This 350.org organising story telling presentation shared reflections from Liangyi Chang, a 350 organiser in Taiwan, who organised the Global Climate March in China.
The story is told via a presentation and shared as part of the Organising Story-telling Lab, a collection of different case studies and stories of organising and movements from across the globe collated and presented by 350.org.
The story telling lab weaves lessons from a range of stories and perspectives, including people close to the ground and nationally.
Each case draws out lessons from the people involved and concludes with broader generalisations. Whilst these case studies are focused on 350 and the climate movement the lessons learned and reflections are applicable to any campaign.
See the original slides on the 350.org Organising Story-telling lab. The Commons has also shared the presentation below and made minor formatting edits to the original such as adding headings and quotes.
For the November 28-29 Global Climate march (2015) organize 40 events in China …
350 organizer, Liangyi, is here in Taiwan. The political context of China is … restrictive. Each group is different, decentralized, and security-conscious. So how did Liangyi mobilise remotely in a closed-country?
Where to Start?
Over 2 years ago…
That kind of challenge cannot be overcome in a few months … it takes years to develop trust, relationships, and the necessary sensitivity.
It started at a GPS, with a group called Low-Carbon Campus Challenge (高校節能) [who has relationships with local groups]. After GPS I spent a lot of time on anything they asked. I helped them whenever – it’s a give and take. If I help you, then you might help me back.
They needed international speakers at an annual summit. So I basically went there and did an whole events ice-breaking as opening for them and several workshops. They really appreciated it.
They don’t know 350 – but they know some guy called Liangyi who inspired their members.
I know that being a consultant to locals is not one of the goals of 350 in the region. But it’s a long-term relationship and I’m not physically there, so if they want to ask me for this help, then I feel really honored.
I try to meet them at least once a year, so I feel really connected. And we have strong polite culture in Chinese society. Thus, I have a bad habit: I will always bring some surprises and small snacks to partners. Then, I became known as the polite guy.
Actively work to keep those relationships
Traveling to the region. Look for any opportunity to offer resources to a region. Spending hours talking on the phone. Making sure to call just to check-in …
These are some of the ingredients to keeping that long-distance relationship alive.
“It’s challenging all the time … but I’m willing to give – because I really treasure the time with people. That’s how I see the relationship.”
They are based on honesty. And honesty is about setting good boundaries.
Build an organizing relationship – not just a friendship
Liangyi points out this kind of honesty about the organizational needs, too, is different than, say, a friendship.
“I have to tell them my intentions, too. Like: ‘you’re not doing anything on divestment and that’s what I’m really working on.’ Or, ‘if you want, we can work together about anti-coal.’”
It doesn’t mean we have to be harsh. But, “I have to make them understand the whole movement and what 350 needs to focus on. It’s about saying that if I don’t have capacity to help you, then maybe my friend can help you …”
There’s an organizational dimension, too
One of the institutional challenges in keeping relationships – rumours of 350’s abandoning countries caused difficult ripples.
“In the environmental groups it’s a small world and they will pass on information, so when 350 changes our goals and directions too fast, we lose relationships. We have to find a balance. I’m still learning how to balance.”
But some partners in East Asia were told by some people to be distrustful because “350 is ‘popping’ from here-to-there and not having a long term strategy in some countries.” That makes it difficult for on-the-ground organizers to build trust, during our global call for action timing.
Key lessons from that period of time
- Don’t gossip about allies
I know in China culture it’s kind of dangerous to share what you feel about others with others – because that’s the China culture. Keeping the secrets people tell me is really, really important.
- Always hear first-hand information – not rumour
People will often say things about other groups, and I try not to listen to that. I want to hear what people have to say for themselves.
- Be okay to lose some relationships
Some people fight for the issue – others just want to be the champion. So in the long-term, after honest conversations, they may leave because you learn what they really want.
- Stay the way I am
I’m always the polite person. I’m always honest. I don’t change face-to-face from A partner to B partner.
The result of that work
Low-Carbon Campus Challenge (高校節能)
Grew from 1 to 3 schools in 1st phase of GPS.
After 2nd phase, expanded to 31 schools, and 45 schools year after.
Then, Liangyi thought with partners “why don’t we mobilize all those 45 schools for Paris?” And they also sent COP delegates from 8 schools (and Liangyi connected them with partners in the region who headed COP to network building).
To sum up, including other local projects, Liangyi and partners reached out and mobilized over 80-on-the-ground groups, most of which are decentralized and no more than twenty or thirty people.
There’s a relationship. Now how to mobilise?
You’ve got a few months to organize people across China for the Global Climate March. What do you do?
And they respond: “All our 4 core organizers will be in Paris during that time … and we don’t like the idea of a march.”
1.Adjust and Adapt
If there’s any key lesson – it’s this: you have to adapt locally.
The name “march: caused a lot of issues. It’s not safe to do in China. “
So I said: let’s do this a smart way by controlling the translation.” When it was translated into simplified Chinese, Global Climate March changed to Global Climate Mobilisation/Action (全球氣候行動) – and the group agreed to support the action.
It was just one of many examples of adapting the spirit of the global plans to the local needs on the ground.
2. Create backup plans for communication
Communication is inherently unreliable in closed-countries. But with the group’s staff in Paris, Liangyi needed a backup plan to talk with local groups. (It was needed: the staff in Paris had internet troubles and couldn’t reach home.)
The structure: since it was considered unsafe to give local contacts outside the country, a local staff was appointed before staff left. She filtered information from Liangyi to make sure it was safe to post to WeChat blogs, etc. She also called people directly.
3. Use appropriate communication tools
Those years of relationship-building had taught Liangyi which communication tools people preferred – for security and cultural reasons:
- WeChat over facebook;
- certain non-blocked websites over others;
- some Chinese cannot read simplified Chinese and so appropriate translation (which happened in Taiwan and Hong Kong).
4. Set up a timeline in advance
(another example of organizing relationship honesty)
A timeline is really important. Then people know what they need to prepare. They don’t want to suddenly be asked at the last minute.
So a timeline was created:
- November 25 – before the events we should get a draft of all the events so we can make sure it’s on the website;
- November 28-29 – the days of action (though later changed to include the Climate Strike on the 30th)
- November 29 – all groups send me reports and initial photos of their actions, knowing people may not send them without a timeline stated ahead of time.
5. Adapt (again) to prioritise security
Global Climate March organizing assumed openness: go onto the website and find a local action, then join.
Right away people said they don’t want to share even very basic information: they know 350 is originally from the US. Another INGOs had shared with the government and so local groups were very nervous about this. Not even members e-mails were sent to me. Some didn’t even want the names of the University fully released, since in past cases, that was enough for the government to track which students did and try to stop them.
After much back-and-forth, an agreement was reached: Liangyi asked people: “you share with me whatever will make you feel safe. And if you give me something to share and you don’t want me to share, I won’t.”
Only that which local people said was safe to be put online was made public.
The result included an online list-serve where all contact people were hidden from each other. Even Liangyi didn’t have access. Instead, Liangyi turned to local staff (and the intern) to reach people.
Therefore, there was no centralized information about the actions.
44 events all around China in different cities, different parts of the cities, different groups. Some very creative, with people meeting up with each other to talk about climate change, including local issues, local coal and air pollution.
[Photos from some of the actions … Beijing University of Technology, Suzhou Normal University & University of Minin, Nanjing University of Posts and Telecommunications, Nanjing University of Finance and Economics, Beijing Normal University, Guangdong University of Tech]
Review of Lessons
Relationships take time to build – they cannot be forced to happen right away.
That means keeping relationships active despite the distance, whether by traveling to the region, offering resources, leading workshops, or finding excuses for phone calls.
That kind of organizing relationship is different than a friendship. For example, being honest and upfront about organizational needs (funding, your goals and priorities, etc).
Other lessons about handling the distance:
- Don’t gossip about allies
- Always hear first-hand information – not via rumour
- Be okay to lose some relationships
- Stay the way your are
Once the relationships exist, you need to be ready to listen and adjust and adapt specific plans, whether changing language or modifying what levels of information get shared.
To combat potential misunderstandings, it may be helpful to set-up timelines in advance.
Distance makes it even more important to reach people with appropriate communication tools and creating back-up plans for communication.
Especially in insecure places, only information that needs to be shared should be. That may mean not creating centralised places for people’s contact information.
At a minimum, it always means having clear agreements about what information is safe to share – and completely respecting boundaries that the group sets regarding this.
An institutional challenge is about keeping relationships (and dealing well with the consequences of leaving a country). For example, how rumours of 350’s abandoning countries caused difficult ripples for Liangyi.
- Digital Security Guide for Everyone
- Activist Digital Security Practices
- Creating Bold Safe Actions Despite Repression: Lessons from Brazil
- Tools for More Secure Activism
- Staying safe: Protective strategies for activists
- Get in Formation: A Community Safety Toolkit
- Organising Stories and Lessons from the 350 Organising Story Telling Lab
- 350.org (Organisation)
- Lessons learned_Reviews_Reflections
- Members_Supporters - Rural and remote
- Movements_Campaigns - Climate action and justice
- Restrictive Countries_Environments