In September 2018, Astraea and the Urgent Action Fund for Women’s Human Rights teamed up to facilitate a regional digital solidarity convening for lesbian, bisexual, trans and queer activists from the Central Asia and Eastern Europe (CAEE) region. The convening brought together 20 incredible activists from eight countries in the idyllic mountains of Kyrgyzstan, and was an opportunity for activists who often work in isolation to take time out to exchange skills and digital advocacy strategies. Angelika Arutyunova, a queer international feminist consultant from Uzbekistan facilitated the convening. Here – reflecting on her own roots in the region and her background in social justice organizing, philanthropy, and LGBTIQ and women’s rights work – she provides insights on the importance of activist convenings and the power of organizing in an often forgotten region.
Convening to Build Solidarity in a Disconnected Region:
why it is important to convene and convene well
By Angelika Arutyunova,
In September 2018, the Urgent Action Fund and Astraea Lesbian Foundation for Justice asked me to facilitate a regional digital solidarity convening for trans and queer activists from my home region of Central Asia, Caucasus, Ukraine and Russia. The convening brought together 20 phenomenal activists from eight countries of the region in an incredibly beautiful mountain settings of Kyrgyzstan. The goal was to build solidarity among these activists, who often work in isolation due to current political context in the region, and offer a space and time for skills and experiences exchange. It was my true honour to facilitate that convening and put into practice my years of experience and firm beliefs of why convenings are very important, how to do them well, and again become a part of power of organizing in this forgotten region¹. I am offering these reflections after the convening that deeper affirmed my beliefs.
Convenings are really important and an affective strategy for community and solidarity building
Convenings are a place for convergence of new ideas and connections of activists and funders face to face that cannot be replaced. It would be very challenging to have a virtual convening or a social media exchange that would create a trustful space for participants to engage in a deep conversation. For convenings like the one we had in Kyrgyzstan, that aimed to build solidarity and trust, it took careful weaving of methodologies to build trust that led to some profound conversations like the one between genderfluid sex worker activist with a transgender sex-worker from a different country exchanging safety strategies for their work and how to engage police to be on their side instead of part of violence against them.
Another reason is actual safety. Several participants in this convening, and in many others I facilitated, cannot share online what they can share in person, once trust is built. Participants coming from high surveillance police states will only share what is really going on in a face to face conversation, which is absolutely invaluable for donors and activists alike being in that room. Even more importantly, for activists from such contexts, it is healing and contributes to sustainability to get out of very stressful and unsafe environment and to be around other activists from other context to be able to see a bigger picture, a landscape outside of their highly controlled window. In the Kyrgyzstan convening we saw that happen when several participants at first told organizers they will not share their stories due to safety concerns and yet with days passing and trust being further built they opened up and shared some deeply powerful details of harsh realities they face on a daily basis. It took carefully crafted methodologies like drawing and describing our self-portraits², finding who is in our life boats³, grappling with our collective history of Russian colonialism, and digging deeper in our personal relationship with the language we share to build a space of trust and safety within the convening.
HOW convenings are led is even more important than just bringing people together
At the core of planning activist centered convenings is care and thoughtfulness, not the objectives of the convening. Following are the ingredients that make a convening successful:
- Participants centric: These are the convenings that engage participants in all stages of the convening. For the Kyrgyzstan convening, organizers sent out survey several weeks before the convening to all participants asking key questions around their needs, interests, focus, and depth of the convening they want to attend. We then used that information to build up the agenda. During the convening, we kept checking in with participants throughout the days to ensure we are still on the right track and moving in the right collective direction. This allowed the agenda to be flexible and responsive to the needs of the participants. Another key aspect in this category is expertise. Successful convenings center experiences of all participants, starting from a central premise that we are all experts, decentering the expertise of the organizers, facilitator or trainers. For the convening in Kyrgyzstan, we asked participants in the survey to identify which skills and expertise they have and would feel comfortable to share with other participants in the convening. We then created session slots around those skills and expertise, using world cafe methodology for all participants to learn from one another in deeper peer learning way. As facilitator I held a container for the overall convening, I stepped off the sessions that were led by activists themselves, trusting their expertise and leadership to hold the room.
- Culturally and politically sensitive: Deep, nuanced understanding of cultural and political context of the place and participants coming together is key for successful trustful convening. That understanding and sensitivity translates in very practical ways – intentional partnerships with local organizations, facilitator choice for the convening, design and implementation of methodologies, navigation of who is given space more or asked to speak less. Organizers partnered with a key regional organization –Labrys – that is well respected and rooted in this work. Partnering with respected national or local organization brings legitimacy and take donor control away from holding the convening. I was asked to facilitate the convening because of my roots in the region, knowledge of organizing and ability to do this work in Russian. The rest of the activists were as deeply rooted in the region and its nuances. Collectively, we built agenda and methodologies to reflect participants’ needs and our collective understanding and sensitivity around cultural and political nuances. For example, we ensured that when dividing people in small groups we always mixed up countries from across the region and always asked representatives from countries that are politically and economically dominated to take leading roles in their groups, thus flipping the power script. For icebreakers in the mornings we introduced the idea of national dance moves. It was a testimony to trust built and acceptance of that methodology when we saw participants from countries in conflict and with heavy colonial history and present dancing to each other’s music and holding hands in a rhythm.
- Mutually beneficial: When inviting activists to convenings, organizers must remember that activists face a lot of pressures and exhaustion, so it is important to think of how not to be extractive and how we can give back and what it is that participants could gain from the convening as well as allowing space for resting. Creating enough space in between sessions, not having more then 6-6.5 hours of working time is essential for participants not to layer up more exhaustion. For Kyrgyzstan convening we started working at 9:30AM, had 2 hours lunch break, did not have work days longer than 6 hours. That allowed space for deeper connections outside of conference room and more concentration and presence while in the working space with each other.
- Logistics are political: For all of the convenings, and especially those bringing together persons from historically excluded and discriminated communities we must be extremely sensitive to every detail of logistics from airport arrival and shuttles to single rooms accommodation to what food is being offered. Most successful convenings I’ve seen have logistics team that is local, not coming together with a funder from outside. For Digital Solidarity, logistics were handled by Labrys team, who not only ensured we had good healthy food and single rooms, but also thought of details like identifying trusted, local drivers who are not homo- and transphobic. These kinds of details allowed for a level of comfort and feeling of safety and trust to be built from first moments of landing in the country of convening.
- Clarity of power and privilege in the room: In convenings that have both activists and funders in the room, there needs to be very clear and open conversation about power. As a facilitator, I ensure that there is a lot of clarity when funders speak, when they are asked to not be in the room, and what are the ways for activists to feel safe and comfortable to address some issues. It is also important to create a dialogue and space for when people can talk across that power. Activists may feel shy to approach funders during the convening to have a practical conversation about funding opportunity or simply ask about their strategy and priorities. Organized and structured ‘donors’ office hours’ are a good methodology to build those dialogues in and level the field. Another power dynamic that is important to name and pay attention to during convenings is racial, ethnic, and gender dominations. Flipping the script and always ensuring the voices of those with more power and privilege are not dominating the discussion is important. We practiced all this in Kyrgyzstan convening and participants pointed out at the end that they felt comfortable and experienced no tensions around power dynamics.
- Creativity and heart – not just brain: oftentimes convenings are all about sucking our brains out: thinking, strategizing, brainstorming, planning, debating, discussing. Taking a step out of cerebral frame and into our hearts and bodies opens space for more creativity and innovation when we come back to the brain. It also facilitates great connections and trust among the participants.
The activist future of this forgotten region is here now!
A wide spread of geography that shares common history of being part of the Soviet Union has been struggling for last 25 years to self-identify and get on a global map in variety of ways. Last 25 years brought a lot of changes across the region, including increased authoritarian regimes, wave of backlash against women’s rights and social justice, oppressions, and homophobia. Activism had to adjust and shift with the context in response to as well as in resistance to it. In the last five years, a new generation of deeply critical and analytical, fearless and bold, brilliant and creative, sensitive and authentic, thoughtful and innovative activists has emerged throughout the entire region. Learning from mistakes and achievements from those who came before them, combining local knowledge with international experiences these activists are the future we’ve been waiting for in our region. While not all of them might be concerned about putting region back on the global map, yet, what they are doing is working from within to make deep changes, to integrate self-care and community care and building at the center of their organizing. Oppressions against LGBTIQ communities are deep, violent, and represent daily concern for safety, so being in the space with activists who sharply denounce fear and boldly propose strategies for change is refreshing and promising. That is exactly how it felt being in this convening in Kyrgyzstan.
It was deeply personal for me to be at this convening and to facilitate it. Having left my home country of Uzbekistan 17 years ago, my heart has never left the region. Being outside, yet deeply connected, allowed me a perspective of insider outsider for many years. Being back to Bishkek where I used to come as a young activist from Uzbekistan for convenings, conferences, and exchanges, was profound. I can clearly see the changes that have been achieved in the past two decades of diligent fearless strategic organizing by so many. Having a dedicated queer owned and led club and community space or a law that protects the rights of transgender citizens or psychologists who are trained to support queer youth was all a dream in the beginning of 2000s. All of that and more is a reality now in Bishkek and in many places across the region. While still facing oppressions, the activism is resilient, deeply political, and playfully creative. This convening was part of planting a seed for more region-wide solidarity and engagement among activists.