Convening to Build Solidarity in a Disconnected Region: why it is important to convene and convene well

In September 2018, Angelika Arutyunova, a queer international feminist consultant from Uzbekistan, facilitated an Astraea and Urgent Action Fund for Women’s Human Rights convening for lesbian, bisexual, trans and queer activists from the Central Asia and Eastern Europe (CAEE) region. Here, Arutyunova shares reflections and insights from her experience at the convening.

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.

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Convening to Build Solidarity in a Disconnected Region:
why it is important to convene and convene well

By Angelika Arutyunova,
Independent Consultant

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:  

  1.     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.
  2.     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.
  3.   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.
  4.     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.
  5.     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.
  6.     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.

Digital Activism, Queerness, and Collaboration in Central Asia and Eastern Europe

A conversation between Aizhan Nomad of Labrys Kyrgyzstan, Shalini Eddens of UAF, and Mariam Gagoshashvili of Astraea about LGBTQI+ activism in Central Asia and Eastern Europe and the importance of connecting activists working across the region.

Central Asia and Eastern Europe are often forgotten regions when it comes to our awareness of geopolitics, social, or cultural issues. Because of this, there have traditionally been fewer resources and less support provided to activists fighting for LGBTQI+ rights and justice in the region. Even today, only 4% of all foundation human rights funding supports efforts in the CAEE region, and funding actually declined between 2013 and 2015¹. The region is also the second most underfunded in the world in terms of LGBTQI+ rights, after the Middle East and North Africa. And yet, ongoing efforts by state forces in Central Asia and Eastern Europe to restrict internet freedom and freedom of expression, shrink or close civil society spaces, and crack down on human rights mean that it is extremely critical to bolster and resource LGBTQI+ activists there. 

Astraea teamed up with the Urgent Action Fund for Women’s Human Rights (UAF) in September 2018, to co-create a convening for LGBTQI+ activists from all over the region to meet, collaborate, create, and build power together. The convening was an opportunity for activists to dive into the ways digital activism can strengthen queer and trans activism across the region, while also taking time to reflect and consider its implications to physical and organizational security, and mental burnout. Labrys, a long-time Kyrgyz grantee partner, hosted the four-day convening. It was held at a resort in northern Kyrgyzstan, ending with a joyous celebration of queerness at a party in Bishkek. Participants came from all over the Post-Soviet region, made up primarily of cis-queer women, trans people, and non-binary activists. Intentionally set in a serene mountain-top resort, activists also had the opportunity to unwind, spend time in nature, and take part in healing and self-care practices.

We sat down with Aizhan Nomad of Labrys, Shalini Eddens of UAF, and Mariam Gagoshashvili of Astraea to hear more:

Mariam, what would you highlight about digital activism and other work being done by LGBTQI+ activists in the region for people who may not know much about it?

Mariam: You know, this is a region that is really struggling with colonial oppression and is often very very unsafe for queer and trans women, and for the greater LGBTQI community as well. But it’s also a region where you have really amazing, inspiring examples of activism, collaboration, and that is only growing and strengthening against all odds, especially the major lack of funding and resourcing.

Arts and cultural activism have been central tool for many activists, and some of that has now evolved into digital activism as well. Because the LGBTQI+ communities in the region are often invisibilized and in some places, even criminalized, activists often take on really creative strategies of resistance.

For example, in Kazakhstan protests are often framed as theatrical performances. In Armenia, there is a group that runs a feminist library, to broaden public education around queer issues. In Ukraine, we have a grantee partner who organizes equality festivals around the country, co-organized with other local activists; they tend to utilize a range of multimedia and are interdisciplinary and intersectional, dealing with subjects from migrant rights to abortion. Our grantee in Russia is using its knowledge of digital technologies and legal issues to support trans activists navigate restrictions around civil society, internet freedom and LGBTQI rights.

Aizhan, as activists, what was the impact of having activists from all over the region come together to talk about LGBTQI+ issues and the political and social issues related to that across the region?

Aizhan: This was honestly the first time where we had LGBTQI+ activists coming from all across the region. It was incredible to be able to really hear from one another about the various challenges we are facing in our countries, the achievements on the ground, and generally share our experiences as activists.

We discovered a number of similarities in terms of the political challenges and discriminatory practices we are facing, many of which are led by or started in Russia, and then taken on by many of our governments.

We also strategized about how best to decolonize our language and make it more representative of our communities. Many of us have already been working on this concept within our own organizations but it was great to be able to think collaboratively on how we can create terminology that best reflects our identities and cultures, and hasn’t necessarily been imported from Western or Russian languages.

Shalini and Mariam, as funders who have supported activists in the region, why was it so important for you to co-host this kind of convening?

Shalini: Given that we have a really strong grantmaking program in the region, this convening was such a fantastic opportunity for us to meet with so many activists we support and really see and understand their movements in a more tangible way. It also really allowed us to solidify our collaborative approach and values around funding, by being able to partner with organizations we have had the honor of supporting.

As co-hosts, Astraea and UAF gave some support in terms of logistics and offering insights and training on certain aspects of the program, but it was really good to have Labrys leading the process, given their immense knowledge of the region and movements there. Ultimately, the convening really deepened existing relationships, helped us build new ones, and expanded our understanding of LGBTQI activism in the region as it relates to digital security.

As our facilitator Angelika Arutyunova a queer feminist trainer with deep roots in the region, said in her reflection on the convening, “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.”

Mariam: I think one of the most incredible parts was having many activists within the movement come together for the first time and have the opportunity just to get to know each other, listen, and relate to one another’s experiences. It was also – as Aizhan said – a space to identify the challenges as well as the advancements in their countries, and map some of those out, particularly as it relates to the influence of Russia and of colonialism.

For me, the convening really made it clear the immense value in cross-border collaboration and strategizing. There was a real appetite among folks to work together, to create communication platforms, and build spaces to stay digitally connected. The activists discussed creating stronger networks and potentially even a more formal regional organization to do regional advocacy, strategy, and peer exchanges, and also to have cultural, sports, and arts events and raise visibility of the LGBTQI+ communities. This felt particularly important because activists from CAEE have not always felt ownership over wider European spaces that are often perceived as more Western-led.

It was important for the convening to be conducted in Russian – a language spoken widely in the region in spite of its colonial nature and to have the space to reflect on the implications of using both English and Russian languages, and terminology, and to make a conscious effort to come up with alternatives that feel more true to local realities and languages.

Shalini, what were some of the major learnings for UAF around this convening?

Shalini: I think that a lot was actually reaffirmed; we definitely learned a lot, but many of those learnings were a reaffirmation of our instincts, and seeing them come to life in this way was wonderful. We feel strongly that it is essential to let local partners like Labrys take the lead, and they did that beautifully by creating an open, safe, inviting space for the activists.

Our role as funders is to facilitate spaces like this convening, but not to control the design of them. In that vein, we re-learned the importance of making sure we find our balance of being an activist funder, and not taking up too much space.

I think the other big learning was just around how incredibly transformative it is to collaborate with like minded organizations. We have worked alongside Astraea for a long time, but this was the first time we partnered with them on a convening like this, and to do that with an organization whose political and funding values are so aligned with ours made it really effective.

Aizhan, finally, what were the highlights of the convening for you personally?

Aizhan: For me, it was the care that we created amongst one another as activists, and the power that we have shared through exchanging our stories. Often, we have to really push ourselves to continue the work that we do because it can feel like we’re working on our own, but the convening helped me to see the amazing creativity in our communities, and how we can build on that together to make things easier and better for our communities both in our countries and across the region.

In her reflection, Angelika beautifully summed up the personal impact of a convening like this, writing, “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 back to Bishkek where I used to come as a young activist from Uzbekistan for convenings, conferences, and exchanges, was profound…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.”

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Astraea has been committed to supporting grassroots activists in the CAEE region for over two decades, recognizing the strength, resilience, and simply the existence of activism against all odds. In May 2018, acknowledging that trans activists have begun relying on the internet in particular as a means of organizing, Astraea, along with Transgender Europe (TGEU) produced the report, Mapping Digital Landscapes of Trans Activism in Central Asia and Eastern Europe. The report found that trans communities in the CAEE region are resisting the challenges of surveillance and threats to freedom of expression using digital tools in extremely innovative ways, from relocating servers to safer places, to using social media as a way to increase visibility to their issues and bring communities together. While these brilliant, bold activists are already using creative means to strengthen their movements, there is an urgent need to invest in them and their strategies so that they can continue the fight against oppressive forces.

If you want to learn more about the convening held in Kyrgyzstan, this reflection piece by facilitator Angelika Arutyunova offers more insights and learnings.

¹ http://humanrightsfunding.org/populations/lgbtqi/year/2015/