What Role do Stories Play in our Strategies


Facilitation: Florencia E. Mallon, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Our first plenary featured three speakers: Florencia Mallon, sitting in for Elham Bayour who was unable to come due to a family crisis; Michael Randle, pioneer of the nonviolent direct action movement in Britain and a peace researcher and activist; and Koussetogue Koudé, peace and human rights activist from Chad, living in France. Our main goal at the plenary was to open a discussion around how the stories and memories of resistance and action told by earlier generations can help today's activists formulate more focused and inclusive strategies for action. Each speaker analyzed specific stories of loss, oppression and resistance in order to reflect on the lessons we might learn for the future.

The first story of the plenary was a song sung by Tony Kempster which told of the dialogue between a Palestinian and an Israeli boy. One boy asks the other throughout the song, "What would you do if you met me in a war situation?" The other boy's first answer is, "I would shoot you," his next answer is, "I would hide you away, and set you free," and the last one is, "I would put down my gun, open my arms and weep."

Florencia began her presentation with Elham Bayour's story of Sitti, her grandmother. Sitti was expelled in 1948 from her ancestral village in Palestine, and until the day she died she carried the key to that family home. This image of an elder preserving the memories of past usurpation in a concrete symbolic object, a key, and using this to transmit to the next generation the ongoing desire for restitution, reminded Florencia of an image she had uncovered during her work with the Mapuche indigenous community of Nicolas Ailío, located in southern Chile. One of the elders of that community had preserved the memory of his parents being evicted from community lands by an abusive landlord, their house and possessions burned, and had passed that image of loss to the next generation in order to inspire ongoing struggles for restitution. In the case of the community of Ailío, however, the original lands could not be recovered, and only after forty years of struggle, repression, and intense internal debate did some community members successfully petition the government for new land. What might happen to the keys many Palestinian elders have carried for more than half a century, when similarly to Ailío's land, many of the houses these keys open are simply no longer accessible to their owners? Florencia concluded by suggesting the importance of honoring, preserving, and remembering these earlier stories and histories, while at the same time searching for a new political strategy that can make the goal of justice and restitution more reachable. Returning to the image of the key, we must carry it with us as the representation of earlier memories, desires, and rights, but often we must find new doors to unlock.

Michael Randle told us about his experience in the emerging anti-nuclear movement in the UK in the 1950s and 1960s. While the movement clearly did not achieve all its goals, Michael emphasized its legacies -- including the development of the international peace movement symbol, the connection with anti-nuclear movements in Africa, and the influence on direct action movements against war throughout the world in the decades between the 1960s and the 1980s. In addition, he argued that, despite not achieving disarmament per se, the movement was important in forcing a series of international treaties that at least partially banned nuclear testing and proliferation. Thus, even if a movement does not reach all its goals, one legacy for the future must be to understand the unintended successes reached along the way. A final point Michael made was the need to reconsider carefully what implications Just War precepts might have for peace activists.

Koussetogue Koudé introduced his remarks with a story. While participating in a panel on the involvement of youth in the political life of Chad, he had shared the podium with Brahim, a well-dressed and well-educated man who spoke on behalf of Chad's younger generation, bereft of other alternatives, that is turning more and more to the commercialization of violence as their only path to financial security. These young people, known as colombiens, are a living symbol of the broken promises in Chadian society that must be confronted if the legacy of dictatorship is ever to be successfully dealt with. Koudé then outlined a series of steps that would allow the present government in Chad to begin resolving the problems inherited from the dictatorship, including abolishing the use of diya, traditional blood price for a crime, which keeps the state from taking responsibility for violent abuses; and ending government impunity in previous human rights abuses, which encourages ongoing abuse by giving the message that some people are above the law. Through judicial reform, the establishment of a Truth Commission, education of the population, and international solidarity, Koudé concluded, Chad could begin to move beyond the legacies of the earlier cycle of violence and repression. Two general points were reiterated for the discussion. The first was the role of storytelling -- of the memories, experiences, and identities preserved from the past -- in helping us build alternative but realistic strategies and languages of activism in the present, in the hope of building an alternative future. Florencia encouraged the audience to ponder how the stories emerging from this plenary might serve as a starting point for rethinking present strategies of activism. The second point was that, in putting together the stories and images from Palestine, Chad, the Mapuche of Chile, and the anti-nuclear movement in the UK, we must also be mindful of the different contexts in which storytelling and memory are placed and preserved, in the North and the South, and in different locations within North and South. Michael Randle's story is about someone who makes a personal decision, an option that others in his generation made alongside him, to say no to the horrendous destructive power being unleashed by his own country and its allies, against other parts of the globe. The stories told by Elham, Koudé and Florencia, are about strategies for surviving the violence done directly to the people of the societies involved.

In a brief discussion several important issues were raised, but not adequately addressed. Among these was the nature of generational divisions between activists: were older people always more conservative or tied to older ways? Another question was whether is wasn't better simply to let go of the past, and "move on." A third issue was whether "oral history," and the stories that emerged from it, was mainly a phenomenon in the South, or whether it also was important in the North. Finally, the question was raised as to who is in charge of storytelling today. Does the media have responsibility? Who hears the stories?

That we were unable more fully to address these and other concerns, may have had an impact on the way in which we attempted to integrate stories and strategies in subsequent plenaries. There was a tendency through the rest of the triennial to separate out stories from strategies. Stories were about experience; strategies about politics. Most of the stories seem to come from the South; for some, strategies seemed to be elaborated in the North. Thus the challenge with which we entered the first plenary -- which was to answer the question: what role do stories play in our strategies? -- remained on the table by the end of the Triennial. Perhaps it should always be so, since the constant reinterpretation of the past is an important part of formulating better pathways into the future. The one thing that perhaps we can conclude with some certainty, is that we "move on" at our peril if we are unable adequately to process the memories, experiences, and identities that form a part of our legacy from past generations.

Programmes & Projects

Add new comment

This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

6 + 0 =
Solve this simple math problem and enter the result. E.g. for 1+3, enter 4.