Global Research Bytes: Building a Connection Between Academia and Activism


Global Research Bytes: Building a Connection Between Academia and Activism

Volya Vysotskaia, Srdja Popovic, and Steve Parks
Transcript of Interview with Volya Vysotskaia, Srdja Popovic, and Steve Parks

Emily Mellen  0:07  
Welcome to Global Research Bytes, Season Three. I'm Emily Mellen and I'm here with Belarusian human rights activist Volya Vysotskaia, Karsh Institute Practitioner Fellow and Serbian political activist Srdja Popovic, and UVA English Professor Steve Parks, who founded the Democratic Futures Project, part of the UVA Democracy Initiative and supported by CGII. Welcome back, Steve, and welcome, Volya and Srdja.

Volya, Srdja, and Steve.  0:30  
Thank you. Happy to be here. 

Emily Mellen  0:32  
Volya, you are currently in exile from Belarus, following the detention of your colleague Sofia Sapega, and your subsequent trial in absentia by the Investigative Committee of the Republic of Belarus. The accusations against you are linked to your work with the Telegram channel, the “Black Book of Belarus,” which worked to “de-anonymize” or identify law enforcement officers and other government authorities who committed human rights violations. Tell us about your work there.

Volya Vysotskaia  0:57  
Our work started in August 2020, as a response to the extreme violence from the state authorities, which were the response to protests against the falsification of presidential elections. What we did was the identification of state actors directly involved into human rights violations whom we identified with pictures, with videos, or with documents that were sent to us by people like from court trials or some other documents like from universities or workplaces. So this response was the response to the words of the state actors saying that they could do anything to people to the civilians, and they would not hold any responsibility for their actions. So while the Investigative Committee was refusing to initiate criminal proceedings against torture in Belarus, we were identifying those who were directly involved in doing human rights violations. 

Emily Mellen  1:53  
Thank you. Srdja, you are the first Practitioner Fellow at UVA’s Karsh Institute of Democracy and you also co-founded of CANVAS, the Center for Applied Nonviolent Actions and Strategies. This builds on your work as a founding member of the Otpor! (“Resistance!”) a movement that had a crucial part in bringing down the Milosevic regime in Serbia. Tell us about your work as a fellow and how this has developed out of your previous activist activities. 

Srdja Popovic  2:18  
Well, I'm running the organization called Canvas which spends most of its time working with people like Volya, educating them on how to how to do make their movements more successful. Three years ago, I teamed up with Steve, in this amazing project of his, Democracy Futures, with the idea of bringing more frontline democracy advocates to academia, and UVA seem to be very, very hospital and nice home for this. Throughout the years, we are bringing more and more people. And now with Karsh, we have this idea of making a 35 international activist international conference, working title, is People Power Academy, in the last weekend of April, bringing all of this quality and talent but also exposing these people to the very rich academic environment here at UVA, my work in the next year is mostly making this happen. 

Emily Mellen  3:18  
That's fantastic. Steve, as we discussed in March, you co-founded the Democratic Futures Working Group, an international alliance of academic and global democratic advocates exploring how new democratic models of organizing and governance are emerging from the grassroots interaction of indigenous traditions and the legacy of Western-colonialist rights paradigms and you have spoken about the necessity for collaboration between academics and activists. Tell us about how the three of you met and began working together.

Steve Parks  3:46  
Well, I, I've always sort of been concerned that academic research really only serves the purpose of giving a footnote to the next academic article that has a very small circulation. And because of that, it's very hard for it to have public import. So I knew when it came to UVA, I wanted to build a connection between the needs of advocates and the resources, intellectual resources of the university. That idea didn't have a lot of traction at first until I met, through Steve Mull, my now dear friend, Srdja, and together, I think we were able to come up with arguments and strategies that began to make sense to both communities about how they might collaborate. And I think it's been sort of an amazing set of projects and work that's been produced so far. 

Emily Mellen  4:31  
I agree. Now, to go back in the past a little bit. I'm interested in how you each became interested in these issues. Volya?

Volya Vysotskaia  4:39  
I grew up in Belarus and I was born in 1999 when Lukashenko was in power already for five years, so I've never lived in not-Lukashenko Belarus. It's still with others in us so it was impossible to imagine, to bring changes to the country but in 2020, when my activism started, we all had the hope of the democratic changes in the country, they vote for the change of the government of the ruler. And the opposition candidates who wanted to participate in the elections were the ones who gave the hope to people. So with this hope we went through like being these hope and the response to the extreme violence from the state authorities, which demonstrated that the real treatment of people by the government would result they resulted in the absolute unity of people, in solidarity and the unity in standing for the future of Belarus. So, yeah, it started in 2020. And it continues to this day, I'm sure it will continue until we get our future into our hands. 

Emily Mellen  5:51  
Absolutely. Srdja, how did you become interested?

Srdja Popovic  5:54  
Well, while I was around the average age of UVA students, when Milosevic came to power and by the time I wasn't interested in activism enough, I thought it was for old ladies fighting for cat strikes and things like that. But basically, when you're faced with a choice of your country falling apart, getting embroiled in four different wars, hundreds of your friends, including my own brother, being forced to leave the country you have two choices, you fight or flee. I guess, I was among the more stubborn ones. So we decided to fight back. So as many of the people in CANVAS that work I'm not actress by design more like activist by accident. Fast forward, the I did eight years of student organizing in Serbia, started with anti world protest signed in 98, ending with resistance, the moment of doubt, Milosevic in 2000. I'll learning things by doing mostly, there was no educational program for crazy people at the time, and then move to Parliament a bit and then then start getting invitations. And actually, our first two invitations to teach activists were coming from Belarus, and Zimbabwe, where people were eager to learn how to substitute non violently. And this is where CANVAS was formed and the curriculums were built to ban training started and 60 countries and almost 20 years after that, are here we are trying to leverage this on the academic level in a very accepting and hospitalist environment.

Emily Mellen  7:27  

Steve Parks  7:28  
So, it's often the case that universities are the richest institution within a community. And I was in the University in Pittsburgh during the time that all the steel mills were collapsing. And my family hit, found their economic stability through steel mills, and it's the steel mills, labors and unions that enabled me to go to university. So when they started to collapse, and I saw that my university was doing nothing to help these communities, and that the education I was receiving was disabling me, and teaching me not to care about those communities. I was just deeply, morally and politically offended. So that when I managed to get a faculty job, I decided that I would spend all my time pushing the resources out to the university, listening to the community about what they needed, and developing classes that taught students how to do that work. At first that was police violence, gentrification and disability rights. It merged into working internationally when I made a friend with a Syrian advocate, Bassam Alahmad. And when I came to UVA, I was introduced to Srdja through Steve Mull. And it has taken off in ways that are more interesting and more important than I think I could have imagined when I was just an undergraduate student.

Emily Mellen  8:47  
What are the next steps for you all in your collaboration? What are your goals for the future? Volya?

Volya Vysotskaia  8:52  
Yeah, so at UVA, I received, like with the support and help of Steve and Srdja that I receive a few contacts and connections that are very useful and relevant to my activism. So the main thing that I do is I connect to people here on the vehicle from students into the activities related to advocacy for Belarus. And I return to my community to the Belarusians who also live in exile to activists who are still remaining on the ground. And we use this connections for the advocacy for Belarus, and of course, uniting people on the ground, rather people to uprise again.

Emily Mellen  9:32  
That's amazing. Srdja?

Srdja Popovic  9:36  
After three years of building the program, to Democracy Futures and Steve are now to Karsh we have a possibility to bring it to another level, not only bringing more advocates to UVA, not only organizing a one year, big event, but turning this into something traditional and kind of a flagship commitment of both the network CANVAS has and University of Virginia to everlasting relationship between the resources of academia and the support to fighting for democracy where it's most needed.

Steve Parks  10:12  
And I would, I would echo what Srdja said, I feel like I've made a promise to the advocate community and the student community that has to go beyond a week, a month a year, it has to continue, otherwise, you've just betrayed their trust. And so I think that the largest focus of my work right now is trying to strategize how to make this an institutional entity that doesn't disappear in a year or two. And I think when I look at the student interest, it would also be a crime to the students who find hope in meeting Volya and meeting Evan Mawarire and meeting Srdja to just let it vanish so that I feel the burden of that right now, to give it a future, basically. 

Emily Mellen  10:54  
Well, we look forward to hearing about that future. Thank you so much for meeting me today. 

Volya, Srdja, and Steve.  10:58  
Thank you.