This description of Jerry White's work was prepared when Jerry White was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2009.
Jerry White is creating a victim-free world by transforming passive victims into active survivors and leaders. Jerry’s Survivor Corps, a worldwide peer-to-peer support network, gives conflict survivors the tools they need to become leaders in their communities. By transforming survivors’ perceptions of themselves, Jerry is able to change global societal attitudes towards role of conflict survivors in the prevention of violent conflict.
The New Idea
When a 20-year old Jerry White stepped on a landmine on a weekend camping trip in Israel and lost his left leg, it would have been easy to remain a victim. However, Jerry chose life, not death, and not revenge. He literally stood up and committed himself to creating a world in which victims do not exist; one in which survivors thrive.Since 80% of the victims of war are civilians, it is essential than civilians stand up in the effort to end war. Jerry created the Survivor Corps network, which utilizes the power of partnerships, community, and leadership to bring issues of justice, human security, reconciliation, and inclusive development to the forefront of international decision-making. Survivors of conflict recover through peer support, rebuild through collective action, and reform through advocacy, creating policy reform and public awareness that cycles back into the original purpose of breaking the vicious cycle of victimization and violence throughout the world. Indeed, Survivor Corps is the only worldwide network that supports survivors of conflict.The network shows survivors how they can rebuild their lives and communities in order to break free of the cycle of victimization and violence. Landmines and legs are ‘things’; Survivor Corps rejects the importance of things in relation to people and survival in an effort to systemically break down the concept of the “victim”. Not only does Survivor Corps promote mass empowerment of these survivors and support their reintegration back into society, it also create platforms for these rehabilitated leaders to address the sources of conflict and destruction throughout the world. What began as the Landmine Survivor Network has now expanded into the Survivor Corps community of regional hubs in 19 conflict-scarred nations – from Azerbaijan to Vietnam, and from Burundi to the United States – spanning all the major continents bar Australia. These hubs, all led by survivors themselves, service an additional 40 countries.Jerry has also played a global leadership role in giving survivors a voice on the world stage by bringing them to the table with other CSOs and international bodies, such as the United Nations, to fight for survivor rights and violence reduction. Jerry’s Landmine Survivors Network (LSN) was an instrumental organizer of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL), for which Jerry was a co-recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1997. Since then, Survivor Corps has led other CSOs in the effort to pass the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (2008) – an effort to end discrimination and provide equal opportunity to 650 million people with disabilities globally – and then the Convention on Cluster Munitions (2008) – designed to phase out the use of cluster bombs due to the disproportionate harm they cause civilians.
The word “victim” implies a call to sympathy and pity; it is a “strangely comfortable” defense mechanism people use when it is too difficult to face the reality of their horror-filled situation. Tragic personal stories like Jerry’s are everywhere – civilian casualties of landmines and cluster munitions are often minding their daily lives, performing some menial activity such as collecting scrap metal when they are blown up, often by a long-forgotten mine. There are over 60 million landmines buried in over 80 countries. Every 22 minutes, someone steps on a landmine somewhere in the world; 80% of these landmine victims are civilians, half of whom are children. In 2007 alone, 5,436 people became casualties of landmines, primarily in Africa and the Middle East.These incidents result in a pattern of victimization that creates apathy, resentment, and hatred, furthering the potential for violence across the globe. “Embracing [this pattern] has cost the human race a great deal. Headlines of terrorism, violence, and disaster assault us with increasing frequency. And the mass of victims grows daily”, writes Jerry. In other words, victims blame, communities isolate, and nations fight. Victims become victimizers and the cycle begins anew. Approaches to rehabilitation often include “critical stress debriefs,” which require victims to recount their traumas both for testimony purposes as well as personal development. Rather than promoting resilience, this approach leads survivors to focus on what they have lost over what they still have.Yet, victimization is not unique to conflict survivors. 10% of the world’s population is burdened with some form of disability, ranging from amputated limbs to blindness. In today’s society, pity is the common response to those less-fortunate. Global human rights legislation that protects people with disabilities from human rights violations was nonexistent until very recently. In much of our societies, disability is perceived as a taboo conversation topic; it is easier to isolate those who are different rather than enable them with the same tools and opportunities as everyone else. But, for these victims, losing a limb in fact hurts less than losing their place in society.
One of the founding ideals of Survivor Corps is that no one is better equipped to break cycles of violence than those who have survived war. By preventing the tendency to be victimized by a terrible event, Survivor Corps is creating a culture which fundamentally promotes capabilities, rights and reconciliation over apathy, surrender and antipathy.The Survivor Corps strategy has two main components: First, it transforms victims into survivors and leaders. A victim is someone living in the past, floating in self-pity, resentful of their situation and others, and constantly demanding of society – preventing this perhaps natural tendency is a major challenge. To exterminate these “ghosts,” Survivor Corps ingrains five core ideas into its network of survivors. First, they must Face Facts, accept the harsh – often permanent - reality about suffering and loss, however brutal it may be. Secondly, they must Choose Life, rejecting death and letting go of resentments. Reaching Out is the third step, finding peers, friends, and family to break the isolation and loneliness that comes in the aftermath of a crisis. It is critical to seek empathy rather than pity from the outside world. Next, the survivor must Get Moving, get out of the house, out of the solitude. Lastly, they must Give Back. Thriving in their new reality requires the capacity to give again and again through acts of service and kindness.While becoming a survivor takes a haul of personal strength and courage, Survivor Corps helps by providing different kinds of support. Each survivor goes through a three-step process. Firstly, the network provides peer support, which has been shown to significantly improve the mental and physical health of individuals. In each location, survivors are trained as outreach workers and lay social workers (e.g. Bosnia has 16 outreach workers). These individuals access conflict-affected individuals (both recent ones and others who have been battling their wounds for years) by forming relationships with neighborhood hospitals and prosthetic centers and then by word of mouth and referrals. They make house-calls and hospital visits to begin the victim’s journey towards survivorship. To date, the Survivor Corps network has made over 116,000 home and hospital visits to survivors of conflict around the world. Each survivor creates their own Individual Recovery Action Plan (IRAP) with their outreach worker. The second step is to help the individual reintegrate back into society. Survivor Corps provides or facilitates access to healthcare, rehabilitation, employment opportunities and training, prosthetic devices, and the right to be treated with respect and dignity. Survivors are given 2 years to be recipients of Survivor Corps’ assistance, after which they are expected to ‘pay it forward’ to the best of their ability. Survivor Corps uses standardized measurement mechanisms to monitor progress baseline to recovery, and has consistently seen that their outreach workers catalyze significant progress within the survivors.The third step is to move from survivorship to leadership. Roughly 80% of the 12,000 survivors who have completed the program give back to the community after they have recovered, if not as vocal leaders then by signing petitions, providing testimonials, and so on. Indeed, giving back is a core component of a person’s recovery cycle. On occasion, ‘Super-Survivors’ like Jerry or Ken Rutherford (the co-founder of LSN), serve as role models of the Survivor Corps transformation cycle, from victim to global leader.. . Thus, the first component of the work is to help survivors recover and rebuild their lives through peer support and reintegration assistance, and then serve their communities through leadership and collective action.The second component of Jerry’s approach is to harness this network to create a landmine-free, barrier-free world, thereby eliminating the existence of victims in the first place. Both the LSN in the 1990s and now Survivor Corps have transformed the way conflict survivors are perceived on an international scale. No longer will pictures of victims with bloody stumps for limbs be used as poster children for the impact of war on civilians. Instead, Jerry has empowered his network to show the world that they can be productive citizens, entitled to the same respect as anyone else. Jerry organized his network of survivors and collaborated with other CSOs, national governments, and international organizations to create the Nobel Peace Prize-winning treaty to ban landmines from all future conflict, eventually working towards a future in which they do not exist altogether.The core contribution of the LSN to the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty negotiations was to give survivors a voice at the negotiating table, which enabled important additions regarding survivor rights and welfare to be included in the treaty, the first time specific survivor rights language had been inserted into any such agreement. Another signature contribution was to persuade leading public figures such as Princess Diana and Queen Noor of Jordan to advocate vociferously for the treaty. Eventually, the Ottawa Process (leading to the signing of the treaty) marked the first time small and medium-sized powers collaborated to address a single issue. Since the treaty was passed, over 50 million landmines have been destroyed. Today, there are more landmines coming out of the ground than going in and the casualty rate has dipped from 30,000 annually to less than 6,000 in just one decade.Jerry’s approach to raising funds to work on landmine removal illustrates his creative and entrepreneurial mindset. For instance, when he realized that the United States government could not support him financially for reasons of politics, Jerry approached the Center for Disease Control with a new strategy. Rather than presenting the campaign as a human rights issue, he successfully framed it as a public health issue, warning of the dangers of an increasingly disenfranchised disabled population in need of persistent attention and funding by public health actors.Jerry’s efforts to marry the disabilities community with the human rights community has resulted in the creation of two of the most comprehensive human rights treaties ever negotiated at the United Nations. The Cluster Munitions treaty in fact went strides past the Mine Ban Treaty in terms of the provisions for survivors of the weapon. And the treaty has already shown signs of impact: it is perhaps no coincidence that while Israel used cluster bombs in its war against Lebanon in 2006, it did not use them in the conflict in Gaza in late 2008, not long after the treaty came into effect. Similarly, Survivor Corps played a catalytic leadership role in the creation of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. This is the only truly global manifestation of the rights-based approach to disabilities – so comprehensive in fact that it is colloquially known as the “Survivor’s Bill of Rights”. Along with the Mine Ban Treaty, these two treaties have indirectly benefited millions of people around the world, including saving incalculable lives in the years ahead.After the success of the ICBL campaign, the LSN came to realize that their true mandate was not about landmines or disabilities but about survivorship: the creation of a more humane, barrier-free, dignity-filled world. Widows, amputees, and those with psycho-social traumas were also victims of conflict. Over a 4-year multi-stakeholder process, the LSN became Survivor Corps to reflect this new vision of a world without victims, a systemic change that will transform the world as we know it.
From a very young age, Jerry knew he was meant to lead people. At age 5, he began organizing theatre productions in his family’s boathouse, from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory to Mary Poppins. He mastered all the skills of theatre, from scripting and casting to staging and communicating to an audience. This experience was, in many ways, a training ground for social leadership. Jerry sees life as a series of real-world plays: people consistently need to be casted, face dramatic conflict, and then resolve problems in ways that connect with a global audience.At Brown University, Jerry became the first non-Jew to major in Judaic studies. He spent his junior year abroad in Israel, trying to learn more about Judaism, Hebrew, and Arabic by “walking in the footsteps of the prophets”. In April 1984, Jerry and two friends went camping in the Golan Heights. Unaware that their campsite was located in an unmarked minefield, he stepped on a landmine, which took away his left leg and mangled his right. Thanks to the bravery of his two companions, Jerry was carried out of the minefield and transported to an Israeli hospital, where he spent a year in recovery and rehabilitation, choosing not to return to the United States. Recovering in Israel, he came to understand the power of peer support: a week after the accident, a man who had also lost his leg in a minefield in Lebanon appeared in front of Jerry’s hospital bed. He asked Jerry to identify which leg he had lost. Due to the effectiveness of the man’s prosthetic leg, Jerry could not do so. “What you have is a nose-bleed,” he told Jerry, “you’ll get over it. The challenge is in your head and your heart, not your leg”. With the framework this man had given him, Jerry faced facts, chose life, and has gone on to give mountains back.After graduating from Brown two years later, Jerry moved to Washington, D.C. to do weapons research as an intern at the Brookings Institution, where he came to understand the power of the Washington rolodex in the international arena. He then worked at the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Wisconsin Project, conducting research on arms buildup and proliferation in developing countries. Although he was working to fight the very power which had taken his leg, Jerry felt he was missing a critical aspect of his fulfillment. He compares his arms research work to a game of chess: interesting yet not emotionally satisfying.In 1995, Jerry met Ken Rutherford, who had lost both his legs in a landmine accent in Somalia. Together, they launched the Landmine Survivors Network in Jerry’s basement. As Jerry and Ken began to get involved in the anti-landmine movement, they realized that there was an enormous gap in the field: survivors were being used as poster material rather than actually being involved in the struggle. So LSN started to bring survivors off the posters and to the table, bringing their voices to the movement.Jerry has an MBA from the University of Michigan and lives in Maryland with his wife and four children. After receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, he became even more determined to build a lasting system, seeing himself as a marathon runner and not a sprinter. He continues to work full-time to expand Survivor Corps globally and help build a world free of victims.