People involved in civil society all over the world have many different experiences and different ideas that can be shared. Think of a favorite cookbook and the way it distills the complexities of culture, practice, and history into manageable recipes. That is what Arseh Sevom aims to do with The Civil Society How-To. The project focuses on sharing failures and successes from civil society actors all over the world.
We heard from activists in the Middle East about their experiences starting and running successful organizations. They were especially good at describing what went wrong.
New York City
We spoke with a human rights lawyer about what he has learned about working with coalitions. He told us about what it takes to build collaboration. “There is no one who says they don’t want collaboration,” he stated. “That would be taboo. After all, we are all civil society organizations trying to get along.”
Santa Clara Universtiy, California
When we spoke to her, Laurie Laird was working at Santa Clara University in California working on community partnerships. She described a partnership between a local parish and the university that she found particularly powerful. This experience shifted power away from the university and to the community. Something, she says, that is not always the case.
Working with complex coalitions
Georgia, United States
Education Under Fire was a complex campaign with many groups and individuals involved. Large organizations such as Amnesty International and small volunteer groups needed to work together. The Education Under Fire team developed many strategies for managing the campaign and the coalition. They shared those with us.
Working with the UN
United Nations, Geneva
Dokhi Fassihan is a foreign policy expert with a lot of experience working with United Nations mechanisms on a number of issues. She spearheaded the campaign to appoint a Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Iran. She shared her experiences with us.
Moving from Opposition to Contribution
Johannesburg, South Africa
Jasmin Nordien is a mother and a peace-worker (practitioner) with eighteen years’ experience in both local and global civil society institutions focused on conflict transformation, peacebuilding, and gender; primarily in South Africa during the transition period (since 1993) and more recently in India, The Netherlands, and Sweden. She has helped us understand conflict and transition.
Oxfam Novib in the Netherlands undertook a massive change to its organization. Executive director Farah Karimi and others spoke to us about what they learned during the process.
Building Democratic Groups
BMCC/CUNY, New York
Hollis Glaser, PhD is the Chair of Department of Speech, Communications, and Theatre Arts at BMCC/CUNY. She has over 25 years of experience with communication and building small democratic organizations.
Vivek C. spoke to us about his experiences working as a high-powered management consultant. He reflected on leadership, income inequality, and the experiences of India and China.
Change and Revolution
Vrije Universiteit, The Netherlands
Halleh Ghorashi, PhD was an activist in Iran during the revolution. Eventually, she was forced into exile in the Netherlands. She became a professor and has reflected a lot on the ideals that made her a revolutionary.
Leading without Leaders
Avery Oslo is the alias for an academic with a PhD in history who studied the radical environmental movement in Britain. She has helped us understand how leaderless movements work.
What is Democracy?
San Francisco, Ca
Jonathan Korman is a long-time blogger, designer, and thinker who writes on a number of issues. He helped us understand the nature of democracy. “Democracy,” he writes does not mean “two wolves and a sheep voting on what’s for dinner.”
Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam
Kees Boersma, PhD teaches at VU University in Amsterdam in the Department of Organization Sciences. He has helped us understand the dynamics of organizations and the nature of conflict within organizations.
New Haven, CT
Human Rights investigator Gissou Nia has worked for the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. She has shared her experiences interviewing witnesses with us.
Creating Powerful Messages
Frank Sharry, Executive Director of America’s Voice, is a dynamic speaker who is accustomed to bringing audiences to their feet. His supporters loved what he had to say. They cheered his work and identified with the message. Why, then, was it so difficult for his organization to actually get their message across? Why was it so difficult to convince politicians and the public of the value of migrants and the need to respect their rights? He shared his experiences with us.
Social Justice and the Arts
Santa Clara University
Several people at Santa Clara University spoke to us about the school's commitment to social justice. The arts have provided opportunities for collaboration and expression. Dr. Barbara Burns told us: "Art is like magic. Art has been a savior for high risk families."
Fearlessness and Pranks
Bahram Sadeghi is an Iranian-Dutch prankster, known for calling the NSA for help recovering his password. He also congratulated the Chinese ambassador on the Nobel Prize for democracy activist Liu Xiaobo and the Syrian embassy staff on the fall of their dictator. He spoke with us about his pranks and the documentary he did on his trip to Israel to meet Iranian immigrants living there.
Iran is becoming a center for creative participatory theater. Theater makers interact with the public in taxis, hospitals, and on the streets.
Filipino artists Jun and Mitchy Saturay shared their experiences using theater to bring light to local issues. “If you want to communicate with each other you need to talk in more cultural forms. To break the ice… the distance between people, theater and art are effective,” Jun said. He and Mitchy call theater and art a “weapon.” They add that it can’t be used alone, but as part of a struggle and collective action.
Karen Piemme of the Red Ladder Theatre Company has spent years taking theater into the community in order to give voice to new stories and to people who don’t often see their stories reflected in the dominant culture. She told us about her experiences bringing theater to a government facility for girls in Santiago, Chile.
The Civil Society How-To project aims to share learning about what makes civil society organizations and actors successful, how they approach challenges, and the obstacles faced along the way.
Why are global stories and anecdotes relevant
The problems we face as civil society actors anywhere in the world are problems others face(d) as well. We may all have different ingredients to start with: harsh regulations, a suspicious government, lack of resources, creative thinking, supportive neighbors, energetic volunteers, conflict, etc. Those ingredients can be mixed in many different ways. In fact, they have been by people all over the world. Civil societies can look different and act different. There are many ways to learn from others, many ways to incorporate their experiences into something new and exciting. This is what we try to do with this project. It’s why we welcome your contributions and ideas as well.
What works for you? What doesn’t work?
The Civil Society How-To welcomes contributions from you. Use this contact form to get in touch with us with your ideas and comments. If you give us a way to get in touch with you, we will follow up on your ideas.