Imagine 200 different tapestries. Now, imagine the hours and effort that went into weaving them: the countless strands of threads, the streams of thought behind the patterns, the complexity of the loom, and the extreme care of the weavers to ensure each tapestry is special.
This is what implementing the Community Resource Exchange (CRE) pilot has felt like. The CRE is a system to facilitate collaborations and co-develop strategies with and among communities defending their rights, in the context of international investments and development projects. So far, we have facilitated around 200 collaborations at the request of communities and human rights defenders, who allowed us to contribute to the magnificent tapestries they designed.
The key to the CRE success is that it is built by and for communities and their allies, in the Global South and across the world. Before launching the pilot in October 2020, we spent two and a half years collectively designing the collective structures of the CRE, or the “loom”, which include a secretariat, regional grant working groups, a global advisory committee, and a database of nodes and collaborators (to learn more, please see here). While the CRE is still in pilot mode, it has already established itself as essential field infrastructure.
Just like weavers working together and mixing different threads on the loom, communities are using the CRE to weave in skills, tools, resources, and allies to advance different strategies of resistance. These include media and communications, campaigning, financial research and power mapping, community organizing and mobilization, legal support, and security support. Each connection represents a thread of a different color or texture, that communities are using to enrich the tapestries of their struggles.
The current structures of the CRE can support about 100 demand-driven linkages a year, and award about 40 small grants of about USD 5,000 each. The collaboration grants are awarded by three regional grant working groups (one each in Latin America, Africa, and Asia and the Caucasus), composed of activists in the respective regions.
For those who cannot access our limited number of grants, we support them in accessing alternative sources of funds (such as Thousand Currents and Legal Empowerment Fund, etc.). Moreover, through the Defenders in Development Campaign’s Security Working Group, so far we have ensured access to security support for over 20 human rights defenders / defenders groups, including through risk assessment and mitigation, security training, and temporary relocation.
Each struggle entails multiple and complex needs. To ensure that communities can use diverse threads to weave their tapestries, the CRE has introduced several “innovations”, putting into action some of its core principles, such as: building power at the community level; valuing all skills, experiences and expertise; and avoiding duplication.
A key strategy is to open spaces and create opportunities for collective learning, which is crucial for our collective movements for economic and social justice to thrive. These spaces can have different formats, from targeted learning exchanges (bringing together communities facing similar issues in one or more regions), to learning circles on specific topics for a diverse group of participants, or learning labs where we bring in external facilitators or activists who can share their expertise with others and then facilitate collective discussion (to learn more, please see this blog).
For example, recently the Coalition convened a group of Indigenous and grassroots activists in Latin America for a 4-part learning lab on communications strategies. These sessions offered a space for self-reflection, and collective learning with and from each other. A participant from Colombia said: “During this learning circle, I realized how many things we have done. Every day, we conduct so many different activities to advance our struggle, but we never have time to analyze what we do, systematize the learning, and take a look back at what we have achieved. We tend to focus on reacting to emergency situations, but this space has offered the opportunity to learn and to reflect on our strategy”.
Another human rights defender from Indonesia, who is part of a similar collective learning process in Asia, said, “I learned that it is very important to support and communicate with organizations from other countries who face the same problems: these exchanges allow us to strengthen each other.”
The CRE also started bringing together some communities – facing similar issues in the same region – with the intention of advancing “communities of action” to facilitate ongoing exchanges and to encourage coordinated work towards collective actions. For example, in DRC we are collaborating with several community groups affected by transition mineral mining by Chinese companies and we are working with our member AFREWATCH on an upcoming exchange on the new Mining Code, which we hope will be the starting point of concerted collaboration between the communities and their allies.
We are also trying to scale up impact and avoid duplication through the concept of Sister Networks: when communities reach out to us, we are leveraging established or emergent networks that are aligned with the CRE scope and values, through intentionally developing working relationships, coordinating, and delegating. For example, to complement the ongoing international campaign against East Africa Crude Oil Pipeline (called STOP EACOP), the CRE supported youth groups in Uganda and Tanzania to organize, mobilize, and co-develop skills and advocacy strategies, while linking them up with allies in the campaign to advance collective action internationally.
The CRE also generates evidence – and greater support from the grassroots – to push for policy and systems change. For example, one of our CRE collaborators was featured in a report on human rights due diligence by the Defenders in Development campaign (Wearing Blinders). In Latin America, the CRE linked communities affected by different power sector projects funded by the InterAmerican Development Bank (IDB), interested in pushing for reforms on the electricity sector at the bank. Some CRE community collaborators are now working with civil society policy advocates, to demand responsible withdrawal and remedy from development banks who exit projects that they should not have gone into in the first place. We are also linking CRE community collaborators with broader policy advocacy work on the Leticia Pact (a pact for the preservation of the natural resources of the Amazon Region) and on Just Energy Transition.
The greatest indicator of the CRE success has been community groups returning to the CRE as their struggles evolve and referring to us new communities. However, the CRE’s loom is stretched, and there is a need to answer deeper questions on how to move forward in the context of limited resources.
As we draw to the close of the first phase of the pilot, we are excited to begin the second one. We first focused on building and testing CRE structures, now it’s time to focus on how we can sustainably scale up impact and leverage learnings to serve systemic change.
To continue weaving tapestries with communities and facilitate linkages with their allies, we will keep building on the CRE’s culture of voluntarism and engagement, conduct more outreach to expand the number of collaborators in strategies and geographies where we see gaps, better map different allies and community-led struggles using our contacts and case management databases, and explore other modalities of working to scale up impact. We are also thinking about how we can support more communities to stitch together their different tapestries into massive tents, under which we can work together towards economic and social justice.
Given its broad scope and scale, the CRE has the potential to generate significant learning. We are already seeing trends, lessons, and challenges that provide a richer understanding of communities, their leadership, their allies, and their networks. The qualitative and quantitative data we are gathering will provide a more substantial evidence base to push for policy and systems change at development financiers, and to advance international advocacy. These learnings will also be extremely useful for communities, who can see how different strategies have worked in different contexts; for civil society organizations, who can learn how to better collaborate with grassroots communities; and for philanthropy and funding partners, who can identify funding gaps for community-led struggles.
Leveraging the learnings from the CRE means bringing together grassroots groups and their allies to learn from each other, empower each other, and work together in solidarity to push forward advocacy at the local, national, regional and international levels. Only if we keep weaving our tapestries of resistance together, we can hope to achieve community-led and rights-based development across the globe.