Nobel Reflections on Making Social Change: Interview with Jerry White

November 30, 2018

Jerry White is a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize for his work in the removal of landmines. In this interview, Jerry reflects on some of the important challenges his work faced and how those challenges serve as signposts for initiating a movement on music, business, and peace. Integrating notions of harmony, dissonance and resolution, White also suggests that his own movement was structured almost like a musical itself and the same components help us understand the narrative arc of what might be possible for one pertaining to music, business and peace.

Timothy L. Fort interviewer, with additional questions from Ruth Stone and Olivia Martinez.

Timothy L. Fort: I’m going to be interviewing Jerry this afternoon. Jerry is the CEO of Global Impact Strategies, Professor of Practice at the University of Virginia, and co-chair of Global Covenant Partners. Jerry is known for leading high-impact campaigns including the historic International Campaign to Ban Landmines which was a co-recipient of the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1997. He also co-founded Survivor Corps, formerly Landmine Survivors Network, the first international organization created by and for survivors to help victims of war rebuild their lives.

Jerry was also a student in my last executive MBA class that I taught at the University of Michigan. It is a little bit daunting to think of how I’m going to teach ethics to a someone who shares the Nobel Peace Prize. What the heck am I supposed to tell him? Then I moved to Washington, D.C., and it turned out that Jerry lived two blocks away from me. It’s become a nice, long relationship and it is a delight to have him here.

Jerry, you worked at the State Department, you have a new business, you shared in the Nobel Peace Prize, you went on to negotiate the UN Commission on the rights for persons with disabilities, and now you’re working at the University of Virginia to explore ways in which religions can advance peacebuilding. It seems to me that this background requires both organizational skills, and also dealing with the ineffable, the “hard-to-put-your-hands-around” kind of stuff that strikes me as having similarities with both business and music. So, to begin, I was wondering if you could briefly share with us what you did with the landmine project and how that might relate to music.

Jerry White: Thanks so much all of you, and I apologize that I couldn’t be there in person as well as listen in all day. I’ve been distracted by the dissonance of politics and the lack of harmony in Washington and in our democracy these days. I also want to thank you, Tim, again, for the friendship and all I’ve learned from you. You’re the first MBA business school professor who would actually sing in one of the classes. I thought, wow, you actually have a voice. Now, you don’t want me to sing, and you actually don’t want me to talk about music too much, because you’ll expose all of my weaknesses, including learning piano for ten years and then dropping it. Now I am an appreciator of music but also knowing my limits. 

I’m daunted by what you are trying to do, but I’m so enthused because I have been trying to play in my mind what is it about music that enhances social impact around the world on some of the biggest issues of our day. It’s important for me to start out to say that I think when you are going after strategic impact for anything – and peace is in that category – you’re in the category of creativity and that’s an important point. So, I thought, in all the campaigns, including the one that we start with here, the landmine campaign, why were able to be successful? I think the music genre that would align most with the landmine campaign would be jazz, because there were all sorts of improvisation and breaking of the rules to create this campaign.

What is it about organizing twelve-hundred organizations in over a hundred and twenty countries with a call to action to ban anti-personnel mines and help the victims? What is it about a Princess of Wales, who shows up in the second act of this drama, has a virtuoso voice, and starts to riff on her own in ways that we didn’t see coming, but with which the audience was quite pleased? And then, how do we resolve that suddenly in the second act, or beginning of the third act, that princess is dead? How does that dissonance resolve?

I think we should look at diverse campaigns and class them differently, with the ICBL closer to the jazz metaphor. Similarly, there’s the question of alignment in a campaign like the landmine campaign. I’ve come to realize that you have to align wisdom, understanding, and knowledge, on three levels, like a chord, and know which part you are talking about. When you’re talking about wisdom, that would be like iconic anthems, as our previous speaker was talking about. Anthems can tap into the value set and the principles that are transcendent for various groups involved. There is unifying vision and a sound of wisdom involved in iconic music that takes us, collectively, beyond ourselves.

I’d add a question and a footnote to that: in these days, most social campaigns, including Peace and Conflict, are having less impact by entering from the left side of the political spectrum. I might posit, whether through folk songs like “We Shall Overcome” or something similar, they trigger people on the right to react, thinking, “Oh, this is another lefty cause.” So, in the work on landmines we did in Israel, there was no way you could come in through the left, leading with Israeli non-governmental groups such as “Peace Now.” We had to come in from the right. One needs to consider whether there is music from the right that might coalesce, some sort of iconic “conservative” music that can offer an umbrella to a movement’s call to action?

Music is also about Understanding. For every conference we did in the landmine campaign, whether in Mozambique, or in Cambodia, Bosnia, Colombia, music was always involved. Music brings people together. The orchestration of the different musicians and players and pieces of any systems-changing campaign have to be attended to. Music and dance that manifests local cultural ownership were very important for the participants, international as well as local campaigners. So, music can be is used effectively as a coalescing, coalition-building effort. In every major campaign music was involved.

Thirdly, there is music as sort of Knowledge in action. Music is a tool of excellence that reveals knowing and skill. Because of the nature of the weapon, maiming individuals and blowing up families, landmine victims needed to grapple with their resilience as a way of overcoming trauma. Or music could just contribute to a fundraiser. You might recall that Paul McCartney got involved with our project. I remember an event with Paul McCartney in a music-history-making duet with Brian Wilson, trading parts and harmonies, singing “Let it Be” and “Imagine.” There was the element of surprise; not just music as business as usual, but music as excellently performed, surprising, taking an audience to a new place. So, if it’s a fundraiser, it might be you just need a good song for entertainment. That’s not as iconic as you know the “Wisdom” category. It means music is a demonstration of excellence, that people want to hear, and is hitting your audience and doing what you want it to achieve, at that sort of action-based level. Maybe these can be different ways of thinking about campaigns as music, to be deconstructed, and theorized: how music is used in any campaign at more than one level.

Timothy L. Fort: Great. Jerry, we hit on some of these themes earlier today, like local ownership and jazz and some of the other things. Some of the things you just said were new: “music from the right” and “surprise.” I think that those are both interesting things to think about. Let me go to another one of your campaigns, that was your disability rights campaign, and ask you to what extent do you think that music and business help to advance those causes.

Jerry White: I would add the elements of pacing, crescendo and momentum. In the disability rights campaign, there were a billion people around the world who were largely invisible to the human rights framework. They have been plodding away in the fields of rights, whether they’re the Blind Federation or the Deaf Union, or the different types of disabilities who have their organizations. Any campaign has a mafia of pre-existing players who should be honored. They haven’t been tirelessly working on their special rights for decades.

In our case, we realized that disability rights did not have a place at the table with the global field of human rights. They didn’t even know the song lyrics for human rights. They knew about charity, medical models, social rights, and this denial of their opportunities, their discrimination, but not the fulsome picture of how human rights had evolved and budded over the years. In that case, you had to recast the disability crowd, teaching them to learn the human rights harmony sheets, train them on how to do techniques of negotiation at the U.N., and say, “Aren’t we all worthy to have a seat at this table?” The thematic chorus of disability groups became the chant of “Nothing About Us Without Us.” Radical inclusion was critical.

Then you realize, damn, this is really hard work. We’re not doing jazz outside the U.N. convention hall, where we negotiated the first draft of the landmine treaty and took it outside conventional constructs; we were well inside the conventional constructs of UN Human Rights negotiation, which meant this is going to be a long slog, it’s going to take all of these governments buying in early, and it was hard work. We did a lot of work and in fact this is a serious issue, but it needs fun. It needs some surprise. Like landmines, some of the dark and dismal issues from cluster-munitions require music to lighten up a bit.

In this case, the issues of human rights and disability and poverty and exclusion were quite sad. There wasn’t an anthem that emerged. Instead, we took over the UN General Assembly Hall, and even during the time post 9/11 of intensified security, and introduced the element of surprise music. This was almost halfway or two thirds of the way into the campaign, when it felt like a negotiation slog. We needed momentum, we needed sex appeal. Princess Diana had brought that to the landmine campaign within a medium of the injection of celebrity and beauty and icon status: a Princess cared about maimed people would bring compassion into the minefields.

In the case of disability rights, we surprised everyone by casting Lou Reed and The Blind Boys of Alabama, performing together for the first time, as well as other people, like percussionists – blind and deaf – from Jordan. We mixed it up to surprise people, delight, and also spotlight: “There are people who are deaf, signing the whole thing,” and opening and moving chairs so the seeing-eye dogs and people with mobility disabilities and wheelchairs could move around and dance and celebrate in the UN General Assembly Hall. So, in that case, we had other music, but it needed a center point, pulling together, a coalescing musical moment.

The campaign itself, though, was more like an old-fashioned musical. You know, it had ensemble casts, it had crowd-pleasers, it had like decent harmony, and we had known players. It wasn’t as exotic as jazz, but you had to know what type of music were we playing here in this human rights campaign. Even so, it needed some rock and roll. Lou Reed had to come in and, of all things, sing a song with The Blind Boys of Alabama. This was counter-intuitive and shocking to people, but things picked up, and Kofi Annan and the UN Secretary General’s office started to pay closer attention. This brought rock and roll into a rather serious issue like disability. The “musical” had its way and its beginning, its middle and end. Campaigns that do not have momentum, crescendo, and I dare say harmonic, musical, creative sex appeal will die a slow death by just plodding onwards and never actually inspiring progress.

Timothy L. Fort: I know all of you are sitting here, listening to Jerry and listening to all of these musical metaphors and rhetoric that he’s using, and you think he planned this for a long time. I can tell you, he talks like this. This is a cup of coffee with Jerry. He has this ability to weave all of this stuff that’s particularly pertinent to every conversation that you’re in.

We’re sitting here in Bloomington right now, trying to imagine what we might do with music, business, and peace, and we’ve had about a thousand ideas thrown against the walls today that are daunting, confusing, and inspiring all at the same time. I’m wondering what your thoughts are on the big challenges and the opportunities that we might be facing in trying to kick off this kind of program that we’re doing right now.

Jerry White: I think it’s so perfect, that’s why I’m happy to help in any way I can, add some value, however limited. So again, you asked me a question – you know, I’m an Irishman and I have blarney and I have thoughts on these things that are sort of limited, but they are born from experience. They just have no footnotes, which you all must bring to this table. I may put forth a little jingle, but in fact it needs footnoting and more in-depth research. Having this academic initiative in leading from the DNA of Indiana, which is known for its music school, and to build on that with people like who are talking about ethics, peace, business, and music, you’re coalescing already. I can smell something important happening energetically, in your backyard and on campus. When I see that the DNA of the wisdom of that, and the talent of the university, and the needing the world are coalescing or aligning, then I find it rather interesting, and I think it is so important what you’re doing.

People don’t have this missing piece of why music. Why harmony? Even at UVA, where I’m co-leading a global initiative on religion, politics, and conflict, it’s interesting how few people understand the music of religion. And that a religion-related campaign has to be more operatic. You’re dealing with icons like Abraham and Ishmael and Isaac and Moses and Muhammad and Jesus and Sarah and Hagar, all of the above. They have to tap into the diverse liturgies, in the canons, in the chants, and the great classical music. This will be much more like Gregorian chanting meets opera. And often for me to talk this way, at UVA with the political science department, it’s as if I’m crazy. In a sense, it’s like, “That’s nice, could you then come down a bit, you know, from your rarefied air” of creative social entrepreneurship and art.

So, this idea of actually structuring the conversation you’re trying to do, on any campaign, but in particular my life has been on this peace-building and conflict zone; I try to get away from it but in fact I’m thrown back into these plotlines to try to produce some type of harmony and change. So, I think what you’re doing is critical and coalescing and true to your campus. Therefore, it has a strong success at showing leadership in the world and having some impact.

Timothy L. Fort: One last question and then I’ll open up for Q&A. I know that you have a business now that you’re doing, a new technology platform that uses advanced decision analytics to help advance peace and security, and so I’m wondering how this business approach might provide some benefit or thinking about topics that we’re talking about today.

Jerry White: I guess there are two answers. One is just that again, I’m not a math person. Math matters, and piano is sort of a perfect math instrument, but we’ve got to understand the linguistics-type, the qualitative experience of music made into a quantitative platform to game out impact. My startup is an advanced decisions analytics company that has learned how to take qualitative insight and translate it into decision algorithms that show high-accuracy predictions on some of the toughest issues of our day where there is not good information. This is not a big-data company. The company looks at places in conflict, where you have mystery, enigma, insufficient or hard-to-capture data. How do you use models that are in a sense mathematically musical to predict what’s going to happen next? And if you want different scenarios of strategy, creatively, how would you change the tunes, the assumptions, and fine-tune strategies to have the impact that you do want? There is something about math, music, and modeling that is important to explore on the business front.

Secondly, it’s an emerging area to understand what is music that engages us, that we participate in, because it’s also, you know, just entertaining, right? If you watch the trend line of Jeff Skoll, developing this year of launching the Social Entertainment Impact Center at UCLA, then it’s not quite music, but it’s analogous, I think. The business of social entertainment, social impact entertainment, whether Participant Media publishing the “Inconvenient Truth,” to all of the wonderful movies that have won more awards from “Spotlight” and others. Issues-oriented art brought to the people – a huge audience – but are now trying to ask what are the metrics to measure social impact entertainment. So, our company was asked by Skoll’s team start to model out what that looks like. What are the indices, the notes, the frequencies, the factors that in fact co-create impact, and how does it vary for an environmental issue or a nuclear issue or an economic issue, whatever it might be?

Watching some of these and moving your lens out a bit to say music is actually so comprehensive that you can put almost anything into it, just like democracy, just because there’s so much there. But in fact understanding, if they’re doing that from an entertainment point of view, how can we start to measure that trend and align the audience’s needs and their love for entertainment, good music, as well good film? If good storytelling is not present, then it’s not going to reach anyone. What’s the channel through which you’re going to try to reach that audience? Film documentary, social media, even attaching social campaigns. So, what’s the message, the call to action? Are you clear about what the lyric sheet is, or the lead sheet for the jazz? There are things about just producing and aligning wisdom, understanding and knowledge, audience, channel and message, as well as other things that I think are about harmonizing, not the same as finding unison. I’m not particularly fond of “peace movements” because of the dominant approach to harmony as unison, as agreement. This can end up being a disaster and create more conflict. We are working in “conflict movements.” Music should move you to drama and dissonance and then some form of resolution.

My son is studying at the Berklee School of Music (so I do have one kid who sort of knows the field). I told him I was going to be talking to you, and he was proud of me even though he laughed that I would have nothing to say. He said “Dad, I’ve been experimenting with these chords on the piano. They’re the three most ugly notes together that you can possibly pull together,” and he showed me some chords and they just sound awful when you play them together. It was screaming for resolution; the most dissonant, the most “violent” of the chords. My son says, “Dad, music is not one note” – i.e. unison – “and one note is not music, it’s just a note. And two notes, an interval—fine, that’s still not music. You have to build on the chord. I’m giving you three things to start to build on or think about resolution.” So, I asked him, “How do you resolve those three awful-sounding notes?” He replies “Well, there are a couple ways to do it. Sometimes it takes two to three steps to get the resolution.” Or, you can actually, with everyone taking a half-step, a distinct half-step in some direction, create a bigger space for the distinct notes to play out: you reach more harmony.

This was a teeny little son-father metaphor, but I thought this is so interesting that I want to think about it more. So, I put it on your table. I think for the global covenant of Abrahamic, triadic, you know, where Islam, Christianity, and Judaism are scapegoating and massacring each other at levels that are tragic, harkening back to the past, how does one resolve dissonance and conflict when it’s screeching out at you – in the Middle East and North Africa, where religion-related violence is the fastest-growing in the world?  How is it that music and opera and classical and structured principles can combine in this big challenge ahead? I don’t know if that’s all about business, but there’s plenty of work to be done, for sure.

Jerry White: Do we have time for a couple of questions?

Olivia Martinez: Hi, thank you so much first of all, thank you this is really inspiring and I’ve learned so much. I’m a student at IU, I play French horn but I’m a business minor, so I also get to see inside Kelly and it’s really interesting the two schools of thought there. But I was wondering, since you were talking about your son, is there something that young people do really well that we can all learn from or is there something that we need to bring to the table that we’re not doing to change the world?

Jerry White: Now that I’m teaching at UVA, my students and my four kids, who are twenty, twenty-two, twenty-four, twenty-six, who are right in this rife demographics your age – are ready to take the baton. All sixty of my students, on the first day of class, said they want to be change-makers. They want to make a difference in the world. I’m loving this resurrection of idealism that I saw missing sort of in the nineties, and so I’m seeing in my children, and on grounds at UVA. You should not be cynical. You cannot make music if you’re cynics, and you cannot speak to the world without idealism. It’s not just romantic, it’s interesting and important to cast in the play.

Whether they go for rebel music or Metallica, youth seem to be drawing from Bob Dylan and folk and jazz. They loved Hamilton the musical. You may love the French horn, but that’s not your only thing. It’s the French horn in the context of music and history and wanting to make a difference in the world. How does one do it? I think it’s very important to not just cast youth in the play, but to invite them to start playing their instruments, fine tuning their skill, and contributing to this collective impact. And that means you have to play your instrument the best, with purpose. Just being a technical musician means nothing. I can paint watercolors and be boring and try to sell them on some tourist site. When is art really art? When does it go beyond your skill because you’re speaking something bigger than yourself, something universal. When you’re tapping into the world and these energies, that’s when you start to pop. You know that when you groove in your music, when your skill suddenly pops and you’re like “I think I just created music.” You were playing it all along, but it didn’t transcend to the category of art. That’s the same thing with campaigns. I feel it and I know it. This is a question of “social art,” and if youth aren’t cast in it, even watching Prince Harry, who I got to meet a couple weeks ago in London, taking on the unfinished business of his mother’s work on landmines and other things, and Prince William as well, this is absolutely critical. The rising generation will make more music together. We have to mix up the scholarship that we have in the room and in your connections, the youth have to take us the instruments, and the big opera play where there’s something that’s bigger than all of us here, we’re just doing our jobs. I do mine, which is I throw words and metaphors at you and then pretend it’s music, but it’s really an invitation for everyone to take up their instrument.

Timothy L. Fort: Like we’ve said throughout, each one of these conversations could go on for about five hours and I know Jerry has other things to do, but is there one other question maybe that we can have the time for?

Ruth Stone: I was struck by the idea that it can’t be just everybody doing the same thing, and harmony, but it’s all these things existing together, and that’s something I learned studying music in West Africa that the longer a piece goes on and the more successful it is, the more people come in with variations. Each person has a variation, and they all have to be working, sometimes in tension with one another. But to me that was such an interesting metaphor because it wasn’t this idea that we’re all singing on a unison, or we’re all singing on the…resolving to the tonic note, but there are these things coexisting, and that’s what people found most interesting.

Jerry White: Right, and I love that. Also, when you see the cutting-edge musical form change, I mean, I love musicals and sometimes they’re cliché, from “No No Nanette” or “The Music Man,” to more contemporary forms such as “The Book of Mormon” or “Hamilton” (and many others, these are still just blockbusters), they’re playing with the form, they’re spoofing the form, they’re reinventing forms within the form and the casting. That’s the edge, so as you guys are moving towards next year, the coming year of things that you want to do to sort of build crescendo for next spring, we don’t want to beat it over the head with taking clichés and metaphors of music to say “Here’s our percussion panel and here’s our choral panel and here’s our variations on a theme panel.” It’s all true, those things have to mix in, so it is a creative effort for you all to sort of try to plot out the different roles of the orchestra leaders, plus the composers, plus the lyricist, plus the venue and the staging of it all. 

I don’t want to create one big cliché for you because there’s so much on the table here to discuss – just asking me to speak to you today started my engines going, because I had a new metaphor to think about and organize. I thought, “Oh, I don’t know anything about waltzes” but I’m supposed to write a book on the art of strategy, and I was like, “There are triplets in almost everything I see...there’s a waltz in the art of strategy.” Let’s explore that more deeply, how music underpins and transcends strategic change-making campaigns. You’ve inspired me.

Someone: Some think you need to write an opera!

Jerry White: A faux opera, yeah.

Timothy L. Fort: Alright, well thank you very much Jerry, that was inspiring, which I expected it to be. And thanks for your time, I know you’re really crushed on time right now.

Jerry White: Thank you all for the hard work today, I appreciate it.

[Transcription by Molly Covington]

1868 Last modified on April 7, 2020