wider institutional resource challenges, a need for organisation-building skills and a lack of leadership).
  • Other difficulties repeatedly named arise around socialisation and social reproduction, digitisation and repression.

What do activists want for their movements?

  • To become more able to work together, including across movements and countries (also: ally building, cross-movement strategizing);
  • To become better at learning in many dimensions (e.g. political education, think tanks, debate spaces; understanding SM theory, complexity or intersectionality; digital tools; comms and NVC);
  • To become more able to recognise agency / build vision / strategise;
  • To become more effective in action (rent strike, strikes, NVDA, mass action), in engaging with wider society / community, challenging the state / institutions etc;
  • Better infrastructure (solidarity, kindness, finance, movement media, spaces for recovery, sustainable alternatives, “movement not management”).

Learning needs identified for movements

  • Needs around strategy, theory of change, SM theory, alliances, relationship building, intersectionality, paradigms, etc.
  • Needs around diversity, racial justice and whiteness, feminism, inclusion, restorative justice, embodying values etc.
  • Needs around resilience, retention, burnout, conflict skills, emotional literacy, self-development, holistic security etc.
  • Needs around political education, understanding systems and structures etc.
  • Needs around complexity, networks, eco-literacy etc.
  • Other: narratives, finance, community building, group dynamics…

So whether we ask about the challenges movements face, what activists want their movements to be able to do, or the learning needs they see, there are some common themes:

  • In each of these areas activists want their movements to become better able to come together (work with internal diversity, create alliances between organisations, connect different movements and work together across national boundaries).
  • Strategic capacity is also important under each heading (including strategic skills, recognising agency, theory of change, articulating visions etc.)
  • Movement learning matters (e.g. learning / discussion spaces, political education, understanding systems, socialisation etc., as well as specifics like complexity, SM theory, intersectionality, digital tools, NVC etc.)

These responses are certainly shaped by who engaged with our survey and the questions asked, but these are strong patterns in terms of needs widely felt by experienced activists, and the new training will try to work directly on these.

What next?

We’re developing a community of inquiry involving conversations with small groups and one-to-one interviews to explore themes deeper. We’re feeding back to movements and activist communities (including this blog), and creating an advisory group to support the project. With other activist networks, we’re also seeking funding to deepen this research and share the results of our work with activist educators across Europe and elsewhere.

The first “Strengthening the Ecology of Social Movements in Europe” training is planned for autumn 2022 – watch https://ulexproject.org/.

But of course no one training, however extensive, is more than a small part of the wider challenge of building cross-movement, cross-country links and organising towards systemic change in Europe and beyond – and we hope to convince other activists that this is an important task within your own organisations and movements!

Thanks to all the activists who took part in our survey.