Big Change

Change endeavors (“change work”) can come in big or small packages. Change work can take place in far off places or in your front yard. For a two-year period, my change work involved efforts big and small, far and near.

In 1999, a global social change organization, the Peace Corps, offered me a deal:  They would set me up with a small house in a rural village in the West African country of Mali, train me, and give me a stipend if I agreed to be a change agent for health. I took the deal. 

In taking the deal, I began my biggest change project. The village of Nankorola was my territory. The goals were three-fold:  1) to teach a women’s health committee about disease prevention such as malaria and malnutrition and to encourage the women to teach their families and neighbors; 2)  to help the village midwife document pre-natal consultations and 3) to give presentations on endemic disease prevention in a health center in town.

It sounded straightforward but I hadn’t factored in a few things: the women’s work in the field, the care of their children, their domestic labor such as gathering firewood and cooking. I hadn’t factored in the difference in power relations of women in a village and the constraints on their education and literacy. I hadn’t considered that between the hot and wet seasons. sometimes it wasn’t convenient to meet. I didn’t think to offer economic incentives. In brief, it was difficult to offer health information based on prevention— information as a commodity—to a village that was poor and in want of material and physical goods.

So in the final year of my work, I looked inward and looked at the change needed in my own yard. In this case, it was the front yard leading to my house.t

illustration credit: Maria T. Do

illustration credit: Maria T. Do

Small Change

My house looked like a ruin. It was the original house Peace Corps used to host generations of educators like myself in the village. Battered by sun and rain, it fell into disrepair. A smaller house was built directly across this one to contain my bedroom. I used the non-dilapidated parts of “my ruin” as an open kitchen—cooking while viewing the baobabs trees beyond.  

The house became a small change project and allowed me a break from my work in the village. Here I attempted a restoration project.

I purchased bougainvillea and flowering plants from towns nearby and planted them along the portico of the house. I resurrected the trellis. I imagined the portico to be a Mediterranean villa. I planted shrubs throughout my enclosed yard. I took precautions and surrounded the seedlings with scaffolding and wire mesh knowing that goats lived nearby. 

I was defeated by the sun in dry season, the rain in wet season, and eventually by voracious goats. I re-planted and was re-defeated. The goats in the village leapt on my fence (a fence of made mud-brick I had raised and fortified for this reason) and eyed me when I worked in the yard. When I looked away, they jumped into my yard and ate everything that was green. I felt anger but more than that I felt loss.

continued on next paragraph: “Change is Loss”

Change is Loss

Years after leaving Mali, I realized that the change work in the house and yard mirrored the change work in the village. Both entailed forms of loss.

I felt personal loss when the dream (or illusion) of a Mediterranean-like portico was destroyed by forces of nature and animals. When the plants and shrubs died, especially through my own efforts to ensure their survival, I felt a small portion of me that harbored  the vision of the Mediterranean portico died. 

Years later, I understood that the loss I felt when my change attempts didn’t work was the loss that villagers would feel if they had to make a change. 

In other words, if I wanted villagers to adopt new disease prevention practices, they would need to depart from their previous beliefs.  When I asked them to use mosquito nets when sleeping or put long sleeves on their children at sunset or ameliorate their porridges with peanut powder to add protein, I was in fact asking them to say goodbye to what they knew in order to say hello or take new information to adopt new practices.

Later back in the US, I would learn about Williams Bridges, a thought leader on change. Mr. Bridges wrote that change requires transitions. He said change makers of all kinds have to allow for a bridge to occur—in time and space—for people to cross from old to new, to leave old thoughts, old behaviors to adopt new ones. He said in these transitions people can feel loss, even grief.

Had I known then that change involves loss---personal loss or any loss of knowing/being, my experience in Mali might have been different. I might have been able to take a wider view of change in the village. I might have been able to take a long-term view of my change efforts in the yard and house. I might not have felt better about having been defeated by goats, but I would have felt more sanguine:   After the rain, there always come the sun.

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If your organization is experiencing change or loss, contact us for a free 30-minute consultation.


Transitions: Making Sense of Life's Changes. William Bridges

Mediation / Meditation

There’s a reason why mediation and meditation sound so similar.  I sometimes see the word mediation and mistake it for meditation and vice versa.  Take out the letter ’t’ and both words become identical.  In fact, both practices share remarkable parallels.

As a mediator, I work with disputes resolution programs in government, in communities, and within the court system.  I also meditate occasionally. Seeking a restful antidote to the holiday stress, I enrolled in an intense meditation course last December for the first time. For 10 days in a row, I sat in silent meditation for 10 hours a day and followed a rigorous program originally taught in India.  

From both practices of mediation and meditation, I see these parallels:

Observation. Mediation involves self-awareness, self-reflectiveness and observation. Meditation involves an intense observation of self—to what is happening in the physical world and what is happening inside oneself.

A Neutral Stance. Mediation rests on effective uses of neutrality. With rare exceptions, mediators neither suppress nor express the voices of participants in conflicts:  they create a safe forum for participants to voice thoughts and feelings themselves of their own free will. Mediators don’t take sides. In meditation, the practice of focused awareness—-from a dispassionate stance——mirrors that of neutrality. One observes oneself and neither suppresses nor expresses emotions, thoughts or sensations when they arise:  One notes thoughts, for example, and lets them pass by (without judgement) like grains of sand passing through an hourglass.

Equanimity. Mediators strive for balance when emotions, stress, risks, or uncertainty run high. Those who meditate—and who do so as a way of life—seek the same thing: they practice equanimity as a grounding approach and response to the ups and downs of human interaction and the vicissitudes of life.

Reality Facing. Mediators surface assumptions and options of those in conflicts to help participants flesh out ideas or resolutions; they do this to help participants face reality.  Those who meditate do this similarly by “being in the present”: They believe that what is true and what can be relied upon exists in the present moment. Facing reality by being in the present is a philosophy that is not easy to adopt but it can help in accepting and working with the situation at hand.

Coupling both mediation and meditation together and practicing both simultaneously can double the power of calm/equanimity one can bring to life’s situations:  In mediation, peace between people is realized.  In meditation, peace within yourself is possible.   Both are peace practices. Both go hand in hand.

Resource:  Vipassana Meditation:

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Conflict Stories

Stories and the use of stories have great resonance in today’s times. Stories abound of love lost, love found, fortunes gained, and fortunes squandered. Organizations, too, have stories of their founding, turnarounds, or their demise.

Mediators listen for and suss out stories from people in conflict (disputants) and call these “conflict stories.”  Like all narratives, conflict stories have a beginning, middle, and end---and they have additional details of pain, hurt and disagreements involving others.

Mediators use conflict stories for various purposes. The stories reveal disputants’ perspective of a conflict and offer view into disputants’ sense-making and values. In telling their conflict stories within the mediation process, disputants give air (and view) into often painful corners of their lives and this airing can offer relief. When others listen to disputants’ perspectives of the conflict, they may hear new information or achieve new understanding. Mediators follow these conflict stories in order to facilitate disputants’ journey to resolution.

Conflict stories have flip sides.  They can hamper disputants if disputants cannot separate themselves from the conflict or if they over-identify with the conflict. The (re)telling of conflict stories can make disputants further entrenched in the conflict. The conflict can take on an outsized role in disputants’ lives and rob disputants of other perspectives, other realities, or reality itself. This can make reaching a resolution challenging.

On the whole, conflict stories have narrative power in letting disputants tell their stories from their own voice. The role of mediators is to balance, manage time, recognize the person behind the conflict, acknowledge emotions, and facilitate a safe forum where people can fashion ways out of conflict for themselves.  Mediators operate under these premises:

  • People are separate from their conflicts

  • Conflicts come with many angles and perspectives

  • People can build positive outcomes for themselves out of conflict

  • Underneath fixed positions are deeper interests that matter and that are negotiable

When these premises become actuality in a mediation, conflict stories become transformative stories.

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Fred Rogers' Conflicts

Fred Rogers knew about conflict, change, and culture. 

In Morgan Neville’s documentary, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”, you see that Mr. Rogers' work was in helping children with their conflicts——those in child psychology know that the conflicts of childhood are real. Mr. Rogers used the television stage as a change platform to check in on his audience on a weekly basis for nearly four decades from 1968 to the early 2000s. He beamed into the homes of children and addressed their fears and anxieties. His success laid in really connecting with children and understanding their culture. We know now that children have their culture too—their way of speech, their making sense of the world, their conflicts, and their way of relating to adults.

Mr. Rogers was an early pioneer—a transformation worker of conflict, change, and culture.

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Côn Sơn: Past, Present, Future


How It All Started:

Brave Change Works, LLC (BCW), came to being as an epiphany on a small island in a visit to Việt Nam in November 2017.

Côn Sơn, the largest island in the archipelago of Côn Đảo, is located off the Southeastern coast of Việt Nam. It was the site of prisons set up by the French to imprison and torture dissidents during the French colonial period. Later, the South Vietnamese government would imprison Việt Cộng members here in Việt Nam’s own civil war. Today, the prisons have become monuments to the past visited by tourists. The island now boasts a 5-star luxury hotel frequented by American celebrities. Local island inhabitants live in the present harvesting seafood to sell to markets on mainland Việt Nam. Their outlook is decidedly future-focused. Côn Sơn is the embodiment of conflict and change and the redemptive power of transformation. And the inspiration for BCW.

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