Graphic wrap up of ICSW 2019 opening plenary. Photo courtesy of Civicus. Used with permission.

Lauren L. Finch

Writer, editor and translator

Last month, I attended International Civil Society Week in Belgrade, an event hosted by our partner CIVICUS and Serbia-based Civic Initiatives that gathered more than 900 people from all over the globe to talk about shrinking civic space.

Condensing five full days into a main takeaway is tough, but after a few weeks of reflection on all those rich and passionate conversations, it would be thus:

To build an equitable, peaceful and sustainable world, we in the social change sector are going to need courage — and not only in the way you’re thinking.

It takes courage, of course, to advocate for change when your opponents not only disagree with you, but seek to persecute or criminalise you. Regressive forces all over the world are gaining ground, and as a result it’s riskier than ever to campaign for fundamental rights, progressive reforms or even basic human compassion.

Many of our colleagues demonstrate this sort of courage every day working in restricted environments, and they deserve our immense gratitude, respect and support.

But based on what I heard and observed at ICSW 2019, we’re going to need to find the strength to be bold and brave in other, no less critical areas too.

Courage to leave our comfort zones

“The power of togetherness” wasn’t just the gathering’s catchy theme. Many of the challenges we face, including shrinking civic space, are complex and enormous in scale, which means we aren’t going to solve them by ourselves talking to the same old folks.

We have to design actions that reach beyond our bubble of supporters and invite people to the table who bring new perspectives. We have to be more nimble and welcoming in our coalition-building, instead of getting bogged down in formalities and ideological purity. We have to stop playing it safe and learn to live with a bit of discomfort.

Courage to experiment and fail

When we do things the way they’ve always been done and find that the traditional approach no longer serves us well, our response shouldn’t be to stick with it. “That’s the way it is” is an attitude that makes us ineffective at best, and at worst can perpetuate exclusionary practices — and how can we demand inclusive societies if we ourselves don’t stack up?

We must create spaces — on all levels, from organisation and movement to the global social change community — that applaud experimentation, encourage sharing, respect on-the-ground insights, and lean into failure as an opportunity for learning. New problems require new solutions.

Courage to ask how and why

That critical eye we rightly cast over powerful institutions and groups? We must learn to turn it inwards to ensure that our strategies are up to the task of actually creating and sustaining change.

  • Why will thousands of retweets help advance human rights?
  • How has our organisation fostered trust with local communities?
  • Why are we the best messengers for this action?
  • How will this campaign build power?
  • Why are we making that assumption?

Otherwise, we risk getting caught up in the flashy, one-off actions that look good in reports — 600 signatures, 3,000 likes, 10,000 protest attendees — but lack much transformative impact because we didn’t examine with enough depth the systems that we’re aiming to shift.

Courage to open up and let go

What helps organisations stay resilient and mobilise successfully? Valuing participation. When we are accountable and invest time, care and trust into relationships with people, we receive time, care and trust in return. In a closing civic space, that support is critical.

Building that trust means creating space for supporters to lead, which in turn means loosening the grip on brand. It also means we have to move away from “activism behind closed doors” and start practicing meaningful transparency — including speaking in accessible, non-jargon-filled language.

Courage to believe, truly believe, in a radically positive future

We can’t simply tell people what not to do. We must create campaigns rooted in empathy that offer tangible ideas about what it means to live in an equitable, peaceful and sustainable society — and live those same principles within our own organisations.

Otherwise, we doom ourselves to react from the defensive. It’ll take a movement of people to achieve a better world, but we’ll never build one if we can’t offer an inspiring, values-based vision to rally around.

All of these things can be scary. Humility, transparency, participation and experimentation are powerful tools for effecting change, but they also come with a touch of insecurity, vulnerability and messiness that can feel jarring.

But the social change community has proven themselves time and again to be a brave bunch, speaking out for what is right even when it’s not popular. The stakes are high, and the well of courage required already exists. Let’s tap into it.

Top photo: Graphic wrap-up of ICSW 2019 opening plenary. Photo courtesy of CIVICUS. Used with permission.

Lauren L. Finch

L. Finch is a writer, editor and translator who has spent the better part of a decade shaping narratives that inspire empathy and action.