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The Freedom Fellowship

The Freedom Fellowship will build the skills and knowledge of emerging leaders from closed societies to create change from the bottom up.

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The Human Rights Foundation (HRF) has been a leader in advocacy, resource building, and public education to promote and protect human rights in closed societies for more than ten years. HRF unites people in the common cause of defending human rights and promoting democracy and boasts a long track record of success in this area.

The Center for Applied Nonviolent Action and Strategies (CANVAS) has been a leader in nonviolent resistance against dictatorships since its inception. Co-founded by leaders of the Serbian nonviolent resistance group Otpor!, which successfully led a peaceful campaign to topple dictator Slobodan Milosevic, CANVAS now works to train leaders of civil movements around the world in the art of nonviolent resistance. CANVAS has trained activists and organizers in over 50 countries, particularly in highly repressive settings, and equipped them with the tools and skills to build successful movements for change.

Build A Movement (BAM) is dedicated to researching and spreading knowledge on the methods of nonviolent, grassroots activism to promote democracy, human rights, and social change. BAM is also providing training in digital security specifically geared to activists and civil society professionals facing surveillance, censorship and repression.

The Freedom Fellowship is a joint program between Build a Movement, CANVAS, and the Human Rights Foundation that empowers civil society activists from closed societies with training, mentoring, and support by connecting them to a global network of mentors, including democracy advocates, technologists, policymakers, philanthropists, and experts in media, strategy, and marketing.

The Freedom Fellowship program seeks to address the threat that authoritarianism has against prosperity, peace, and the planet. Authoritarian governments bear an enormous social cost. Dictator-led countries have higher rates of mental illness, lower levels of health and life expectancy, and, as Amartya Sen famously argued, higher susceptibility to famine. Their citizens are less educated and file fewer patents. In 2016, more patents were filed in France than in the entire Arab world — not because Arabs are less entrepreneurial than the French, but because nearly all of them live under stifling authoritarianism. Clearly, the suppression of free expression and creativity has harmful effects on innovation and economic growth. Citizens of free and open societies such as Germany, South Korea and Chile witness advances in business, science and technology that Belarusians, Burmese and Cubans can only dream of. Free nations do not go to war with each other. History has shown this to be the only ironclad law of political theory. Meanwhile, dictators are always at war, often with a foreign power and always with their own people. Finally, authoritarian regimes often jail and persecute or kill environmentalists, labor leaders, and investigative journalists who are working for a fairer and more sustainable future.

Therefore, one of the best ways to promote prosperity, peace, and  sustainability is to empower social entrepreneurs and civil society organizations working in closed societies. Such individuals are in constant need of support, because in their home countries there is no legal way to protest, no ACLU, no free press and no opposition party to stand up for their rights. It is by building their skills and knowledge, enabling them to better organize, mobilize and act, that change can be achieved in a more effective and sustainable way.

Explain your idea

This program aims to bridge prosperity, peace, and planet by addressing the problem of authoritarianism – a global challenge exacerbating these problems, faced by 3.97 billion people worldwide. If authoritarianism is to be properly challenged — and if so many resulting crises, including military conflict, poverty, and corruption are to be addressed at their root cause — such dissidents need funding, strategic advice, technical training, attention, and solidarity. The Freedom Fellowship program aims to provide these necessary resources, leveraging the expertise and assets of HRF, CANVAS, and BAM to support people-power in tough environments. Over the course of a year-long program, each Fellow will design and implement a project related to the opening of social or political space in a repressive country, and will receive feedback and guidance from our mentors. At the end of the program, participants will have gained specialized knowledge, allowing them to more effectively achieve results, defend rights and freedoms, and promote political and social change. Freedom Fellows will: -Receive a digital security equipment toolkit that includes anti-surveillance apps and tools -Attend the online course Leading Nonviolent Movements for Social Progress at the Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) -Receive personal and group mentoring sessions from experts in a variety of fields -Attend workshops on democratization, movement building, and organizational growth -Pitch their project at the Oslo Freedom Forum in Norway on May 28-30, 2018 Eligible candidates must come from closed societies, have a proven commitment to human rights and democracy, and exhibit determination to promote social and political change in their respective country.

Who Benefits?

Most immediately, grassroots civil society leaders from closed countries benefit from this program. In the long-run, however, it is the fellows’ broader societies that will benefit greatly from more justice and democracy, and more open political and civic space.The world at large will benefit from increased innovation, fewer wars, decreased poverty, and better environmental policies.

How is your idea unique?

The bulk of the struggle against tyranny falls to civil society groups and activists working within authoritarian countries, though they have very little resources with which to protect themselves from their governments and build nonviolent movements. HRF, CANVAS, and BAM are uniquely positioned to assist these individuals through the Freedom Fellows program with our robust network of security experts, nonviolent movement experts, academics, philanthropists, media, and entrepreneurs. The Freedom Fellowship uniquely addresses the challenges faced by leaders in closed societies by focusing on knowledge-sharing and skill-building. By bringing together these leaders to share their experience and learn from each other, and by connecting them to experts, these individuals will be empowered to act autonomously and durably for change in their societies.

Idea Proposal Stage

  • Piloting: I have started to implement my solution as a whole with a first set of real users.

Tell us more about you

HRF is based in New York City, BAM in Washington, DC, and CANVAS in Belgrade, Serbia. Each organization will assist in the coordination of this program—specifically, CANVAS with training Fellows through its Harvard course and other curriculum, BAM with hands-on mentoring on individual projects, and HRF through the pairing of Fellows with Mentors and through coordinating each Fellow’s Oslo Freedom Forum storytelling experience. HRF, BAM, and CANVAS together have two decades of experience promoting civil liberties, teaching effective non-violent resistance, and building successful movements. Each of these organizations have supported thousands of activists, civil society professionals and human rights defenders, including in the world’s most repressive countries.

Expertise in sector

  • 7+ years

Organization Filing Status

  • Yes, we are a registered non-profit.


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