Young activists attend the CIVICUS International Civil Society Week—and come back disappointed.
What happens when you get 900 civil society groups in the same room at over 8,500 feet above sea level? Excitement is guaranteed you’d think, along with a bit of oxygen deprivation and a whole lot of partying. That’s what lured me to Bogotá late last month for International Civil Society Week—the annual conference of an NGO called CIVICUS, the ‘World Alliance for Citizen Participation.’
However, I left the Colombian capital disappointed. What was missing were energy and spirit, some sort of transcending vision that would move people to truly radical action. There were plenty of discussions about the lack of funding for civil society, for example, but nothing about inventing a different financial system altogether as an alternative to greed. It almost felt like a group in denial about its own decline and increasing co-optation.
But maybe that’s just me? To test out my reactions I met up with my friend Ana Pranjic after the conference for a quick debrief, the Vice-President of the Board of Directors for the 2016 World Social Forum Collective. We sat together on a white leather sofa at the Continental Hotel and I asked her about her experiences, because to me she embodies what civil society is all about. She’s funky, disrespectful of convention and her presence provides a jolt of electricity. When she enters a room the consistency of the space starts to change. She’s a laugh in the face of buzzword-talk, and her eyes are sharp with curiosity.
“There were barriers that we were not able to overcome,” Ana said, “We didn’t have conversations that were able to engage meaningfully the people with less power. The big, established organizations had the workshop spots; those of us involved with social movements and the small, informal organizations had little space to express themselves. So I did not feel that we were able to change the tone. I feel that we were co-opted into the system. It’s strange to put lines around whose participation counts. It is in the points of intersection that new ideas spark.”
So I wasn’t alone in my frustration. In fact for the last five years I’ve been listening to many young people’s stories as part of my work with Recrear, an organization that provides a space to explore their relationships to society through participatory action research. I feel these stories in my chest, like squawking voices or the opening and closing of strange funnels of energy. Young activists’ experiences of transformation are often raw and loud, more a state of being than a project, and something that’s difficult to contain or convey in the halls of a conference. That’s what was missing from CIVICUS.
Robinson Bustamante, for example, is a well-known youth activist in the Colombian city of Medellin, and he captures this discomfort very well. I sat down with him for an interview a few weeks ago after a workshop on youth engagement in the city. In front of a black coffee, he shared his experiences of the last ten years.
“Young people start to work in the social sector to find meaning to their life,” he told me, “Then they feel the need to move on. They want to move out of their parents’ house, have a family. Money is indispensable. Otherwise organizations fail. Those that don’t fail do not live outside the logic of the market. Organizations go from dreams to economic logic like boyfriend and girlfriend go into marriage.”
‘So what’s the solution?’ I asked him. “Well, you resist in your free time.”
Maybe that sums up the state of civil society today—either join the market or resist on the margins. But is it possible to move that resistance from the margins to the mainstream, and what would that mean for civil society going forward?
Last week I went to a talk by Antonio Lafuente called ‘The promise of amateurs’, part of a series called “Wisdom, knowledge and resources as a common good.”
‘Amateurs’ are people who do things for love, he explained. They work at the frontier of space and time. They are motivated by curiosity and are truly innovative, because “innovation is not something you plan for. Innovation includes everything, it is an art, it is a social process. Amateurs don’t need to earn income out of their experience, so they have the opportunity to create new stories. They have the opportunity to unlearn.”
When I told Ana about this she laughed, spontaneously re-christening herself as an amateur. “In my interactions this week I felt appreciated,” she continued, “but not taken seriously… I am told that this is ‘not how things work.’ The system cannot change—we need to learn how to play the game. I worry about who I will be in ten years, and if I will still be able to see the absurdity of this conversation. I fear that I will become one of them.”
It’s not that there aren’t powerful alternative visions developing in civil society around the world; the problem—as Ana confirmed—is that they’re not taken seriously or supported to develop. At venues like CIVICUS their experience is marginalized or ignored, their value dismissed because they don’t fit with what have become the new conventions of the sector. But this means that civil society groups are distancing themselves from the drivers of social transformation.
As Arundhati Roy puts it, the increasing NGO-ization of politics “threatens to turn resistance into a well-mannered, reasonable, salaried, 9-to-5 job. With a few perks thrown in. Real resistance has real consequences. And no salary.”
By contrast, a recent study by a group called Organization Unbound explores the links between peoples’ experiences in working for an organization and the organization’s actual impact in society. This video is a collage of crowd-sourced reflections on their results. The study suggests that the most successful groups don’t see themselves instrumentally, but rather “live internally what they are trying to create out in the world.” That’s a crucial observation if civil society is supposed to function as a space to “rearrange the geometry of human relations” as political scientist John Ehrenberg describes it.
I know many groups that experience their visions in their day-to-day work in this way. Corporación Casa Mia, for example, is a small youth organization also in Medellin, which sets the bar very high. “We work for a more affectionate world,” Ximena Quintero told me during an interview for my research. She’s one of the coordinators of the group. “A world in which we prioritize relationships between people and not economic relationships; where nature is respected as an integral part of who we are; and in which other ways of living become possible.”
In 2012, Recrear worked in the Ecuadorian province of Esmeraldas, researching how young people interact with civil society through creative workshops. We asked more than 100 of them to capture in one word what being part of their community meant. Mario, a young man from Esmeraldas city, chose ‘lucha’, which in Spanish means ‘fight’ or ‘struggle’—the struggle of being a good person every day as he explained it.
I thought about Mario’s struggle during the closing ceremony of the conference, when Leonor Zalabata Torres, an indigenous leader from the Arhuacos community in the Sierra Nevada mountains of Colombia, stood up and said: “We are working on a way of being, the peace we look for is inside.” Her words hung uncomfortably in the air in a room that was drowning in civil society buzzwords.
That shift from doing and saying to being and being together is revolutionary. But Torres’ speech was the exception. How do we create more spaces to socialize such a radically different philosophy of action and understanding? And what would such spaces really look like?
For a start, they would have more intimacy, more playfulness, more imagination and accessibility. They would look less like a procession of white males on a panel. They would involve less time sitting, and more time actively exploring our feelings, more experiential learning, and a deeper acknowledgement of our symbiosis with nature.
These spaces would need the foresight to acknowledge that deep change won’t be successfully monitored through logical frameworks or quantitative metrics. Instead, as Mario emphasized in our conversation, change will come only by accepting our participation in a daily personal and collective struggle: a graceful, unselfconscious and radical search for a harmonious life together. To me, that’s what ‘civil society’ really means.