Deeper Resources for Action

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An important strand to our Engaged Buddhist work is the Deeper Resources for Action training, which offers systematic in-depth meditation training to social change makers looking to harness meditative practices to empower their action. Annabel Pinker, a Social Anthropologist whose research interests include grassroots social and political movements, reflects on her experience during last years training.

At the end of October last year, a small group of us brought our restlessness and dilemmas to the wintry Pyrenean valley of Abella de Conca. For two weeks, we slipped into a daily rhythm of sitting meditation, yoga and teachings, accompanied by the spit and crackle of the wood-burner, the sweep of wind and vultures’ wings above the canvas of the meditation space. Already less familiar to myself, I gradually submitted to the deepening quiet, nourished by good food, sleep, companionship, and the awkwardly intimate encounter with this ‘me’ that gradually seemed to lose its singularity, fracturing into uneven layers of tensions, surges of energy and emotion, images, achingly repetitive storylines. Such movements gave way at times, so unexpectedly, into far less familiar terrain – as if crashing all of a sudden out of tangled thickets of impenetrable jungle into a spacious moonscape, stretching way beyond the limits of sight, dissolving the jagged rushes of feeling, my tight witnessing gaze, my burning questions, my drive to get through to the next thing, whatever that was, into – something vast, benign and profoundly mysterious. Sometimes it was possible to dwell there for a while, even explore unknown strata; then all of a sudden, I would be popped out, as magically as I had found myself there, back into something like ordinary, familiar experience.

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What do such minute encounters with the visceral, often boring and painful, occasionally delightful stuff of being a being have to do with activism? The collective experience of our group – a bunch of 20, 30 and 40-somethings from the UK, Holland, Germany, Ireland, Denmark, and Hungary – included training activists and humanitarian workers; providing policy, legal, and research-based support for non-profit organisations; organising protests and campaigns on climate, environmental, and socio-political issues; facilitating engagement with and between young people through music; working to establish an action-research cooperative for the promotion of socially just housing; and developing research and spaces of public engagement concerning energy transition. The versions of activism at stake were as numerous as the people on the training.

But beyond these roles, many of us were variously exploring the boundaries of more established understandings of activism. In one way or another, most of us had been drawn to Ecodharma because fighting the good fight in the old ways didn’t seem to cut it anymore. Some had experienced burn-out after particularly intense periods of engagement. What sort of transformation was being modelled if activists brought to their work the same kind of driven, productivist, disembodied or hyper-rational ethic that generally predominates in the West? Wasn’t that orientation just another instantiation of the world we wanted to change? Others questioned what activism really means at a time when the old dualisms – humans and nature; mind and body; individual and collective – no longer serve as descriptions of reality at a time when new ‘hyper-objects’, like climate change, have exposed how radically plural and entangled things are. It’s easier to act on phenomena when filed neatly away in compartments labelled, ‘politics’, ‘environment’, ‘social’, and ‘economy’. Less so when seen as interconnected parts of complex, overlapping, ultra-globalised systems in which we (as individuals, collectives and institutions) are profoundly implicated. Less so too when personal and corporate responsibility is routinely overridden by the right to consume conferred by the dominance of free market liberalism.

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In short, all of us, in different ways, had discerned that scant transformation was available without turning our gaze back on ourselves. We had recognised that we were minute parts of these larger wholes, conditioned and shaped by them even as we railed against their injustices. In my case, my usual strategies for making things happen didn’t seem to work very well anymore, and – partly through my early experiments with meditation – I had begun to wake up to the frankly terrifying possibility that the political and social worlds that appeared to be outside of me mirrored to a large degree my patterns of seeing, thinking and feeling. The reassuring schism between my ‘inner’ life and a stable, objective ‘outer’ landscape that I could act on became more fragile. How far was I co-creating this outside that I had taken to be separate from myself? Patriarchy, black-and-white thinking, and bigotry – I began to experience as well as cognitively understand – had their ground in the rigidities, aggressions and fears that often registered in my body as critical thoughts, dark images and contractions in musculature. I uncovered a strong strain of puritanism in my critiques of the power structures we inhabit – a whiff of ‘I am on the side of the good’. The labour of sitting with my internal movements, the continuous work of gently pulling myself back from my tedious storylines, was humbling. Staying with anger long enough to experience the grief, vulnerability, or potent lifeforce that so often quivered behind it has begun, over the past few years, to demystify the righteous rage I had taken to be all about what was going on ‘out there’. What has come in its stead is something sadder, more ambivalent and – I think – softer and more humane. This is not the kind of change I have expected or wanted; when I set out on this path – which has taken me down the avenues of herbalism, body and energy work, though always with a meditation practice at the core – I envisaged some more transcendent, complete and victorious outcome probably, in keeping with the mind that started out on the journey. So far, I see no end in sight – just a constantly unfolding horizon of new terrain, whilst the old patterns are always ready to reassert themselves.

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Of course, the inevitable – and legitimate – next question in the face of all of this is, that’s all well and good, but what about action? Injustice may be more complex and ambivalent than meets the eye, but surely retreat is not an adequate response. We are all familiar with recent wellness trends – which so often seem to prescribe yet another kind of commoditised hyper-individualism – one crafted around the desirability of a muscular body, zen-like mind, and kale-rich eating regime. Meditation has all too often been hauled onto the same ground. It is here that Ecodharma’s work has most deeply influenced me. I’ve heard no assertions from Ecodharma folk that meditation is the great panacea for social change, or that we just need to ‘do our internal work’ and then we can act. Instead, there’s an emphasis on a life of activism, collective living, and meditative practice all at once; it’s possible to live actively, contemplatively and communally, even if the nature of things is that one of these may dominate more at any one time. Whilst a high value is placed on best practice – and no doubt there’s some perfectionism in that – that this labour of living is necessarily imperfect, ambivalent, processual, and never complete is readily acknowledged. We’re not gods-in-the-making on a journey towards paradise; instead we act in the world and co-create with others to the best of our ability even as we courageously, haltingly explore our internal lineaments.

I had brought a question with me to Ecodharma: how to bring my work as an anthropologist into more active engagement with the closely imbricated spiritual, political, and ecological concerns that have come to play an ever more central role in my life? How to deploy anthropology for more generative purposes, for contributing to change, rather than simply as an extractive mode of knowledge production for academic audiences? Since first bringing this question to Ecodharma in 2016, allies have serendipitously appeared, and – after a colleague and I co-hosted a public conversation on post-oil futures in Aberdeen with a local arts organisation earlier this year – a small, but growing, local network of arts organisations and social scientists has formed with an interest in curating public dialogues, activities and events on energy transition in Scotland. The work is slow. I have no idea where it will lead. But it is an evolving process that is, for me at least, supported by a view that I began exploring more fully through my encounter with others at Ecodharma: that meditative and spiritual practices support the development of an activism that arises from deeper, more intuitive places in ourselves, that is willing to embrace mystery, rework old dogmas around what should constitute social and political action, and remake itself in tune with our times.

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New Engaged Buddhist Team This Summer

The development of social change practice underpinned by the dharma is at the heart of ecodharma’s vision. We have been running our Engaged Buddhist Training course for almost eight years now, developing the theory and curriculum and widening the pool of trainers and groups we work with. This year’s team will bring two facilitators into the Engaged Buddhist work for the first time, and we are very excited about it!

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Joining Alex Swain, who has been living at ecodharma for almost 10 years and is a key voice in the development of ecodharma’s engaged buddhist work, will be Kathryn Tulip. Kathryn is a long standing social justice campaigner, and has been training and facilitating in grassroots movements for over a decade. Much of this work has been achieved as part of the Seeds for Change/Navigate collective, of which she is a co-founder. With them will be Eweryst Zaremba, social activist, trainer and member of SPINA and EYFA. Eweryst has been involved in a whole range of social and environmental struggles, and is currently focusing most of his energy on feminist, trans* and queer issues – writing, performing and training.

This has freed up Guhyapati to do more work with the ulex project, which is about to complete its first full year of programming, having worked with over 200 activists from over 20 countries. The project has run courses in a wide range of skills from activist resiience to movement level strategy. If you’re interested in following the progress of the ulex project you can sign up for our newsletter.

We can’t wait to dive into what promises to be a fruitful and inspiring collaboration, gathering the wealth of experience and wisdom within this team and creating something fresh and current. Come join us for two weeks of stimulating learning and exploration, as we collectively investigate: What does Action from Depth feel, sound and look like? And how do we get there together?

 

 

Adventures in Wild Therapy

The beginning of May saw our first ever Wild Therapy ecopsycology training. We we’re joined by Emma Palmer and Justin Roughly, who guided the group through a week of exploratory sessions together. Emma writes below about the experience, including some of the challenges that they faced as a group of learners with divergent therapeutic backgrounds and interests, and how this learning will inform future Wild Therapy trainings.

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For the first time this spring ‘Wild Therapy’ came to Ecodharma. I love Wild Therapy and I love Ecodharma – the place and community – so I was very glad to be bringing the two together. Wild therapy has its roots in the more radical origins and practices of counselling and psychotherapy, has emerged in response to the increasing ‘taming’ of beings (including therapists), and recognises the urgent need for us to realise our connection with the so-called ‘natural world’. A main intention of Wild Therapy is to bring therapy into the wild and wildness into therapy, so the week saw 14 of us moving between solo work, pair work and whole group work as we socially dreamed together, meditated together, explored different aspects of Wild therapy, and co-created community. And the learning goes on, as we digest and return home…

On the Wild therapy website it says that this way of working ‘seeks to rebalance therapy – and in the long run, human culture – with a good dollop of wildness, spontaneity, boundlessness and passion’. I certainly think that we managed at least some of this last week and I feel much gratitude to the 12 participants for bringing themselves so heart-fully, gut-fully and spirit-fully to the course and for forming strong bonds. For me the diversity of the group was both a strength and weakness. There was a tension between some wanting more content and some wanting more whole-group process and in future I would be drawn to offering this course solely to counsellors and psychotherapists, purely because in narrowing the focus of course participants, we may be able to go deeper. Having said that, I think it was the diversity of this particular course that made it wild – food for thought! Ecodharma already offers an amazing range of courses for people practising nature connection, whilst this is the first course for therapists, so that may be another reason for narrowing the focus slightly.

I’m used to holding Wild therapy courses in Derbyshire, Lancashire and Somerset, so it was amazing to explore this work in a landscape which is much wilder still, in the midst of the richness of the other than human and more than human life there. A big thank you to everyone at Ecodharma who make these life-changing events possible. And last and definitely not least, all the beings in la Serra de Carreu: the vultures, eagles, cuckoos, chuffs, deer, goats, the cowslips, tiny daffodils, and wild hellebores, and all the other beings. I bow deeply.

 

Ecodharma Ibérica

Ecodharma courses, workshops and support in Spanish

 

Since January 2016, Ecodharma has a team dedicated to bringing Ecodharma’s work to people and communities engaged in social change activities in the Iberian peninsula. The variety of courses Ecodharma offer and the number of people collaborating with us has greatly increased since our first course 7 years ago. This new Spanish-speaking team has emerged naturally from the interest of people living in Spain who share Ecodharma’s values and have personally experienced the power of our courses.

First Course – Collaboration for Social Transformation (‘Colaboración para la Transformación Social’)

Collaboration for Social Transformation‘ was the first course we ran, and it took place in June 2016. A combination of elements from two of Ecodharma’s renown signature courses – ‘Tranformative Collaboration‘ and ‘Sustaining Resistance, Empowering Renewal‘, the new course was especially designed for people living in the Spain, with the objective of reinforcing the effective work already being done here.

 

Participants mainly came from Catalonia, but also from Madrid, Zaragoza, and one all the way from Greece! In the course, we explored the indivisibility between our ‘inner work’ and external action. Our main preoccupation was how to nourish well-being, personal resilience and a wider culture of care in the context of the social justice and solidarity work we do, considering the power we have (or not) in the groups we belong to. Overall the course was a success. We all learned a lot, and not just about the material, but about adapting and creating new exercises and methodology appropriate to the cultural context, as well as our own team process, and how to work best with the group. Some things, we’ll repeat, other things we’ll do different, and there will be future courses!

 

Next Activities

 

The next ‘Transformation for Social Collaboration‘ course (in Spanish) will run from June 30 to July 9 2017, and meanwhile we keep at it. In November, the Iberia team held a 2-day workshop, ‘Tools for Sustainable and Effective Activism’, in Madrid. Not only was the workshop well attended, it was a diverse group of people who learned a lot, and got great value out of meeting each other too. There are murmurs of more workshops in Madrid in 2017, and these on top of three more in Catalonia and Valencia early next year.

Building Another World

Over the years, the Ecodharma courses run at the centre have been received with interest and appreciation, and our reputation has grown such that we have also received invitations to facilitate sessions (in Catalan and Spanish) from groups based in the peninsula. The requests mainly have been to help groups and communities work in effective and healthy ways in these trying times, while also learning how to better juggle work, family, community, activism and the other demands of everyday life. Ecodharma has been able to respond to some of these invitations, but not all, and that’s why this new Ecodharma Iberia team is such good news.

Who are we

The Ecodharma Iberia team first met by taking part in different courses and projects at the centre. We are facilitators and colleagues, as well as friends committed to doing deep work together to bring out the best in ourselves, so in turn, we can help others do the same. Our involvement goes beyond facilitating Ecodharma courses in Spanish; we also participate in the life at the centre more broadly: we grow our skills by taking other courses and retreats at Ecodharma, manage related projects, spend time at Ecodharma doing volunteer work, and living at the centre.

You, Social Change and 2017

We understand deep social change also requires us to change ourselves and our way of being in the world. Otherwise we end up repeating the same old mistakes from the past.

  • What do you think?
  • What experiences have you had with these topics?
  • Would you like to know more?

Here are possible ways we can help –

  • A day workshop open to the general public exploring these topics
  • A bespoke consultancy session for a group or community already working together
  • The next ‘Collaboration for Social Transformation‘ course at Ecodharma Centre 1-10 July 2017
  • Advising and support from a distance (telephone/email) – because we believe we are the leaders we’ve been looking for, but sometimes we also just need a little help

We use a “pay what you can” system, asking that people/groups requesting workshops cover the travel expenses of the facilitators doing the event, and then, whatever is within your means, a donation to Ecodharma Centre so we can continue to develop this work.

To wrap up now and this year, we thank you for reading this, and ask that you share it with others because together, we are stronger.

Crowdfund Heads-up – a chance to help

In late March we will be launching our first ever crowdfunder. We’ve been doing some excellent work and building the Ecodharma Centre since 2008. We know that this work has touched many of you and brought real benefits. This is the first time we have asked our networks for this kind of support. We hope you will help. With your support we are going to raise €40,000 for the final renovation of the new Ulex Project education centre!

We are developing a new residential training centre where activists, campaigners and socially engaged people from across Europe can develop the skills and relationships necessary to make their work really effective. The programme will draw on our previous work which integrates inner and social transformation in unique and empowering ways. It will provide a much-needed space for resourcing, deep reflection and skills development. We think it is the most exciting initiative that the Ecodharma team have undertaken. And we’re asking you to join us to contest our future together.

There are four ways you can help us make next month’s crowdfunder a success.

  • Be a Founding Donor: We’re looking for 20 amazing people to commit to donating between €500 – €2000 during the first few days of the Crowdfunding campaign. This will give the campaign a massive confidence boost that will really get the ball rolling for the following 40 days. (We’ve done our research and this really makes a difference!) Could you be one of these? Or know anyone who could?
  • Be a Fundraising Superhero : We’re looking for 20 people who will commit to use their networks and creativity to raise between €500 – €2000 during the 40 day crowdfund. This will involve getting other people excited about the project, and approaching friends, family, organisations and broader networks to ask for donations. This would be such an enormous help.
  • Be a Comms Superstar: We’re looking for people to help us spread the word of the Crowdfunder through their networks, projects, communities and organisations! This will mean helping us get the word out there across your social media platforms, email lists and work/friend/family relationship networks. We will provide regular updates and social media posts that can help you.
  • Just give what you can and spread the word in whatever way you are able!

The crowdfund launches in late March. In the meantime, please let us know if you can pledge to support us in any of the ways described by firing off an email to lindsay@ulexproject.org . We’ll be sending out informationagain as it gets closer!

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What is the Ulex Project

The Ulex Project is possibly the most exciting initiative that the Ecodharma team have ever undertaken. Building on years of successfully innovating and developing trainings which integrate inner and social transformation, we are launching a new education centre and training programme. The new Ulex Project training centre will extend Ecodharma’s reach and enable us to support activists and organisers all across Europe.

Europe’s facing some deep social and ecological challenges. There’s a fragmenting political climate and the far right is gaining ground in many places. At the same time, there’s an inspiring renewal of participation in progressive social movements. Growing numbers of people are stepping up to shape our future.

For our progressive movements to be resilient and to have real impact, capacity building and training are essential. To really make a difference, we need spaces to renew, reskill and reimagine. We need places to train and strategise for action. That is what the Ulex Project offers. The website unpacks our approach in detail, as well as listing the launch programme of trainings between Autumn 2017 and Summer 2018.

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Ecodharma has always been underpinned by the practices and principles of Buddhism. But our work reaches out to a wide range of people working for progressive social change and ecological integrity. To give our important work greater reach, the Ulex Project will provide an entirely secular framing for some aspects of our work. We will be building on the strand of our work that focuses on social change and using these trainings as a core of signature trainings for the new and innovative programme. We are also reaching out to the networks of trainers and activists we have built up to showcase best practices and innovative work.

Ulex will provide high-quality trainings building social movement capacity for social justice and ecological integrity. It will establish a residential training centre serving the needs of social movements for the long haul. It will be a place for collaboration and innovation, enabling the responsive development of social movement training in Europe. It will offer a hub that strengthens connections for pan-European solidarity and social movement resilience. To make it happen we need your help!

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Launching the Ulex Project

The Ulex Project is possibly the most exciting initiative that the Ecodharma team have ever undertaken. Building on years of successfully innovating and developing trainings which integrate inner and social transformation, we are launching a new education centre and training programme. The new Ulex Project training centre will extend Ecodharma’s reach and enable us to support activists and organisers all across Europe.

Europe’s facing some deep social and ecological challenges. There’s a fragmenting political climate and the far right is gaining ground in many places. At the same time, there’s an inspiring renewal of participation in progressive social movements. Growing numbers of people are stepping up to shape our future.red-colour-cropped

For our progressive movements to be resilient and to have real impact, capacity building and training are essential. To really make a difference, we need spaces to renew, reskill and reimagine. We need places to train and strategise for action. That is what the Ulex Project offers. The website unpacks our approach in detail, as well as listing the launch programme of trainings between Autumn 2017 and Summer 2018.

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Taking Theatre of the Oppressed from Ecodharma to the streets of Paris

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“The purpose of Theatre of the Oppressed is to rehumanize humanity.”  — Augusto Boal

 

In late October 2015 Ecodharma held its first teacher training in Theatre of the Oppressed, bringing together 14 participants working in social change. A few weeks later a group of the participants got to test out what they had learnt in the space between riot police and protestors at the COP21. Lindsay Alderton tells us about it.

 

The Theatre of the Oppressed approach was developed in the 1970’s by Augusto Boal as a way to give voice to marginalized individuals and communities in Brazil. Since then it’s been used in countless settings across the world as a way of exploring themes of power, oppression and how we can actively participate in shaping our lives. George Wielgus, of Reboot The Roots, facilitated the first Theatre of the Oppressed intensive at the Ecodharma Centre last year.

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George cut his teeth with interactive theatre back in 2007 when he spent two years on a tour of Malaysia with a drug recovery group and the HIV Council of Malaysia. He performed with non-actors for a public of more than 6000 people, and saw how theatre could open up the topic of HIV at a time when it was still a very taboo subject. Following on from that, George trained with Cardboard Citizens in London and has since facilitated workshops for NGOs and grassroots groups, including refugee communities in Kuala Lumpur, emerging poets in Singapore and reconciliation meetings between charities in Cambodia.

 

“The week long course at Ecodharma was a great opportunity for going deep with some of the Theatre of the Oppressed tools,” George explained. “It gave us a chance to really get to grips with activities and games exploring power and oppression in our personal and political lives. It often brings up some pretty charged emotions, and so the group formed a tight affinity early on in creating a supportive space.”

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It was to be an affinity that would serve the group well when some of them decided they would meet the following month in Paris, although perhaps in ways at the time they could not have imagined. Ruth Cross, one of the participants and co-founder of the Eroles Project, explains where the plans for Paris originally came from. “Towards the end of the course at Ecodharma it emerged that several of us were planning to be in France in December, when thousands of activists from around the world would be gathering for the UN COP21 climate summit. The Eroles Project, which was getting established at that time as a community organizing hub for artists and activists in Paris, gave us a chance to put some of the skills from the training into practice. We decided we’d meet there and collaborate on a two-day workshop in Theatre of the Oppressed.”

 

With two decades of failed talks behind them, and many big oil and gas companies present at the negotiating table, expectations for a meaningful outcome of the COP21 negotiations were low from the outset. Activists were instead using the talks as a focal point for the climate movement to gather and strengthen, to mobilize and build cohesion, and to provide a platform for the voices of frontline communities already facing ecological threat and violence.

 

No one had anticipated the circumstances they would be contending with in Paris. Following the November 13 terror attacks a state of emergency had been declared. A ban had been placed on all public protest, marches and other ‘outdoor activities’, although notably that didn’t include football matches or Christmas markets. Tensions were running high following on from a series of heavy handed police responses, including a number of high profile climate activists being put under house arrest, and clashes between scores of protestors and the police the day before the talks began. Several squats and community spaces had also been subjected to police raids, including the hosts of the Eroles Project, L’Annexe.

 

Despite the ban, thousands of activists were still gathering from across the world, more determined that ever before to not let the inevitable failure of the talks go unnoticed on the world stage, nor let the narrative of a climate in crisis be hijacked by one of terrorism and anti-Islamic sentiment.

 

In the year’s build up to the talks an unprecedented coalition across the climate movement had been forming and organizing, including grassroots groups, large NGOs, trade unions and faith groups, laboriously working together to shape a narrative which would ensure the people, rather than the politicians, would ‘have the last word’. This was to be visibly demonstrated on the final closing day of the talks – December 12, or D12 as it had become known – with a bold ‘Red Lines’ action. Thousands of people would take to the streets, dressed in red and marking out lines with their bodies to symbolize the red lines being crossed, and the failure of governments to keep Co2 emissions below the scientifically agreed safe limit. It would set the tone for a wave of actions in the years ahead when the perpetrators of climate violence would be targeted directly.

 

The scene looked set for a clash of wills. The group that had formed on the Theatre of the Oppressed course would go on to play an important role. Three days before D12 around 70 people gathered with the Eroles Project in Paris, to attend the two day workshop in Theatre of the Oppressed. The group of facilitators from Ecodharma already offered a strong nucleus who knew each other intimately. They began using the techniques, games and practices they’d learned during the Ecodharma training to establish connection with the wider group in Paris.

 

The Theatre of the Oppressed group were asked if they would take on a de-escalation role, and help to manage the potential tensions between protestors and the police. “There was unequivocal consensus that we’d take it on,” says George. “We spent the following two days putting our focus towards developing that sense of group-trust we’d need for whatever scenario unfolded. What Theatre of the Oppressed offers are techniques that enable action, empowerment and cooperation quickly – a rehearsal for the revolution if you will, a rehearsal for life.” They set about applying these tools to the challenge ahead.

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The night before D12 the French government ‘authorised’ the protest, but with thousands readying up to take to the streets they had little alternative choice. On the day itself, sandwiched between lines of rock-faced, heavily armed riot police and thousands of protestors, the ‘de-escalation crew’ set to creating an atmosphere of playfulness to diffuse tensions from both sides. As required, building on the tools they’d learned from the Theatre of Oppressed workshop, they moved together in a variety of forms – from blocs, to bricks, to flocks, to swarms – responding to ‘gathering words’ and signals and signs they’d devised together during the previous days, splitting off into buddies when necessary, or into two groups when the call came that there were tensions further along at another point. They were part of an amazing day of demonstrations that took part around the world.

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“Paris was a turning point for me,” says Lex Titterington, one of the participants from the Ecodharma course who ended up facilitating in Paris. “It cemented my commitment to this movement of social change by 100%, and as an artist and theatre practitioner I found my place as an activist directly on the frontlines, creating safe passage for people whose communities every day face extinction from climate change. Despite the incredible tensions and uncertainties of that time, and the threat of violence up close and personal, what emerged with thousands of others was this sense of cohesion, responsiveness and resilience, and that’s given me a renewed sense of optimism for whatever lies ahead. Theatre of the Oppressed is a key tool in the transition – it offers radical techniques of transformation for both ourselves, and our world”.

 

George will be returning to Ecodharma to facilitate the 2016 training in Theatre of the Oppressed. To find out more visit here.