Part 2: Exploring ‘Solidarity’

Every year, the Popular Education Programme (PEP) organizes and runs a National Popular Education Development (PED) workshop. In October 2015, the theme of that workshop was ‘Building alliances, forging solidarity’. In the course of the 2 days we experimented with a range of PE processes to help us explore the meaning (and implications) of ‘solidarity’.

Participants were social and educational activists many of whom are engaged in social movements and practical every-day struggles affecting working class people. For them, questions of solidarity are everyday concerns as they strive to make collective working for change more powerful.

Here, we present three of the tools we used to further explore ‘forging solidarity’. You may want to try and use these in your work!

Defining ‘solidarity’ – a conceptual exercise

Ask participants how many and what languages they speak. Break the group into small groups ensuring that you have at least 3 different languages in each group.

Task 1:

‘Translate the word ’solidarity’ into as many languages as you can. If there is no one word, describe the meaning using many words, images, metaphors etc

Task 2:

Describe how the meaning of ‘solidarity’ differs from the meaning of ‘unity’ (and other words)

First, the PED came up with a large collection of concepts, such as the following:

solidarity is unity, empathy, comradeship, agreement, support, an injury to one is an injury to all, common purpose, strength, working/ walking / standing together, ‘I am with you’.

The second task got us a lot closer to a more specific meaning of ‘solidarity’. For example, participants explained:

While unity implies a strategic or tactical undertaking, solidarity implies mutual interdependence - a recognition and acknowledgement of each other: ‘you are implicated in my future, I am implicated in your future’. Solidarity is ‘something you give and receive’. Another dimension related to time: ‘solidarity is for the long haul – it affects how you live!’ They also recognized that it may involve ‘risk with the people you are in solidarity with’.

What builds, what threatens solidarity?

You need a largish space and 2 long ropes for this exercise.

Invite two people to hold the ropes at either end and a group of volunteers to be Ask participants holding the ropes at either end to twist them ever tighter, naming ‘threats to solidarity’ as they do so.

Ask remaining participants to ‘take sides’, either in support of those holding the ropes, or those struggling against the ropes inside. Ask those helping the inside group to name what makes solidarity stronger, as they do so.

Stop the process when the ropes have become tight.

Unpack: what happened? What does it say about solidarity?

What happened? The group inside struggled against the increasing pressure, assisted by others, working from ‘outside’. The process was stopped when the group inside was caught in what had become like a noose and were no longer able to move. A poignant moment in the unpacking process was when one participant commented on his own behavior: ‘I had wanted to support the group inside and kept on pulling to prevent the ropes from tightening. But I now realize, I never asked them what kind of help they wanted!’

The questions raised pertain to how we ‘forge’ solidarity: how do we enter into a supportive and strengthening relationship with others? How do we prevent ‘taking over’ the struggle? How do we ensure there is a common agenda and strategy? How can we inadvertently weaken solidarity through our actions? What does it take to build strong relationships?

How do we ‘forge’ solidarity?

Participants work in groups of 5-6.

Task: Slowly, step by step, construct a body sculpture that illustrates how solidarity is built and how it works.

Ask each group to show their sculpture and discuss!

At the PED workshop, participants analysed each sculpture in terms of its strength and gravity. What held the different parts together? What made this an image of solidarity rather than unity or alliance? In a second round to the exercise, participants were invited to join in or link up to each others’ sculptures in acts of solidarity. This led to a lot of disagreements and discussions as all attempted to make sense of how they had interpreted the image – and, indeed, the notion of ‘solidarity’! here are some voices:

  • “I was a bit angry when we had out sculpture and people were trying to make us do things other than what we wanted”.

  • “How to pledge solidarity depends on the context. You have to understand where people are going before you can be in solidarity.”

  • “Unity, solidarity and Ubuntu are all connected”.

  • “solidarity means many things to many people, and there are many ways of expressing solidarity. There is no formula.”

In part 3 of this ‘solidarity’ exploration, we will look at theory: how do various people writing about ‘solidarity’ differentiate one kind from another – and how does this help us to make sense?