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Going to the source

An ongoing Quaker initiative to trace the roots of activist nonviolence training in the UK

ImageWhere does nonviolence training for activists come from?

Turning the Tide (TTT), a 20-year-old Quaker programme dedicated to spreading the skills for and understanding of nonviolence for positive social change, draws on the long Quaker history of working for peace and justice as the basis for our approach.

Our approach is experiential. Nonviolence training is a learning experience of the mind and body, both an individual and a collective experience. It’s radically different in its content and approach to formal schooling; a notebook and pen may be helpful but are not essential.

One of TTT’s volunteer facilitators, Kiyo Miyamoto, asked this question: ‘where does nonviolence training for activists come from?’ She then went about tracing this back through the local and global movements of the 20th century from which TTT sprang in 1994. Kiyo reported on her progress in a report called ‘Turning the Tide Pre-history: Tracing the origins of transformative nonviolence training’, which is available on our website.

This whole research project remains unfinished, but the initial findings are a treasure trove of this little-known and little-celebrated history.

We want to shine the light on this work, hoping PN readers will find it interesting and that it may be useful to others interested in continuing the research.

Defining nonviolence

In the broadest sense, nonviolence sees all human beings as interconnected. Nonviolence believes that even those regarded as the opponent or as oppressors belong in the family of humanity. The task of nonviolent activists is to resist behaviour causing or perpetuating oppression and injustice. We awaken others, denounce behaviour which damages others, and we grow alternatives.

“Freire believed that education should allow the oppressed to regain their sense of humanity, and to overturn their condition.”

Every day through ordinary and radical choices – for example ethical choices in what we buy and use in daily life – we are turning the tide of injustice and being the change we wish to see in the world.

Collective nonviolent power draws on empathy, creativity and action to challenge damaging dominant forces or actors (remember Occupy?). Nonviolence believes everyone is capable of change and no one has a monopoly on the truth.

As well as addressing and correcting injustice, reconciliation is also part of the process of nonviolent social change, as in the peace process that led to the Good Friday agreement in Northern Ireland.

A nonviolent approach is a complete and active rejection of violence as a means of achieving the ends of a more just and equal world. Nonviolent power is most effective when organised collectively and strategically.

Preparing ourselves

The struggle for social change towards a more just and equal and peaceful world is hard and long. Equipping ourselves physically, emotionally and intellectually for that struggle is crucial for helping us to last the course and develop strategies that work. Training ourselves in nonviolence and its approaches and methods is a crucial component of this so that thinking and behaving nonviolently becomes part of our everyday lives. It is an important way of resisting and undoing centuries of internalised everyday violent practices and habits.

Our history

Turning the Tide draws its inspiration from a whole range of peace and social change activism over a century or more. Our methodology has drawn on a kaleidoscope of activism – from Quaker experience from the 1970s and ’80s, from theorist-activists from the United States, and from radical movements such as the US civil rights movement, and Gandhi’s contribution to the independence struggle in India.

Considerable efforts over the last 50 years to study and understand nonviolence have given rise to academic disciplines like Peace and Conflict Studies. This helps us to understand nonviolence better, but given the understandable reluctance of elite-controlled institutions to disseminate nonviolence history, it is no surprise that most people still have to find other means of learning what a group of Thai peace activists has called ‘the secrets of nonviolence’.

Nonviolence scholar Gene Sharp, who has influenced TTT, points out that historical neglect should come as no surprise since the transmission of nonviolence knowledge is tantamount to placing power in the hands of ordinary, oppressed people.

In Britain, most learning about nonviolence happens in informal settings: workshops in village and church halls and protest camps. Obvious inspirations for TTT are initiatives like the ‘Walking Peace Caravan’ which travelled between Quaker Meetings earlier in the 20th century; POW! (Peace on Wheels!) in the 1970s; and Quaker Peace Action Caravan (QPAC), which ran from 1980 to 1985. These were projects with training and campaigning at their heart.

Aiming to spread ideas, listen and learn, the POW! team used street theatre and popular education-style workshops. QPAC described itself as ‘a mobile resource centre for peace education and campaigning’. Underpinning these two projects was the Quaker tradition of bringing people together to explore the Quaker testimonies to peace, equality and justice.

Perugia and beyond

TTT draws on this Quaker history and these principles to guide our way of working and relating to one another, including the tradition of working with both Quaker and secular social justice activist worlds. This has led to a collaborative relationship with War Resisters’ International (WRI) that goes back half a century or more.

WRI is a network of conscientious objectors and peace activists founded in 1921. From the outset, WRI established close working relationships with sections of the Gandhian movement in India.

In the early 1960s, WRI set up the World Peace Brigade, drawing on Gandhi’s use of nonviolence as a strategy and a tactic in India’s independence campaign. Aiming to transfer Gandhi’s idea of the ‘Army of Peace’ to the international stage, this initiative showed the importance of training in order to learn nonviolence.

“Nonviolence training is a way of resisting and undoing centuries of internalised everyday violent practices and habits.”

In August 1965, in Italy, WRI organised (as far as we know) the first-ever international gathering specifically on nonviolence training.

Those gathered in Perugia recognised that previous well-known nonviolent campaigns had drawn impetus from the personalities of Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. They knew that it was not possible to reproduce such leaders on demand. But they understood that qualities like discipline, and a shared vision and commitment to nonviolence, could be nurtured through training.

One of their main questions was how to accumulate experiences and the lessons learned from them, and then pass these on, especially since very few people at the conference had any experience of nonviolence training themselves!

A second event hosted by WRI and Quakers in 1970, a week-long seminar in Preston Patrick in England, resulted in the publication of Training for Nonviolent Action, by Ted Olsen and Lynn Shivers, one of the very first ‘modern’ books of this kind.

Still available electronically on the WRI website, this manual gives a flavour of the type of methods and techniques used at the time – many of which endure to this day. The manual covered understanding the purposes of training (goal-setting), guidelines for developing agendas and evaluation methods. It also offered strategy games, role-plays, decision-making exercises, situation analysis, advice for healthy group dynamics, street-speaking, guerrilla theatre and leafletting.

Since that time, WRI has been a consistent provider of international training, campaign handbooks and literature on nonviolence. In fact, this summer, WRI will launch an update of their 2009 Handbook for Nonviolent Campaigns, which Turning the Tide has had a hand in helping to produce.

Lessons from the US

Nonviolence learning and skills have criss-crossed the Atlantic over the last century, and continue to do so. Many of the methods we use now owe their roots to radical change agents in the struggle of African-Americans for civil rights in the US.

CORE (the Congress of Racial Equality) played a key role in developing training for the civil rights movement:

‘In 1947, George Houser and Bayard Rustin began a series of workshops that foreshadowed methods used in today’s training: role-playing, sociodrama, group decision-making, and action as the training milieu. Over the years CORE worked with dedication, discipline and imagination to fashion methods which later served the civil rights movement with unexpected power. The “CORE way” was based on a constant interaction of analysis, training and action.’ Charles C. Walker, ‘Training for Nonviolent Action in the United States: A brief overview and history’, Peace & Change, 1972

CORE in turn had been nurtured into being by the Nonviolent Action Committee of the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FoR). Like WRI, FoR had grown out of the horrors of the First World War in Europe and established itself as a radical organisation working for healing and reconciliation, grounded in the belief that love and nonviolence have the power to transform unjust political economic and social structures.

Inspired by the civil rights movement, A Quaker Action Group was founded in 1966 in Philadelphia. AQAG aimed to use nonviolent direct action to strengthen the peace movement working to end the US war in Vietnam. The group’s impetus arose within circles of Quaker activists frustrated with mainstream Quakers not engaging in radical peace work.

Urging Quakers to take a more substantial, direct and active commitment to peace work, AQAG was essentially a nonviolent direct action group running trainings to prepare others for taking collective action.

In 1971, AQAG decided to transform itself into the Movement for a New Society (MNS). From the outset, MNS consciously sought to develop tools and strategies to bring about transformative social change through radical feminist and nonviolent beliefs.

MNS members were involved in working for social change on many fronts, most notably to end US involvement in the Vietnam war, and to oppose the nuclear power industry. Striving to ‘walk the talk’, MNS also experimented with co-operative living, and training and learning for personal transformation.

MNS served as a training hub for activists worldwide. It developed robust and holistic training that included group dynamics, facilitation, consensus-building, conflict resolution, organising, personal growth, analysis, strategy and tactics. It made nonviolence training more generic rather than issue-specific so that it expanded its scope.

The MNS training methodology was learner-oriented, focusing on empowerment rather than relying on a conventional teacher-dominated approach. It used activists’ own experience as a springboard for generalising tools for righting injustice and undoing oppression. The MNS publication, Resource Manual for a Living Revolution, first published in 1977, clearly shows the influence of Paulo Freire’s groundbreaking book Pedagogy of the Oppressed, which was translated into English in 1973.

Freire believed that education should allow the oppressed to regain their sense of humanity, and to overturn their condition. For this to occur, the oppressed individual must play a role in their own liberation. Many UK activists visited MNS in Philadelphia in the 1970s and ’80s to learn and share lessons about nonviolence.

TfC and George Lakey

PN readers might recognise the name George Lakey from his 2012 UK speaking and workshop tour and contribution at Peace News Summer Camp 2012.

If you met George, you know he’s been around nonviolence and social justice work a long time and has a lot of wisdom to share. In fact he was at the 1965 nonviolence conference in Italy, and came to the UK in 1969 on a training and listening tour. He was also a member of AQAG and MNS.

Post-MNS he founded Training for Change (TfC) in 1992. TfC, like MNS, continues the mission of increasing activists’ skills around the world.

Working and refing MNS methodology, George and his colleagues created what would become TfC’s portable and shareable package. One of these is TfC’s well-known training events – the Super-T, a three-week course comprised of four modules (basic facilitation, games, creativity and advanced facilitation). The modules build on and interconnect with each other. They invite participants to face their own oppression and work intensively on themselves.

TfC’s approach connects the inner and the outer, the micro and the macro, you and me. To do this, the TfC approach has adapted pioneering techniques from Amy and Arnold Mindell’s ‘Process Oriented Psychology’ approach to dealing with conflict and difference in ways which bring about large group transformation. Only by de-colonising ourselves can we de-colonise activism and ensure ‘the other world’ we build is free from the oppression and pain of this world, and only then can we move beyond the rhetoric of ‘us and them’, or ‘the 1% and 99%’ to the 100%.

Turning the Tide, inspired by the capacity of this approach to deepen and strengthen our own work for nonviolent social change in Britain, invited TfC to run their basic and advanced training for TTT and training colleagues in Margate in January 2013. This collective training experience showed TTT to be on our learning edge, a good place to be when leading and pacing others through nonviolence training.

More about Kiyo

ImageKiyo Miyamoto was a volunteer facilitator for TTT from 2010 to 2012. As an academic studying conflict and peace for more than a decade, Kiyo felt the knowledge she had acquired was in the form of many disconnected pieces. As she took part in a year-long TTT nonviolence course in 2009, the pieces began to fall into place.

Through learning and experiencing nonviolence, Kiyo began ‘to see the world as a series of connections, or a web of lives of which we are all part.’ This helped her to grow more confident and comfortable with herself. While she attributes this transformation to many aspects of her professional and personal life, she also acknowledges ‘that TTT’s year-long nonviolence training played a vital role in it’.

Knowing that others had shared her experience of being inspired and empowered through nonviolence training, she decided to use the tool she knew best – research – to understand where nonviolence training came from, and what makes training transformative.

Over the next few years, she trawled through Quaker archives and other sources, and interviewed about a dozen people who played a role in shaping 20th century nonviolence activist training in the UK. She began by trying to find the threads that led to the founding of Turning the Tide (TTT) in 1994.

The result of this personal journey of inquiry is a document called ‘Turning the Tide Pre-history: Tracing the origins of Turning the Tide’s nonviolence training’. The process also led to the personal decision, after 15 years in the UK, to return to Japan, where she now works on an organic rice farm and does regeneration work in an ageing rural farming community.


Turning the Tide’s mission is to increase people’s understanding and ability to use nonviolence to bring about social change. We do this through campaign support workshops, longer courses, one-off events, advice and support for groups, and resources through our website, nonviolence library and periodic newsletter, Making Waves. We also train and support a group of facilitators. Contact us if you’d like to know more: Steve Whiting and Denise Drake, 020 7663 1064 and 1061; www.turning-the-tide.org.
Kiyo Miyamoto’s field notes about the roots of nonviolence training, ‘Turning the Tide Pre-history: Tracing the origins of transformative nonviolence training’; can be found at www.tinyurl.com/peacenews1200
The manual Training for Nonviolent Action can be found on the WRI site:
www.tinyurl.com/peacenews1201
Training for Change is at:
www.trainingforchange.org