Stefan Svensson



GLOBAL – Sweden Educator Profile: Stefan Svennson – Arbetarnas Bildningsförbund (ABF)

Can you tell us about your background and education?

 I was born and grew up in a town called Gothenburg, on the Swedish west coast. It’s well known, it’s where Volvo cars are produced, and there is old shipping yard and a huge harbour. I went to school for 9 years and then to what we call a “gymnasium” in Sweden.

Starting work and activism – I worked as a lorry driver delivering post, which I did for a couple of years, and at the same time I became involved in the labour youth organisation – the Social Democratic Youth (the SSU), particularly against the Vietnam War.

My whole family in some way or the other have been active in the Social Democratic Party or the trade union, or the women’s organisation. So for me it was a natural step to be active. I actually started being active in my local FNL (Vietcong) Group, during the Vietnam War – supporting liberation army of South Vietnam.

It was a huge movement in Sweden at the time, almost every political party supported except the Conservative Party. But the problem, which I found out after a while was that it was led by Communists. Gothenburg is a working class place so there have always ben fights between Communists and Social Democrats. So I realised that is not my cup of team and I joined the SSU and become active there.

I was 21 at this time, and had also done my military service where I was a guard for my regiment against the enemy (laughs), and drove trucks.

Being active in the SSU – It was a training ground for young people who want to be active and part of the trade union. Back when I started engaging with the SSU I had not started my working career yet because I was still at school. But when I started as a lorry driver I became a trade union working with youth questions, also with education and training questions on a local level.

The main issues facing youth workers at that time was getting a job because in Gothenburg there were a high rate of youth unemployment. The huge shipyard in Gothenburg collapsed in the 70s, and people used to go straight from school to work at the shipyard, and then suddenly that door was closed. We also faced the international issues: anti-apartheid, the Vietnam War, and the dictatorships in Spain and Greece.

Solidarity in action – I remember the best action that I had been part of was boycotting Coca-Cola. They were killing activists in Latin America. So on a national level, and locally in Gothenburg the SSU we went into all the co-operatives with signs saying that if they sold Coca-Cola they had blood on their hands, and we got some good publicity.

Study circles and becoming an educator – I started doing study circles in my local SSU youth club in 1974. We wanted to learn about society, how the community works, how the law and political system works because we did not get that knowledge from the school. So I have been working with study circle methodology since 1974, in one way or another. I learnt the study circles method from ABF in Gothenburg who had special courses for study circle leaders.

Working as an official in the social democratic movement – So I was active in the local post workers trade union and SSU when I was offered a position to start to work as an official for the regional SSU organisation in Gothenburg. I was responsible for education, international matters and organising from 1978 to 1981. Then I was asked to work for the Social Democratic Party in the county of Stockholm, and I was fed up of Gothenburg (laughs), so I said yes, and I worked as a resource for the community during the election. Then I was employed by the LO, as a youth deputy secretary – but at the same time I got an offer to work as an official in the local party organisation in a small town south of Stockholm and I took that job for 3 years. Then I was asked to come back to Gothenburg to work on trade union issues for the Labour Party, and I did that.

Moving to workers’ education – In 1988 at a conference after the election the head of the national organisation asked me to be study circle chair on national level. That was from 1989 and in 1995 I became head of the organisation, during that time I met Karl Petter (ex IFWEA General Secretary) who was head of communications, and started working together. In 2000 Karl Petter was elected President of ABF, and asked if I was interested to move to ABF, which I did in that year – after a couple of years I was elected General Secretary.

During that period of time the main theme of education was how to build an organisation, how to develop an organisation, how to train people to be leaders in organisation on a local, regional and national level. When you work for the party on a national level, you also work with that training programmes for in the election and after the election you work with training programmes because then you have a lot of new elected people on the local branches and so on and they need to be trained to become a representative for social democratic party on a local level community board.

Education and training is a lifelong activity and journey – The most interesting thing I have done in the last 10 years is, I have been part of a mentor programme for newly elected parliamentarians of the Social Democratic Party. It is very interesting to work with all the young people from all over Sweden in Stockholm – they have dreams, they have opportunities – giving them some sort of support by contacting older people who have been ministers, t4rade union leaders and so on.

What was being done is “bildning” – There is a word in Sweden called “bildning” in German they say “bildung”, only in Swedish and German do you have this word. I would say “bildning” is what you have left when you have forgotten everything they taught you in school. “Bildning” means more humanistic relations with other people, international matters and so on. It’s more important to get people educated and “bildning”, then you can work in an organisation, you can work with an organisation, you can work for different goals and activities, because you understand why you are doing it, you also understand why you want to do it.

You liberate people to be able to take that one or two steps forward, and build self-confidence, “well I can do this.”  I have no college training – if I compare with other people who have been studying at the university, I think I have more knowledge one way or another, than they will have.

You can then deal with all kinds of questions in society – it does not always have to be the political view – it can be the trade union view, it can be the environment view, it can be a social security view, or a gender view. There is no limit, it can be a tool. More importantly you feel: “I am part of a movement that makes me to be more independent, or more critical, not buying into everything from the government and the media.”

Taking action can make change – To activate equality, freedom from oppression and pride – proud people tend to want change and would also work to get changes. Lots of people have ideas, but the people who take the step to do it, that’s the most important thing you can work with because then you also get the result of what you have been doing.

Facing challenges in Sweden –  I would say 99% of the root of the problems facing Sweden is the question of not knowing, or having the knowledge of why the situation is like this, and how does it impact on me? If you look at social media – fake news – it’s more common that real news. So for me it is to get more people to realise the line: why are some groups saying the problem is this people. With my experience and my political ideas – you have to see this as a question of class identity. Historically you can say that was the working class people because they have no money – they live very poorly. If you look at Sweden.

For a long time Sweden was one of the poorest countries in Europe, and now we have a modern welfare state – but people forget that that was built up by fights and real struggle. The biggest challenge for the labour movement in Sweden is to educate their own members – so that they can see the big picture. Now they only see a part of the picture “oh it’s the immigrants – they get more money than the pensioners gets” – well, that is not true, it is misinformation and fake news that clouds the picture.

You have to be self-critical you can take too much for granted and you can change a society can change very rapidly. Look at Germany in 1933 – Hitler was elected in free democratic elections. The political parties though they could use Hitler, but it was exactly the opposite.

In the Parliament the Swedish Democrats have 16 % and then together with the Conservative–Liberals, Christian Democrats and the Centerparty it amounts to approximately 60%.  The Conservatives and Christian Democrats say “Let’s work with them – we can use them for our purpose.” The Social Democrats do not take this position, as this is very risky and there is always a price you have to pay.

Education, organising and activism – You can organise to death, and you can educate until you are tired and fed up, but you must channel that into some sort of action to do something. The worse thing is the people that are well educated, they are well motivated, but they are sitting on their sofas looking out saying “yes they are huge problems”. Then you ask “what are you going to do about it?” and the answer is “I haven’t got time” or “let someone else do the job”.

The journey with IFWEA – I had heard about IFWEA, and was asked to represent Karl Petter at a meeting in Geneva, Switzerland (somewhere between 2005 or 2006) – I was an internal auditor at that time and attended with our head of economics. The meeting did not reveal much and we questioned our involvement, but because we were one of the founding members, we decided to get involved and work towards some change.

In 2007 I attended the IFWEA Conference in India, where Sue Schurman and Sahra Ryklief were elected, and I saw a new start for IFWEA and its development.

Firstly, I am very proud to be a small part of that development to an organisation that is more active and working more globally than we have ever done before.

Secondly, we discussed in 2009/2010 how we could support IFWEA, and Karl Petter came with the idea of doing a course for young people. In 2011 we had a meeting at the IFWEA Conference with the Swedish, Finnish, Norwegians and the Danes looking at a Nordic youth exchange. We had a discussion back at the ABF Nordic level, and from there YGAP has developed into a global programme that we are very proud of.

My thought at the beginning of our discussion on YGAP, is if you look at the long term vision you will also strengthen IFWEA, because you will have a lot of people all over the world (at that time it was the Nordic countries), who will talk good about IFWEA and remind those in their organisations that there is an international organisation called IFWEA, who works well at these global questions. So for me it is also an investment in the future – we have almost 200 ambassadors for IFWEA.

The value of worker education locally and globally – I will say it like this: the former Minister of Foreign Affairs Anna Lindh who was murdered in 2003 said: “Our obligation is to globalise the democracy, and to make globalisation democratic.” What happens globally influences us locally, and so it is important to have these links and connections between the local, regional, national and international. If you don’t have that, you will not make any impactful changes because it will be stopped one way or another.

A message for educators -Be strong and proud of what you are doing, because you are making a difference. Difference is very important if you want to change something – if you can show the difference from how it looks today, then you can get people to realise that this could be worth the work to make this change.