Nonviolence Training


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This fund gives grants of up to $3,000 for trainings that help people learn how to collectively use the theory and practice of nonviolent action to effectively carry out struggles for social justice. Projects must be located outside the United States or within Native nations in the United States.

Projects eligible for support include:

those which build capacity and leadership among people engaged in nonviolent struggles; those which prepare participants for specific nonviolent actions or campaigns; those geared to 'training the trainers', in order to expand and multiply nonviolence training throughout a targeted community.

For grant guidelines and more information, see the Website or contact the A. J. Muste Institute at 339 Lafayette St., New York, NY 10012 or

'There is no way to peace—peace is the way'.

                      This was A. J. Muste’s simple statement of his convictions. 

A. J. Muste was a pacifist, anti-war activist and a leader of the labour and civil rights movements in the United States whose personal integrity won him a rare universal respect. The A. J. Muste Memorial Institute was organised in 1974 to keep A. J.’s legacy alive through ongoing support of the nonviolent movement for social change.

Gender lies at the root of war and peace. As a marker of identity, an exploration of gender is becoming increasingly critical in understanding the complexity of violent conflict. In practical terms, too, concrete ways must be found to implement a gender perspective in third-party interventions in armed conflicts.

This article is the result of material published in the Handbook for Nonviolent Campaigns and a session on gender and nonviolence at WRI's International Nonviolence Training Exchange, in Bilbao in October 2008.

It may seem simple and obvious that we want both men and women involved in our struggles against war and injustice. However, if we want to fully utilise people's talents, energy, and insights, we need to apply gender awareness to how we organise ourselves, how we design our campaigns, and how we conduct our trainings for action.

On November 16, 1989, six Jesuit priests, their co-worker and her teenage daughter were massacred in El Salvador. A U.S. Congressional Task Force verified that those responsible were trained at the U.S. Army School of the Americas (SOA) at Fort Benning, Columbus, Georgia, USA. This is only the most notorious incident in the school's history of providing special training to Latin American military personnel known to have committed atrocities and engaged in torture.


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Look at the history of your country and you will find episodes of nonviolent action - demonstrations, strikes, boycotts or other forms of popular non-cooperation. They might not be referred to as "nonviolent action", and might not even be mentioned in school books, but they are there, a potential source of inspiration and evidence that nonviolent action in your context is not the invention of foreign agitators. The causes will vary - for the rights of workers and peasants, freedom for slaves, the right to vote for women or people without property, for racial equality, for gender equality, for freedom from occupation, against corruption, against price rises, against military corruption - in short encompassing a range of forms of injustice and domination. However, it was not until the twentieth century - and in particular the campaigns of Gandhi in South Africa and India - that movements discussed nonviolent action as a conscious strategy for social transformation.

Gandhi was convinced that nonviolence had a particular power - both in its effect on the people who took an action, and on those at whom the action was directed. He saw that social solidarity can overcome efforts to dominate, exploit or otherwise oppress a population. It is not just enough to oppose an adversary, blaming them for everything, but also people have to look at their own responsibilities and their own behaviour - freedom and justice are not just to be demanded but to be practised, and to be the basis on which a movement constructs itself. Gandhi wrote streams of articles developing his ideas about nonviolence. He was not the first to observe that those who rule depend on the cooperation of those they rule, but he made this central to his strategies of civil resistance: "the first principle of nonviolence", he once wrote, "is non-cooperation with everything humiliating". Gandhi was not the most systematic thinker about nonviolence - he preferred to talk about his experience as "experiments with Truth" - but he insisted on certain fundamentals. One was the need for campaigns to maintain a nonviolent discipline. Another was the central importance of constructive activity addressing problems among the population - work that people could organise themselves in their daily life. In the case of Gandhi and the context of colonised India, this constructive programme expanded to include reducing inter-religious hostility, tackling discrimination on gender or caste lines, countering illiteracy and ignorance on sanitation, and promoting self-sufficient production of food and clothes.

Most participants in the campaigns initiated by Gandhi shared only some of his principles - they were prepared to use nonviolence to free India from British colonialism, but few had Gandhi's utter commitment to nonviolence as a way of life, and indeed most conventional political leaders gave only symbolic importance to the constructive programme. This pattern has frequently been repeated, nonviolent action being effective when used by broad movements, where most participants accept nonviolence in practical terms as the appropriate strategy for their situation but only a minority express a philosophical commitment. The example of the Indian independence struggle had a huge influence on subsequent movements against colonialism, especially in Africa - and people in a wide range of contexts began to study what makes nonviolence effective and how it can be used even more successfully. Sixty years after Gandhi's death, nonviolent activists are still "experimenting with truth" and a field of study has grown up about what makes nonviolence effective.

What works where

The style of nonviolence varies a lot according to context. Since the term "people power" was coined when the Marcos regime in the Philippines was brought down in 1986, and especially since the downfall of Milošević in Serbia in 2000, some observers have talked of an "action template" - meaning popular nonviolent action overthrowing a corrupt and authoritarian regime attempting to win elections by fraud. Of course, there are similarities between the downfall of Milošević and "people power" episodes elsewhere. Indeed, some of the Serbs who used nonviolence so creatively against Milošević have now become involved in training these other movements. However, in each situation, the movements have to make their own analysis of what is appropriate and what will work.

Many people are sceptical about the power of nonviolence against entrenched and brutal regimes. In such situations any resistance is likely to be difficult. Nonviolence does not offer a "quick fix" in these situations - and neither does armed struggle. Some idealistic movements have turned to armed struggle only to find themselves increasingly separated from the population, depending on extortion and kidnapping to maintain themselves, and in short degenerating into armed bands. Nonviolence aims to work differently. By expanding the social spaces that a movement can occupy, and by giving voice to what the regime requires should not be said, it can set processes of fundamental change in motion. Nonviolent action in the face of torture, "disappearances" and death squads in various parts of Latin America in the 1970s and 1980s aimed to rebuild a social solidarity that could overcome fear (see article Chile: Gandhi's Insights Gave People Courage to Defy Chile's Dictatorship).

In the former Soviet bloc, many were cautious about resistance, not wishing to provoke repression or Soviet military intervention. In 1970, four strikers in Gdansk, Poland, were shot dead, so when Solidarnosc was formed in 1980, the Gdansk strikers avoided street confrontations but locked themselves inside their shipyard instead. They aspired to a different society, but now limited their demands to an essential first step - the recognition of free trade unions. A limited objective behind which all Polish workers could unite. Polish intellectuals described this as "the self-limiting revolution". Despite such caution, Solidarnosc's mobilising power scared the regime into imposing martial law and imprisoned many activists. But within a few years the time came to go beyond these self-imposed limits, to make other demands and to risk more provocative forms of nonviolent action, not just in Poland but throughout the Soviet bloc.

Most readers of this handbook live in societies where there is more "freedom of speech" than under Soviet Communism or Latin American military dictatorships, but where activists tend to complain of social "apathy" while the public is bombarded with images trying to get us to buy more. Violence in our societies is most likely to be hidden away or accepted as "the status quo", the way things are - the many forms of state violence right up to its weapons of mass destruction, the violence of social deprivation and environmental devastation, the violence manipulated by remote puppetmasters pulling strings across the globe.

In these situations, social movements have a wide choice of actions, and boundaries that are continually changing - actions that broke new ground yesterday have become merely routine today, even the disruptive has become contained.

The role of pacifists

We in the WRI embrace nonviolence as a matter of principle. We recognise that this commitment makes us a minority, and requires us to work with people who do not necessarily share our pacifist principles. We want to look beyond rhetoric or short-term shock tactics to develop forms of active nonviolence that challenge systems of oppression and seek to construct alternatives. This means defining goals that make sense to a spectrum of people broader than just pacifists or anti-militarists, and also using methods and forms of organisation that are attractive to people who not necessarily have a pacifist philosophy.

Because pacifists refuse to resort to organised violence, we need to invest our creative energy in trying to develop nonviolent alternatives. Historically, pacifists have played a vital innovatory role in social movements, developing nonviolent methods of action, both at the level of tactics and in forms of organising. For instance, the first US "freedom rides" against racial segregation in the 1940s - racially mixed groups of riders boarded long-distance buses to defy the rules on segregation - were a pacifist initiative. So too was the British nonviolent direct action against weapons in the 1950s. The creative use of nonviolence of these groups opened spaces for a much more widespread use of nonviolence by the mass movements that followed.

Nonviolence training was developed in the USA by the freedom ride organisers. Initially the role of nonviolence training was to prepare people for the kind of violence that they might meet in nonviolent actions against segregation. However,in the past 30 years nonviolence training has played an essential role in promoting more participatory forms of movement organisation.

Gandhi and Martin Luther King became such towering figures within their own movements that some people have the impression that successful nonviolence depends on "charismatic" leadership. For us in WRI, however, nonviolent action should be seen as a source of social empowerment - strengthening the capacities of all participants without depending on superhuman leaders. Therefore we have advocated more participatory forms of decision-making, promoted the adoption of forms of organisation based on people grouping into groups (see p ), and expanded nonviolence training to include tools for participatory strategy assessment and development.


Sometimes, it seems that nonviolence just happens - that thousands of people converge to do something - but usually this takes organisation, and especially if the action is not simply a reaction to some event publicised in the mass media but a step in a campaign, an effort to set an agenda for social change. The image from outside might be of one more of less unified set of people. However, closer in, you see the movement consists of various networks each reaching out through particular constituencies, of distinct organisations each with its own themes and emphases, of several inter-connected campaigns taking up aspects of an issue. The contribution of nonviolent attitudes, methods of organisation and forms of action is to strengthen the ability of these diverse elements to act in concert and to win over new supporters.

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This handbook is written for groups. Perhaps a group that has come together for a specific cause or with a specific theme, perhaps a group based on friendship or affinity in what you feel about the world, perhaps even a group formed for one occasion. Even an individual stand usually depends on having some group support. The campaigns section of the handbook tends to be groups who plan to stay together in the long term, while the section on preparing for action might also be just for those who happen to join up for a specific event.

Strong groups of people who stay together, who work well together and strengthen each other, give a movement strength. Groups come together in many different ways, and those that are most effective and enjoyable tend to have something distinctive about them, some mark of their own creativity, some characteristic that makes them flourish. This arises from the special combinations that happen within a group, and to the particular balance the group arrives at between the various desires and talents of its members.

This article, then, offers some of the perspectives that you might be thinking about as a member of the group - some of which the group will discuss and make a conscious decision, some of which will evolve.

Strengthening a group

The first point is actually how much importance do people attach to the way the group itself functions and its attitudes. This itself can be a never-ending source of conflict! There are balances to be struck - between those impatient with discussion, they urgently want to be out "there" and "doing", and those who want to more clarity, be it about goals, about being prepared to argue a case in public, about who the group should be trying to reach and the forms of action it should consider, or about how the group organises itself and functions. Somehow a new group has to do its best to find its own way, some happy medium between people pulling in different ways, and to find an overall direction for the group. If there's a lot of energy and initiative in the group, it might work to have sub-groups taking up particular themes. If the group involves people with conflicting political philosophies or attitudes, somehow that needs acknowledging and made into a source of strength rather than a block on creativity.

Whether your group is large and open or small and limited by affinity, you want new people to feel welcome and you want everyone to feel able to contribute. This raises issues of cultural diversity, of oppressive behaviour, of class, race and gender dynamics, and also of power within the group. How to deal with these can itself be a source of tension, although not dealing with them can be even worse. So you'll need to find ways to tackle these questions in a supportive atmosphere. The section on gender offers some examples.

In general, it is useful for a group that plans to stay together to organise some special sessions in addition to the usual meetings, or to set aside a slot in the regular meetings for something a bit different. At times, this might have a practical focus - skill-sharing, campaign development or even a more detailed look at a particular campaign topic. At times, this might be more group directed - activities that build rapport (banner-making, singing), or activities that look at ways to improve group functioning.

Exploring differences

A nonviolent action group also at some point will benefit from considering some of the issues attached to the term nonviolence - including forms of nonviolence and their repercussion, values, attitudes and goals. Any issue touching on group members' deeply held convictions has to be handled with respect for differences within the group - less aiming to establish a group position than to share perceptions and perspectives. Simply understanding each other better will deepen what you're trying to do together.

Take the question of nonviolence itself: a commitment to nonviolence can be a unifying factor for a group, but is not necessarily so: there are often divisions, especially between those prepared to use nonviolence for specific purposes and those who hold it as far-reaching philosophy. There are some issues which, in the campaigns section, we suggest might be dealt with by a collective declaration of principles, but even in a group that says it is committed to nonviolent action, there will be different preconceptions about other aspects of nonviolence - positive and negative. A good discussion around the issues might be stimulating, even inspiring, but a not-so-good one can exacerbate tensions and frustration. A relatively safe way of exploring differences is a 'barometer' of values, also known as a 'spectrum' exercise. Someone works out a set of questions to explore different attitudes and factors, and people stand on two axes: one, it is or isn't nonviolent, and the other, I would or wouldn't do it myself. This can later develop into 'I would / would not want to be part of a group doing this'.

A question like 'what is your group trying to achieve?' can have one simple answer, but behind that each person has additional goals There are many different lines of thought or feeling that can lead people to be involved in a group, and something as simple as a paired introductions exercise can make a good start in giving people space to explain what brought them in.

This handbook in general does not talk much about the perspective in which you engage in action - beyond a fairly loose idea of social transformation. Such perspectives will vary a lot from group to group, and in different contexts. The point is not to establish uniformity, but to understand and even appreciate people's different ways of looking at things. In particular, if your group is considering something risky, you need to take the time to prepare properly - understanding the distinct attitudes each of you has in coming to the action and your preferences for how to respond to the risk.

How you understand the context in which you act affects your choice of methods. Commentators sometimes distinguish between 'conventional' and 'unconventional' forms of action, however context can change all that. In a closed society, simply 'saying the unsayable/ breaking the silence' in a closed society by quite conventional means can have an enormous impact, perhaps explosive, perhaps catalytic. However, in other contexts, 'non-conventional'action - such as civil disobedience or strikes - might have become contained or normalised. Either because non-participants ignore it as 'oh it's just them doing their thing again', or because the participants themselves have just got stuck in a routinised form of action. Some social movement theorists 1 have suggested that 'transgressive' and 'contained' contention is a more useful distinction than 'conventional'/'non-conventional' action because it acknowledges the different impact different forms of action can have in different contexts. Some of the differences within your group - for instance, in attitudes to illegal activity - might well stem from different analyses of the context for your action.

What do you want?

You as an activist need to think about what you want from a group - do you want a group attracting a wide range of people or do you want a group with people who share a lot of attitudes and convictions and that will make a strong statement of those? Is there any way of combining the two? - for instance, working as an affinity group promoting nonviolence in the context of a broader campaign.

Until your group starts to take action, you don't know how much impact you could have. Groups usually don't sense the possibilities they can open until they actually go public. There were just 14 women who took part in the first demonstration of Las Madres de la Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires, and some other powerful movements began even smaller. Some simple small actions that have had far greater consequences than anyone could imagine. However, you also have to recognise that there are plenty of actions with much smaller consequences. A nonviolent action group needs to be aware of its full repertoire of action, have a strong sense of purpose, and be capable of analysing the context it is working in. This handbook therefore includes material about preparing for action, about building up a campaign and about evaluating what you've done.

Doug McAdam, Sidney Tarrow and Charles Tilly, Dynamics of Contention, Cambridge University Press, 2001, pp7-9↩

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Nonviolence training can help participants form a common understanding of the use of nonviolence in campaigns and actions. It is a participatory educational experience, where we can learn new skills and unlearn destructive and oppressive behaviours taught in society. Nonviolence training can strengthen a group, developing a community bond while people learn to work better together. Nonviolence training can help us understand and develop the power of nonviolence. It gives an opportunity to share concerns, fears and feelings, and discuss the role of oppression in our society and our groups. Individually, training helps build self-confidence and clarify our personal interactions as well as those of the group. The goal of nonviolence training is the empowerment of the participant and to be able to engage more effectively in collective action. The process includes the use of various exercises and training methods, some of which are included in this handbook.

Nonviolence training can prepare people for participation in nonviolent direct action, teach people strategy development techniques and the skills needed to engage in the strategy, work on group process and issues of oppression.

Nonviolence trainings are often used to prepare people for specific actions, to learn about the scenario, develop a plan and practice it, understand the legal issues, etc. It is an opportunity for a group to build solidarity with each other and develop affinity groups. Through role playing, people can learn what they might be able to expect from police, officials, other people in the action and themselves. It can help people decide if they are prepared to participate in the action.

Nonviolence trainings can range from several hours to several months. That depends on several factors,including the campaign's needs and timeline, goals for the training, experience and availability of the participants and trainers. See Tasks and Tools for Organising and Facilitating Trainings for more on planning nonviolence trainings.

BOX or Side panel:

“My first training experience was for the 15th of May action in Israel in 2003. I was a Chilean conscientious objector who had been involved in campaigning against militarism for a number of years. The training was truly empowering to me, and I went back home with the urge to share what I had learned and that if we wanted to be successful in our actions, training ourselves was going to be essential. The next actions we did, were not just with all the group standing in front of the military building but with a higher level of risk because of the higher level of confidence we had, because we were prepare and trained for it.” Javier Gárate (full story on the web)

Role of Trainers

A nonviolence trainer is someone who can facilitate a group through a learning process. A trainer needs to be knowledgeable regarding the topics of the training, but should not be a know-it-all. A trainer's goal is to guide the participants to develop their own ideas, not to tell people what to think and do.

We realize that not all groups and communities who want nonviolence training have local trainers. But when people understand what skills are needed to conduct a training, they may realize they have already developed some of those skills, which they have used in different contexts. Create a training team of co-facilitators, who together can bring their skills and experience. The training team should reflect the participants if possible, consisting of women and men, people of various ages, and ethnic background.

Trainers need: Good group process skills, with an awareness of group dynamics. It is the role of the trainer to make sure everyone is participating and feeling they can share their insights and experiences. An understanding of nonviolent actions and campaigns. If no one has experience, the trainer needs to make sure that case studies and exercises are used to help the group learn. To learn how and when to use the right exercises, being sensitive to the needs and styles of groups. Areas covered in nonviolence training can include: History and philosophy of nonviolence and practice of nonviolent action. Overcoming oppression, ethnic/racial and gender dynamics. Campaign strategy development Consensus decision making and quick decision making What is an affinity group and the roles within the group Skills trainings such as legal and media work.

Contact the WRI Nonviolence Programme to connect with other trainers, and to find out about training for trainers opportunities. There is also a WRI Nonviolence Training Working Group which can be contacted, for requesting trainers for training and also for accessing resources in nonviolence.

A.J. Muste Memorial Institute International Nonviolence Training Fund

This funds makes grants of up to $3,000 for trainings which help people learn how to collectively use the theory and practice of nonviolent action to effectively carry out struggles for social justice. Projects must be located outside the United States, or within Native nations in the US. For grant guidelines and more information, see their website or contact the Muste Institute at 339 Lafayette St., New York, NY 10012

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