Students take notes on global activism
By Melissa Danzo, News Staff
Overthrowing a dictator is no easy task. However, as Northeastern student Tori Porell knows, with the right tools and proper knowledge, activists have the power to win out over autocrats.
Porell, a fifth year international affairs major who spent her most recent co-op working in Belgrade, Serbia for the Centre for Applied Non-Violent Actions and Strategies (CANVAS), will showcase her knowledge next week with the Oct. 1 release of “Making Oppression Backfire,” a book she co-authored while on co-op.
The book is a manual for oppressed populations searching for ways to peacefully and nonviolently gain liberation from tyranny, full of instructions and examples of the successful practice of nonviolent protest throughout history. It is the brainchild of Srdja Popovic, the founder and face of CANVAS, who approached Porell with the idea of writing a manual in the spring of 2012 while they were both in Turkey, working with groups of young people from Syria.
CANVAS was formed in 2004 as the extension of OTPOR!, a Serbian youth movement whose name translates to “resist!” OTPOR! was created with the objective of overthrowing the government of the wildly unpopular Yugoslavian President Slobodan Milosevic, a goal that was realized on Oct. 5, 2000. Popovic, an original member of OTPOR!, founded CANVAS in 2004, based on the OTPOR! model, to help people all over the world overthrow dictatorships nonviolently.
“[Popovic] had this idea for this manual and asked me if I’d be interested in working on it, and I said ‘absolutely,’” Porell said.
Porell’s own experience working with student groups on campus to battle inequality prepared her, she said, for the type of work she did with CANVAS and then in the co-writing of “Making Oppression Backfire.”
“I had been arrested several times, and I had a bit of experience dealing with oppression,” Porell said of her background and qualifications for writing a book of this nature. “I think the thing that prepared me the most was [my work organizing] the Occupy movement at Northeastern, which happened right before I left for Serbia. That was really kind of a turning point for me when I really developed as an activist; it kind of flipped my whole world on end and changed how I looked at things and how I thought about politics and political change.”
While not “professional experience” in the orthodox sense, it was Porell’s experiences that made her an obvious choice for the position at CANVAS. The connection between Northeastern and CANVAS has been growing for years now, stemming from an initiation made by Professor Denis Sullivan who requested Popovic and his staff give a training simulation to his students during a Dialogue of Civilizations in the Balkans in the summer of 2011.
Following an enlightening couple of days spent with Popovic and his trainers in Serbia, Sullivan invited the Serbian activist to speak at Northeastern, and connected him to Professor Denise Horn, who was covering global justice movements in her Globalizations and International Affairs seminar at the time.
As Northeastern students inevitably realize throughout the co-op process, timing is everything, and it was in Porell’s favor when Professor Horn invited both her and Popovic to present to her class on the topic of nonviolent activism – a lecture that Popovic now contributes to once per semester.
“I was there to talk about Occupy and he was there to talk about world revolution and how people from all over the world start nonviolent revolutions, and it was really interesting,” Porell said. “He had a meeting with Professor Horn and Professor Sullivan after and they set up a co-op and both of them immediately emailed me that afternoon and said, ‘You should go work for Srdja [Popovic].’”
Porell’s work with CANVAS in the spring of 2012 opened doors for other Northeastern students interested in international nonviolent activism. Since her stint as CANVAS’s inaugural co-op, several other Northeastern students have followed her example, including Bella Cuomo and Fernando Loya, both third year international affairs majors who had hands in contributing to the book and/or working on the forthcoming campaign accompanying its release.
Cuomo served as research fellow, the position Porell previously held, during the spring of 2013, and contributed to the fine-tuning of the book – expanding the text, finding images and working with the graphic designer.
“We have a hard working, passionate team behind this project, one that understands that this is for the people, not us, and that right there is rare to find,” Cuomo said.
CANVAS will launch its campaign for “Making Oppression Backfire” next Tuesday, Oct. 1, with a fundraising initiative to raise money for translations of the manual and other accompanying technological resources.
“The CANVAS team is hoping to expand this work to a digital platform. Apps like I’m Getting Arrested and Legal Observer have been met with positive feedback,” said Loya, who is currently on co-op with CANVAS. “Similarly, a mobile app would further promote the mission of making knowledge of the topic user-friendlier.”
While Porell will not be in Serbia to experience firsthand the fruits of her labors, her efforts are being applauded both at the CANVAS headquarters in Belgrade as well as here in Boston.
“It’s exciting to see a student write a manual like this because it’s so far beyond what other students at other universities are doing,” Professor Horn said.
Horn went on to commend the opportunities allowed to Northeastern students in the realm of international co-ops, especially those organized by NU’s Center for International Affairs and World Cultures.
“It allows students to see themselves as capable of affecting change around the world,” Horn said.