“Running an organizing training in Cambodia!” – Laure Voop De Vulpillieres shares her experience, learning and questions

Hi fellow organizers,

A warm (and humid) hello from Phnom Penh, Cambodia! I just did a full, 2 day organizing training here and wanted to tell you about it because I’m super excited and want to share my learning (as concisely as possible).

I did this training because I spent 4 years in Cambodia before HKS, learned the language (Khmer) and have been dying to bring our organizing training to people who need it so badly.

Here are photos of the 2 day event (note that there are captions to most photos). (Kind of neat detail: everyone is barefoot – we all take our shoes off at the door…)


Who are my people?

I recruited 12 community organizers and trainers, who are working with very different constituencies (victims of land-grabbing, women’s political empowerment, physically handicapped, etc). I wanted a diverse group so that we could learn from each other’s work and share greater resources.

What is their problem?

These organizers are floundering because they have become the “dot” in their organizations and as such are stuck. Many have been trained in aspects of organizing before, but it’s been siloed trenchants, teaching only technical skills (such as how to set up a rally).

What is the goal?

We want to create a teaching team that can bring these organizing skills to community organizations.

The training

Language: All the participants spoke English, so I taught the theory in English. The small group work, telling stories, and debriefs were in Khmer. It worked well, because I can understand others quite clearly and just don’t have enough organizing-specific vocabulary yet to teach big concepts in Khmer. When we roll this out to other groups who speak less English, everything will need to be in Khmer.

Structure: We ran the training the normal way, except that for the action section, we sent them into the streets (the same way we did in the skills session). This took time and as such, I shortened the teaching on strategy, which was a calculated choice. It was either skimping on “head” or “heart” and I decided that they needed the full teaching on “heart” since they’d had the least exposure to that.

Most learning: The section on relationship-building blew their minds. Cambodian culture does not take a warm-and-fuzzy approach to interactions if people are outside of one’s family. That said, they immediately understood the value of intentionally getting to know one another. Also, like most people, they loved the part on Story of Self, though they struggled with it, especially in painting a vivid picture. I think one way to overcome this is to use strong examples of Khmer stories that provide sharp details.

Least learning: Story of us was a struggle. People got confused about how to create an “us.” I struggled with simplifying the concepts sufficiently for a non-native-English audience. Also, I need to find a more relevant example than Susan Christopher (obviously) and will brainstorm this with our new Khmer teaching team.

Action: I was super uneasy about sending people into the streets to organize, because police throw activists in jail with impunity. Drawing on experience from training in the Republic of Georgia (similar problem), I helped them think of “safe” causes. There were three groups and their goals were the following:

  • Team “Palm Tree” : Commit 60 people to always wearing a motorbike helmet
  • Team “Brave Women”: Commit 50 people to speaking to the manager if they see a “beer girl” being abused at a restaurant
  • Team “Education for all”: Ask 50 people to support higher education for all Cambodians. (We talked a lot about this being too vague, but the team was stuck on this. After they got back from the streets, they readily acknowledged that they needed a more specific goal, and we talked about how falling off the bike helps us learn.)


This organizing content really does translate everywhere. The participants got it, despite the major cultural difference between them and Americans.

It dawned on me that what we are teaching is completely based in clarity: being clear to others about who I am, creating a clear team structure, crafting a strategy that everyone understands, etc. That clarity is the foundation of trust, and trust is essential for building a movement. This is especially true in a country with such corruption, opaqueness at all levels, and a mindset of “just do what I say because I’m your superior.”

The simpler the training, the better. Due to the language barrier, I stripped down concepts, cut to the chase, and found that people took away (almost) as much as they do in the US.

The worksheets in our guide can’t easily be used with non-native English speakers because they are too wordy – I bet there’s a simpler way to present that information. In any event, our team is going to translate it into Khmer, which will make a big difference.

Next steps

The participants are pumped to move forward. Of the original 12, there are 8 that have joined a leadership team, with the goal of bringing this training to local community groups, and providing ongoing coaching. This team isn’t ready to teach yet, but we’re going to build a training ladder to help them get there. We’ve had one leadership team meeting already, with another on Sunday. Members are stepping up to take responsibility, and I’m nudging when necessary.

I’ll be coming back to the US, but hoping to get back to Cambodia regularly for these trainings while team members are working their way up the training ladder, and supporting the team through Skype.

Again, photos are here. Would be happy to discuss this more with anyone who is interested!



%d bloggers like this: