Ep. 031: Dr. Scilla Elworth

Show Notes


Susan wants to frame the podcast for Susan and Dr. Elworthy to be speaking to women because the Dr. Elworthy has been a leader for women involved in peacebuilding processes. Susan says that so many people are in a fog about war-- Dr. Elworthy has said that war is “past its sell date.” Susan compares this to the climate change debate, where it seems like we should be past the point of debate right now, but we’re tied up in old ideas because there are such profound campaigns against peace and against acting on climate which forces us to stay in debate mode instead of moving forward towards innovative and futuristic solutions. People have “swallowed the medicine” that war is essential.

Why is war outdated? Why is it still happening? Who is benefiting from this?

War is outdated because we have research based evidence that indicates that preventing war is not difficult. We know what we can do and we know what we shouldn’t be doing in order to get war to stop-- we just haven’t done it it. The first thing we need to stop doing is spending 1686 billion of dollars annually on militarization (war or preparing for war). 30 billion would eliminate starvation worldwide and 10 billion would bring clean water to every child on the planet. Many people haven’t notice how enormous this spending really is and how much it costing society. We need to bring nuclear weapons policy makers together, grassroots working with locally led peace initiatives-- people in their own areas know what to do to stop violent conflict in their own areas. When conducting research in 1999, and later establishing Peace Direct, her team was able to find 350 grassroots, effective, answerable peacebuilding organizations working within their local communities. They reconducted that same research last year and number had increased to 1,600 organizations. This phenomenon is all over the world and also all over the United States. Peace Direct has created a map of all the local peace initiatives they have recorded, which can be found at the Peace Insight website. These accounts are hardly reported, but they are are so profound. Dr. Elworthy tells the story or a woman named Gulalai Ismail who lives in Northwest Pakistan. This might be the most dangerous place in the world to be a woman. She started organizing to get girls to school around the age of 16. Her colleague and Nobel Peace Prize winner, Malala Yousafzai, got shot in the head by the Taliban for engaging in similar activism around girls education. She is now 26. She has organized young men and women to go into schools with jihadis who are been trained as suicide bombers. These trained peace advocates then go home with those intent on becoming suicide bombers and meet with their families to explain why the Quran would not approve of suicide bombing. At the time of the recording, they have been able to dissuade 203 suicide bombers from their mission. These stories are just not getting told.

Susan brings up the gun violence situation in the United States to ask Dr. Elworthy if she can speak more about the motives behind these violent acts. What is the motivation? Who is profiting off the sale of these weapons and off violence in general? Why do we keep seeing the same issues and failing to find solutions to something that is happening so frequently?

Many people make money off war: both arms producers and arms traders. As soon as there is the chaos caused by war, maybe people engaging in illegal behavior have less oversight and are more likely to get away with this behavior. People who traffic humans for sex or labor, drug smugglers, money laundering, etc. all benefit from the lack of oversight during war because all authority is distracted by other concerns. It is in these people’s best interests to keep conflict and chaos going so that they can continue to make money. The 5 permanent members of the Security Council of the United Nations, all of whom have veto power, are also the biggest producers in the world. No wonder we have war. Russia has used the veto power to essentially to keep the war in Syria from stopping. The United Nations is dominated by the great arms sellers. We need to take a whole lot of practical matters that she discusses in her new book, The Business Plan for Peace: Building a World Without War, to bring armed conflict to an end.

Susan mentions the staggering amount of tax dollars that go into the United States military budget annually, then redirects the conversation to talking about women. She recalls the incredible example of Liberian women showcased in the award-winning documentary, Pray the Devil Back to Hell. Susan mentions the incredible work of Leyman Gbowee, Nobel Prize winner, who created a series of campaigns in Liberia to force men to sign a peace agreement. Susan recalls that the women joined across religious lines and wore white to show their dedication to peace. The women also refused to have sex with their husbands until a peace agreement was reached.

Dr. Elworthy recalls another strategy, where the women created a physical wall around the buildings where the men were negotiating the peace agreement. The men were enjoying the talks because they were taking place at a nice hotel with great food. The women blocked off all the doors and windows and cut off the food supply until the men decided on a peace agreement. After 12 hours of this, there was a peace agreement.

Susan talks about another Liberian woman who was confronted and nearly arrested by Charles Taylor. As he was approaching, she began to strip because it is believed that a man will go to hell if he sees his mother naked. These examples of women using their feminine identities to prevent the obstruction of justice and to force men to negotiate peace are very powerful examples of the diverse roles that women play in peacebuilding. Susan provides another example of how women brought the tradition of dueling in the 19th century to an end by laughing at it; essentially undermining the “manliness” of the sport.

Dr. Elworthy has gotten to know many grassroots organizations globally who are working to prevent war in their regions with her founding and directing of Peace Direct. She has found that the organizations that are woman-run are having greater impacts. The quality of consciousness that we introduce into peacebuidling makes the difference. Women who have realized that taking their stance is what makes a difference. Example: When Mandela was released from jail, he saw that their was likely to be a civil war, so he set up preventative councils. The people on these councils had local influence and were popular. They included midwives, teachers, magistrates, etc. These were all people who were trusted. The councils were at least half female. The women on these councils were trained to intervene in violent situations. Dr. Elsworthy provides an example of a violent episode where a crowd was about to lynch someone. The trained women would enter the growing mob of violent lynchers and raise her hand, palm forward near her face, and shout, “Stop this. Go home. Your mother would be ashamed of you.”  There would be complete silence and the crowd would disband. There are countless examples of us. It is not up to women in safe countries: women with education, enough food to eat, no one shooting at us, etc. to stand up to our governments and prevent them from encouraging war.

Susan asked Dr. Elworthy to take a step back and tell the listeners how she began to get invested in this field and if there is anything from her personal background that provoked her interested in peacebuilding.

Dr. Elworthy grew up with four older brothers who were all faster and stronger than she was. When she was 11, they gave her a shot gun and taught her how to fire it. She regrets what she did with it. She went out into the woods alone, pointed the barrel at a nest in a tree and down on her came egg yolks, twigs, the embryos of baby chicks and the blue feathers of anther bird. She was overwhelmed by the violence and destruction she was capable of and went home and put the gun away permanently. When she was 13, she was watched an old TV in her parents living room and saw an image of Russian tanks rolling through Budapest. She ran upstairs and packed a bag to go to Budapest when her mother came into her room to ask what was going on. Seeing how distraught her daughter was and how upset this made a young Dr. Elworthy, her mother explained to her how she was too young to be of any use to protect people in Budapest, but, if she would unpack her suitcase, her mother would ensure that she receive proper training to protect people and challenge conflict. Her mother kept this commitment.

Susan asked if Dr. Elworthy knows why she responded in such strong ways to these events?

In your early teens, you’re very idealistic. Dr. Elworthy really didn’t know but her mother sent her off to summer camps for refugees and people who had been in concentration camps. She would sit there peeling potatoes and listening to the stories of people who had been in Auschwitz. Her heart would break, but she says “sometimes it’s when your heart breaks that you are motivated, sometimes unstoppably to do what you can.” With the news as bad as it is today, so many young people get in touch with her and ask what they can do. She asks them what breaks their heart and what their skills are. Can you identify ways that you can put what you care about into action? When you can combine what breaks your heart with what you’re skilled at, you can really begin to make changes in the world because your energy will be infectious to those around you and in two years, you’ll be full of hope and joy instead of anguish and anxiety. Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa is the most joyful person she has ever met and he has experienced some of the most brutal things in the world.

Susan says that she grew up to the United States news cycle when the country was at war with Vietnam and saw some of the most dreadful news reports in the most casual of environments, such as at the dinner table. This really shaped her. She also talks about how her family was very patriarchal, where the men were very privileged and the women were stripped of their power. While she’s not blaming anyone, because this is merely a description of the reality of her past, Susan has been very affected by this type of upbringing. She asks Dr. Elworthy if she could talk about her understanding of the patriarchy and how it is connected to peacebuilding work.

Dr. Elworthy does not use the word “patriarchy” very often anymore because she believes that both men and women are capable of embodying what she calls “masculine intelligence” and “feminine intelligence.” The reality of the history of the last 3000 years is that most, if not all, major decisions have been made using masculine intelligence and what we are left with is a series of wars. In Europe, historical education is based off a series of battles, victories, and violence. This is also very true in the United States educational system. War is so glorified, but every soldier who comes back from war comes back broken in various ways. Our leaders know that their voting rating increase when they declare war. This is an effect of the populous not truly understanding the devastation of war. It takes a family at least three generations to recover from the tragedy of war. It takes a country about three generations as well and it seems that we simply refuse to learn from our histories. It is up to women and men who embody feminine intelligence to infuse our systems of powers with the values that are associated with this intelligence such as compassion, using our intuition, inclusivity, caring facility (for people and for the earth), our concept of what is sacred and worthy of protection, and, while we often forget, we are more encouraged by society to understand the sacredness of life.

Susan recently saw Ken Burns’ documentary on the American-Vietnam War. As a mother, she felt outraged because, on the U.S. side, it was all 18 year old boys going to fight this war. Susan quotes Kurt Lewin, commonly referred to as the “grandfather of social psychology,” saying: “Everyone understands authority but democracy is learned behavior. Susan critiques the mentality that women are socialized into; this “daddy take care of me” and “strong men make us safe” mentality that Susan believes women need to get over this trance because it allows women to remain the weaker people in society.

Dr. Elworthy points out that this might happen because so many women fail to realize how many strong, courageous women have paved the way for other women to be powerful because the stories of powerful women are so infrequently told. Something she’s tried to do in her books is highlight women who have done incredible work. One such woman is Aung San Suu Kyi of Burma who was in solitary confinement for 15 years and then came out of jail, she led a revolution to overturn the military government. She did this at terrible personal cost in that her husband contracted cancer and her children were in the United Kingdom. She was told by the government that if she left Burma to reunite with her family, she would not be able to return to the her home country. She chose to stay and lead the resistance with brilliance at the time. Dr. Elworthy criticizes her government now for the massacre of the Rohingya people. Dr. Elworthy, while not excusing this, says that the Aung San Suu Kyi has evidently suffered extreme trauma for what she went through in her past. She poses the question: Do you know how many women have been elected president in the world? Most people think between 3 and 10, but their have been 50 female elected presidents (heads of state) in the world. The media constantly shows us male leaders and criticizes women endlessly when they don’t fully succeed.

Susan mentions that she wasn’t aware of this herself. She brings up the internal obstacles that women face and what things get in our ways. She asks Dr. Elworthy to talk about what got in her way and how she overcame this.

Dr. Elworthy talks about her inner critic telling her that she wasn’t good enough, she had to try harder, and do more.

Susan mentions that Harvard Business School recently hired trainers for the women to get them to raise their hands in class even though their scores were at the same level as the men. They simply struggled with the self confidence of their ideas meriting worth in a classroom.

Dr. Elworthy says she struggled trying to convince herself that she was good enough to contribute to this conversation. She had a brain disease after the birth of her daughter which put her in a coma for 2 weeks. For six years, she had miserable headaches and the questions of “who am I?” and “why am I here” were constantly circling around in her brain. This was in the 1970’s when very few people were truly asking themselves these questions. She sought out many people who could guide her towards understanding the answers to these questions better and thanks to this quest and acupuncture, her headaches started to get much better. This journey of discovery was fundamental to her as transforming outside of her identity as “pretty little wife.” When her doctor told her she had lost one-third of her brain capacity, the doctor could not understand why she was crying. He said “You’ve got a nice husband and you’re a pretty face.. You’ll be fine!” (She says now she wished she punched him). This experience was the first time she realized that who she was is more than what society had taught her. Her “inner critic” has become her friend and he is a dragon in her mind. The idea that has helped her control this inner critic that really never leaves is that you approach the monster, tell him you need to have a conversation with him, and put a cushion down for him to sit on while you converse. You say, “Why did you wake me up at three in the morning AGAIN?” and then you sit on the cushion and, in the voice of your monster, you respond. Dr. Elsworthy asks Susan if this is actually helpful information for the listeners!

Susan think it is because, when she gets tired, her self-esteem and confidence decreases, so it is really important to learn how other women deal with that. Susan also says that she has a great support group of women that motivate her in difficult times. There is so much conditioning that Susan has gone through to un-condition herself from being “a good corporate wife.”

Dr. Elworthy says that her dragon blows smoke and fire and gets angry with her. He tells her that tomorrow is going to be terrible and she will embarrass herself. Then, she speaks directly to the dragon and says “Well, that isn’t helpful. What do you really want to tell me?” The dragon’s narrative changes slightly, arguing that she should have prepared more and done her homework and memorized her presentation. She speaks to her dragon again and asks him what he has that she needs (because she knows that under his foot, there is a gem and that’s what she is after). He begins to change his narrative again. He says “When you can connect to the infinite about, that is when you can bring people with you and help people find their own way.” This is all an inner dialogue.

Susan is struck by this imagery. Someone said to Susan the other day that fundamentally, the issue with women is an issue of power. It’s interesting in the United States that in the 20th century, women are more in charge of the financial resources-- but we don’t seem to be taking charge of it. Women need to start taking power with, not power over.

Dr. Elworthy believes that more women need to be around peace tables. UNIFem (the predecessor of UN Women) did a study indicating that, in 2009, only 2.9% of peace negotiators were women. Those peace agreements lasted 5 years on average. If women had been present, they would have brought the concerns of the most vulnerable people impacted by conflict to the table. The wounds of war would have been more attended to. When this ratio goes up to 10%, the agreements last twice as long. This was done under the leadership of Michelle-Bachelet. She saw to it that this was document. Inclusive Security in Washington, DC is run by Swanee Hunt. They encourage women to put forward the biographies of women they know who should be at the peace table. This is something that we can do locally and everywhere. Her latest book provides ways to promote peace in the workplace, at children’s schools, and how to actually listen to each other to settle a dispute. Most of us are not good listeners. She provides simple things we can do with youth such as honoring children who do good for their communities.

Susan speaks of Dr. Elworthy’s recent book and the vast amount of positive feedback she has gotten since the book has been published.

Dr. Elworthy says that, of the 25 proposals the book makes, 9 of them are already going forward and getting funded. She was recently at a funders event where people are really eager to invest in some of these ideas and people have come forward to offer their partnership.

Susan loves the idea of taxing arms dealers and how difficult this might be in the United States due to the NRA (National Rifle Association).

One of the idea’s Dr. Elworthy has been suggesting to some of the elite UK based bankers she has met with is, the next time they are sitting at a big corporate funding event, to bring up one of the ideas she proposes in her book. They’re killer arguments. They are clear and useful and it’s helpful to “peer pressure” corporations into divesting from arms manufacturers. She also mentions that it is helpful for individuals to examine whether or not their pensions, student loans, or investments support arms manufacturers in any way. This divestment is the quickest and most effective leverage we can have to change the system. You can simply google the biggest arms manufacturers in your country and divest. You can contact your investment companies and make a motion to divest. This is happening in fossil fuels right now. Weapons manufacturers could do much more with the skills of their employees that could be much more profitable.

Any final words of wisdom for women in general?

We need to do more than stand on the sidelines and cheer, as in during the Women’s March or the #MeToo movements. In the UK and US, we are lucky to live in quasi-functioning democracies and we can get a hold of our representatives. She encourages us to take a few facts from her book, send them to our representatives, ask them what they are doing about the facts and tell them that you are watching them. She praises Susan for using her energy to highlight such important issues in this podcast.

Susan thanks Dr. Elworthy for her extraordinary global leadership and encourages all the listeners to go to her website and get access to her book and also take a look at her Ted Talk on Nonviolence. The talk, called “Fighting With Nonviolence” deepens some of her points about actions we can take moving forward.

Susan and Dr. Elworthy thank each other again.


Three times Nobel Peace Prize nominee for her work with Oxford Research Group to develop effective dialogue between nuclear weapons policy-makers worldwide and their critics, work which included a series of meetings between Chinese, Russian and western nuclear scientists and military. She founded Peace Direct in 2002 to fund, promote and learn from local peace-builders in conflict areas: Peace Direct was voted ‘Best New Charity’ in 2005.

Scilla was awarded the Niwano Peace Prize in 2003 and was adviser to Peter Gabriel, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and Sir Richard Branson in setting up ‘The Elders’. Scilla co-founded Rising Women Rising World in 2013, and FemmeQ in 2016 to establish the qualities of feminine intelligence for women and men as essential to use in building a safer world. Her TED talk on nonviolence has been viewed by over 1,400,000 people, Her latest book The Business Plan for Peace: Building a World Without War (2017) and her book Pioneering the Possible: awakened leadership for a world that works (North Atlantic Books, 2014) both received critical acclaim from experts in the field.

Scilla is an Ambassador for Peace Direct, a Councillor of the World Future Council and patron of Oxford Research Group; adviser to the Syria Campaign and the Institute for Economics and Peace. She advises the leadership of selected international corporations as well as students and young social entrepreneurs. Scilla is a mother, stepmother, and grandmother and loves messing about in her garden near Oxford in the UK.

Contact Scilla

You can find details on how to contact Scilla on her website: https://www.scillaelworthy.com/