Learning from the Ground Up

Learning from the Ground Up: Global Perspectives on Social Movements and Knowledge Production

By Aziz Choudry and Dip Kapoor, eds.
Palgrave Macmillan, November 30, 2009, $98.00

Translating the profound ways that grassroots activism, protest movements on the streets, both contribute and influence the development of political thought in societies globally is a complex task.

Collecting voices from social movements internationally Learning from the Ground Up, a collection edited by Aziz Choudry and Dip Kapoor, works to challenge traditional understandings of knowledge production, placing value and focus not on the often elite halls of academia but on the informal universities of the streets.

Co-convenor of the collection Choudry offers analysis on the complex and often unbalanced power relations between NGOs and social movements to open the book. Choudry explores a common political failure of major NGOs to engage with social movements fighting for transformative social change, backing away from rooted campaigns that challenge the colonial trajectory of contemporary capitalism, settling instead on calls for limited political reforms that can reinforce neoliberal economic systems, offering little reprieve in a global context of environmental crisis and economic collapse.

“Today, it continues to be the case that acknowledgement and a commitment to confront colonialism and use a lens that sees neoliberal globalization as another wave of colonization are still more likely to be articulated by Indigenous Peoples, landless, small, or peasant farmers’ movements, or communities of colour directly confronting corporate and state power themselves and allies in smaller activist groups and networks than in larger NGOs,” writes Choudry, in an opening chapter clearly shaped by work as a long-time social justice activist.

Articulating a diversity of international experiences, Learning from the Ground Up presents writings from engaged thinkers directly implicated in grassroots campaigns, sharing ideas on the underestimated ability for political theory emerging via activism to shape our world. Beyond broad political reflection this collection is a reflective text rooted in some profound activist experiences.

From Colombia Mario Novelli presents a chapter reflecting on the major union strike orchestrated by militant trade unions that halted government efforts to privatize EMCALI, the public provider of water, electricity and telecommunications in Cali, Colombia’s second largest city.

Beyond detailing major protests and direct actions facilitated by public sector union activists, including a dramatic 36 day occupation of CAM tower in Cali, the headquarters of EMCALI in 2001. Novelli details a process of social engagement rooted in community town halls and workshops, that built bridges between union organizers, union membership and general community members, social sectors that government forces worked intensely to divide in the push toward privitization.

In outlining the battle to retain public control over the public sector in Colombia, Novelli offers insights on a brilliant strategy of social mobilization, lead-by SINTRAEMCALI, created organically in struggle, rooted in both direct action and popular education, a critical read for communities globally facing state-driven efforts to privatize public works.

On Pakistan Azra Talat Sayeed and Wali Haider present an amazing chapter examining the mobilization of Anjuman-e-Mazareen Punjab (AMP – Punjab Tenants Association) against historic servitude of farming communities and in opposition to recent militarized efforts to push peasants off traditional lands.

From Pakistan the book tells an incredible tale of community-based campaigning lead-by people directly affected under the slogan “ownership or death,” a campaign that resulted in massive protest marches, women-lead confrontations with state military forces and international attention toward a campaign involving nearly “a hundred thousand tenant farmers in more than twenty districts of Punjab,” a key campaign farmers struggles in South Asia in the past decade.

From the chapter written by David Austin on the importance of deeper left reflection on the Grenada revolution in the Caribbean and the following U.S.-backed coup in 1983, to the words of Canadian Union of Postal Workers activist Dave Bleakney on education based organizing within Canada’s national postal workers union, this book is an critical read for those directly engaging with struggles for social change in Canada and internationally.

Via narratives on grassroots knowledge production from around the world Learning from the Ground Up attempts in a unique way to share the ideas that fuel grassroots action. In actively exploring the major role that social movements play shaping contemporary political theory, this publication is also wake-up call for many in academia working to develop theories on social change far away from the front-lines of grassroots struggle.—Stefan Christoff

Stefan Christoff is a Montreal-based community activist, artist and journalist who contributes to rabble.ca. Stefan is @Spirodon.

Stefan Christoff

Stefan Christoff is a journalist and community organizer based in Montreal.