Serbian activist gives how-tos of social movements

Srdja Popovic was on campus this week to discuss revolution and non-violent activism. S&B Arts editor Emma Sinai-Yunker met with him and asked about the  influential work that his program Canvas has been doing.

How did Canvas get started?

There is a history of activism and trouble-making in Serbia and it starts very early in the early ’90s. The people who founded Canvas are also the people who founded the Serbian resistance movement. They’re basically coming from the generation which opposed Slobodan Milosevic, the Serbian “Strongman,” since 1992. I was in my freshman year, I was 19, there was a huge student’s protest in 1992 and they were basically anti-war, so we occupied the campus and campuses in a few other cities and this was my first entry into the world of non-violent struggle and non-violent activism. Later, we learned our little skills in 1996-1997. There was an election fraud. Milosevic stole a local election: the population won and he denied and then there were three months of demonstrations. So, among the people who organized the protests were the people whom I am very close with. That same generation of students formed the Serbian resistance movement. It was quite successful when it won by ousting Milosevic in October 5, 2000. Afterwards, we went off in different directions. I went into politics and [for] three years I was a member of the Serbian parliament and served as a special advisor to the first Serbian democratically-elected prime minister. In 2003, Zoran Djindjic was assassinated, my term in parliament ended and we started getting invitations from throughout the globe, from the people who were inspired by the Serbian non-violent revolution. Obviously, there was a movie called “Bringing Down a Dictator,” which was translated into 16 different languages, traveling across the globe. People would see the documentary and get the idea that they could make it happen at home and started reaching out to us. Late 2003, while working with a group of Zimbabwean activists in Cape Town, South Africa we decided to form the organization. We officially registered early 2004. The full name is Center for Applied Non-Violent Action and Strategies, or Canvas.

What does the organization do?

We are an educational non-profit which makes people power user-friendly. Our general idea was to look into movements throughout the globe, try to figure out what was unique for each movement, what connects the movement, and try to look at the universal principles of success. Throughout the scope of the nine years, now we have worked with people from 46 different countries. Some of them were typical pro-democracy activists like the people from Burma, Zimbabwe, Georgia, Ukraine; some of them are more inclined to anti-corruption issues. We also met with the Occupy movement last year. We have worked with environmental NGOs struggling with companies in Nigeria because this methodology of people power and building a movement is far wider than just struggling with a dictator. It is basically a blueprint for starting with a small group, mobilizing people around the vision of tomorrow, planning for a serious campaign and then trying to deliver. This is a very long answer, but I think maybe it’s very important to know all of this for an introduction.