That feeling of crisis: Rachel Kiddell-Monroe

PodcastApril 06, 2021
people rallying

If we all just go back to the way we were before… then we’re missing the biggest opportunity that we’ve been given in a generation. And then, I would be really worried.

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In this episode, Brooke speaks with Rachel Kiddell-Monroe – Founder and Executive Director at SeeChange Initiative, and board member at Médecins Sans Frontières. In their discussion, they examine the impact of COVID-19 on marginalized communities, as well as the lack of empathy exhibited by first world nations towards less developed countries. Rachel raises the question of whether the models and systems on which our societies are built actually serve the interests of all. From our colonial roots to our current education and healthcare systems, this episode examines many factors that shape our view of struggling communities. 

Some of the items discussed include:

  • The legacy of colonial systems and how they persist all around the world, despite their weaknesses and inability to tackle the big challenges facing us.
  • The need for both individual and community action to bring about real change, and how both relate to each other. When individuals and movements come together, the momentum and desire for change builds, as exhibited by the Black Lives Matter movement over the past year.
  • Why a single visionary leader cannot solve all of our problems. Unless the whole society is ready to change, there will always be the need for such leaders to compromise and not be able to fully achieve the change they want to see.
  • Now that we have been living with COVID for over a year, taking a step back and seeing it as a potential opportunity to drastically change some of the systems that are broken or no longer working. And not letting this opportunity pass us by as this pandemic (hopefully) starts to get under control.

The conversation continues

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Key Quotes

Re-thinking our values, and what we expect from the systems that govern us

“We need systems that are designed on the basis of different values. I think the values that are underpinned in how our systems work are the wrong ones.”

Are we losing track of our common purpose?

“An institution is a group of people who are working together towards a common purpose. So if the institution has become so heavy and so strangulated by its systems that we’ve lost sight of that common purpose, we need to reestablish what that common purpose is.”

‘It takes a village’ – the need for teamwork and solidarity.

“We cannot think about one person who’s able to lead an organization and take it to the future. This is an accumulation of many people together.”

Has COVID-19 brought out the worst in us?

“The global response has been pretty pitiful when you think about the lack of global solidarity. The hoarding of PPE back in March last year by rich countries, to now the hoarding of vaccines.”

The pandemic as an opportunity for positive change

“One of the most important lessons from COVID is what we can stop doing.”


Brooke: Hello everyone, and welcome to the podcast of The Decision Lab, a socially-conscious applied research firm that uses behavioral science to improve outcomes for all of society. My name is Brooke Struck, research director at TDL and I’ll be your host for the discussion.

My guest today is Rachel Kiddell-Monroe, executive director at the SeeChange Initiative, and board member for Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) with which she’s been involved for over three decades. In today’s episode, we’ll be talking about empathy and putting people back into decision-making. Rachel, thanks for joining us.

Rachel: Thanks Brooke, it’s such a pleasure to be here.

Brooke: Before we get going, tell us a little bit about yourself, about your work, and how you’ve arrived where you are now.

Rachel: I’m a humanitarian aid worker. I started doing that just after university, and that’s a little bit how I define myself. I’ve always been someone who’s going out to different places trying to find ways to help other people. I started in Indonesia in the late ’80s working with indigenous populations. And then after that, I started with Médecins Sans Frontières, Doctors Without Borders very early on. My first missions were working in different parts of Africa. My first role was in Djibouti working with refugee populations. And then I moved on from there, worked for a period in the Great Lakes region where I was involved in the response to the Rwandan genocide in 1994; before, after and during that which was a really big changing moment in my life when I realized many things. But relevant to our conversation, I really realized the importance of making sure that communities are really at the center of their responses because they have such a huge trauma that was left from that, that it was really something that needed to be incorporated in the way that we try to help on a humanitarian angle.

Since then, I carried on with MSF for many many years, an organization that I loved very much. And most recently, I was on the international board of directors and I did that for six years and just finished. And that was a real privilege because I could really take this very high level view over the humanitarian world and start to see how an organization like MSF needs to articulate itself when the world is completely changing. And our responses need to change with that changing world.

Secondly, I could really get into seeing how other actors in the humanitarian world need to respond. And that brings me to today, because now, I started my own organization, SeeChange Initiative, which was a dream of mine because I felt after all these years of going from the field and up to this very high level, I missed that connection with people. And I really feel that’s at the heart of what we need to do. So I started SeeChange Initiative, which really aims to invigorate and mobilize communities to prepare, respond, and recover from health crisis. And that’s what I’m doing today.

Brooke: So that, I think, is a wonderful introduction to the questions that we had discussed. I want to talk about empathy. Empathy, in circles of behavioral science, is a notably difficult issue. Organizations like Effective Altruism, for instance, serve to kind of create ecosystems where particularly donors who might not necessarily see tangibly where they can have the most impact in the world can get reliable information about how to give most effectively.

But what that really responds to is this difficulty of feeling connection, especially with people who are very far away from us in the world. So how have we ended up in this situation where we have real struggles establishing meaningful levels of empathy with people who are far away? Are there some historical precursors that you identify that have kind of brought us to where we are?

Rachel: It’s a really interesting question because I have always felt that kind of empathy for people that are living in another country, that are  not able to have the privilege that I have access to, the medicines that I have access to, the healthcare I have access to, the education that I have, and I’ve always felt that drive. And it’s always been slightly curious for me that it’s not everybody that feels that way.

I think there’s a lot of historical reasons for it, actually. I think it goes back down to the way that we’re educated and the way that we’re educated about what is happening in those far off places, and it’s very disembodied somehow. It’s very factual, very rational approaches to these things, when a lot of these things really require us to go down on a different level to truly understand and to go back much more into the feeling of it. And trying to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, I mean that’s such a challenge. How would it feel for me to be in that situation of being a migrant forced to flee my home, because I’m unable to feed my family, and the only way that my family can survive is if I go to another country and work, normally without a regular immigration status, so that I can send money home.

This is the reality of millions upon millions of people. But we have a very hard time sitting in our relative luxury here. I’m not saying that everyone has an easy time in a country like Canada, for instance, but relatively, we’re a well-off country. We have good access. We have a good social security system. We have a good capacity to look after ourselves.

But we find it very difficult to look out. So why is that? So the education is one, but another one I think is that the way that society is organized is extremely individualistic and it’s extremely oriented on ourselves. And so, we’re not called on very much to look beyond ourselves. And so, it already becomes a lot to just look after your neighbors or to pay attention to the people down the road, let alone think about what’s happening there.

I think another part of this as well, is that we are living in a world that has been working with colonialism for decades and decades. For as long as we can remember, and actually beyond our generational memory, I think it’s a really good example in Canada when we look at the north.

So I work in Nunavut with an indigenous Inuit community in Clyde River. Nunavut, which is on Baffin Island, it’s out on the far sort of eastern side of Nunavut, nearly as far as you can go on that part of Canada. It’s another world. It’s a fly-in community only. There’s no roads. It’s absolutely stunningly beautiful, extraordinary people living an extraordinary lifestyle.

But the impacts of what Canada has done in colonizing Nunavut for its own geopolitical objectives, and now more social objectives, has completely undermined the ways of life of the people there. And the way that we see it when we’re sitting in the south is we actually don’t know the reality. We don’t understand the reality. We have these sorts of impressions that we get from the media and it’s very negative. It’s always about the problems and the negativity of it. It’s never about the beauty and the glory and splendor and the incredible nature of this culture.

And that creates a distance, and because then it’s like, “Well, are their problems bigger than ours? And well, they’ve got into their own problems.” So there’s always this sort of removal of ourselves. And so I think that in order to move forward, we really need to come down under a level, really look at what is our relation with other people?

And I think COVID-19 has provided the incredible opportunity for us to start looking at people and the world in a different way. We’re a globalized world. We’re no longer just a series of countries. We have these communication lines. We travel. People today in Canada go all over the world to extremely exotic, extraordinary places.

We’ve got every capacity to feel more, and I think people are understanding much more about what is happening in other countries much more now than we did when I was a child, for instance, when people couldn’t travel and really it was a very limited sort of interaction.

I think that that’s some of the barriers. I think that we have an opportunity now to really overcome that. And as we talk more about empathy, and we talk more about feminism and the need to have different approaches to the way that we manage, and govern, and think, and educate, and talk, and relate to each other, this human level of understanding and solidarity is really going to come through.

Brooke: I like that you bring up the rational model and kind of the import of a western philosophy in all of this. The rationalist ideal is a very atemporal one. It’s supposed to not have a history, that’s part of its cache. It’s supposed to be universal for all times and at all places. I think that this is deeply wrapped up in, as you mentioned, the history of colonialism. The idea that whatever model it is that was being used in Britain or in France or some other European country, was not seen as the British model or the French model, it was just seen as ‘the model’.

And so when you step off a ship in some very, very different country that has a completely different geography from where you’ve come from, and a completely different history, you kind of impose by force this one model that is just ‘the model’, not thinking about how well adapted that model or badly adapted that model might be to the local geography or to the local history and the local culture.

And a lot of this, as you say, comes back to education. Not knowing our own history keeps us from seeing the historical precursors for our own ideas, so they feel like this kind of universal received wisdom rather than just one of many potential paths that our own culture might have taken. We have trouble understanding the other because we have a lot of trouble understanding ourselves. 

Rachel: I was just going to add onto that. I think that it really reveals the astounding lack of diversity and inclusiveness in our responses. It’s very much a model that is developed by, for instance, here in south of Canada by the people that we are, the systems that we have, that we treasure; a parliamentary system inherited from the UK, and ways of approaching which we also realize don’t function very well for us. Our parliamentary system has a lot of weaknesses, but still we go on and we go and perpetrate that on into other communities. Rather than looking and saying, “Well, you know what? You come from a different place. Maybe you’ve got some ideas. Maybe you can tell us what’s the best way to govern. Maybe you know the best ways to govern for yourself.”

And so, we don’t have that muscle, and I think what’s happened is that the systems that we’ve created require us to perpetuate the model that we’ve been using for a very, very long time, which are often outmoded. And then when we try to change them, it’s extremely complicated and extremely difficult.

And so we’re a little bit in a catch-22, and that’s why colonialism, and the idea of decolonizing health, and decolonizing our methodologies, and the way that we’re interacting with different communities and trying to “help” other communities really has to change at a very fundamental level. And I think that’s what we have to start proving; that that is possible, but it takes a complete mind shift.

Brooke: As we don’t share the video of these conversations, I’ll just point out for our listeners and readers the scare quotes that went around the word “help” (laughter). In this kind of situation where we’re trying to find ways to increase empathy for others, and even to increase our own kind of self-understanding, which becomes kind of an essential element for understanding others, how do we explain the value of that kind of thing? How do we explain the value of choosing humanity and solidarity with other people in this situation where our education and other institutions really haven’t kind of teed us up well to be able to deliver that or to understand that intrinsically without some kind of explanation?

Rachel: I think it’s all about where you start. So if you believe where we keep on expecting that our institutions are going to give us the answers and then we’re just going to follow along and it’s all going to be alright, I think then nothing is ever going to change, and I think that the path that we’re on right now is going to continue, and that’s a path where our planet is in the biggest crisis that we’ve ever seen. Our wildlife is under threat. Our biodiversity is sinking, and this threatens everybody and everything in this world. This is a path that we’re on in extremely dangerous times. On the other hand, we’re never seeing so many conflicts, national, domestic, going on all at the same time. It’s absolutely overwhelming what’s happening.

Next to that, we have the Black Lives Matter movement, which has risen out the most disastrously racist discriminatory system which has consistently meant that results that are coming out from our COVID where we see the black populations, BIPOC, are twice as likely to have very serious effects from COVID or to get COVID than anyone else.

And that’s not just because black people and BIPOC are more susceptible to the virus. It’s about living conditions, about social conditions. Our world is really in a very dangerous place. We have to change that.

So if we keep depending on these institutions which are being created and have created their own reality, we can’t get out. We have to take action. We have to take action as individuals. We need a new model. We need a new way of looking at things. And I mentioned feminism early, and I don’t mean this is just about the rise of women on its own.

We’re all feminists. You’re a feminist. I’m a feminist. Feminism is a way of looking at the world that understands our interconnections and our human relations, and understands that we have this connection that is not just in the material things but we have a spiritual connection and a human connection with each other that spans way beyond the rooms that we’re sitting in.

And so, I think that this rise of needing a new way; it’s not even a choice anymore. We’ve got to the point where we just have to change. And the people who are going to change it is people like you and I, and individuals. When I say that, I mean, it’s individuals and movements coming together where people are just saying, “We need to go another way.”

And I’ve talked about the doom and the gloom, but I’m an optimist and I see all the positive stuff that’s around as well. I do see the importance of the Black Lives Matter movements and the incredible steps that it’s made to really start to look at our social construct in a different way and demand change.

I see the rise of women and a lot of the emphasis we just had on International Women’s Day, and it’s fabulous to see the kind of things that are coming out especially from the young women in poor countries who are really rising up and saying, “We’re going to be part of this change.”

And I’m seeing that finally, we’re starting to really understand what this climate crisis means, and we’re listening and talking about climate crisis and it’s being integrated. And thank goodness, in the US now, we have a presidency that is really engaged with the Paris Accords. We got still so much more to do and governments are beyond ‘not perfect’, and this government in Canada is extremely imperfect in its response despite all its claims. So we have a lot to do, and I think we have no choice. We have to find a new way to do it. I get a lot of inspiration and hope when I see leaders like Jacinda Ardern in New Zealand, when I see Nicola Sturgeon in Scotland, when I see the leaders in the Nordic countries. I get a lot of hope from that, because they are talking about a caring economy, talking about how do we bring care into what we do, that it’s not just about our individualistic desire to get money and to get riches and big houses for ourselves on the backs of others. It’s about how do we do that in the caring and balanced way.

Brooke: It’s interesting that nothing about what you talked about was some kind of rational argument that leads to this conclusion that it’s the right thing to do, or the only thing to do, or an advantageous thing to do. It seems like there’s something else going on. It’s not about explaining to people in the sense of convincing them with premises and conclusions. It sounds like it’s much more about storytelling and conveying an experience and a lived reality. The Black Lives Matter movement, for instance, I don’t think anyone carrying a big placard, a big sign, had any kind of Cartesian justification for their proposal on their sign. That’s really not what it’s about.

How do we address this kind of tension between lots of systems and people who kind of tend to lean towards this kind of rationalistic approach with this need for something else, something which I would argue is complementary, they’re not mutually exclusive, that we need to understand both the kind of the rational as well as the lived experience of this?

Rachel: Listen, I’m not an anarchist and I don’t believe that we need to work in a state of chaos. I’m very much someone who likes systems, but I just believe we need systems that are designed on the basis of different values. I think the values that are underpinned in how our systems work are the wrongones. So rather than caring about people, and lives, and diversity, and equity, and equality, it cares about money, and profit, and accumulation of wealth.

This is the core of it. If we can build a system, and I believe that we can, we can build a system based on these different values, then I think we can have some very interesting systems. But systems that may look very different. They’re going to be much more decentralized, much less about power being held by a few and rather about power being decentralized to many. It can look more like a network of nodes, of smaller pockets of power.

Just to give an example, I really believe in the power of cities. I think cities is somewhere where we need to look much more in terms of the autonomy of cities. I’m very proud of the mayor that we have in Montreal at the moment because she’s really bringing that sense of caring into Montreal. I’ve seen how she works on migrant communities, how she’s working on the environmental aspects, how she’s working on trying to improve the situation in the most vulnerable communities and marginalized communities we have here in Montreal.

So there are efforts to do that. I’m really inspired when I’m in Nunavut. When I’m sitting in Clyde River and talking to community members there, it’s like I moved into another world because the space that they inhabit requires a completely different way of working with it. It’s such an extreme climate, such an extreme environment that people are living very much in balance with nature. It’s very seasonal. In the winter, when there’s two months of darkness, people are very quiet. They’re very much in their homes. They spend a lot of family time. Blizzards are sort of like a celebration. The kids don’t have to go to school and everyone hunkers in. There’s time to really renew bonds. And so when was there and I’m very hyper, coming from the south to do the project and they’re all kind of like, “Oh, calm down. Just relax. Rest. You need to rest. You’re tired. Just enjoy.”

And so much happened and I learned so much through understanding what deep listening is, what it means, this deep caring, and putting that at the front instead of my sort of models of how to manage a project and reach my deliverables and so on.

But really, in fact, how this project that we’re doing which is a tuberculosis project, how that project is going to advance is by the people being the ones who are telling us how they are going to manage to overcome their problems, not me telling them, “Well, this is how we do it in the south or how I’ve done it in Swaziland or in South Africa or in Goma.” They are going to tell me how they think that they can do it, and there’s various steps to do that.

There are people who can show us, and I think indigenous populations have incredible insights to share. And I think there’s many other communities as well who, if we just listened, if we just took the time to really listen, and to look underneath as well, to look at that history that you were talking about before and to understand historical trauma and really take a trauma-informed approach to how we think and look at things, we can create systems that are based on values that really impact people.

Brooke: In a talk that you gave in Montreal a few years ago, one of the things that you talked about is the massive efforts that were undertaken internationally following the Second World War to build international systems to promote peace and to promote human development and these kind of things. And one of the remarks that I seemed to recall you made, or perhaps I’m putting words into your mouth,you’ll correct me if I do, is that the spirit of the law has been lost in so much of those things. We’re so caught up in following the letter, that we forget the spirit; where we’re all form and no content. How do we identify those challenges within an organization where form has taken on the role of the master, and content has been subjugated? That kind of organizational lethargy where we feel that we’re going through the process simply for the sake of going through the process because that’s what the organization or the institution demands. How do we, first of all, identify that and then, second, go through the hard labor of trying to remediate that situation and bring the spirit back in?

Rachel: It’s tough. And I think that the bigger and the more established and the longer running the organization, the harder it is to bring that change. It becomes like the Titanic example. Shifting the Titanic is extremely slow. And we’ve got to a point that I think we can’t afford to be slow anymore. We have to accelerate what we’re doing.

I think this idea of institutional lethargy, well, let’s think for a moment, what is an institution? An institution is a group of people who are working together towards a common purpose. So, if we’ve lost the common purpose because the institution has become so heavy and so strangulated by its systems that we’ve lost sight of that common purpose, we need to reestablish what that common purpose is.

So we talk about these visionary leaders that need to come in and change things around. They can only move so far because what we have with visionary leaders who come in is that they very soon see like, “Whoa, there’s a part of this that’s not willing to move with me. Not everyone is on the same course here. I’m going to have to make compromises.”

We look at some of the better leaders that we’ve had in recent time. Someone like Obama, for instance, who came in with so many incredible ideas. But the institution of the United States congress and government was bigger than him. And he had to make some massive compromises and that’s really tough.

I think that it requires a certain type of leadership, but it requires an inclusive leadership. We cannot think about one person who’s able to lead an organization, take it to the future. This is an accumulation of many people together.

And so, I’m going to go back to COVID-19 again because I think this has given us the most unique opportunity. It’s already forced us to make many of the changes that we had to make that we didn’t want to make. How are we going to take the learning from COVID-19? And rather than say, “Let’s go back to how we were before”, how are we going to say, “Let’s learn what we don’t need to do anymore.”

There are things that we were doing before that were symptomatic of a system we’re in. One example is annual performance reviews. I think this is a brilliant one. One of the things that we all dread is the annual performance review. As the employee, you feel like you’re going to be judged and told what you did well and what you did badly and what you did wrong. And so it’s a source of great stress.

As an employer, it’s something that, “Oh, god, I’ve got to do the annual performance review again.” If we had better relationships all year round, so we had that connection with each other. So I could say to you, Brooke, on a regular level, we’re talking, we’re communicating, you’re telling me things that are happening, so on and so forth, and then we can have a moment of reflection a couple of times a year where we take time together and sit and say, “let’s just see how you’re feeling about things, how am I feeling about things”, And taking it out of that very square model where it’s like, “Okay, so how many reports did you file this year? How many peer reviewed articles did you submit? How did you improve the reputation of your institution?” All these kind of very rational metrics.

This is not what drives us as human beings. When we look at what drives us as human beings, we’re driven by being part of a society. We don’t like to talk about it, but we’re driven by love. We’re driven by this nature of being human. And when we feel good and safe and happy in a place where we feel that we can -I love the French word epanuit- when we feel that we can spread our wings and be who we are; this is when we do our best work. It’s not about plugging in at 8:30 in the morning and plugging out at 6:30 at night. This is not how we do our best work.

I think that COVID made the work world realize that we’re adults. And that as adults, we want to do the things we want to do in order to look after our families, to earn money, and the things that we want to do for ourselves to feel that we can live our best lives.

I think we have to take those lessons. This is a way that we can go, and this can transform institutions. But if we all, just like sheep, just go back to the way we were before, then we’re missing the biggest opportunity that we’ve been given in a generation. And then, I would be really worried.

Brooke: I really like the way that you framed that one of the most important lessons from COVID is what we can stop doing. That, I think, is absolutely brilliant. It captures so nicely so many experiences that I’ve encountered anecdotally, either from my own experience or speaking with others that we had this perception a year ago; back in those ‘blissful normal times’. We had this perception that certain things were kind of not up for discussion. They weren’t up for negotiation. Like the entire world would fall apart if we stopped doing annual performance reviews. The world simply couldn’t function.

And we very quickly moved from a situation where a thing was not possible, to a thing was possible to, that thing was actually happening. And that was absolutely brilliant, and I think that that applies as much to the things that we thought were essential, that unquestionably must remain, to those things that seemed completely impossible, unquestionably could never happen.

If I think about something like universal basic income, for instance, at the end of 2019 and early 2020, there were certainly lots of voices in a country like Canada or the United States or European countries who were saying, “We should be experimenting with universal basic income,” to which the response was, a very clear, “We couldn’t possibly afford it.” And the discussion was a non-starter.

Then all of a sudden the pandemic breaks out, and we’ve got this massive economic and social crisis. And what bubbles up from the ground, but something very similar to universal basic income. And it turns out that, in fact, it wasn’t an impossibility the whole time. It was a choice that we weren’t willing to talk through and to explore.

In fact, the response that COVID brought about was one that was probably not very well informed because we hadn’t been willing to discuss it up until that point. Until we didn’t have any choice anymore but to do it. So we did it in unreflective ways. It was rough and ready. It was not perfect but certainly better than the alternative of not doing it at all.

So I’m really heartened by not only the responses that have come to COVID-19, but also that little bit of exercise to a muscle that maybe we can talk about things that feel like they’re impossible after all. Maybe we do have opportunities to consider things that seem like total blue sky ideas, totally not possible because perhaps, in five years, it’s going to be a time when we don’t have a choice anymore and we have to do them.

And what I worry about moving forward here is that in these kinds of situations where we get a bit of momentum behind these discussions of the public good, these discussions of what it is that our communities need, there’s a bit of a reflex in some corners that actually, the easier way to kind of manipulate the situation and to maximize one’s own power, is to really lean into fear and division.

And the 20th century is a sad and bloody tale that teaches us just how much damage we can do when we lean into fear and division very hard. But it’s easy. It’s an easy narrative. It’s so low friction and so low effort to just default down into this path. Once we get the conversation started within individual institutions or societally, as in the case of COVID-19, how do we sustain that momentum once we’ve got it going? How do we keep from having this energy dissipate and just sort of falling back into that easy path of dividing ourselves?

Rachel: That’s the concern. And cynically, we can say if the pandemic had been very short, it would have been just like an elastic band. It would have flicked back immediately. Now, it’s been so painful and so protracted. And just as a note, while vaccines are not going to end the pandemic because until everybody is protected in the world, the pandemic is not going anywhere. We see that it’s only rich countries who have access to vaccines and it’s not the poor countries. People should be very careful about thinking that they get the vaccine, they get their two shots and, “Woo-hoo, we’re off to the races again.” It’s certainly not going to be the case.

It is going to go on for a lot longer and there are permanent changes that are not going to be just suddenly lifted and we’re going back to normal. So that is going to have an impact on us. At some point, things become normalized. I never imagined I would be walking around wearing a mask. I saw it in China and I thought it was just really odd. And I go, “Hey, they’re wearing masks. Oh, the air is so bad.”

And here I am. It’s very normal now to get out and get my mask. These things will stick with us. There are things that will stick. On a global level, I think that the dial has shifted, a little bit like the earth tilting a degree. There’s something in the global consciousness that has tilted. And so, we’re already in a very different place, without doing anything, than we were 1215 months ago. And I think that’s an important baseline. We’ve had conversations and discussions and transparency from governments and communications and community responses that we haven’t seen the likes of since the Second World War probably, where communities have rallied together around issues whether it’s here in Montreal, whether it’s in Toronto, whether it’s in New Delhi, whether it’s in Johannesburg. There have been these groundswell responses that have made people feel like, “Whoa, this is actually amazing. I know my neighbors. I can do things. I can make responses”, and this isn’t about someone sitting there making the decisions for me.

So I think people have a sense of empowerment from this. And in fact, because responding to the pandemic has been led by communities, communities have been at the frontline of this because the global response has been pretty pitiful when you think about the lack of global solidarity, the hoarding of PPE back in March last year by rich countries, to now the hoarding of vaccines by rich countries. I mean global solidarity… I’m sorry, that certainly hasn’t shown through.

But what has shown through is community solidarity. The projects that I’ve been working on with my team at SeeChange for instance in Central America, in countries like Honduras and Guatemala, we’re working with partner organizations on the ground who are working with indigenous communities. And now, they’re all saying to talk to each other through these solidarity networks and sharing the experience in Honduras, with an experience in Guatemala, and sharing the experience in Colombia, and sharing the experience here in Northern Canada.

And these kind of links are really empowering for people. They’re like; “Well, we can be masters of our future”, and especially in these very marginalized communities that  are constantly left out of any response. Who know that they’re not going to get PPE, who didn’t receive any PPE. They didn’t receive any support from the government. They didn’t receive any support from humanitarian organizations because humanitarian organizations cannot be everywhere. They’re not government replacements.

So these communities were completely abandoned during COVID and are still abandoned. And these are the communities that we’re seeking to work with and to show them just how much power and agency they in fact have, the resources they have. As long as they have the right information, they feel a sense of support from someone outside, they have the technical support, and that they’re given material resources to do what they need to do.

So for instance, we’re in a community and they said, “Okay, it’s great. We get the roadmap that you’ve produced and the emergency plan and how it works. The problem is you tell us that we need to socially distance. That’s kind of difficult for us because our housing is poor. A lot of us lived together, but we could wear masks… but we don’t have any masks. And we don’t have any way to make masks. And we don’t have any way to make soap, and we can’t disinfect, and we need plastic, we don’t have that stuff here. And if we could buy it, it’s too expensive, we can’t afford it.”

So, our response is; “Okay, let’s find a way that we can raise some funds and we can help you to buy material, buy a sewing machine, buy the basic lye and the castor oil that you need to make soap. We’ll procure that locally with our local organization and then you can start making that. And you know what? You can even make a little business out of it, because some people can afford to buy the mask and buy some soap, and then other people who can’t, you can give.” So, we started a little micro social enterprise with them.

And the communities… They’re doing it! And they’re doing it in Kenya now. There’s an amazing group in Tana River County who are now going around with a theater troupe of young people to use the roadmap that we’ve created at SeeChange to train the kids on how to deal with COVID. And they’re the ones who go back home and tell mom and dad, “Hey, mom, you can’t share your mask with dad. You need your own mask.” And they’re now starting to make masks and they’re doing the education. So, I get so much joy from these initiatives. When I look in Nunavut, what the community there has done. It’s amazing. They have mask-making competitions and really made it into something that their community has power over.

So, in answering your question how can we make sure; it’s communities, and raising up these communities and demonstrating another way. We have to demonstrate. We’ve got to stop talking. We’ve got to do it and lift up these communities in the examples that they’re giving on how we can live a different way.

Brooke: And from the example you just described, I love this one of the touring theater group. This comes back to, I think one of the points that we started with, which is that education and culture are the lifeblood of community. That’s an essential element for sustaining this momentum. It’s to ensure that the arts and the humanities long denigrated in the rational model are properly supported because that’s where those conversations happen.

That’s where you get this kind of right hand to the left hand of the rational argumentation; that right hand is this shared experience around storytelling. That only comes from the arts and humanities. And technology is a wonderful enabler of that kind of thing. It allows us to share those stories, to share that cultural material so widely.

But it needs to be there to start with. And so we need to take a focus on ensuring that we tell those stories and that we go through these kinds of meaning-making and sense-making exercises about our own experience. If for no other reason than the difficulty that we’ve gone through without that kind of sense-making will be enormously traumaticand hard for us to process.

Rachel: Absolutely. I totally agree with you. We have to redirect our resources. And there I’m talking about, not only financial resources, but our human resources. And that starts with education and what we’re encouraging our children to go into. We’ve had such a drive on certain disciplines and certain professions as being highlighted. And yeah, this is always being poo-pooed. I think that we have to go into creativity. This is where the exciting things are happening.

But it’s not only that. We have to make it more equitable; the access to it. We have to increase the diversity because it’s still too few people and too limited a range of people who are able to access this. And so this has to be diversified. We have to be able to listen, to share, to give up power, to move power to different places.

And that for me is one of the big lessons, because if I look at the indigenous communities in Canada who have been so successful in stopping the spread of COVID in their communities; they recognized the crisis, they knew what they had to do. They didn’t wait for Canadian federal government or the provincial governments there. They took action themselves.

They closed their communities. They limited movements. My hat is off to them completely. They understood the power of community as a response to a health crisis. And this is what we have to learn from.

Brooke: One of the things I try to do in wrapping up each of these episodes is to take one very concrete, tangible takeaway. What can I do Monday morning if I’m all full of energy about what I’ve just heard?

My takeaway from this last bit of a conversation is if you want your organization to have more empathy and to bring people back into the process, start by hiring an anthropologist and a creative designer to tell the story of your organization and get everyone involved with it. Is there something more that you’d like to add to that, perhaps extremely overly simplified distillation?

Rachel: So some of us are too bootstrapped to hire someone else in our organization, so I think another one as well, I would say; ‘work with your team in a new way’. There’s a lot being written now about sort of more emergent strategies for working within your organization. In SeeChange for instance, we dedicate one morning a week where the team members are free to do whatever they want to help them to build their creative space.

If it means they’re going for a walk, if it means that they’re going to go and do some exercise, or it could mean that they’re finally going to focus without any internet on something they were trying to write, whether it’s a blog, or do a painting or something. Something that allows people more space.

We also recognize that since we don’t meet, we need to have more time to have social interactions. So our team meeting now is much less objective-oriented than it used to be. We spend half of it just hanging out with each other, talking about books that we’ve read and movies that we’ve seen and create an atmosphere.

So; work differently. Work smarter. Work less and do more. Have more free time. Learn from the millennials who want the proper work-life balance. Don’t poo-poo it as a thing of privilege. It’s absolutely possible. So that would be how I would go about it.

Brooke: Rachel, thank you so much for all of the time and insights that you’ve shared today. I really, really enjoyed this conversation, and I suspect that our listeners will as well.

Rachel: Thanks so much, Brooke. Take care.

Brooke: Take care.

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About the Guest

Rachel Kiddell-Monroe

Rachel Kiddell-Monroe

Rachel Kiddell-Monroe is a lawyer, a humanitarian, and a life-long advocate for social justice. She has worked in the humanitarian field for over 25 years, with vast experience of crisis situations from Rwanda to Somalia, as well as refugee camps in France, Italy and Greece. 

Rachel founded ‘SeeChange Initiative’, which works to decolonize health by supporting marginalized groups to build innovative community-first solutions to their health crises. She also serves as a Board Director at Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) and is the founding President of ‘Universities Allied for Essential Medicines’. She continues to teach at McGill University in Montreal, her alma-mater, and works to ensure that government-funded research is made accessible and affordable for the people who need it the most.

About the Interviewer

Brooke Struck portrait

Dr. Brooke Struck

Dr. Brooke Struck is the Research Director at The Decision Lab. He is an internationally recognized voice in applied behavioural science, representing TDL’s work in outlets such as Forbes, Vox, Huffington Post and Bloomberg, as well as Canadian venues such as the Globe & Mail, CBC and Global Media. Dr. Struck hosts TDL’s podcast “The Decision Corner” and speaks regularly to practicing professionals in industries from finance to health & wellbeing to tech & AI.

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