Global Nonviolent Action Database Debuts

Maki Somosot '12

Global Nonviolent Action Database Debuts

by Maki Somosot '12
3/24/2011

George Lakey
"People cannot be intellectually free," Lakey says, "as long as they are systematically channeled away from their own heritage of imaginative, courageous, and often effective alternatives to violence."

One of the world's first online databases drawing from the study of nonviolent action debuted this week at Swarthmore, supported by the Lang Center for Civic and Social Responsibility. Pioneered by Visiting Professor of Peace and Conflict Studies George Lakey and dozens of Swarthmore students, the Global Nonviolent Action Database is a vast, virtual library of nonviolent campaign records that span six continents, multiple historical periods, and economic, environmental, racial, anti-colonial and sexual injustice issues. Its launch coincides with the largely peaceful movement that has recently unfolded in Egypt and in Tunisia.   

According to Lakey, the database has an "ethical underpinning" in that it assumes that nonviolent options are "worth knowing about" and should be "accessible" to students and to the rest of the world.

"I believe that history becomes heritage only when it is vividly known," says Lakey about his ultimate hopes for the database, which makes many of the campaigns public knowledge for the first time. "Heritage can be empowering to people when it lines up with their values and supports their aspirations. Knowing how gay people have struggled for justice supports the self-esteem of sexual minorities.  Knowing how people of color stopped cooperating with oppression can inspire a young person of color today."

The informative scope of the database extends, but is not limited to, uprisings against the Egyptian Pharaoh in Fifth Century B.C., pro-democracy campaigns in Africa in 1989, and the peaceful overthrowing of Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic in 2000. It also contains information on nonviolent campaigns such as the U.S. Civil Rights Movement. In addition, it includes information on failed and controversial campaigns in history. Lakey expects the database to contain over 500 cases representing nearly all countries by the summer.

Volunteers Aden Tedla '12, William Lawrence '13, Hannah Jones '12, Max Rennebohm '13, and Shandra Bernath-Plaisted '09 helped develop the database by researching and writing cases. Other students in Lakey's research seminar on nonviolent strategy and struggle have also contributed their own cases. 

"Through working on this project and pushing each other to critically examine our work and its possibilities and limitations, we have grown together as researchers and activists for positive social change," says Tedla, an honors political science major from Riverside, Calif. "By presenting this history and making it more accessible, the database can remind all of us that we have the capacity to confront power and oppression using alternative, creative, and strategic means."

"Working on this project contradicted my cynicism about whether change is really possible, and showed me that people like myself can organize campaigns that matter," adds Bernath-Plaisted. Now a college access specialist at PhillyGoes2College, Bernath-Plaisted graduated with an honors special major in social movements.

Through this database, Lakey hopes to provide an alternative to portrayals of violent struggles in the media, which, according to him, only reinforce the misconception of one's powerlessness against injustice. "People cannot be intellectually free," he says, "as long as they are systematically channeled away from their own heritage of imaginative, courageous, and often effective alternatives to violence."

Lakey is the founder and executive director of Training for Change, a Philadelphia-based organization internationally known for its leadership in creating and teaching strategies for nonviolent social change. He has worked in the United States with mineworkers, steelworkers, and civil rights leaders, and internationally with South African anti-apartheid activists, Cambodian human rights organizers, and many others. He is the author most recently of Facilitating Group Learning (2010, Jossey-Bass).