Monday, April 27, 2009

The OSI Interview: Marianne Elliott

After a decade working as a human rights advocate in New Zealand, Afghanistan, the Gaza Strip and Timor-Leste, Marianne returned to New Zealand in 2008 to write down some of the extraordinary stories she had gathered along the way. Her work experiences range from heading up a provincial office of the United Nations Assistance Mission to Afghanistan, providing human rights advice to the Government of Timor-Leste and working as international legal and media advisor to the extraordinary Palestinian Centre for Human Rights in Gaza. "Living in the midst of conflict," she says, "My friends in these war-torn countries have taught me how to practice my own brand of personal peace." Today Marianne divides her time between writing, working as a policy advisor and advocate/lobbyist for Oxfam New Zealand (a not-for-profit international development agency dedicated to finding lasting solutions to poverty and injustice) meditation practice, training to be a yoga teacher, learning to surf and post-graduate studies in psychology. Her current writing project is a memoir about her life and work in Afghanistan, and you can read more about her experiences at Zen and the Art of Peacekeeping.

1. In the context of your work, which bits of minutiae matter most?
In human rights work the detail of the law matters. I'd like to think that empathy or ethics would be enough to compel us to act honorably towards our fellow human beings around the world, but governments and multi-nationals are going to care about the law.

In environmental work the detail of the often science matters. It's important to be sure that you actually understand the science if you are going to try to motivate people to make changes to their lifestyle based on that science. I'm not a scientist and it takes effort for me to make sense of climate models and emissions reductions scenarios, but I've had to learn.

2. Which bits matter least?
Ironically, I think the answer is the same as to question 1, i.e. the law and the science. You've got to get them right if you are going to get out of the starters block in your campaign for change, but then you have to understand that they won't get you much further. You need to move on pretty quickly to the forces that will motivate people to change, and at that point you have the choice to play to people's weaknesses (fear, insecurity, anger) or to their strengths (empathy, hope, optimism). Take a guess which I prefer.

In writing I struggle to think of minutiae that doesn't matter - it all matters: spelling, grammar, punctuation, length, tone, pace, rhythm, point of view, vocabulary. If any of those are off then the reader is likely to be distracted by them, and the emotional power of the piece will be lost. I still get them wrong, but I know that it matters when I do.

3. In the context of your life, what types of minutiae once seemed important, but have since fallen by the wayside? Why?
That's a tough question. The only minutiae I ever really cared about in my childhood were words and tidiness. Even as a child I liked a tidy room and could spend days in the company of a well-written book. They both remain as important to me as they ever were. My sister tells me that if I ever have children I'll learn to care less about the tidiness. But, as yet, that is an unproven theory.

4. What types of minutiae, if any, have you had to train yourself to pay closer attention to?
With the exception of words and neatness, pretty much all of them. I've had to learn to pay attention to most of the minutiae of life. In my first job as a lawyer I tried to convince my boss that since I had a "big picture" brain he should let me work on the overall strategy for our case and leave him to read through the piles of documents looking for details. He wasn't convinced. Over the years I've learned that minutiae matters, but if I can delegate them to someone else I always will. These days my boyfriend is the most likely candidate. He has, for example, a wonderful capacity to check whether the picture is going to be lined up straight before he bangs in the nail.

5. Just for kicks -- what are your favorite bits of minutiae (personal, from a book, a piece of music, moment in a movie, etc.)?
The tiny changes that appear in our vegetable garden each day, a tomato starting to turn red, a new tendril on the cucumber plant, a zucchini flower blossoming. Mary Oliver's poems.

(Photo credit: Susannah Conway.)

Thank you, Marianne!


Schmoops said...

Marianne is changing the world, one beautifully written word at a time. I love this girl!


Emma said...

She's good stuff, that Marianne!

P. said...

What an incredibly inspiring woman.