Skip to main content Skip to local navigation
Home » Building Relations of Solidarity Across Difference with Professor Lesley J. Wood

Building Relations of Solidarity Across Difference with Professor Lesley J. Wood

Interview by Elaine Coburn

Your scholarship, over the last twenty-five years, is concerned with social movements. At the turn of the millennium, there were important world-wide movements known as anti or alter-globalization protests, challenging the authority of the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and the then-new World Trade Organization. Can you tell us a bit about these movements and how they relate to your early work about social movements and protest?

Like most scholars, I have a puzzle that threads through my work. Mine is the question of how ideas travel across boundaries, and how that process is connected to social change. In graduate school, this became a study of diffusion within social movements. At the time, I was active in the struggle for global justice. This movement was innovative in three ways – it was anchored by and inspired by challenges to neoliberal capitalism that were coming from the Global South; second, it embraced horizontalist, democratic decision-making, facilitated by the emerging internet; third, it was more interested in direct action against both political and corporate targets, than using the traditional social movement repertoire. These three features led to some early successes. 

On January 1, 1994, the day that launched the North American Free Trade Agreement and cancelled Mexico’s support for collectively owned land, Mexico’s indigenous lead Zapatistas’ seized large amounts of territory and set up an autonomous network of communities. Online they called for solidarity, and launched this global justice movement, “Against Neoliberalism and for Humanity” that embraced “One No, Many Yeses.” This call was heard and by 1999 there was a global movement against international financial institutions that brought together peasant and indigenous movements from the global south, with the labour movement, the environmental and many other northern based movements. 

"By 1999, there was a global movement against international financial institutions that brought together peasant and indigenous movements from the global south, with the labour movement, the environmental and many other northern based movements."

Lesley J. Wood

At protests in Seattle, thousands of activists successfully disrupted the summit meetings using creative, non-violent direct action. The ideas and tactics that were used so effectively spread rapidly. For my dissertation, I wanted to know the conditions that allowed these tactics to spread, and the conditions that posed barriers. I found that while imitation was relatively straightforward, cities were able to incorporate ideas from elsewhere into their ongoing routines only when there were opportunities to discuss, adapt and experiment. I have returned to this research in recent days, as we see the rapid spread of student encampments

Your scholarship has looked at waves of protest, where seemingly disparate movements, for instance, the Black Lives Matter movement and student protests in Québec, appear at about the same time and you argue, with important social consequences. What power do social movements have to transform the social world, even when they are carried out by actors who are usually not in positions of power? 
Lesley J. Wood is Professor of Sociology at York University in Toronto, Canada. She is the author of Crisis and Control: The Militarization of Protest Policing (2014) and Direct Action, Deliberation and Diffusion (2012) and co-author of the third edition of Social Movements 1768-2012. She is an activist in the global justice and anti-poverty movements.

Every wave of protest is different, but they share common features. Each has a period of acceleration, innovation and diffusion – a peak, which is often associated with explicit conflict with authorities and/or victory, and then a decline – often involving factionalization and/or institutionalization. Sometimes there are smaller surges within a larger wave – like Black Lives Matter uprisings that occur when there are high-profile police killings. There are patterns in mobilization - movements are more likely to accelerate when there are conflicts amongst elites, and/or periods of rapid change. These waves, and social movements more generally are a central way that ordinary people influence authorities, cultures, and the policies and practices that make up our lives. 

"These waves and social movements more generally are a central way that ordinary people influence authorities, cultures and the policies and practices that make up our lives."

Lesley J. Wood

Movements have become pervasive in societies where there are some basic civil liberties. They are a form of political action used by people across the political spectrum, from those seeking democracy to those who are fighting to stop immigration.  Many people believe that social movements are ineffective. This is not true. Their effectiveness is underestimated, in part because it is difficult to draw clear, causal, relationships between mobilization and social change. It is easier when the demands are clearly met, with policy decisions like same sex marriage, or a vote for ceasefire. However, the outcomes of social movements are often more indirect, through changes in attitudes, funding, relationships, skills, institutions and practices.

"The outcomes of social movements are often more indirect, through changes in attitudes, funding, relationships, institutions and practices."

Lesley J. Wood

For example, the indigenous led movement for justice for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls has not stopped racist, gender-based violence or police impunity. However, it has dramatically changed attitudes, practices and laws, established protections, and developed community-based institutions, with rich cultural dimensions. There is one other reason that movement successes are not well understood. Often, once movements are powerful enough, authorities or elites will take credit for their efforts.

Another enduring concern in your work is transnational solidarity. We are currently witnessing new strong forms of transnational movement solidarity, worldwide, with Palestine liberation struggles. These are taking place, in April 2024, in the context of what the United Nations describes as war crimes by Israel against Palestinians. More than 34 000 Palestinians, including men, women, children and infants have been killed in Gaza and 77 000 injured.1 How can we think about the demands of that solidarity, in the current moment, and what does Jewish-Palestine transnational solidarity mean to you? Is feminist solidarity an important part of these movements? 

The transnational solidarity movement against Israel’s attacks on Palestinians and for Palestinian liberation is both unprecedented and built on the legacy of past movements. For six months, there have been over 500 protests in Toronto, and tens of thousands around the world. As I write this on Monday April 29, 2024, lists 91 encampments and 101 solidarity actions underway.

"The larger transnational solidarity movement [for Palestine liberation] includes overlapping networks of Palestinians, Muslims, human rights activists, leftists, and other groups, including feminists."

Lesley J. Wood

This list is focused on student protests, but the larger transnational, solidarity movement includes overlapping networks of Palestinians, Muslims, human rights activists, leftists, and other groups, including feminists. Like the global justice movement, and other episodes like the ones that connected Occupy, the Arab Spring and the indignados; or the 2020 eruption around racialized police violence the current solidarity networks are transnational, digitally connected, and horizontally organized. These connections are not automatic or simple, they are constructed and reconstructed over time. Differences in interest, culture and resources will make solidarity difficult. Indeed, todays movement may be united on demands for a ceasefire and arms embargo, but there are many imaginaries and demands within.

"Current solidarity networks are transnational, digitally connected and horizontally organized. These connections are not automatic or simple, they are constructed and reconstructed over time."

Lesley J. Wood

Today’s Palestinian solidarity movement in Toronto contains a legacy of peace activism by Palestinian and Jewish feminists, both communities of which, have a direct connection to and investment in ending the violence in Israel and Palestine. This includes groups like the Jewish Women’s Committee to End the Occupation of the West Bank and Gaza (JWCEO), formed in 1989 by some who had been involved in feminist and peace activism. They were tied to the international movement called, “Women in Black”, itself launched through a partnership between Palestinian and Israeli Jewish women in Jerusalem, as they called out Israel’s human rights abuses of the Palestinians.

"Feminists placed [value] on the importance of building relations of solidarity across difference, as a way to prefigure the possibility of peace."

Lesley J. Wood

This effort highlighted the value feminists placed on the importance of building relations of solidarity across difference, as a way to prefigure the possibility of peace. It planted feminist and internationalist seeds in the history of Toronto pro-Palestinian solidarity- one that shapes the current moment. Indeed, in Toronto, the newly formed coalition, Jews Say No to Genocide, includes women who were active in the late 1980s, and their offspring, themselves building ties with people in groups like the Palestinian Youth Movement. Even in a moment of fast paced, youth driven, solidarity mobilizations, the relationships, processes and institutions of past movements can bolster or become barriers to ongoing solidarity.

  1. The Guardian: