The two-step recipe for positive change: humility and active listening

The two-step recipe for positive change: humility and active listening

Sana Vaidya, Beyond Conflict Graduate Fellow

This series explores the changing trends in the conflict resolution field over the past 30 years. In conversation with practitioners working across different contexts, we trace the evolution of thought that continues to shape the way forward.

  “I have lived a lot of weird, weird lives,” says Michelle Barsa as we sit down to chat over Zoom on a sunny Wednesday morning. My conversation with Michelle is one of many chats with Conflict Resolution practitioners, each with different career paths, influences and thought processes. All asking the same, fundamental questions. 

Michelle begins by telling me where her journey started. She went to business school and majored in Finance. She then joined the Jesuit Volunteer Corp and found herself working on interpersonal violence in the largest domestic violence center in the country. This formed the foundation of her understanding of trauma itself and the methodology of trauma-informed care. 

Over the next few years, Michelle worked in Latin America, the United States and Palestine on gender-based violence, grassroot mobilization and non-violent resistance movements. “For me, everything was always focused on women, inclusion and generally on a reduction of violence whether interpersonal or structural,” she says about the early days of her career.

During her role in large-scale humanitarian relief efforts in Afghanistan, she realized that she missed working on changing structural systems, policies, and laws that perpetuate oppression and injustice. Back home in America, Michelle participated in several protests against the war in Iraq. Her ah-ha moment arrived when she realized that getting arrested for civil disobedience was not stopping the war but taking her away from the “halls of power” where she could influence policy. 

I ask Michelle if she has seen the field change over the course of her career. She pauses to think for a second, then says “Peacebuilding, and Monitoring and Evaluation (M&E)”. To elaborate this further, she explains that there used to be a higher reliance on people-to-people peacebuilding and contact theory, she recalls, “but we know it doesn’t always work.” Michelle notes that people-to-people programming is now being questioned. Practitioners are actively considering other approaches and are trying not to normalize systemic oppression in the process. That, according to her, has been a significant positive development. 

Michelle calls Monitoring and Evaluation, “a soup full of letters and acronyms.” What it used to mean was plain old M&E classic, old-school, with hardly any ability to push for and measure impact. This changed in-part, she says, when Rajiv Shah became director of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and pushed to redefine impact evaluation through the use of Randomized Control Trials (RCT). “I felt that was a well-intentioned attempt that really went awry because the systems, capacity and money was not there.”

Michelle mentions “Complexity Aware Monitoring” (C-AM) and  “Collaborating, Learning and Adapting” (CLA), and explains these concepts further, “one of the practices of C-AM is ‘outcome harvesting’ where you draw periodically throughout the program to determine what kinds of outcomes you are seeing and then build strategies around that.” Furthermore, “there was a point where we realized that we were collecting data because donors ask us to but not really incorporating this evidence into the programming. CLA was an attempt to name the intentionality of the learning process that data should be used to inform projects and outcomes.”

I understood then what she meant by the ‘soup full of acronyms,’ as it was becoming difficult for me to keep track of them all. She adds in a timely manner, “there is some level of exhaustion with an evolving lexicon. We keep renaming things. When people realize something is not working, they come up with a new name and try to build a conceptual framework around it,” but then if it isn’t understood in its entirety, “they continue doing what was done before under the new name.”

“How do you make it so you don’t have to live and die by your contract?” is a question Michelle poses and then continues to explain how bureaucracy adds to the limitations of M&E systems. Adaptability is necessary for progress but the unwillingness and the inability to be flexible on part of the donors and other organizations make processes long and cumbersome. 

In terms of gender-responsive programming, Michelle believes that the field is at a cusp. Evidence from the field has proven how integral gender mainstreaming is to social change, redefining “gender transformative” from a buzzword to a necessary outcome. “The conclusion was that it is not only about women showing up. It is about changing norms, power structures and  power relations—both interpersonal and group—to bring about equity and justice. So, that’s been the major shift.”

“Twenty years ago, when one spoke about gender it would mean programming for women and anyone who has studied it knows it has to be mainstreamed,” she continues, “it used to mean making sure there are women there, that there are women beneficiaries on the advisory panel, etc. It then moved to the understanding that mere representation does not work and “meaningful inclusion” became the new favorite phrase.” 

Michelle says methodology for international practitioners is everything but not as important for local actors addressing local issues. Being an “expert” does not necessarily qualify someone to instruct others about their own culture. “We add value by bringing learning evidence and experience from other places,” she says.“There is a level of intuition and understanding of your own people and there are historical approaches to conflict resolution and mediation that have worked for centuries.”

Towards the end of our conversation, I ask Michelle for two things every conflict resolution practitioner should think about and try to implement. She responds by saying, “humility and active listening.” In a world of rapid assessments, donor agreements and consultations, practitioners very rarely stop to actually listen to the needs of communities. “If there is one thing that I have learned [especially looking at women’s roles in mediation], it is that you have to be flexible in realizing when something is working for a community that doesn’t line up with your own best practice.” This is something that is still not practiced enough. She then goes on to explain, “We still think because we’ve studied it, or have a degree, we are there to impart knowledge, which is where humility comes in and [practitioners] recognize when those instances happen and defer to Indigenous perspectives.”


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