As one of the key leaders in the movement to ban landmines worldwide, Jerry White, who shares in the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize, talks about the wisdom, strategies, and collaboration needed to convince the world to do the right thing
LILA: Thank you for agreeing to speak with us. Let us start by talking about impact, as it is a key word in your work. We were struck by this phrase that you have used: “clarity in a complex world”, in terms of impact making. In using this phrase, we acknowledge that it is a complex world, even as we stress the need to strategise and plan towards making a visible impact. This is also a deep concern for us at LILA as we try to understand how to create meaningful impact in a world that is so disparate. If you move towards creating impact in a certain direction, there will also be a lot of resistance from the so-called “other”. Can you tell us a little bit about your understanding of impact? And how do you strategise towards overcoming resistance?
JW: Thank you for the question and thank you for your time and interest. I think we all understand we are in very complex worlds, with problems arising from climate change to war and violence to bi-polar politics in all countries. So it struck me, to have impact, we need to step back and see what is really happening. How do we diagnose the underlying conditions and not fall for the treatment of symptoms that seem so obvious at times?In our work, we call that,‘finding clarity in a complex world’. For me and the students and partners I work with, we have a particular approach on strategy, which is thinking of it as a special art and not just a hackneyed term. We think of it as the art and science of creating power for sustainable change, system change, in the face of uncertainty and conflict. So our vision for strategy is very much affirmative.Through history, we see that strategy has emerged from military conflict, with a military vocabulary, onward to a business vocabulary. But also along the way are campaigns for non-violence. Of course Gandhi ji and others have led the way and pioneered thinking on some of that. So, you have to think what is the creative art here.How are we affirming a vision for people and the planet that has higher purpose, not something utilitarian or transactional for the short term?This is the bigger definition of strategy.
Some people have jokingly called me an impact fundamentalist, in that I am obsessed with impact. So I think your question is very interesting –impact for what, to what, so what? And that’s interesting because just one person’s impact for good could be someone’s impact for bad. You have a bell curve with people who are on the other side of what you are trying to do. Sometimes you tend to think of them as the enemy, the other, the resistance, when in fact you have to turn it around and embrace them in a way that says everyone has a role to play here; everyone has an invitation to go higher. Everyone feels better when they are actually contributing, across disciplines and silos, doing something that is giving to the planet, giving to others–having a higher purpose. In my experience, in order to build community, one has to have a common call-to-action that has us get up and move forward together on whatever the issue is – from arms control to conflicts or climate change.
LILA:As we talk about creating systemic change at the magnitude at which we are thinking, we want to also talk about technology, especially since your focus is also on data and technology. There is an information overload now with the Internet. In a world with so much information around here, how do you lead people to the most relevant data, which you can use within your strategy to create an impact? How do you do this?
JW: As I mentioned before, with strategy being both art and science of creating powerful change, the science part of it brings us to the need for the best in cognitive and behavioural sciences. How does this inform decision-making? A great challenge is we tend to be very poor, biased decision-makers, not actually using the rationality of the mind. We make systems that, with our personal emotional wiring, override logical decision-making. This happens both individually, and at the systemic and government levels. I was invited to join the Obama administration, where I served as a Deputy Assistant Secretary of State to create a new bureau for Conflict and Stabilisation Operations. Conflict prevention requires us to get ahead of the curve. Very quickly, in my three years in the administration, working first under Secretary Hilary Clinton, and then Secretary John Kerry, I found that we were awash with information and so much data. I made a joke that it was actually not big data but pig data. It was obese data. And all of those little bits of knowledge assaulting us were more static, not helping us see through the fog, or find clarity in this complex world. So I asked whether I could hire a small team of advanced analysts who understand decision-making, so that we could try to predict what was going to happen by not using big data models but applying other models – like using game theory, agent-based modelling, and others.
I’m not a technologist or methodologist myself. I’ve got no PhD in game theory. But I felt we were missing something in trying to prognosticate better, to get ahead of a conflict and understand it, and the stakeholders who actually could influence it. We started to use technology to simulate and “game out” the future – what was likely to happen – and then examine pathways to advance more optimal outcomes. So, yes indeed, we had information overload and it was impossible to see through the fog of conflicting data and media reports. You could stack this knowledge, but knowledge isn’t something that actually changes the world. It is necessary, but not sufficient for transformation and impact. That was my dilemma inside the U.S. State Department and also broadly as a citizen just trying to make sense of the world with so much conflicting information assaulting our senses. The question was, ‘Can we simply and actually help people make wiser decisions faster? ’What if we went outside the government, beyond conventional wisdom in Washington, and more out of the secret black box where much analysis was being done? We saw that much of our policy making was ineffectual and could do more harm than good. This was an inconvenient truth for policymakers. I thought, wouldn’t it be better for the world if everyone had access to better tools for decision analytics? What if we could democratise game theory for better decision-making across the board and across sectors, not just for government agencies or national security? So we left government and created a small team and a company called Global Impact Strategies, or giStrat. We were determined to create a cloud-based platform so individuals and organisations would be able to game out their decisions, even simple decisions like whether to buy or rent a house or move into a certain area. Life decisions can get rather complex because they involve multiple factors, multiple stakeholders, and uncertainty. It’s interesting how these little decisions in our lives can become rather complex if you step back. It is not just a list of pros and cons on a napkin.
LILA:This brings us to the other question of conflict, partnership and learning. We identify that there is a need for cooperation between multiple agencies and stakeholders. In such a pluralistic space, conflicts will always arise in decision-making. How do you create partnership despite this kind of divided interests, and how do you bring security and justice in such a situation so we can create true partnership and learning?
JW: Very interesting question about partnership. One may have to reflect on that, so it won’t be just a simple answer. One way of looking at it is that in all issues of justice or conflict, you will find these binaries, divided landscapes. I think it is imperative to build coalitions across sectors and disciplines. In fact, everyone has a contribution to make, whether we like them or not. It’s like in America, say at a big Thanksgiving or holiday meal, we’ll sit with diverse cousins, family and guests. You can love everyone at the table even when you don’t really like everyone. There’s the crazy uncle who gets drunk and then there’s the fight between some siblings, and then there are people who do most of the work in the kitchen and those who just sit back and bring nothing to the table. So, it’s always a bit chaotic and funny. You have to find the sense of humour that we all belong to this crazy human family, and if you can try to love that, it helps you to reach out across these disciplines and across personalities that are so strong.
In strategy, coalition building is about creating power. You bring diverse people together, strange bedfellows as they say, who can see themselves working together. You want journalists, you want NGO and non-profit leaders, humanitarians, maybe a diplomat or two, and then someone who is from media or entertainment. There are people you may have never met before –some are survivors and neighbours. There should be a good spicy mix. What could be more boring than a dinner party with all the same
people? Some people prefer that, but I find it very dull. Diversity in coalitions is critical.
LILA: Indeed, but how do we do this?
JW: One of the ways I think about it is crossing over the elements of fire, air, earth and water to find balance in your coalition. It’s almost a checklist. When you think about fire, it might be these social entrepreneurs, sometimes politicians, people who are transformers and are full of fire. Then you have the opposite – water. These are the community builders and human resource people who are nurturing the grassroots level. In this sense, if you don’t include the survivors, or the people who are most affected by your topic, and you don’t have inclusion, then you are going to miss out on the opportunity for change. You can’t just talk about people behind their back.
Then you have air. Fire and water aren’t always going to bring the change. Air would be more like the PhDs, university researchers. They are dispassionate and data-driven on an issue. So, are you getting your facts? Have you done your baseline studies? You can’t just be an angry activist to get things done.
Lastly, the element of earth would be very pragmatic, the people at meetings who say, “Okay, that was a lot of talking about fine values and principles, but what is the next step, how do we get things done?” The earth element is about governance, like the internet suffice for “.govs.” The .gov crowd has to talk to the .org (water) crowd and the .edu (air) crowd and dot-coms as well! Each sector needs each other.
When we talk about partnership and coalition-building, it requires deep inter-disciplinary work, including governments as well as civil society. We need to reach people who are in the security forces, the police, people who are lawyers, legislators, policymakers. I think in the art and science of creating power for strategy, coalescing across sectors is critical.
LILA:This is a really fantastic explanation. The metaphor is wonderful. This brings us to the question of violence. You have a course on how not to be violent in the name of God. When we think about bringing people together, a place of worship is normally a place where people come together in a kind of partnership where all the elements come together, too. Religious rituals feature the elements in some way or the other.But now, as we see a nexus between politics and religious spaces, that seems extremely dangerous. How does it happen that on one hand, all religions are supposed to be celebrating coalition, they are levellers – as no matter who or what you are, you come to a place to worship as equals. But when two such spaces confront each other, it creates a space of violent conflict.
JW: One of the fastest growing types of violence in the world today is religion-related violence. I am careful not to call it “religious violence” because for the most part it is not religious. Most sources of conflict are old-fashioned resource competition, greed, power, land, etc. One must be careful to look at the underlying causes and competition underneath the violence, even if it is dressed up in a religious garb. It is true that religion-related violence is growing across the Middle East and South Asia. In India, there is high risk – it is probably on the top-10 list for scaled violence in the name of religion. We find that violence, conflict and politics become, what I would call, religified, and that does make them harder to solve because of the intensity with which people take a stand in the name of their religion or god. But the underlying problem is not religion itself. In fact, research and historical case studies show that in peace building, religious actors are critical.
They become more part of the solution in peace building than part of the problem, although the public and the media tend to spin the story differently. One has to have a dispassionate mind, the study of violence and an understanding of what we are looking at in a historical, social, and modern context, so not to be so reactionary when religion-related violence flares up.
Another thing in speaking of being more dispassionate is, we see that some of the best models for dealing with violence are public health models. The scientific approach helps us refrain from moralising or religifying. Public health models allow us to step back and see how violence acts like an epidemic, like a disease that spreads. It is socially contagious. When you see epidemics of polio, HIV/AIDS, Ebola or other things, you see that it starts somewhere and then works in clusters, shows up in patterns, and spreads quickly through local contact. One of the things one must look at is how do you interrupt the violence? How do you prevent it, get ahead of the curve?And if it breaks out, how do you contain the violence, stop retaliations, and then build resilience socially? Part of this is training, what one of my friends calls community interrupters. These are people who are able to say, “No, we don’t do that here”. The violence may have started, but you can move in, almost like a vaccine, and interrupt the spread. There’s a group called Cure Violence working internationally, which I think has one of the best models for this. And it is helpful, particularly in the context of religion-related violence that is so charged, where things are being done in the name of God, to actually step back and not be taken in by this type of violence. It is, of course, a deep concern when leaders set a tone of enabling conditions or permissions for violence. So leadership is very important and maybe we will talk about that later, of how to pursue and build victim-free leaders, who are not actually stoking fires of victim-hood, rage and retaliation. I am also deeply concerned that any country in the top-ten list for religion-related violence must get ahead of the curve. India is a case in point.
LILA: Let us talk about Gandhi and non-violence as we talk about leadership. While there is a lot of global understanding about what Gandhi is and what he was doing, after so many years of his passing, in India there is a very polarised response to him. On one hand, we have very mechanical static institutions and blindly adoring spaces, while on the other, without even reading his work, there is a whole lot of Gandhi bashing based on some of his personal practices. Looking at the idea of leader, somebody like Gandhi changed things around without even having a precedent. How do we sustain that idea of leadership and transfer it from one generation to the next?
JW: This is a really deep question, when you look at leadership and strategy.When we look at great leaders of the last century, how many are there left? If I go to graduation ceremonies or listen to speeches, we have the same people invoked – there is Gandhi, there is Martin Luther King, there is Nelson Mandela, there is Mother Teresa. These are icons in our lives, and icons are actually things that we project upon. So we attach meaning to them. They may not have done anything wrong; they may have done something wrong. They are complex human beings like all of us. So you can always find a facet of that diamond or gem or icon that is black, and others that are yellow. So when we see very polarising dynamics, from my experience, it is the art of projection. We project onto icons. Some people find Hillary Clinton highly polarising, but how they might speak about her is nothing of my experience of her. She is a beautiful, hardworking, disciplined leader, who has dedicated her life to public service. Same for President Obama. But all project good or evil onto President Trump as well. In my own country, we get these people who emerge as icons, which can be helpful or interfere with a conversation. It’s almost like when we are nostalgic for some golden age, we project onto Gandhi, Martin Luther King,Jr.,Abraham Lincoln, etc. Today, I would say we are not looking for Mandela but “mini-delas” or “many-delas.”We need rising leaders who are trained at all levels, in the bureaucracy, smaller levels, bigger levels, inside companies, who are actually resilient leaders, and have compassion and care, and draw the best lessons from these icons.
One of the exercises I do with many young leaders is exactly this – asking who is your icon, who is the leader you admire most? My students pick whomever, it just can’t be a family member in this exercise. Some say Gandhi, some say Mother Teresa, and we get all sorts of icons. Instead of focussing on the pros and cons of that individual, we focus on the projection. What are the three qualities you admire most? You could say Gandhi, Oprah, or you could say a poet or Wonder Woman. I don’t care because it is a reflection of you yourself; it’s a projection. Once the young leader says I love the humility or the sense of justice or peace, and not just ‘hardworking’, ‘smart’ or ‘diligent’, but the highest words of transcendental values that are projected onto that icon, that is the artwork that we are working with in transformational strategy. It is simply not about Mother Teresa or Hilary Clinton or Gandhi, it is about you, and who you are as a citizen leader. I sometimes think we get distracted by the personalities of the past. Part of victim hood, in fact, is living in the past. It’s more important to live here now in the present. If you admire icons who stand for justice and peace and compassion, then how will you bring those qualities into your workplace day by day? Whether you are working in a coffee shop, or whether you are working in an embassy, what are you doing to bring the best of your higher principles, values and goals into your world today?
Lastly, I make a comment on even some of these great leaders in the non-profit or social sector, Gandhi included. We sometimes think only ISIS or “terrorists”or “extremists” use highly polarising language, or that it’s the other that is so mean and projecting evil onto us. We live in groups and tribes, and project onto the other groups and tribes. And we have to pay attention, as your organisation LILA has done, to language and linguistics. How are people using language? And when does language itself become violent? That is important and humbling to look at, that even these wonderful non-profit leaders and social sector leaders historically have used, even in the guise of non-violence, rather violent language. By that I mean the binaries, where there is not interpretation – this is right or wrong, it’s black or white. We are looking at this in the University of Virginia to study language patterns, and when they turn violent, when an interpretation of a constitution or scripture is being weaponised, it becomes monovalent, meaning it only has one meaning. There is no room for interpretation. And of course our scriptures across religions and wisdom literature have thousands of interpretations over centuries. But when you see language that becomes monovalent as opposed to polyvalent – having multiple meanings – on that spectrum we can start to see when a complex is turning violent and we should be paying quicker attention to it and look at language ways, interpretation ways. That is why narrative in communication is so important.
There is so much in this question of leadership. Some people think Pope Francis is absolutely wonderful and transformational; others say he is like Satan. This doesn’t worry me. I think it says more about the person making the projection.We should be speaking in the present, with the person and the partner in front of us. Words matter.
LILA: Your life story has been an inspiration for many. Survival stories are often narrated in linear ways with all the emphasis on the primary traumatic event and the recovery from that. While these victory stories are inspirational, they also tend to create a certain distance between their narratives of extraordinary achievements and the everyday experiences of an ordinary human being. They hardly refer to the ‘other’ setbacks in the life of the survivor. They also rarely highlight the ‘other’ daily triumphs of the survivor. Could you please provide a more holistic view and nuanced insight into the ‘process of recovery’ with reference to your own experience?
JW: When I try to look back personally, it takes time to reflect. How do we deal with overcoming crises and trauma? And how do we go through our own process of recovery? I can speak from my own experience, and then maybe later from meeting thousands of survivors from all around the world in conflict zones and landmine-infested countries. From my own experience, I had to think about first surviving, that I want to stay alive. And I want to stay alive long enough to see the sequel, the outcome of my life. I want another chapter. I don’t want to die. When you are in the middle of trauma, there is this fear or embrace of death. It’s terrifying. I think of trauma as simply losing complete control in the face of death, destruction, disability, disaster, and deep personal pain. This idea of trauma, of losing control, and losing the steering wheel of your life in the face of uncertainty is very difficult and very personal for everyone, very different. But the patterns are quite similar,I think, in terms of processes for recovery. As I said, first you have the survival instinct and you need some basic security. It’s an emergency. During trauma, things are stored in your brain, and often show up in slow motion: I can even go back to the day I stepped on a landmine, and I have certain images and certain story lines that are seared and won’t move. I can almost go into a trance over them, because they are so deeply embedded in that day, April 12th 1984, when I was only 20 years old and I stepped on a landmine in Israel, while camping innocently in nature with two of my best friends. The contrast of a sunny beautiful day, where I am singing and humming in nature, and then the next second, nature explodes underneath my foot. I step on a mine, and, boom, it turns into a bloody crime scene where my lower right leg has been blown off. You can’t even imagine the visual of looking down, and your brain is trying to conceive, “I have no foot, where is my foot?” It’s a chanting and a shock, while you stay awake. You look at your own body and see bones sticking out, missing pieces, and not be able to calibrate or even ponder this new reality covered in blood. That will always stay with me. My mind can go into a sort of a time capsule. It’s not the truth necessarily; it is the trauma I experienced. Every survivor of trauma I have interviewed or gotten to know has some of this with their own experience. When you ask a trauma survivor to recount their own experience, you will get some of that. You’ll get repetition and rote because it is not fully processed, and it can’t be. It’s stuck. Frozen and burnt into pieces of your brain. True recovery is about survivorship – in a different phrase,‘beyond surviving’– which is how to live positively and dynamically in the face of this traumatic event, or post-trauma. So the question is more – where did you find the strength to overcome? When you were in the minefield, how did you not pass out? How did you stay focussed? We can’t imagine such pain, what were you thinking at the time that brought you through this terrible event? So you see the shift in conversation from getting stuck in the past, in terms of what happened then, to the possibility and the strength. You are trying to call out someone’s inner survivor as opposed to their inner victim story. I’m not trying to pit victimhood and survivorship against each other. They are just different. The recovery process occurs on a spectrum, but it’s not linear. I
never thought of myself as a courageous person before meeting a landmine, but afterwards, how else could I have climbed through a minefield and been dropped and spent three hours in terror en route to a hospital, and then spent six months in the hospital? I am a strong person. I do have courage. I have resilience. I have strength that I didn’t know I had before. It’s a very different side of the coin than the victim side of mystery that needed exploration as well – examining the facts of the matter-what actually happened, when, how? But that is not the line of inquiry that leads to survivorship. Other questions are needed to elicit a more positive response to trauma.
LILA. We read that you decided to stay back in Israel for treatment, as you were impressed with the hospital’s methods. Was this a part of their approach to treatment there? Could you tell us more about your experience there? What was it that drew your attention to that space and why did you decide to stay back?
JW: After I was injured, and had got through the survival, meaning the first round of operations and it was clear that I was going to live, then I started to get my power back – I’m not just a victim, I have choices to make about my future and where to go. My father was a businessman but also chairman and president of a hospital in Boston, one of the great medical centres of the world. I come from a big Irish Catholic family who wanted me to come home. So I could have gone home immediately, and I would have had the best care, private rooms, the best doctors, etc. Inside, I knew that wasn’t the right choice for me, and I had to seize my own agency. Part of recovery is to sort of get the steering wheel back, call the shots, and make choices for your own recovery. Some may see them as wrong, some may see them as stupid, but damn it they are my choices and I’ve just been traumatised and lost control. I am taking control. I will fight for my decisions, and I found that that was rather fierce in me. I chose to stay in the hospital in Israel and not return home and that forced members of my family to come visit me in Israel. I joked that if you are going to step on a landmine, I recommend you do it in Israel, because it has the highest trauma care in the world and sadly, trauma is normal. There I was with no privacy, in a room with three other soldiers who were injured from the war in Lebanon, this is 1984, as you will recall. And that’s what I needed – the fellowship of suffering, of people who were my age, each of us missing arms, legs, eyes, all experiencing a lot of pain.
I wanted to feel normal, and staying in Israel was a choice for normalcy, to say these are my brothers and sisters in suffering. I wanted to learn from them. The question of getting the best out there was a question of feeling like I belonged in a community and that I had peer support inherent in not being isolated in Boston where no one would understand. “Why were you there?” “What’s a landmine?” “Why would you go in the first place?” “We told you not to go to a conflict zone.” “It’s dangerous over there, in conflict zones.” In this sense, almost blaming the victim. Naïve lines of inquiry from my cousins and family and friends would have probably irritated me. So I chose to stay.
It was both, an easy choice when I was taking charge, but also a very difficult one because I lacked privacy and my family nearby. To that point I would say, very personally, upon reflection, that I didn’t want to have my close family members watch me go through the pain. It’s a mother’s trauma to see her son in pain. It was a leg that she could never give back. At that time I didn’t realise, but this was one of my mother’s most traumatic experiences, watching her son suffer. Until I became a parent, I didn’t understand that. But I also understood that I didn’t want all those tears in my room. It was messing up my mind and I didn’t want people to feel sorry for me. I didn’t want people to be afraid for me. I didn’t want them projecting their pain onto me. I even kicked my mother out of the room one day saying, “Get out, I cannot have this. Last time I checked, I lost my leg, it wasn’t you. Stop your crying and get out of my room.” She was devastated. I might have been too cruel. But it was because I couldn’t…it was enough for me to handle my own pain, but compounded with everyone else’s projection and pain, it was nearly impossible. So I decided that I had to be more private or protected, that I needed to go through this my way.
I didn’t know if I would do it well. This sounds so odd, but I wanted to be a good amputee. I wanted to not be bitter and ruined by this experience. I wanted to learn how to walk and run again. I wanted to get back to life. I was choosing life everyday. I didn’t want people staring at me, I didn’t want them judging me, and I also didn’t know if I really could do it well. I had never done this before. Have you? Something hits you and you’re out of control. I don’t know how to ride this bike. I’ve never done this. Please don’t watch me, I’d rather do this in private, where people are not judging or have an opinion about how I recover. I will recover how I recover. I was sort of fierce about that. Now that I look back, it’s sort of interesting imagining myself as a 20-year-old kid, calling the shots and saying I have to do this my way, but I didn’t know if I could, and I was actually very much afraid.
LILA: It is clear that this decision brought a lot of strength toyou, and I can see where your organisation’s objective of making survivors out of victims comes from, as we can see how greatly it has helped you in your own recovery process. We were talking about coalition earlier in the conversation, and you have talked about radical inclusion at other instances, which is about involving the community and individuals who may not necessarily be affiliated with organisations working for such causes, but are nonetheless stakeholders in different ways. How important is it for victims to become survivors and join the movement, and how can they do this? How can we nurture such strength and perspective on life?
JW: It is very challenging to work in this space, and yet it’s easy as well. If you’re going to talk about me behind my back, that will irritate me, so please, talk to me, to my face, or in front of me so I can hear what you are saying. It is clear communication. One of the principles of the disability movement is radical inclusion. We often repeat the phrase – nothing about us without us. Don’t move ahead on all sorts of policies, laws and processes without our inclusion and our voice and participation. It is very basic and simple as a principle, but harder to enact. It is now a legal obligation under the U.N. Convention of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
It takes patience and discipline to raise the voices of survivors and victims, and include them, with all of their needs and trauma, in the room. So maybe they came from Afghanistan, Angola, Bosnia, Vietnam, and they had their victim stories they wanted to share. And I thought, while stories are powerful to teach the world, victim stories that may go on for hours belong in another space, not in policy and advocacy. There were also a lot of victim photographs from all around the world, of the bloody stumps of victims of landmines. You had posters and angry advocacy. I suspect most diplomats are more comfortable with victims at a distance – victims on the wall, victims as photographs or narratives on the page. But we thought we needed to bring survivors off the wall, out of the victim space and into the survivor space, and that required training. It required understanding that we must be disciplined in how we communicate, and understand the audience.
They can’t handle the truth about bloody stumps, war, conflict and rapes and survivor-victim stories, but we have to again invite them to understand us as survivors. So it might be that, for example, we were having a press conference or an opportunity to speak at the UN in front of diplomats around the world and we were given twelve minutes. But I had dozens of survivors from around the world, all wanting to tell their story. The way to do radical inclusion was to do the math – there wasn’t a lot of time and these governments actually were nervous about what the survivors were going to say. We hadn’t cleared our message with U.N. officials. We had to put on our finest clothes, whatever we were wearing, stand up or sit up straight in our wheelchairs, and be very disciplined on the clock to come under twelve minutes, even though our stories of survival would really require days or weeks to really understand. “My name is Jerry White and I stepped on a landmine on April 12, 1984 in Israel. I don’t want this to happen to anyone else, and think it is outrageous that military litter is causing injury to civilians around the world.”Period. “My name is Jesus Martinez. I was injured on December 12, 1986 in El Salvador and I want to make sure that people have access to disability support like I did so I can have hope and have a reason to live.” “My name is Monita…” “My name is Maria…” “My name is Plamenko…” Whatever it is, I was born somewhere, on a day, I have a date. I was blown up on a date, it has a place, and I have a message, such as wanting women to know that they can get married, they can find meaningful work in their community even with a disability. Each survivor story had to be redacted into something so simple, but in fact so powerful, the audience would have to fill in the blanks. You know there was blood involved. You know there was pain. You can see it in the voice and dignity and tears of the survivor. The understatement of the survivor story was explosively powerful.
Radical inclusion shouldn’t be something you are afraid of, but it is something that has to be disciplined and trained. This is not a moment for counselling services in front of 150 diplomats. This is the moment for a call to action, to put a face on a problem. It is not the technology; the landmine wasn’t the issue. It was the people, the communities, and the human face that was actually the most powerful call to action. We cannot deny the survivor story, particularly if it is disciplined and asking for improved policy to ban the weapon that has caused such pain in our lives.
LILA: As we talk about moving from research to advocacy in such ways, I am reminded of a lecture you delivered on creating social entrepreneur networks, and the cycle of Wisdom-Understanding-Knowledge that enables and improves them. Do you think the fields of research and advocacy can be organically connected, and how do you see this happening?
JW: It is very interesting how you channel these different conversations about individual survivors and their stories, and then non-governmental organisations and networks of organisations and associations, and this sort of coming up a ladder to associations and campaigns for change, and then all the way up to movement or transcendental values. Sometimes you have to figure out what layer are we talking about here to make change happen, and ideally you are connecting all of those layers. Very often people talk about movements in a very loose way. Like “we are going to create a movement for blank” or “this is a survivor movement for blank.”I think movements are more organic, like rivers – they have banks and they have flow, but no one can turn the flow on and off. Movements move on their own. The question is do you contribute to the movement, paddling downstream and riding the rapids? How do you do that?
Movements are very powerful, like a river running to the ocean. But they are organic and express the values of the particular movement. So the survivor movement might have aspects of resilience, courage, dignity and compassion. Movements will have deep aspects that you tap into. I think that is part of leadership – tapping into those inherent or transcendental values that are already part of a particular movement. It is important to understand that at the highest level, the rainbow level, the arc above us. Then, what do we do for change to leadership – how do you align your wisdom, understanding and knowledge for change in the world? How do you do this individually as a leader or as a group? The wisdom space is closer to the movement concept. What do you stand for? Who are you in your deepest stance? Where do you find your greatness, standing in your power as a survivor? That understanding is an issue that is really intellectual as well–a hard study. Do we understand the conflict or the problem ahead of us? Some people actually understood the landmine challenges, simply, why don’t we just de-mine? We just need more money and more contracts to de-mine, remove minefields. But they didn’t understand it as a problem of lack of military accountability, of creating space for a military conversation with civil society and civilians. After all, 80% of the victims of landmines and war are civilians, not soldiers. Then, you had to ban the weapon and destroy the stockpiles and remove the mines and do it forever. There is an advocacy piece here, not just a military de-mining piece where the military helped create the problem and now they are being paid to help clean it up while the mines are still going in the ground. You have to understand deeply. We were not there to put Band-Aid on things or just fake legs on people, and we weren’t there just to de-mine. It was about more than just landmines. It was about accountability and the civil society was networking and creating a campaign and movement to hold the governments accountable. Civil society shared the Nobel Peace Prize because it was a radical movement in the ‘90s that was inclusive and was calling to account the superpowers of the world. How did civil society wake up with email and networking and organisation skills, to say “no more”? Our work began with everyone saying you will never ban landmines; even the military loves them as they are cheap force multipliers, and the governments said we use them responsibly according to the Geneva Conventions. But that is missing the whole point. The idea of leadership as giving birth to change requires thinking on more than one level. So you have the wisdom and the values, you have the understanding of the paradigm shift that is actually taking place with the landmine ban, and then you have knowledge which is really your know how and your skill from organising survivors to having conferences to writing newsletters, to hiring lawyers, to researching the contamination of landmines in any particular country. So it is the alignment of these layers – of wisdom, understanding and knowledge – that actually creates transformational power for affirmative or positive change in the world, which means for the good of the people. Again, this is bigger than any one of us. It wasn’t just us avenging, that I was hit by a landmine and I lost my leg, and therefore am yelling at the perpetrators. That is not effective activism or advocacy. You have to connect the dots at different levels and do it with skill, but also without losing that passion of rightness. It’s on your side. It is right and good to say that children should not be blown up while going to play soccer or football, or collecting wood for the family in a field ten years after a war was over. It is just something very basic to say that is wrong, we must redress it. And therefore, if rightness, justice and fairness are on the side of that thought, then with hard work, skill and understanding of how to shift using the rightness and justice on your side, you will achieve something. I think people have become too realistic and cynical about the ability to change the scene. But this formula is not working. You can do it.
We can do it. This is how change takes place. In fact, it isn’t making governments and militaries the enemy, it is actually changing the conversation by saying we think you are a part of the solution too, whether you’re a religious actor, or a government official or security, or someone who put the landmines in the ground. I’m sorry that we have lost the hope for change, to do what is right and good. How hard could it be? We can do better. It is an invitation to go forward; it is an invitation to go higher; it is an invitation that everyone can participate in. It is like a big party. It actually can be fun to work together in coalition on some of the most depressing issues of our day. Like disability, exclusion, pain and war. I get passionate about this because it is possible!
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