We can learn a lot about movements by looking at how – and how much – they train people.
Many activist spaces these days spend time developing critical analysis through events, writing, and discussion. But as much as we might wish otherwise, sharp analysis doesn’t automatically translate into the skills necessary for working in groups, making collaborative plans, and taking effective action. Successful movements create intentional mechanisms for helping people to learn such organizing skills.
There are lots of examples in recent history. The U.S. civil rights movement set up intensive civil disobedience trainings as well as freedom schools. The women’s liberation movement generated consciousness raising groups, peer-to-peer education practices, and touring workshops. The labor movement created summer schools, labor colleges, and worker education programs; although much less widespread today, some of these spaces continue to exist.
During the 1970s and 1980s, the direct action anti-nuclear movement developed a culture of training inspired by the civil rights and feminist movements. In preparation for large-scale civil disobedience actions involving hundreds of people, organizers regularly held workshops on decision-making, direct action, and campaign-building, among other topics. These trainings, some of which were day-long, combined presentations, facilitated discussions, and participatory activities, often with role-playing.
As historian and activist Andrew Cornell points out, this culture of training carried on into many subsequent movements. It was definitely influential as I came into radical politics in the 1990s. This was a period when activist skill-building workshops and open, training-oriented movement gatherings were much more common than they are today.
During this time, a network of experienced Earth First! organizers offered frequent workshops and touring “roadshows” focused on popular education around specific campaigns. Copwatch groups trained interested people in other cities about how to monitor and record local police activity. Similarly, Anti-Racist Action groups trained people across the continent in methods for countering white supremacist organizing. Many activists also routinely traveled to multi-day conferences and other gatherings that offered workshops on everything from blockades to banner-making, meeting facilitation to media outreach.
Arguably, this culture of training peaked with the so-called anti-globalization movement in the late 1990s and early 2000s. What we called “convergences” – gatherings for training and planning – preceded most of the large summit protests of that era. And during those years, it was common for groups involved in the movement to hold periodic workshops on topics such as anti-oppression, consensus decision-making, and direct action, as well as more specialized trainings for legal observers, street medics, and others.
Since then, there has been a noticeable downturn in training. Although many experienced activists have mentioned this to me, anarchist sociologist Lesley Wood is the only one I know who has looked carefully at the trend. Focusing on North American anarchist gatherings, Wood has recently documented a marked decline in skill-building workshops since the 1980s. This is consistent with my experiences at movement gatherings and left spaces more generally over the last two decades: there seem to be fewer skill-based workshops and training-oriented gatherings, and the activist trainings that do happen tend to be less frequent and shorter.
What accounts for this decline? As with most everything, I’m sure there are many contributing factors. But I suspect that it has a lot to do with prevailing life circumstances amidst 21st-century neoliberalism. The material realities of most people’s lives right now involve lots of precarious low-paid work, much harm and trauma, tremendous debt, and pressing responsibilities to care for children and older family members. So many of us feel exhausted, scattered, anxious, and sped-up. In these circumstances, creating space for training is understandably challenging and all the more crucial.
I find hope in training initiatives that are persevering – and growing – in these difficult circumstances. This is particularly the case in the U.S., where there are both longstanding organizations, such as Project South and Training for Change, and newer efforts, such as the Institute for Advanced Troublemaking and The Wildfire Project. In the Canadian context, most university-based Public Interest Research Groups (PIRGs) host workshops and, more ambitiously, Tools for Change organizes an annual series of trainings in Toronto. As well, some labor unions continue to hold trainings and experiment with online educational spaces for rank-and-file members. At the time of this writing, I’m also excited about the upcoming PowerShift: Young and Rising conference in Ottawa, which promises a weekend full of workshops for climate justice activists and organizers.
What can we learn about current movements based on how they’re training people? Activists are struggling mightily, but our collective capacity is lower than in some previous periods. To build the large-scale, sustained, combative movements we need, we will have to generate new and relevant mechanisms for spreading skills.