Green Couch Series: Wisdom from Global Fellows
Activist and social entrepreneur Jerry White stopped by Ashoka Ireland on a sunny Friday to talk about Irish resilience and his future plans for peace. A Senior Ashoka Fellow, Jerry previously served three years as U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, launching the Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operation created by former Secretary Hillary Clinton. He co-founded Landmine Survivors Network, later Survivor Corps, which led the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, awarded the 1997 Nobel Prize for Peace.
A self-proclaimed “Impact Fundamentalist,” Jerry has made it his life’s work to push for levels of systemic transformation that promote more peace and justice in the world. Though he admits he does not quite know what peace looks like yet, he has always been drawn like a moth to the flame when it comes to conflict mitigation. He shared his current professional projects, why Ireland is special to him, and what it takes for social entrepreneurs to make lasting change.
What is it about Ireland that makes social entrepreneurs thrive here?
Ireland has energy, and a little bit of fight in it, along with good humor and good stories. There’s the literature, the poetry, and the history. I think Ireland, because it has suffered and secretly likes some of its suffering, is a contradiction. That is where creativity comes in, when you have a paradox. The best of times, the worst of times. It’s very difficult but we have our music and we have our poetry and we have our community.
When you detect humor even in darker times, that is a clear hallmark of resilience. Entrepreneurship is about innovative ways for turning problems around. Entrepreneurs make up stories, imagine possibilities. They’re creative, which often comes from suffering and scar tissue, and understanding history. They take risks sometimes for survival’s sake.
I have a bias, since my mother was half Irish and my father was half Irish. Americans think of themselves as pie charts, and that makes me 50% Irish. Ireland was my first international trip when I was 9 years old and I had a lot of firsts here. I milked my first cow, I rode my first horse. I played grass tennis and got eggs out of a hen house. Some girl kissed me for the first time and chased me around with a broom. It was all fun and magic on this island where we spent a whole month. I also had my first fight with two farm boys. We threw stones at each other while they yelled at us that they couldn’t understand our accents and we yelled at them that we didn’t understand theirs. I think Ireland helped me become an entrepreneur because I took risks here.
You have three jobs right now: Teaching a class on religion and violence at University of Virginia, running the non-profit Global Covenant Partners, and getting a predictive analytics company, Global Impact Strategies, off the ground. How do these intersect?
When I was invited into government four years ago, I thought that it was my time to serve. I was appointed by the Obama administration as a Deputy Assistant Secretary to set up a new Conflict and Stabilization Operation Bureau. This was happening at the time of the Arab spring, the Middle East was falling apart, Putin in Ukraine, Boko Haram in Nigeria. There was no end to the conflicts we were trying to stabilize. My time in government was one of the most entrepreneurial times I faced and I have deep respect for government work.
The social entrepreneurs in Ashoka may not have understood how you can be creative inside government... it was almost like I had gone off and entered a vortex of the U.S. government and there was this “we’ll talk to Jerry when he gets out” feeling. Government was restricting, but not uncreative. We created a new bureau, engaging religious leaders around the world, introducing the use of advanced analytics in the State Department to do predictive analysis to prevent disaster. By the time I left the government, I didn’t want to go to an office in the morning until 8 at night. I wanted to stretch my neck and figure out what my vision for the future was.
How did you refocus and decide your next move?
A friend told me take out a blank sheet of paper and ask yourself what is your next contribution to the world, your next service, your passion? Where is your energy and thinking moving? I took out a blank sheet of paper and drew three overlapping circles that were an “.org,” an “.edu,” and a “.com.” I put an “I” in the middle of the diagram, not for me, but for impact. I’m getting older and life has so many problems that if you aren’t going to have impact, you’re just doing projects, programs, and activities that will burn you out without effect.
Global Covenant Partners looks at one of the biggest challenges of our day: preventing and inhibiting religion related violence. It is so urgent because it is the most virulent type of violent cancer spreading fastest in the Middle East and South Asia. We see it not exclusively with ISIS and we see it spreading to Europe with questions of migration and competition among Abrahamic cousins. GCP involves religious leaders, government actors, policy makers, and civil society to do something creatively, almost like a campaign to stop killing in the name of God. What would an inter-religious peace treaty look like? We’re working with an amazing group of leaders around the world on ways to protect narrative, heritage and communities at risk.
The work I am doing with GCP feeds into teaching. I teach about religion, violence, and strategy and how to stop killing in the name of God. We built up a network at UVA that is becoming a hub for this type of problem, looking at data driven research on the science of religion and violence not just interfaith meeting or dialogue.
The third piece is, giStrat, or Global Impact Strategies. GiStrat applies decision science and advanced predictive analytics to the biggest problems of our day like conflict and cooperation, energy and the environment, and health and society. If we could use our own software we’re developing to predict with high speed and high accuracy the dangers we’re facing, we can game out alternative models and strategies and optimize outcomes and bring better futures. I wanted these three jobs to enforce each other and be linked.
Speaking as an expert on conflict mitigation, is there something to be learned from Ireland in terms of their reconciliation process?
Absolutely. Ireland has this experience of sectarian divides and trying to weed through the political as well as the religious. It keeps haunting us to this day, flaring up in current day politics or memories depending on the enabling conditions that bring conflict into the forefront. The people who were involved in the peace process have looked at questions of restorative justice, and they have a lot to teach the rest of the world. No conflict is the same but there are lessons to be learned from the Irish experience. The Glencree Centre for Peace and Reconciliation, one of our partners in the Global Covenant, has a beautiful space in Wicklow where you can convene people and have difficult conversations. Not just to talk about what happened in Ireland, but to host people from Palestine and Israel and Libya. It comes alive as a place to share meals and build dialogue in what I call “hospitality de-friction.” Speaking on the migration crisis, I believe Ireland has the confidence, resilience, humor, and hospitality in its own DNA to host not just a handful of refugees, but really role model for Europe how to bring people in and work on their English, integrating them into the community. Many other countries are much more afraid and their culture is not helpful in this case.
What is your advice for new social entrepreneurs who want to make a lasting difference in the world?
Realize it’s not about you. You are not Mandela. You are not Mother Teresa. Collective wisdom and leadership, “Mini-delas” coming together for a coalition for impact is the way. It is crucial to balance ego with a passion for change. Know your strength. I know that in an organization, a little of Jerry goes a long way. I don’t need to hire another Jerry. I need to balance with a really strong super analytic, CFO or COO. On a team you want the elements of fire, air, earth, and water. Develop a spiritual discipline for your health and to keep your center and balance. That may be marathons, it may be yoga, silent meditation, or learning to breathe in practice. I thought it was silly when I first started “breathing.” I was so out of shape spiritually; it was like going to the gym for the first time in a long time. I could not sit still for a minute and meditate without grabbing my phone or coffee. Don’t be afraid of inner space and taking care of that space. Pace yourself over time because these issues are enormous and they are demanding.
This post was written by Quincy White, Intern at Ashoka Ireland.