Building Community-Led Approaches For Campaigns Around the World

by Tom Weerachat

Tom Weerachat facilitated an interactive session on using research to drive change for the Learning Agenda global cohort. (Credit: Namati, Grassroot Justice Network)

Following its Mission, the International Accountability Project (IAP) has always been an active participant, contributor, and eager learner in the vibrant movements advancing community-led approaches in local and international human and environmental rights campaigns. The community-led tools and approaches IAP has developed over the last 10 years are fully integrated across the community-led campaigns, currently in more than twenty countries, in which IAP has a dedicated role. Additionally, IAP has hosted two separate multi-year training and co-learning initiatives with community organizers in a total of 15 countries through its Global Advocacy Team initiative, which I co-lead. The research and recommendations by the two separate Global Advocacy Teams have both local and international objectives, to strengthen their local campaigns and improve international policy and practice among the most influential decision-makers. To popularize IAP’s approach to community-led campaigning, we have published several training guides for community organizers, currently available in 15 languages.

As a thought leader in this area, we promote our work and training guides to encourage communities and civil society groups around the world to take up community-led approaches. We are also constantly learning from communities as they adapt community-led approaches to their context and other civil society partners who are equally dedicated as IAP to putting communities first. I am excited to share the primary ways IAP has been contributing to and learning from civil society partners active across varied community-led approaches — in particular on legal empowerment and participatory action research.

IAP team with the second cohort of Global Advocacy Team members and the Global Advocacy Team Advisory Group gathered for a seven-day workshop in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

These experiences have been exhilarating and transformative, prompting us into the heart of global activism. I wanted to share 3 partnerships we have: from delving into the depths of legal empowerment and participatory action research at the Legal Empowerment Learning Lab on Participatory Action Research hosted by the Bernstein Institute for Human Rights, NYU School of Law, to advising and empowering grassroots movements through the Community-led Research Project spearheaded by the International Network for Economic, Social & Cultural Rights (ESCR-Net), and advising such a groundbreaking initiative with the Learning Agenda on Legal Empowerment convened by Namati and the Grassroots Justice Network (formerly the Legal Empowerment Network). The journey has been deeply rewarding both on a personal and organizational level.

Legal Empowerment Learning Lab

My journey to think deeply and learn different models and aspects of Legal Empowerment began in 2019 with the eye-opening Legal Empowerment Leadership Course in Budapest, Hungary, together with friends from around the world. I completed the course filled with energy and even more questions about what know law, use law, and shape law could look like when returning to the work we do at IAP. I was so excited when the Bernstein Institute invited me to join their first Legal Empowerment Learning Lab in 2020 because the session they hosted at the leadership course spoke to the core of the question that had kept me up at night — how do we address the attack and delegitimization of community-led research and data?

The word “lab” sparked my interest. I had never attended a learning lab before. I reminisced about my school days in the science lab, conducting exciting experiments with tools and equipment that I didn’t even know existed. It was in a way what I imagined only with much more fun and a wealth of knowledge, experiences, practical insights, and useful tools on participatory action research that the participants brought with them to share. We dissected complex yet important topics such as the ethics of conducting research with communities, and reflected on what participation means and looks like in action research and legal empowerment.

It was interesting to see the close linkages between academics and activism and how they complement each other to further advance participatory action research. I learned different ways, practical steps, to encourage and increase the participation of community members in data analysis. This further confirmed to me that having community members, who undeniably hold knowledge about their issues and territories better than anyone else, must play meaningful roles every step of the way. This is especially true with community-led data collection and analysis when it is key to pushing back the attack from powerful companies and institutions.

I am grateful for the space convened by the amazing team at the Bernstein Institute that encourages me and other participants to enjoy meaningful reflection individually and collectively, share the problems we face, practice with care, and overcome fear and hesitancy to try and experiment with new tools and methods or old tools with new group or issues. I’d never thought of or known how a forum theatre online could be fun and powerful had I not experimented with it through the lab.

The lab is a perfect place to incubate and explore new ways to facilitate community participatory action research. I learned and exchanged many different ways of integrating popular education into community-led approaches. I was able to contribute from our experience at IAP through the Early Warning System in supporting communities to design their research process and tools and how that data fuels and advances the community’s advocacy effort to achieve development justice.

Learn more and follow the lab activities.

Tom Weerachat was one of the panelists discussing the ways participants of the Legal Empowerment Learning Lab use participatory action research and legal empowerment to address rising disasters — from climate change to the pandemic — in the building of healthier, more inclusive worlds. Watch the recording on Bernstein Institute’s Youtube.

ESCR-Net’s Community-led Research Projects

How do we create a space where grassroots communities and movements can exchange community-led approaches in action research to demystify corporate actors’ roles in problems and injustices on their land and territory? This is the question I pondered when IAP entrusted me to represent our organization on the Project Advisory Group, as a member of ESCR-Net. Since I was in parallel already co-leading the Global Advocacy Team and advising on community-led approaches at IAP, there were several experiences I could directly share. I was initially curious about the function of this group but soon came to realize its significance in the project design and implementation. While the ESCR-Net secretariat plays vital roles in coordination, the decision-making process lies with this collective of activists, who as network members, came together to co-design the project. I believe this model exemplifies the integration of participatory and democratic approaches into the practice of the network, harnessing the diverse and unique knowledge and skills of its members.

Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic in 2021, we embarked on a remarkable learning journey with five grassroots groups from Sub-Saharan Africa, Europe, Asia, and Latin America. We learned how the community can monitor the impacts of corporate actors on women’s rights to land, housing, and natural resources. It was astonishing how we managed to organize a series of workshops on community-led research through an online platform, using language interpretation. Together, as the Project Advisory Group, we meticulously planned in great detail the number of sessions we needed to run, we tried and learned how long we could keep everyone active in online sessions with live interpretation, and tailored the homework assignment and discussion questions for the group to ensure maximum benefit for everyone.

In our roles as advisors and co-facilitators, we remained mindful of the time and commitment required from participants, who were already grappling with local issues. However, each session is a spring of inspiration, sparking people’s desire to discuss and learn more from each other. This experience challenged me to think innovatively about hosting interactive and participatory learning sessions collaboratively — a task I found immensely enjoyable, thanks to the open-mindedness and humility of the experienced individuals I had the pleasure of working with.

The participating groups successfully produced documentation for their communities in various forms including community-led surveys, community mapping, video documentation, and storytelling. Despite the challenges posed by the pandemic for everyone to conduct community-led activities, the ESCR-Net team together with the advisory group provided tailored support through one-on-one consultation, small group workshops, written guides, and templates. These resources have been made available for use by other groups and communities.

Following reflection, consultation with ESCR-Net members, and a thoughtful selection process, we welcomed the six new groups in mid-2023 to conduct community-led action research on Loss and Damage resulting from climate change. Building upon the lessons learned from the first project, this new research endeavor will use participatory action research led by communities to challenge power imbalance and counter the dominant narrative around loss and damage driven by corporate actors and governments. The project aims to harness local and indigenous knowledge of the communities to collectively identify common demands and articulate a shared vision for climate justice.

In August 2023, we convened for a learning workshop on community-led research in Nakuru, Kenya — a gathering where I had the opportunity to connect faces with names and witness the brilliance of the participants. We went through a week honing our thoughts and skills in empowering community members, particularly those who often have limited power and space within the community, to use action research as a tool to understand their experience, perspectives, and impacts of climate change. Many groups expressed interest in exploring the concept and practice of accountability in losses and damages, both within their local and international contexts. Additionally, the groups reflected, discussed, and collectively defined a set of principles that their respective research teams would uphold. These principles include “your struggle is my struggle,” inclusivity, collective decision-making, shifting power for structural change, safety and security, amplifying community voices, collective care, and accountability to the people.

Representatives of 6 groups, Project Advisory Group, and ESCR-Net secretariat in Nakuru, Kenya (Credit: the ESCR-Net)

Similar to our involvement in the first ESCR-Net project, my personal and IAP organizational contribution to this project is sharing our experiences and strategies in supporting community members with designing and conducting community-led surveys. I used and disseminated IAP’s Community Action Guide on Community-led Research to help the groups navigate the action research process, ensuring the community’s meaningful roles, and introducing different research tools and assisting the community in understanding and choosing what suits their context and goal.

The experience of the week in Nakuru was profoundly impactful. I witnessed a remarkable exchange between the woman leader of herder communities in Mongolia and another woman leader advocating for remedies, justice, and healing for her communities severely impacted by the climate crisis in Zimbabwe. Additionally, we had the privilege of learning from and showing solidarity with the Endorois community, indigenous Peoples living around Lake Bogoria in Kenya, who have tirelessly fought for their land and cultural identities. While online meetings serve their purpose, this week reminded me of the magic that occurs when organic learning and inspiration unfold in person.

‘‘It’s been a powerful co-learning and collaboration on community-led research across different geographies and languages. The groups have dedicated their time and energies to working through the global pandemic to yield the co-creation of knowledge with local communities most affected by the problems and those who will be leading the actions guided by the research process. I am appreciative of the hard work and care that the ESCR-Net has put into this project and hopefully, this will spark so much inspiration for a wider movement to exchange and start their journey.’’ Tom Weerachat reflecting on his amazing experience working on community-led research projects as featured in the ESCR-Net Newsletter. Read more stories and explore resources.

Learning Agenda on Legal Empowerment

It was in Nairobi, Kenya at the beginning of 2023. I remember standing in a circle formed by a global cohort representing 13 organizations from 12 countries, part of the Learning Agenda on Legal Empowerment, asking everyone to express, through their body movements — what change do you want to achieve, through the action research, how it looks, sounds, and feels like? I later invited each organization to draw their community-led data as a tree: identifying the evidence needed for their envisioned change at the roots, outlining tactics at the trunk, placing targets and goals at the top, and surrounding the tree with animals symbolizing allies and potential opponents. It was at that moment that I truly sensed the unwavering commitment of this cohort to drive meaningful change and embrace the learning journey along the way. This learning circle, convened by Namati and the Grassroot Justice Network, continued to be warm and inspiring as the week unfolded.

Participants of the Learning Agenda Global Convening in Nairobi, Kenya in March 2023 (Credit: Namati, Grassroot Justice Network)

I was thrilled and humbled when I received an invitation to serve as one of the advisors of the Learning Agenda. Joining an esteemed team of seasoned activists and academics, convened by Namati and the Grassroot Justice Network team with support from Canada’s International Development Research Centre, is an incredible opportunity. I felt certain that both myself and IAP could gain invaluable insights from this initiative. During an activity where we were asked to indicate how long we’ve been involved in legal empowerment, I found myself standing in the middle of a spectrum, surrounded by individuals with decades of experience at one end. What strikes me as fascinating about this learning agenda cohort is the diverse array of people and organizations involved, many of whom have extensive experience operating in challenging environments. They are actively driving change within their countries and regions, empowering individuals and communities with limited power to navigate complex dynamics with influential institutions. Through sharing knowledge and tools, they bring everyone closer to achieving justice. These insights significantly enhanced our discussions surrounding systemic change.

Community leadership is critical in this learning process. This is not just learning for documentation but blending people-centered action research and community-based struggles for justice using legal empowerment strategies to build community power, involve marginalized groups more in decision-making, and bring about changes to laws and institutions to make governance more democratic, and inclusive and protect human rights.

I believe that achieving a learning agenda requires us to establish a brave and safe space for everyone participating. A space that embraces diversity and inclusivity encourages bravery by allowing us to be vulnerable, explore our weaknesses, and learn from our mistakes. It takes even more courage to share those moments and lessons with others taking the same journey. This is what I think is unique about this global cohort pursuing a collective learning agenda. Not only are they progressing towards their intended learning goals, but valuable insights emerge naturally because of the right people in the right space, co-created by a collaborative effort. I am grateful to everyone who has dedicated their time, organized resources, and contributed to this collective learning journey that we are a part of.

More about the Learning Agenda on Legal Empowerment.

Learning through Collaborations

Being part of these initiatives has broadened my perspective and deepened our IAP’s understanding of how community-led research can be used with so many different issues, by very diverse groups and communities, and for multiple purposes of learning and advocacy. As these collaborative projects happen in parallel with the Global Advocacy Team initiative that IAP convened, I was able to apply what I learned from the Learning Agenda, ESCR-Net project, and the Legal Empowerment Lab into the co-designing and implementation of the GAT initiative. I was able to return the favor of sharing the experience using what I have gathered along the journey and adapting to the work with the Global Advocacy Team members, GAT’s Advisory Group, and the IAP team working on different community-led advocacy. I think this is what mutual learning truly means for us at IAP.

Through these roles, it has further confirmed to me that co-creating and co-designing are crucial ingredients for success, and community-led approaches vary depending on each community’s unique characteristics. The power of shared learning and solidarity, even in the simplest actions or thoughts, can hold significant lessons for others. We’re all striving, sometimes succeeding and failing, to ensure that the communities we engage with gain more power than when we first interact with them, and that this power is distributed fairly and respectfully, considering the intersectionality within the community.

Learning is a continuous journey. Just like different flowers provide distinct experiences for a bird, each initiative offers a unique opportunity for learning and collaboration. Think of it like the hummingbird featured in IAP’s strategic plan, visiting many flowers to gather sustenance. As I represent IAP to engage and contribute to these incredible initiatives, we accumulate knowledge and skills that help shape how we grow and give us energy and agility. This aligns with one of IAP’s core strategies which emphasizes the importance of trust, mutual reliance, and shared leadership in achieving systemic change. We learn from continuous feedback from communities and partners. I trust that by continuing and expanding our collaborations similar to these initiatives with integrity, courage, interdependence, and creativity, we’ll be able to co-create a world in which communities lead development, people claim and uphold their rights, the environment is respected, and all can live with dignity and thrive on the land they love.

Tom Weerachat works as IAP’s Global Lead on Community-Led Advocacy, based in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Tom is a community trainer, a teacher, a traveler, and a Mekong activist.



International Accountability Project (IAP)

IAP is a human and environmental rights organization that works with communities, civil society and social movements to change how today’s development is done.