Landmines — Jerry White’s Survivor Corps Mission

Circa 2009

During a hike in the hills of Israel, a chance encounter with a landmine left Jerry White with a new view on life. White placed his focus not on what had been taken from him, but on how his personal experience and passion could make the world safer for others. In 1997 he co-founded The Landmine Survivors Network with fellow landmine survivor Ken Rutherford. Working closely with such prominent figures as Princess Diana of Wales, King Hussein and Queen Noor of Jordan, White became a leader in the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, and was corecipient of the 1997 Nobel Prize for Peace. Today, White leads the charge in addressing the repercussions of violence and armed conflict across the globe.

ABILITY Magazine’s Chet Cooper sat down with White for an in-depth look at his story.

Cooper: I have to ask—why were you hiking in Israel?

White: (laughs) Like a tourist? I was the first non-Jew to graduate with a degree in Judaic studies and Jewish history from Brown University. My advisor said, “Jerry, God doesn’t speak Greek or Latin in heaven. He speaks Hebrew. It’s time for you to head over to Jerusalem and learn the language.” So I went over there with my backpack and Hebrew-English dictionary, not knowing anything more than “shekel” and “shalom,” wanting to walk in the footsteps of the prophets, and study Biblical archaeology, foreign policy of Israel, Hebrew, and a little bit of Arabic as well.

Cooper: What prompted you to set out that way? What’s your own religious background?

White: Irish-Catholic. I grew up outside of Boston in a town with no synagogues. I think I had my first bagel when I was 17 years old. My sister had come back from college with this chewy doughnut no one had ever had.

Cooper: Those bagels will get you.

White: (laughs) Right! Anyway, I grew up in a preppy, homogeneous, small town on the coast of Massachusetts. But when I went to Brown, all the smart kids were drinking coffee, reading the New York Times, and taking Judaic studies classes. I followed some of my friends. No one had really told me Jesus was Jewish, so the baseline of my Christian faith felt shaky, like, ‘What else don’t I know?’ I wanted to understand the Judaic context of earliest Christianity to backfill my ignorance, and Brown happened to have some really great professors on this front. Being a Religious Studies major, I narrowed in on the relationship between Judaism and Christianity, and that ultimately led me to the land where it all began.

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Cooper: Israel?

White: So I studied for about one semester, and then there was a Passover break in the spring of 1984. A couple of friends and I went on a round of touring and hiking in the north, which was heavily forested with waterfalls and nice nature hikes. But we sort of wandered off the beaten track. That was our flaw, our fatal step–we had turned left when everyone else had turned right. We had entered through the unmarked back door of a minefield.

Cooper: No pun intended with the “fatal step?”

White: (laughs) Luckily, it wasn’t fatal. I went back there [to the scene] in March of this year, for the first time in 25 years. I used the media, the profile of my story and my return to this personal ground zero to raise awareness among Israelis about the nature of the landmine problem in their backyard, which they don’t really know much about. You shock most Israelis when you tell them, “There are nearly 300,000 mines buried throughout your country, and you have hundreds of nonoperational minefields.” In March alone, when I was there, there were three new landmine accidents.

Cooper: These mines are from the Israeli government?

White: Yes, some left over from Syrians. A lot of the mines in the Golan are mostly part of Soviet-supplied, Syrian-laid minefields. The specific camping area, where I had turned left, was a Syrian stronghold from the ’60s. There are also some Jordanian-laid minefieldsoutside outside Jerusalem, from when Jordan controlled all that territory. So it’s a bit of a hodgepodge, depending on which area of the country you’re talking about.

Most Israelis understand that there are minefields in the Golan, and many believe that they need mines along the borders because they don’t have peace and it helps prevent terrorism. That would be the generic belief of most Israelis, but many don’t understand the extent of the problem–minefields have not been cleaned up and can be. So that’s why we were there, to raise awareness and get Israel to start cleaning up this military litter from all of these wars.

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Cooper: Are these fields clearly signed? Are there fences that say: ‘Danger-Keep Out’ or ‘Minefield?’

White: When I was injured in 1984, no one wanted to believe that these areas weren’t properly signed and fenced. There was a tendency to blame the victim. I would say, “If I had known it was a minefield and I had seen the sign or fence, I don’t think I would have gone camping there.” But that was 1984. It wasn’t until the mid-’90s that the Israelis did a survey of all their minefields and admitted, in a Comptroller General report from the government of Israel, that there were, in fact, a number of minefields that were not properly fenced off or signed. And then it took until 2004 for minefield maps to be published illustrating where the minefields are throughout the country. The maps, however, were only published in Hebrew, not in English or Arabic or Russian. So there’s still work to be done.

However, even when you go up and visit some of these minefields, signs fall off or tourists take them. Barbed wire falls down, cattle trample them, and there are still instances in which people, sometimes children, are at risk while retrieving their soccer ball. For some Druze families, weather floods the minefields in winter and the mines come up right into the doorsteps of their houses. So even the minefields don’t stay put, and signs and fences don’t stay put. Therefore, the only real solution to the problem is cleaning up the areas and de-mining.

All of this led me, in an unlucky time, to step on a landmine. In the book, I describe my story of surviving, of having my two friends pick me up and carry me out, and then of spending six months in Israel. If you’re going to step on a landmine, I recommend that you do it in Israel, because it has the best trauma care in the world. I was in a hospital in my own room, with about four guys my age. Sadly, it was normal to have lost arms or legs or eyes because of explosions in war. At that time, in the ’80s, many guys were coming back from the war in Lebanon. Israel hospitals have an advanced technique of interdisciplinary trauma care, as well as the intentional use of peer-support, visitation, and mentoring by other amputees. That’s where I first learned of what, 20 years later, would become our hallmark of work around the world: pioneering the use of peer-support methodologies to improve the mental and physical health of the injured and of people with disabilities.

Cooper: At what stage did this prompt you to create the network?

White: After I returned home and resumed my studies at Brown, I worked on arms control and the nonproliferation issue for about 10 years. I didn’t even think about my leg. I got a new fake leg and then I got married and had four kids. It really wasn’t until 10 years after my accident that the landmine issue became a global issue. I jumped at the opportunity to get involved. When I met co-founder, Ken Rutherford, he said, “Jerry, you’re tracking the wrong weapon of mass destruction. Landmines have killed more people than nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons combined. With your professional experience with arms control and national security issues, and with your personal experience losing a leg to a landmine in Israel, why don’t you get involved? There’s this new campaign that’s just starting.” This was in the mid-’90s. In fact, the UN was having its first conference on landmines in Vienna in September of 1995. So I was just at a propitious moment to join this nascent campaign.

And that’s when the light bulb went on and we started Landmine Survivors Network. Born during the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, which won the Nobel Prize in 1997, it’s the first international organization created by and for landmine survivors. We were the only survivor group, and we also started to work with Princess Diana. All of this gave us a lot of attention, of course.

Cooper: How did that connection occur?

White: Princess Diana had gone to Angola and had been awakened to the problem of landmines on her trip there. When she said how awful landmines were, sort of off the cuff, really, she was accused by the British government of not being a proper princess. They thought she should stick to humanitarian issues and not talk about security issues that she doesn’t know anything about. So she began looking for a humanitarian platform to address the issue of landmines. The first time she gave her public speech on landmines was at the Royal Geographical Society in London, and we were at her side, planning the conference and the platform for her. Later on, we did a lot of work with her and brought her into Bosnia. She kept asking for help, “What should we do next?” Fundamentally, I think Diana was a person of compassion, so she wanted to help people. She single-handedly translated the issue in people’s minds from a security issue to a humanitarian issue. This was about people getting blown up. It wasn’t just about the weapons.

Cooper: Did Princess Diana come to you?

White: We were told by the Mines Advisory Group (MAG) that Diana wanted to meet us and wanted to have survivors involved. We were the international survivor group, so MAG said, “Why don’t you get in touch with Kensington Palace?” The de-miners brokered the introduction, and I started to brief Diana on our work with survivors around the world. She asked me to plan, in secret, her first trip to Bosnia. That was in 1997.

Cooper: Did you go to England to meet, or was this mostly over the phone?

White: Mostly by phone. We went over to Kensington Palace on a couple of occasions to brief her and also met with her in the US during an event. In Bosnia we spent three days together, non-stop.

Cooper: How did you pull that off?

White: We didn’t tell anyone about it.

Cooper: You have visas and diplomatic issues to get into another country?

White: I knew on her end that the Foreign Ministry of Defense would have to handle her permission to go, and that her travel on a private plane was to be arranged. I was just supposed to go pick her up and travel with her back to Sarajevo. Meanwhile, we had her bodyguards. But even the British ambassador to Sarajevo was not informed. This was at a time in Diana’s life in which she was over the pain of her divorce, and she was starting to call her own shots out of Kensington Palace, not having to always do what the establishment wanted or the government wanted or the family wanted. So she was sort of cutting out on her own.

I wouldn’t tell anyone who was coming. People would guess. They thought it was Bianca Jagger or Hillary Clinton or some other celeb. I said, “I can’t tell you, but I’m trying to arrange a VIP visit, and I was wondering if I could have your help on the following days.” So we engaged the help of friends who could supply us, but I told them I couldn’t say who was arriving, only that it would be important and that they would be glad they were involved. It’s amazing how far we got by doing that. The whole thing was also done pretty tightly and quickly, so in that July and the run-up to August, there wasn’t much time for leaks.

Cooper: What was the experience of going there?

White: I was watching a person with a gift in action, which was very fun. I realized it wasn’t just about Diana the celebrity, it was about a person who fundamentally cared about people who were hurting, someone who had a gift of compassion and healing. Seeing her in action in any particular room, or in a home where there would be people with stumps and raw wounds or losses, Diana was always very appropriate and loving. This was a woman who had just lost her husband only a month before. She’d listen as people poured out their hearts to her. And she took some of their pain out of that room each time, again and again and again. So for me, it was a privilege to watch and learn from the master, someone who just fundamentally understood people in pain and how to be with them.

Cooper: Did these people know who she was?

White: In Bosnia, most did. There were a couple who were like, “Who’s that?” during the events. But at the time of the visit, most people in Bosnia were aware of her. Sometimes it was just, “She’s a princess from the UK,” or some other country. I guess they hadn’t read a lot of People magazine.

Cooper: In the cases of those people who didn’t know who she was, did you still see the reaction to her compassion as being as powerful?

White: Yes. As Diana put it, and I write about it a little bit in the book, “What’s most important sometimes is to care enough to show up.” In her case, that meant coming down from on high. It’s a transformative gift to care enough to show up and sit with people in their pain and listen to them. And then if you touch them and show that you care, that is powerful. In our case, we were there to help and to follow up. Diana had a charismatic gift. Until I met her and experienced her in person, I would not have thought that. I know she was good for the cause.

At first I thought she’d be good for the cause simply because she was so famous and because she’d be putting the spotlight on the issue of landmines and the need to ban them. I thought, “Brilliant, wonderful, play that role.” It would be a media role. But then it became clear to me, going in, that this was more than that. It became a humanitarian, compassion-based role, and that went much deeper than simply being a spokesperson.

Cooper: So you saw firsthand, even if she was not titled, that she still would have provided support to these people who didn’t know who she was?

White: That’s the gift that we get in princes and paupers all around the world who are a little bit hurt. Diana had been hurt in life. To reach out and to listen to people who were also hurt in life was her way of giving back. That’s what peer support is about. It really works when someone who has been scarred reaches out to someone who has more recently been scarred. We do this all around the world. Sometimes that’s all you really need. It just so happened that she was a beautiful blonde princess from another country, but she had the gift. Because she herself identified as a survivor, that was the key.

Cooper: What are you referring to when you characterize her as a survivor?

White: Whether it be from a failed marriage or from her troubled childhood, from feeling lonely or from reaching out to people…All of those issues that became so public during her broken marriage were instrumental to help her emerge as a highly sensitive, empathetic person. She showed a “get it” factor, without all of the psychobabble of trauma and recovery. She understood that a crisis, a trauma, is a before-and-after experience, and that it can come in unexpected ways. Life is a minefield, and she just viscerally understood that. Diana showed resilience. She also joked about things. Humor is one of the leading signs of resilience, one of the leading hallmarks of someone who will overcome. She had a wicked sense of humor to keep her head above water, including an ability to poke fun at herself and at this idea of trauma.

Cooper: It must have been frustrating to see everything surrounding her death and the media hounding.

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White: We were just starting in the movement, and we were losing a spokesperson, a patron, and someone who’d become a friend. At her funeral, needless to say, I couldn’t stop crying over the loss of someone very special to the world, but also someone who had touched my life personally.

Cooper: Tell me about the Survivor Corps.

White: The way to work out part of our grief over Diana’s passing was to build a legacy of survivorship. For 10 years we built landmine survivor networks, primarily using this peer-support model so that mine victims could get legs, jobs, and get on with their lives.

We started in Bosnia, where we had taken Diana, and we then expanded to work with Her Majesty Queen Noor of Jordan. We set up a country network there, and then in Ethiopia, Mozambique, El Salvador and Vietnam. We grew, doing more than 100,000 peer visits to homes and hospitals. We worked with each individual we met through our network to develop what we call individual recovery action plans (IRAPs). Primarily, these are the keys to recovery and self-motivation. The survivors or amputees we met would set out their own personal objectives with a peer, their mentor, and would then set objectives for their health. These objectives might be to get a better prosthetic limb or to participate in disability sports. The survivors would set up objectives for their economic livelihood, knowing that a fake leg doesn’t put food on the table.

Cooper: And they’re also just not tasty.

White: Yeah. They do break your teeth. (laughs) We also focused on social empowerment. In other words, how do you get back into the game? How do you give back? There was this obligation of community service, which was also an ethic of the organization, that if you’re going to receive, you must also give. You must pay it forward in your community. So that made us a little bit different. We weren’t just about charitable things, like, “Hi, you need a fake leg? Here’s the gum ball.” Our more specific issue was, “How do you prioritize your recovery?”

Instead of having an individual pay us back, we’d ask them to pay it forward. Let’s say we helped someone get greenhouse coverage and a startup kit for a business in Bosnia. We’d then ask that every month they take a batch of fresh tomatoes and greens to the local orphanage. So we found survivors finding great joy and motivation in the give-back, being both a beneficiary and a benefactor. That’s the give-back piece that I think is the “special sauce” of recovery, but which is also crucial to our recovery programs around the world. It’s not solely about you and your survival. It’s about your survivorship and your citizenship and your contribution to the community.

Cooper: I love the way that’s been established. Those give-back components are so needed, as you well know.

White: One of my frustrations with many disability groups around the world is that sometimes they risk falling into a sense of entitlement. Additionally, you might find a sort of disability quote-unquote “mafia,” which seems to control many of the disability groups around the world. Again, impressive, scrappy survivor types, but are they giving back? That’s the question.

The posture of being victimized, of being entitled, is sort of insatiable. I understand it, because many groups, when there are very few resources, struggle for their very survival, and perhaps are not best at providing empowering services and generational training and capacity-building to others besides themselves. Everywhere you go, you run into great groups and not-sogreat groups. I think because disability groups have traditionally been so underfunded and marginalized, both culturally and financially, there isn’t always a strong tendency towards organizational health.

Cooper: I think that, due to the paternal nature of people, sometimes the organizations that are quote “trying to benefit their clients” limit the potential with restrictions of what can and can’t be done, and their clients miss out on the benefits of helping others. We see it in the States all the time as we try to educate non-profit organizations on internal attitudinal changes.

White: Exactly. When we went around the world and we thought we were helping mine victims, we realized that in any war-affected country where we showed up, we really had to work with the community at large, including the disability groups. You can’t sustain playing favorites with one type of disability when the whole community is so desperately in need. That was one thing we observed that led to our next campaign for a barrier-free world, not just for a mine-free world.

It also seemed that the vocabulary of disability was largely the fruit of centuries of this patronizing, charitable, medical model or “sick model” approach. So we knew that the vocabulary had to change, that the law and policy structure had to change.

At the very least, even though we knew it wouldn’t spell the end of the problem, we had to have the disability rights crowd take their seats at the human rights table. That meant two things had to happen that were a bit shocking to me. The disability rights crowd needed a human rights vocabulary or framework. At best, they had perhaps a social framework, a social model, which is part-way there, but a rights-based vocabulary was missing.

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And on the other side, you had a rather developed, global human rights industry which had no disability sensitization or vocabulary. So, as we moved towards creating the international disability caucus that ultimately would drive this convention in an inclusive, participatory way, both crowds needed some sort of introduction to the other and to each others’ vocabulary. They also needed to know how to function as a campaign and as a movement while we brought our knowledge from the landmine ban movement into this disability movement.

So it was about reaching across sectors to get involved. It was about including the people with all their limbs who are not in wheelchairs. It was about fighting for the rights of 650 million people, but without losing sight that this is about any and all of us who are “temporarily able-bodied,” as they say. We all come in and out of abilities, depending on context, environment and health.

This evolved from a mine-free campaign into something bigger. We must promote a barrier-free campaign, which is colloquial for the disability rights convention work we helped to lead. When we asked ourselves, as survivors, what this was really about, it wasn’t about fake legs or wheelchair ramps. It was about how not to live as a victim. So this last piece in our conversion, in our transformation into Survivor Corps, was done in concert with this book to express a philosophy of how to live victim-free and therefore help break cycles of victimization and violence in the world.

That’s where we are today. Ultimately our raison d’être, the real heartbeat of this network, was this aspiration for a global survivor movement that would break down barriers and empower individuals to not only enjoy their rights, but to enjoy their responsibilities living their lives.

So there we have it. Survivor Corps is born. We’re one year old.

Cooper: And you only look eight months—you look very good for your age.

White: (laughs) During the exciting days of the Nobel Peace Prize and Princess Diana and Queen Noor, someone said to me, “Jerry, I know this is all heady stuff, and congratulations. However, you can only be your age. And for an organization to grow, to get on with this work, it must move from phase A to B to C to D, like our children. It’s organic, and if you try to take a shortcut, if you try to be D when you’re really B, you end up having to go back to B to grow and mature.” It was such a simple thing that someone said, and it stuck in my head. I responded, “No, we evolved over the last 12 years. We are our age.” I joke. I don’t want to sound condescending, but we sort of graduated from Landmine High School, where we were trained, and enrolled in Survivor University. Right now as an organization, we’re a freshman. We finished our freshman year of taking a whole range of new classes in survivorship, from gender-based violence to genocide, not just the landmine piece that we started with. It’s been quite a challenging and exciting year, as we are now where I think we should be, majoring in issues of survivorship in conflict-affected countries around the world. We’re bringing the leadership of survivors, those who are most scarred by conflict, into issues of conflict resolution and community rebuilding.

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I’m 46, so I’m getting old and gray and losing my hair in the process. But it’s fun to say I’m a sophomore at Survivor University this year.

Cooper: You’re still a student.

White: There’s a framing and rethinking of things a about person’s abilities. In northern Uganda, for example, where we’re working on a newer campaign, and in Rwanda as well, you see millions of people displaced, and so many people with severe disabilities due to violence. They might tell us, “We’d like to make health centers accessible to persons with disabilities.” Because people can’t even access health care, let alone microenterprise. They still have all these barriers to participation: everyone thinks it’s too expensive, someone will get hurt or it’s better to keep them in institutions. So you find methods that integrate the community and are good for everyone. Just as you’re expressing with ABILITY Awareness or the ABILITY Corps idea.

Last year we started to look at how we were doing on some of the accessibility stuff for some health centers and government buildings, and we’d sometimes discover a funny blooper, like, “Oh, isn’t that something? You can use this ramp to get in but not to get out.” And then you’d go inside and the next door would not quite be wide enough for someone in a wheelchair. So little by little, you’re retrofitting at some level and you’re trying to get them to do universal design. You realize it’s both an education and also an attempt to anticipate but not intimidate.

Our strength is probably on the front-loading capacity and the training, the technical assistance, particularly on the peer-support side. As I described earlier, Survivor Corps’ two softwares were among the best. One is peer support methodology and training, and the second is advocacy leadership, whether it be the Landmine Campaign or the accessibility caucus. We’re really trying to get hundreds of these vet-related groups together to get a total national roadmap of how we deal with community reintegration for our vets, whether they have disabilities or not.

Coalition work is like God’s work, or volunteer work, because it’s not controlled. I’m not staffing it. It’s more like coalition mobilization, where we show the leadership, the brain power and the ability to facilitate and coordinate well in serving up substance, and we don’t have to pay for the change. We can actually do something that will probably have billions of dollars of effect over the coming years.

Cooper: Do you know Dr. Liberman’s work on psychosocial rehabilitation?

White: It sounds familiar.

Cooper: He’s at UCLA. Our ABILITY Build is a model program that shows the benefits of giving back to the community and the mental well-being of the individual who is doing the volunteering.

White: We’ve met with the Corporation [Corporation for National Community Service] and with some of their leadership. Every day there’s something going on to try to get more accomplished. Who’s going to say to your face, “We object to having people with disabilities integrated into volunteerism. We object to disability being on the next conference plenary”? No one says that. But you have to keep at it, and in it. So we started with the definition of “give-back.” This leads back to the three guys who work with me. What would community service look like for vets here and abroad, and what would Vet Corps look like as they integrate the concepts? It’s essential, the service piece. It’s proven by the research, as well as by our experience to help in recovery.

It’s harder to do things, sometimes, when no one clearly objects to it. Sometimes it’s easier to fight a battle when you have an enemy. When you have people who are well-meaning and accepting, you just have to keep pushing until it’s almost legally obligated or contracted. So I’m trying to think about how to keep checkmating the ideas, so that service will integrate vets coming back as a rule, not as an exception. This allows people with disabilities not just to live off of their disability compensation or military compensation, but really to start to live again. I just got back from two and a half weeks abroad in the Middle East, so I’m a little behind. But I think we’re making in-roads and progress, because every time we meet with anyone here, from DOD to VA to the Corporation to NGOs to the 250 members of this emerging new coalition, we don’t let up.

Cooper: Did you go to Gaza with Sheikha Hissa?

White: No, we have an Israeli coordinator and we’re hiring a Palestinian coordinator. We’ve had an office in Jordan for about 10 years, trying to find these community-based projects where adversaries and enemies can work together. We’re finding that making a health center accessible is the type of project where people can say, “We have a mutual interest. It’s a good thing. It’s relatively non-political.” Once you get people working together on something, it ends up being about reconciling and building social capital for these former enemies.

Jordan was made easier because we got Queen Noor, and Diana became an international patron. But it still meant there was registration and the work and the hiring. It was sort of facilitated somewhat, but not too much. Mostly, it’s just old-fashioned work, and it takes you 10 trips over there and not just one. I feel like there are 10 years of my life I don’t even remember, when my kids were young and I was birthing this work and setting up these networks. I just don’t even know how I was able to breathe.

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Cooper: You’ve got a new book?

White: The paperback just came out in May, entitled Getting Up When Life Knocks You Down. It originally came out in hardback as I Will Not Be Broken, so it’s basically the same book, but launched fresh as a paperback squarely in the self-helpful genre. So now when someone reaches for it, they know exactly what they’re getting, as opposed to the other title. The book is really about how to overcome crises by sharing the wisdom of survivors all around the world.

Cooper: Your organization has really grown.

White: And then you wonder why you have such gray hair and so little of it left. So there is the passion piece, but it’s also about picking your battles. Sometimes it’s just a question of research mobilization. I find that, in the disability community, people act like we are a rich NGO. Resource mobilization is not something that happens overnight. It’s not something you get lucky at. It’s also seeding the garden with five million relationship meetings that should bloom something like a rosebush somewhere eventually.

But it’s also huge, hard work. It’s not like I go to a cocktail party, meet a rich person and they write a check. The more people succeed, the more everyone succeeds. Don’t be tentative on resources, be additive.

Part of the challenge is that you have to be able to sustain that resource mobilization, which means that you’ve got to put in a hell of a lot of unfunded time, and the outcome is no accident. I think campaigning has to be fun, too, not just one big slog. So someone’s paying for the ice cream or the sandwiches. Sometimes we never get a thank you. There’s no silver spoon born into any of these groups. Believe it or not, we were never popular, and there was only George Soros who was sort of interested. Eventually, we got better international support. But when it gets heady with the Nobel Prize and Princess Diana, people say, “You must be swimming in the dough.” And respond, “Show me.” Disability and doorknobs—it’s not exactly a sexy thing.

Cooper: Oh, come on!

White: Sometimes it is. (laughs)

Cooper: You claim you’ve never been lucky. But when you took that hike—

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White: (laughs) I actually do think that was lucky. Whenever I talk to my kids’ high school classes, it’s interesting how young people want to draw a very direct line. “You made lemonade out of lemons, therefore the lemons were good. It’s good that you were injured by a landmine, because look what it led to.” I say, “Not so fast. I will never give good press to the landmines or to wars that leave military litter that maims innocent civilians for decades to come.”

Cooper: How do you feel about your work with the UN and the human rights convention?

White: I’m glad that there is a high, comprehensive international standard now set for disability rights as an aspect of human rights. I’m proud of that. That’s a legacy, and it will take a hundred years to play out. But I’m disappointed that the disability community, in its contraction and its self-obsession, forgets that this is really about six billion people. Every time they say “There’s nothing about us without us,” I add, “There’s no success without the rest.” I understand the playing field is not level yet, but let’s pretend it is, because we’ll make more progress wheeling down the road. “Wake up, guys, it’s about all of us. This is the best human rights convention for all survivors, for all people breathing, for all grandparents who are aging, for all of us who have mixed ability.”

Cooper: Are you doing anything in the microfinance arena?

White: We do what we call linking and referring abroad. That means setting up these empowerment peer-support networks and working with survivor groups. Obviously, one of the big issues in developing countries is not just health, but also the livelihood. We say, “Okay, what’s your objective there? How do you get to the microfinance? How do you qualify for a loan?” It might be that we’ve done some granting to get them to a certain level, working with vocational training institutes in Jordan, for example, to make these resources accessible. So we dabble in the economic space and then we end up doing what we call economic social work. But at the end of the day, we aren’t specialists in microfinance.

Cooper: Do you look in the mirror and ask, “How did I get here?”

White: I actually do enjoy holding up mirrors to myself and to others. It’s sort of funny, and I’m trying to learn. I can tell my children, “This is this, this is that.” It doesn’t matter. They have to come to it themselves. And yeah, you could say to me, “On the contrary, you became all obsessed with landmines around the world. No wonder you forgot 10 years of your life, because you were fighting this demon that bit you and you’re mad at it.” But it’s about channeling passion and anger in a way that allows outsiders to hold up a mirror. Maybe this was a delayed passionate response that was part compulsion, part healthy in getting it out of my system, and part, who knows?

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I know you can’t really over-psychoanalyze where people are. You just try to have a “net positive.” This is what Princess Diana showed and taught me. Here was a woman who was rather complex. I’m not making a saint out of her. She was insecure and complicated, she did this and that and she did sleep with married men. Butwas she coming into understanding her gift and purpose on the planet? Yes. Was she practicing her gift in ways that resulted in a “net positive” in the world? Yes. Is it okay that we’re all complicated and we seek to be better this year than last, and we seek to “net positive” for the good of humanity or for the good of life while we’re here? Yes. I think that’s a pretty tall order, to “net positive” and to be mindful of ourselves and who we are.

I’m not asking, “Does Diana know all of her issues?” How much counseling does it take? Did I know the motivation of why I did this and that in life? You actually can’t. Diana taught me that it’s okay to be a mixed bag, but feed your angels, not your demons. And that’s what she was doing. It was working.

And the fact is, when I started to get to know King Hussein and Queen Noor, the King had this way of going back to people who may have tried to kill him the month before. It was like an invitation. My view of positive advocacy involves not shaming people or blaming them, but inviting them to do better. King Hussein could appeal to that maybe 10% of humanity in a person, even with maybe 90% of that person being an enemy. When you approach people for change and invite them to get involved, when you appeal to that higher piece, whatever angel is left in them—with some people it’s more than others—that’s powerful.

Invite others to do the same. Invite them to feed their angels. King Hussein was in a tough neighborhood, and his wife, Queen Noor, knew exactly who had been his enemy or who had tried to kill him or take him out over the years. She said it was harder for her to forgive and forget than it was for him, because he’d practiced that partially as a survival mechanism, but also in part because there’s no alternative. Many despot dictators and unsavory people are still sweet babysitters. It’s all weird and mysterious.

Some people like to try to make sense out of it. Allow for the humanity. Allow for the mixed bag. And then you’re really focused on moving the group to “net positive.” I know that what’s good and right would be removing barriers to full participation in society by people with disabilities. That’s good and right. It’s going to be hard work, so why not work on it and it will come true? In pieces. Can I “net positive” on this? People can hate me, or can find that my personality is grating. They can look at Jerry and say, “There’s an arrogant bastard.” My response: “I’m sorry you feel that way, but I’m just trying to ‘net positive’ here.”

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