Five months after Seattle, and people are thinking things have changed... two editors and a dog set off to London's May Day 2000... Guerilla Gardening... part of a global day of action against capitalism. It was a long time since I'd been on an action where I knew that there would be violence, not just from the police but an anticipated and declared tactic of protest ... but a tactic for what?
There are such words--buzz words. You catch them here and there. In peace, environmental or women's initiatives, in Peace News and United Nations documents. They change from season to season, from year to year. "Empowerment" had appeared in the meta-language of my colleagues--working on change--as an attempt to explain to ourselves and to others what we are actually doing.
When I was asked to write about this topic-- one which had been so crucial in resisting the dictatorship in Chile--I didn't think it would be difficult to share part of the experience: of living with fear and to talk about how we managed it at personal and social level. But it has not been easy at all. My experience of fear has been re-awoken and has had to be dealt with again.
It isn't easy to think about the kind of power we want, especially when we believe in a freedom that is opposed to any kind of authoritarianism. It becomes even more difficult because, over the centuries of human history, the word "power" itself has been contaminated with notions of authority and domination.
On 1 January 1994, two hours after the North America Free Trade Agreement came into force, the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) occupied four towns of Chiapas, a province of Mexico neighbouring Guatemala.
Every week, it seems, another can of worms opens, both nationally and internationally. After a time it can all seem too overwhelming, causing one to despair, bringing the feeling that the world is simply one big disaster zone, about which nothing can be done. This spiral of disempowerment can end with the inability even to look at, or care about, what is happening beyond our own front doors.
Sumitra, Champa, Samprada, Sushama, Kalabati, Salma are some of the tribal women living in remote corners in the state of Orissa in India who we have met during our recent visit to their villages. The women's organisation with which I work, Swadhina, has been encouraging and promoting women's groups in these villages for the past five years.
Collective identities--"we" as queers, as whatever group you like--are often perceived as empowering, as providing a sense of belonging. On the other hand through their very existence, collective identities produce new boundaries of "in" and "out", and new norms of behaviour that limit peoples' freedom to be and to do. Not only can identity be disempowering, but it can also threaten peoples' lives, as nationalist and homophobic attacks show.
In 1993 the British government recognised Welsh as an official language of Britain, and last year recognised the Gaelic and Irish languages. It is thought that there are half a million bilingual people in Wales, but the bilingual population of Scotland and of the six counties of Northern Ireland is closer to 50,000 in each case.
Look back at an experience of empowerment, and I wonder if it now seems to you that it was just a feeling you had at the time. Back then you or your group somehow gathered the strength to make a difference, or at least feel that you made a difference. You may have changed something permanently, but the feeling was ephemeral. It wore off. A sense of empowerment is something that needs to be re-created continually.
Social Empowerment is a process by which people reclaim their power, the power to shape their own lives and to influence the course of events around them. They use their power against oppression and exclusion, and for participation, peace and human rights.
This basic organising structure was used for both the WTO protests in Seattle last November (N30), and the IMF/World Bank demonstrations in Washington DC on April 16 and 17 (A16). It aims to be empowering, democratic, flexible and inclusive.
We in the peace movement want to change the world, and to have some influence of the course of events which affect all our lives. But we are frequently unclear how we would like to achieve this: do we want to make changes from the bottom or from the top? Do we want to have influence at a decision-making level, or through raising consciousness at the grassroots?
We usually dream about a movement that grows from the grassroots. Isn't that what the WRI programme on nonviolence and social empowerment is all about?