#whitefeather diaries

Movements for change

Monday 28 March 2016

Many peace organisations have marked their centenaries over the last few years. The work challenging war as a way of resolving conflict clearly did not end with World War I. Today, organisations continue to challenge the structures that cause war to begin with and work to promote non-violent transformation of conflict.

Steve Whiting, Turning the Tide Programme Manager for Quaker Peace & Social Witness, reflects on how an individual act of conscience can become a movement for change.

Social movements start with the individual – but to achieve positive, lasting change we need to work collectively

Conscientious objection to participation in war is about claiming the human right to refuse to kill. It’s an individual statement of disassociation with the injustice and violence of a dominant culture.

This is where most social change movements begin: with an individual decision, a disassociation based on conscience, conviction, empathy, insecurity, fear or a strong sense of what is just and fair.

Some of us might be happy with just making that stand on our own. Others try to change the thing they’re objecting to by joining with others of like mind. From disassociation to association. But what do we do then? How do we convert that into social action that actually brings about the change we want to see? 

How change happens

Whatever the issue, effective social change movements and campaigns are characterised by good strategy, good communications, courage and successful ways of working across differences.

When all those individuals who objected to war came together and organised through groups such as the No-Conscription Fellowship, the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, and the Fellowship of Reconciliation (as well as many other groups), it resulted in a vital clause being included in the 1916 Military Service Act that allowed for conscientious objection. This clause did not come about from the sympathy of the government, but through pressure of a strong and organised minority. Remember, it doesn’t have to be a majority – just a critical mass.

When we are working for social change today, it is vital to see our efforts in this context. Whilst it’s good to sign an e-petition, join a national protest march, or help with a stall in our local town, it’s important to see what role this plays in the wider strategy for change. Am I really making a difference, or just doing something that makes me feel better? Do I know what other activities are supporting this change, what else is needed?

As well as challenging a current situation, all social change movements need an understanding that part of the change process is about building the alternative that will eventually take over – or in Gandhi’s words: be the change you wish to see in the world. If we want a nonviolent world, we cannot mimic the habits and behaviours of this one. We must learn nonviolence in our thoughts and actions, and this requires guidance, support and practice.

Turning the Tide

Neither the inner nor the outer change happens easily. The Turning the Tide programme of Quaker Peace & Social Witness helps groups working for social change develop the skills of nonviolence.

Our skilled facilitators offer a range of workshops and trainings that help groups analyse a social change issue, plan effective campaigns, explore nonviolence and work together more effectively in our groups. Turning the Tide works with any group, including Quakers, working for peace and justice: we’ve worked with anti-nuclear campaigners, co-housing projects, anti-fracking networks, and many more. We take a radical approach to learning based on facilitation, not teaching. We think that groups know their own issue best and see our role as enabling groups to find their own solutions.

Turning the Tide’s work is diverse, but all of it is aimed at supporting people taking action for a better world. That should be all of us, shouldn’t it?

Find out more about Turning the Tide.

Related Materials

newspaper headline of sentenced to be shot
Monday 28 March 2016

Howard had arrived in France with sixteen other COs, all of them knowing that they faced the death penalty if they disobeyed orders while deemed to be on “active service”. After imprisonment and various punishments, four alleged ringleaders were singled out and court-martialled. Howard was one of them.

Monday 28 March 2016

Shortly before receiving his sentence, Howard managed to send a letter back home to Quakers, describing his feelings and his faith. It was published in The Friend.