In early February, our coordinator, Gacheke Gachihi, was invited to the East African Public Interest Advocate Training in Arusha to reflect on his over 15 years experience in community organizing, and how he has contributed to public interest in this work. Below is the speech he prepared for this training, and that can help us as community organizers reflect on social justice movement organizing and how it can be complemented by public interest litigation.
Reflections on Working with the Community: Experience from 15 Years of Social Justice Work in Kenya
East Africa Public Interest Advocate Training Program – Arusha, February 2 2020
By Gacheke Gachihi: Coordinator Mathare Social Justice Centre and Member of the Social Justice Centre Working Group.
Greetings. I would like to thank the East Africa Public Interest Litigation Program for inviting me to speak and share my experience as a community organizer and social justice activist from Kenya. It is a great honor for me to speak to lawyers and advocates in the region, and it is a great idea to include community organizing reflections in this public interest litigation training.
In East Africa, the democratic and political space for civic engagement and public interest work is eroding in a dramatic way. The governments of Burundi, Rwanda and Uganda have extended presidential terms limits and curtailed rights to organize for social justice and for opposition.
Kenya is struggling with a failed democratic transition, even after passing a new constitution in 2010. Tanzania is experiencing rising cases of police brutality against vocal human rights defenders and political activists, and the limiting of rights to organize and assemble peacefully, all which erode civic engagement and the struggle for social justice. The complex situation of an economic crisis and a shrinking democratic space demands robust community engagement: active public interest litigation to defend human rights and social justice that is linked to grassroots political and social justice movements.
In my 15 years experience in community organizing, I have been using public interest litigation as a tool to expand democracy, and fight for human rights and social justice. In 2000 – 2001, I worked as an intern at the Kenya Human Rights Commission (KHRC), and was monitoring and documenting human violations cases to contribute to a database of torture cases, as part of the Litigation Fund Against Torture Fund (LIFAT). This was a project that was created by People Against Torture (PAT) and Independent Medico-Legal Unit (IMLU) so as to bring about public interest cases against torture. Later, I worked with the Independent Medico-Legal Unit as a field officer in the legal department from 2005-2010. We bailed out victims of torture and human rights defenders.
In 2015, I co-founded, with other social justice activists based in Mathare, Mathare Social justice Centre. This is a grassroots community based organization, which was created to address the issues of social injustice and human rights violations, and has since inspired vibrant social justice centres in Kenya today.
In collective struggles, we have worked with Katiba Institute and other civil society organizations to file many public interest cases in the judiciary, as part of fighting for social justice and demanding the implementation of the constitution, especially the enforcement of the Bill of Rights — Chapter 4 of the constitution. One example is Petition 323 of 2014, that quashed the malicious prosecution against myself and three other activists who are part of the leadership of social justice centres. Another case was the petition to stop the election in 2017.
The path of public interest litigation has allowed for the growth and formation of grassroots social justice centres.
Social Justice Movement
The Social Justice Centres Working Group (SJCWG) is the collective leadership of 24 social justice centres and social justice activists across the country, and that was formed in 2017. It was launched during the Saba Saba March for our Lives in 2018, at the historic Kamukunji Grounds. It is composed of those who have come together to pursue social justice through forming registered community based organizations that are referred to as social justice centres. These centres have created more civic spaces to convene the grassroots social justice movement, and in this spaces the focus is community organizing, the documentation of human rights violations, conducting a number of important campaigns, writing petitions and the referral of cases for redress to relevant authorities.
The Social Justice Centre Working Group (SJCWG) in Kenya is led by a steering committee of elected officials with a mandate to coordinate and connect the centres that are unified under the banner of the the Social Justice Centre Working Group. The working group is critical as it helps to consolidate and amplify the efforts of the various centres, and solidify the impact by working together in defense of social justice and human rights.
The SJCWG comprises of two representatives from each social justice centre. The SJCWG envisions a democratic state in Kenya founded on social justice and human rights for all. Its mission is to organize, educate and liberate, particularly the residents of the informal settlements. It also works to build their agency, empower them and amplify their voices in response to the social injustices and human rights violations they face on a daily basis.
History of the Social Justice Centre Working Group
Mathare Social Justice Centre led to the emergence of several social justice centres in Dandora, Githurai, Kayole, Mukuru, Ruaraka, Kiambiu, Kariobangi, Makadara, and several others in informal settlements in Nairobi, Mombasa and Kisumu. The Social Justice Centre Working Group opposes the dehumanization and oppression of the urban poor in Nairobi. And in 2017, over 500 residents from these neighborhoods, together with some members of civil society, marched to Kamukunji grounds. The Saba Saba March for Our Lives borrows its name from the Saba Saba Day public rally held on July 7 1990, at the Kamukunji Grounds, to protest former president Moi’s undemocratic rule, and press for constitutional reform by agitating for the repealing of section 2A of the constitution that would allow for the reintroduction of the multiparty system.
The social justice movement has helped to foster unity in the community, and this is based on the constitution of Kenya and a belief in human rights.
Objectives of the centres include:
- Build a unified social justice movement in Kenya to rescue the failed democratic transition, and create alternative political leadership for our social and economic liberation
- To activate community agency on matters of human rights and social justice
- To build solidarity among social justice centres
- Organize joint campaigns, petitions and solidarity marches on cross cutting grassroots and national issues
- Empower communities to advocate for their own justice and human rights
- To expand the democratic civic space
- To consolidate the efforts and gains made by the work of grassroots human rights defenders
How to form a social justice centre
The foundation of social justice movement building is first and foremost friendship. The camaraderie is vital as it guards against self-interest and opportunism among the members. The second is organizing protests against human rights violations, and documentation of the same in your area. The third is to establish a civic space for community organizing, participatory action research and community dialogues through the formation of social justice centres, and finally to anchor all the efforts in participatory action research.
- Make friends with your community members through civic actions
- Invite friends to informal discussions and debates about local and national issues at your home or neutral place in your community hall
- Agree on an action plan on local issues that need action or intervention e.g. community security forums, the environment, CDF, local political leadership, drug abuse, participate in community based groups, youth and women groups, progressive political parties and social forums
- Recruit members to the social justice movement in your area through active participation in activities that advance the agenda of social change, link the local struggle to the national and international struggles
- Ensure constant civic engagement is maintained and make the community social justice centre a home for convening and organizing social movements in your area.
- Register the community based organization with the sub -county social development office in your area.
The vision of the Social Justice Centres Working Group
The vision of the Social Justice Centres Working Group is to continue with the struggle for democracy and social justice: to build a socially just and democratic state with a mission to organize, educate and liberate the masses
Structure of the SJCWG
- Saba Saba March for Our Lives in 2018 and 2019.
- Social Justice Centres National Congress in 2019
- Rapid growth of social justice centres across the country
- Through consistent and vigorous campaigns against extrajudicial killings, we have been able to give the crisis the weight and attention it deserves, stirring the nation to solution-oriented conversation around this injustice
- We have been able to give the victims of violations the courage, support, voice and platform to seek redress
- We have successfully engaged duty bearers and formed progressive working relations
- Through the documentation of human rights violations and linking the community to agencies and organizations that help them pursue justice, more people have been encouraged to come out and seek justice for violations against them, restoring hope for the rule of law
- We have managed to turn the community into human rights defenders and advocates for social justice
- Through mentorship and engaging the youth in activities and dialogues against crime, we have been able to change reformed youths to human rights defenders
- We have been able to tell stories and advocate for change through our campaign: arts for social justice.