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.

 

 

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Just back from a training for trainers with the amazing Philadelphia based organisation Training for Change, Paula Haddock, who co-created our Mindfulness for Social Change course asks: What is the role of inner work in our efforts towards social justice and environmental sustainability? Why spend any time on working on the inside, when there is so much to do on the outside?

 

I’ve spent ten years working in international development and I find inner work is still largely unexplored and often undervalued in social change circles. In the last few years, I have been a co-founding member of a network on mindfulness and social change. The idea was to reach out and find others who were interested in the link between the two and were experimenting on training them together. This network now stands at sixty individuals across and is growing as more become interested in the links between the two. Ecodharma clearly values and promotes both inner and outer work for social change and we piloted a new course on Mindfulness and Social Change, which resonated well with people, and so we are running it again in October. But what about other social change organisations? How would they answer these questions?

 

In July, I invested in a training of trainers for social actors course, run by Training for Change in Philadelphia. Similarly to Ecodharma in Europe, Training for Change train activists and organisers who work on a range of justice issues including race, gender, disability and employment – mainly in North America. They believe in ‘direct education’ – a highly experiential approach to training, encouraging spontaneous learning, risk taking and challenging ourselves beyond our comfort zone. Over the three-week course, one of the things that struck me was that this was not a standard training of trainers. Their experience of working in social change over decades has shown that greater attention is needed on ‘psychological content’ rather than curriculum content alone and so they focused on many of the areas that often get left out:

 

  • how to ‘read’ the group in each moment and help it move forward – requiring the trainer to pay close attention, use their intuition, and be driven by where the group are rather than where the trainer expects/wants them to be
  • how to identify and work with mainstream and margins in groups – noticing how power is being taken or given, how sub-groups are formed, and how group dynamics are playing out
  • how to cultivate creativity and encourage risk taking – supporting people to find out what helps them to think outside the box and see and challenge their own self-limiting beliefs
  • how to emergently design to the group as it evolves and its’ needs change – requiring an incredible amount of flexibility, patience and responsive from the trainer

 

In exploring these areas, we learnt from our own experience, that working on our inner realm – as well as the ‘secret life of groups’ was key to making any kind of sustainable progress on social change. In a similar vain to Ecodharma, we were supported to be authentic – and space and encouragement was given for our inner, emotional selves to be an accepted and important part of our learning experience. In this way, we could fully ‘show up’ – as complex and sometimes conflicted beings that we all are, and by ‘showing up’ the possibilities for learning increased dramatically.

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The 23 of us on the course all had strong beliefs and values as you would expect. We had hopes and desires for the work we were doing. We were all highly motivated, committed, and hard working. We were also conditioned by our education, culture and class. We had ingrained prejudices, fears, and self-limiting beliefs. We were affected by difficult emotions – our own and others – and had all learnt our own strategies – for better or worse – for dealing with conflict. We had our own sets of mental boundaries, and we had anxieties of all shapes and sizes. Through the course, we were encouraged to notice how all of this affected our work in groups, both in the course, and at home. We were encouraged to ‘show up’ – even if that was challenging for the group.

 

This sometimes gave rise for more conflict which was accepted and even sometime encouraged as an essential part of our learning experience. After all, anything that takes us out of our comfort zone – which by its very nature learning does – will involve some degree of conflict and working with edges. For real change to take place, we often had to ‘unlearn’ as much as learn from scratch. We were given responsibility for defining and working on our own learning objectives with the support of peers and trainers. Through encouraging curiosity and learning to ask open questions, we began to see beyond the ‘lenses’ through which we see the world, paving the way for a shift of attitude and new behaviours and skills.

 

The trainers argued that inner work was critical. If we go ‘unchecked’ and unaware, we risk recreating the same systems that we are so keen to replace. Prejudices such as racism, for example, cannot be banished from work on external structures alone. As we see from history, it keeps arising despite the political progress, as many still struggle with a sense of ‘otherness’ – with people being ‘different’. As long as prejudice and resistance to diversity exists within us, it will continue to show up in the systems and structures around us. Privilege and rank are other factors which often go unacknowledged in groups and can lead to power imbalances. Our culture of individualism, competition and our sense of ‘resource’ and ‘time’ scarcity are further influences which affect the way we work. Social change must include both inner and outer realms to ensure that we do not replicate oppression, injustice and inequality.

 

It is also vital that we consciously invest in a positive vision for our groups, organisations and society as a whole. Anger, frustration, and fear will motivate us for a while but for greater change we need stronger fuel: compassion, non-judgement, creativity, patience, trust and courage. In the course, we sought to uncover and cultivate our sources of creativity and learn about our own positive ‘resource states’ which could refuel us when difficult emotions drained us. Mindfulness practice has helped me see how much I was conforming to social norms to do more, to judge, to compete and to seek recognition. This was hindering my efforts to collaborate, network and communicate. Courses such as those offered by Training for Change and Ecodharma are leading the way in helping those working in social change to do the necessary work to help us ‘show up’, involve our whole selves more – even when we don’t always like what we bring – and bring more acceptance to who we are and be stronger as a result.

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The Mindfulness and Social Change course at Ecodharma, running for eight days in October, draws on secular mindfulness approaches to inner work, as well as Joanna Macy’s Work that Reconnects, body based work, and nature connection practices, and Training for Change and George Lakey’s work on direct education. We will explore key skills for social change including communication, team work, conflict management, working with power dynamics, mainstreams and margins, and forming collaborations. I can’t think of an environment more striking and beautiful to learn in than at Ecodharma in the Pyrenees. Get in touch if you are interested in the course or joining the network. There is a lot of work to do and we’d love to hear from others working in this area. Email paulahaddock@hotmail.co.uk or info@ecodharma.com

 

 

 

What’s new in community life?

Change is afoot with the imminent move into our new kitchen and office space. Helping us to celebrate our house-warming will be several new additions to the team – which is a good job, since the 4000kg of potatoes that came out of our fields this year will take some eating!

The re-building of Cal Victor began over a decade ago, when Guhyapati first arrived here. At that time a small part of the ruin was patched up to function as a make-shift kitchen. It was a small space, only closed in on three sides, which has at times over the last six years housed groups of up to 17 shivering people meeting for check-ins and meals. Fond memories! It’s not without some wistfulness that we leave behind the days of frozen-together mugs and solid olive oil to commence life in the newly renovated kitchen. It is the culmination of a building project that’s been ticking along for three years with the help of heaps of wonderful people: builders and volunteers on site, people behind the scenes, as well as generous financial contributions. Massive amounts of gratitude to all.

It’s hard to fathom what a difference it will make to the quality of life and cohesion here, to have a central hearth for the community to call home – a brand new kitchen/dining room and a lovely new open-plan office, with decent heating and energy reserves. It’s been a long time coming, and we look forward to sharing it with old friends and new in the coming years.

It’s completion marks the timely arrival of several new team members. Lindsay Alderton has been a friend of the project for a few years now, participating and co-facilitating in courses here, engineering the Action from Depth collaboration between Ecodharma and Gaia House’s Rob Burbea, as well as lots of fantastic work in the social change sector (a key coordinator of Dharma Action Network for Climate Engagement among many other things).

Lindsay will work alongside Ella Moore to coordinate an exciting new strand of the project – developing a platform of trainings supporting and sustaining of social movements across Europe. That project is set to kick-off properly in 2017 and Lindsay and Ella will be preparing the ground for that.

Ella was one of the original Ecodharma community members. Several years ago she moved to the village below as she prioritized bringing up her two children and establishing a thriving refuge and guiding business for climbers along with her husband Nicholas Durand. We are delighted that she plans to return to work full-time with us from next year.

We are also delighted that the talented Rupert Marques will be joining us as food garden manager and to contribute to the nature-based facilitation team. He has been the garden coordinator at Gaia House for several years and brings with him a wealth of experience as a wilderness educator. We are delighted to be afforded the opportunity to explore what will hopefully be a long and fruitful collaborative relationship with someone who so closely shares our values and vision.

And last but not least, James Curry, who has been living and working at Sunseed in the south of Spain for the last seven years, where he has built up a wealth of experience with renewable energy systems. He will join us in January to trial as our new Maintenance and Construction Coordinator.

In other news, despite a major focus on getting the building work done, Martin has still managed to arrange the plowing, planting and harvesting of a mountainous quantity of potatoes in the fields around Cal Toha. This is a big step forwards in the long term project to develop field scale cultivation. We are doing our best at consumption – we have even seen potato appearances in our bread! – and are sharing the glut amongst many lovely friends in the local area. Hopefully this is an exciting indication of things to come, as the permaculture design plan unfolds.

So, we are entering into the winter months with a warm house, good friends, and plenty of hardy veg to fill our bellies. There are some big developments for the project in the coming year, but first we are enjoying the quietness of the season as many of our wonderful volunteer community depart and we move towards our two months of planning and retreat. No doubt we will find ourselves gathered round the wood-burner eating potato soup in the weeks to come, wondering how we managed for so long without running water in the kitchen or heating in the office. Respect and thanks to the hardy crew who have worked through the year(s) with us and (for the most part) with a smile. We couldn’t have done it without you!

Mindfulness and Social Change

As the booming interest in mindfulness begins to peak and attract criticism from various quarters, ecodharma is staying ahead of the curve. Looking to combine both social and personal transformation in a training that has secular credibility, Paula Haddock spent six months at ecodharma developing and piloting a new Mindfulness for Social Change course. She writes:

A Guardian article recently argued that mindfulness emphasises detachment, undermines social and emotional literacy, and prioritise personal self-actualisation before all else. “With a food bank in every town, a Big Issue seller on every street and strangers clamouring at the gates,” claimed the writer, “it is just plain wrong to seek a life of mindful calm”.

I agree that our culture doesn’t need more movements that encourage individualism at the expense of the collective. Nor does it need calm that leads to detachment. But that is not how I understand mindfulness.

I’ve spent ten years in the development and humanitarian sector, six of those managing the training department for INTRAC, providing trainings for international NGO’s. During that time I’ve witnessed many of the challenges facing those sectors. From what I’ve seen, it has become increasingly clear to me that people and organisations often fail to appreciate the importance of inner work. Consequently they struggle with the effect that this dimension has – often stalling the progress being made in their outer work.

In my experience, inner work, such as mindfulness training, can provide vital resources for social engagement. Sustaining commitment to positive change isn’t easy, nor is working with others – especially across diverse groups, organisations, or even sectors that might have different value bases. A mindfulness practice can support us to meet these challenges. It helps us to build awareness of ourselves, of others, and of the systems in place around us; it is a valuable basis for navigating through the challenging emotions which arise as we open up to the state of our world; it offers us practices for dealing usefully with strong emotions and learning to harness their energy in our work; it illuminates the ways our views and biases affect the way we are in the world. Mindfulness practice also teaches us about compassion, kindness and patience – supporting our sense of connection with others.

With all this in mind I left my job at INTRAC to dedicate myself to bringing attention to and supporting people with the inner work of social change. In August 2014 I attended ecodharma’s Engaged Buddhist Training. I immediately recognised the coincidence of interests between their approach and what I wanted to explore. I could also see the potential for designing a more introductory and secular course, and was delighted to discover that they were also interested in developing a course along those lines.

I am studying Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction and Cognitive Therapy at Bangor University. My interest was developing the teaching they have developed and harnessing it to support people involved in social change. This sat so well with the approach ecodharma have been applying at their residential centre in the Catalan Pyrenees that we decided to combine ideas and run a pilot course.

I took up temporary residency in the ecodharma community earlier this year and I set to work, in collaboration with Guhyapati, the centre director. Through spring and summer 2015, I worked through the range of skills which, based on our experience of working with development practitioners and activists, we felt presented people with the biggest struggles in social change work. We choose to focus on communication, collaboration, team work, and decision making. We structured the course with plenty of space for personal reflection, mindfulness meditation, and skills for collaboration, as well as creating a temporary community.

The pilot took place in October, with thirteen participants attending from around Europe. The result was very encouraging:

“A brilliant course, superbly facilitated, that explores how to apply the inner benefits of mindfulness to external change. I think you have identified a gap – I see this as an important next stage in the current wave of mindfulness practice.”

“I thoroughly enjoyed this course – mind shifting and life changing and resourcing for my life and work. Gave me a fresh look at what I’m doing and why I’m passionate about social change.”

“…the course exceeded my expectations… the fact that it is mindfulness for a greater cause, for action – super important”.

Given the success of the pilot, we will be including two courses of this kind in the programme each year, and joining forces with INTRAC to run the course in the UK in April.

Thankfully we are not the only ones exploring this area, and over the past year, a small group of us initiated an informal network to help us to share, learn and collaborate together. On November 24th, 2015, we held our first Mindfulness for Social Change gathering, bringing 30 people together in London, to explore our big questions, share ideas, showcase our work, and ask ourselves ‘what next?’.

We explored a range of topics in small groups including: How can mindfulness support people working to promote sustainability, social justice and wellbeing in society? How can mindfulness training and practice in mainstream settings help or hinder efforts to address the systemic causes of social, economic and environmental problems? We also opened up a space to explore how we might move forward together including building a network, co-designing materials, building an evidence base, and supporting each other to sustain our work.

As the year draws to an end, I have more appetite and energy for this work than ever! My experience at ecodharma and with the network, has shown me that as a collective, we are much stronger, and more effective than we are on our own. When we have the courage and support to let go of – or at least loosen our hold on – our organisational or personal ‘egos’ then we can be more honest about what is needed, and build more resilience for the long road ahead. There is much work to do, and clearly many people who can benefit from mindfulness practice – and the whole range of inner practices. Without it, we may never learn that change starts with us and happens through us. And we can do anything once we realise the power we have within to make change happen.

Action From Depth: Ecodharma build UK Links

This summer Ecodharma, will be joining forces with Gaia House teacher Rob Burbea and Freely Given Retreats to offer a new training in the UK. Action from Depth is a shorter remix of the Engaged Buddhist Training that Ecodharma have been developing since 2010. The UK version will be co-designed by Rob and Ecodharma’s Guhyapati, with a strong emphasis on ecological activism just ahead of the United Nations Climate talks, the COP21, in Paris.

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“The first time Rob and I met was on the main concourse of the central train station in Copenhagen on the morning of mass protests against the political intransigence surrounding the UN climate talks. That was 2009 and it was the COP15,” explains Guhyapati. “It feels fitting that we have managed to find this opportunity to work together now in the lead up to COP21.” Guhyapati and Rob Burbea are both part of a third generation of younger western Buddhist teachers looking to radicalise Buddhist teaching in a way that gives it a cutting edge in the face of the social and ecological challenges of the 21st century. Both have pointed critically towards the dangers of a western Buddhist practice that overly focuses on personal wellbeing while remaining aloof or distant to ecological and social conditions.

“There are not so many contemporary Buddhist teachers who are really tackling these issues head on,” suggests Guhyapati. “There are plenty of tokenistic references, but unless we find a way to combine deep dharma with meaningful action there is likely to be a time when that tokenism flips over into blind panic!” Both Rob and Guhyapati are well-grounded in their respective traditions, Insight Meditation and the Triratna Buddhist Order, but equally feel the importance of building bridges across traditions and schools in the creation of socially and ecologically engaged Buddhism. They are hoping this will be the start of a longer working relationship.

For more information: see Action from Depth or ecodharma’s Engaged Buddhist Training

New strands in activist training network

This autumn a new Training for Trainers course at Ecodharma will support social and environmental activists to take sustainable activism trainings across Europe. Since 2009 the Sustaining Resistance course has provided methods of working effectively with the personal and inner dimension of activism, equipping people to avoid burnout and to better empower themselves for action. The Sustainable Activism – Training the Trainer will meet the interest amongst people who want to provide similar trainings for grassroots activists in their own countries.

“Our work with social activists is a secular reworking of much of the Buddhist inspired material we have developed within our Engaged Buddhist Training,” explains Carol from the Ecodharma team. “There’s been so much interest in the work that we can’t do it all ourselves. So now we’re running courses to train facilitators in the skills and perspectives needed to carry this work into more countries, and to give the project a greater reach.” This month Ecodharma are working with activists in Madrpopular assembly in Spain 2011id and the Dutch speaking world to support courses taking the work into new networks in those regions. In October the Sustaining Activism – Training the Trainer will see facilitation groups from Poland, Germany and Romania joining the Ecodharma team to learn skills and gain confidence to design and offer similar work for themselves.

These different initiatives are deepening some fertile connections for Ecodharma. The work in Madrid will be taking place with groups connected to the M15 and Indignats movement, which inspired the Occupy movement in the USA and other parts of Europe in 2011. M15 has recently spawned a political party in Spain, which won 8% of the national vote in the European Elections. “It’s great to find ways that our work can inspire people connected with M15. Some of us at the Ecodharma Centre joined the occupation of Placa Catalunya in Barcelona during the first days of the M15 movement  a few years back. We could feel there the energy and community spirit that the movement is tapping into,” says Carol. “So, we’re excited to help add strength and capacity to their work.” Similarly, the team is enthusiastic about training up the native speaking facilitators in Northern and Eastern Europe. “A key aim of this project is the empowerment of people. So it’s an obvious step to train people to be able to run the kind of courses we offer for themselves in their own networks,” Carol explains.

The Ecodharma Sustaining Resistance course provides methods of working effectively with the personal and inner dimension of activism, equipping people to avoid burnout and to better empower themselves for action. It also offers tools which support more skilful inter-personal work in groups and networks. The aim of the work is to support people to be more effective in their social engagement and to be able to keep doing it for the long haul.