Global Research Bytes Episode 4: Activism & Academia with Steve Parks


Global Research Bytes Episode 4: Activism & Academia with Steve Parks

Stephen Parks headshot
Transcript of Interview with Professor Steve Parks

Emily Mellen 0:07

Welcome to the fourth episode of our podcast series, Global Research Bytes. I'm Emily Mellen and I'm here with Steve Parks, a professor in the English department. Hi Steve. 


Steve Parks 0:16



Emily Mellen 0:17

Your current project “Overcoming the Impossible, Democratic Advocates, Authoritarian Leaders, and the Tools for Success" analyzes the Oslo Freedom Forum Fellows Program where fellows are chosen for their ability to initiate broad campaigns for democratic change in their nations. Can you tell us more about the fellowship and about this research? 


Steve Parks 0:36

Sure. So, the project itself grows out of the fact that recent research has indicated that the largest driver of the success of a social movement for democratic change is the skill-base of the advocates doing the program. I think in the past people have thought that it was outside aid or, you know, perhaps military assistance or sanctions from the outside. But in fact, it's the ability of the people on the ground to organize a strategy, create a solid middle of support among the population, and then do a series of tactics that ultimately produce change. So, there's a program, called the Oslo Freedom Forum, which was created by Jhanisse Vaca Daza and Srjda Popovic, who are members of the Democratic Futures Project, which I'll talk about in a minute. They created a project where they recruit about 10 emerging democratic advocates, meaning they've had some limited success within their communities, perhaps within their region, and provide them a year-long training based upon the Center for Applied NonViolent [Action] and Strategies, which Popovic created, on how to strategize, how to read sort of the terrain that you're acting upon, how to develop tactics, how to create a middle that'll create power, and our project is to look at the skills that are being taught to assess which skills are most used for advocates and then to build a curriculum out of their work, which will sort of strengthen the ability of advocates to create change. 


Emily Mellen 2:04

And as you mentioned, this project is part of your work with the Democratic Futures Project, which you lead, as part of the UVA Democracy Initiative. How did you become interested in issues of global democracy? 


Steve Parks 2:15

Well, my personal interest grew from the fact that I became friends with a Syrian refugee named Bassam Alahmad and together we created a human rights documentation project, called Syrians for Truth and Justice, which has offices in Istanbul and Paris. Out of that work, I became highly aware that the theory around politics, culture, and social movements that happens in the academy, while it maybe initially began rooted in the materiality of the moment, because of the nature of the university, it began to spin on its own axis and become less and less useful to advocates on the ground. So, the Democratic Futures Project is premised on the idea that if global democratic advocates and university scholars have consistent dialogue and sponsor research projects, we’ll begin to create the materials that'll be useful for the advocate in their particular moment, but also can be generalized out in a way that will be useful for other advocates at this current moment. So, in some ways it's a praxis-based project where theory is in endless dialogue with the current political moment, theorizing where the possibilities for change are, articulating that, and then working with advocates to make that possibility a reality. 


Emily Mellen 3:29

That makes so much sense and that seems like a really important area to be expanding. So, where does the CGII funding come in? How has it supported your project so far?


Steve Parks 3:38

So, it's interesting because when I first arrived at the University of Virginia, about four years ago, I think the idea of global advocates and university academics speaking and working together was unusual. I had a very hard time explaining the value of this work both in terms of its value to the academy, but also its public value. CGII was really the first place that believed the argument and began to fund the project. In fact, one of the first people we worked with, Myo Yan Naung Thein, had just fled Myanmar in the face of a military coup and was essentially homeless and CGII stepped up with the grant which allowed us to provide him housing and allowed us to begin our initial work around uses of Facebook and disinformation and how we can create a campaign to combat that. CGII was pivotal because without them, none of this would have grown. And over the course of years, we now have projects in Bolivia, Estonia, Russia, the Philippines, and Zimbabwe where academics and advocates are working on the ground to figure out: How do we theorize this political moment? How do we get the tools and skills that allow these advocates to achieve success? So, it sounds a little hokey but without CGII, none of this none of this would have happened.


Emily Mellen 4:56

Well, that’s the ideal vision of a CGII grant, that you are able to build from it and go on. And you just alluded to this a little bit, but what are the next steps for this project? And for the Democratic Futures Project?


Steve Parks 5:09

Speaking broadly for the Democratic Futures Project, I think the idea is to deepen the current research in the countries I just mentioned, to really sort of get close to the idea: what are the skills that enable someone to succeed? But at the same time, what we're beginning to do is to publish and make what we're learning public. So, we've created a journal called Transformations, which is an international open access journal. Its first issue will be out in a couple weeks. We're beginning to develop a podcast, which will have advocates and academics talk back and forth, and make that very public. So, in a sense, I think the next stage of this project is once we have the research results: what are the formats, the genres, and the ways of speaking that will reach both the advocate and the academic? So, we're trying to create vehicles which bring these two worlds together through publication and audio formats like the podcast. 


Emily Mellen 6:06

That's so exciting. I look forward to hearing the future as we go on. Thank you so much for talking with me today. 


Steve Parks 6:11

Thanks very much for inviting me.