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What role should a system's victims play in transforming it?

Adam Kahane
October, 2023


In June I drove from Montreal to Boston to spend a morning with Francisco de Roux, a Jesuit priest and peacemaker who had just finished five years as chair of Colombia’s Commission for the Clarification of Truth, Coexistence, and Non-Repetition and was now at Boston College for a period of reflection on this experience

In 2016 the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) signed the Peace Accords that ended their 52-year war and mandated the establishment of the Truth Commission. In 2017 I facilitated a three-day workshop of diverse leaders from the war-torn South-West of the country who wanted to collaborate to rebuild their region. De Roux participated in that workshop and one evening said to me, “You are removing the obstacles to the expression of the mystery!” This enigmatic hint inspired me to write Facilitating Breakthrough: How to Remove Obstacles, Bridge Differences, and Move Forward Together, and I was keen to meet and talk with him again.

In Boston I asked de Roux about his work on the Truth Commission and he replied:  “I was in contact with victims, from all sides, for 2400 days.” He was referring to the Commission’s many public hearings and private meetings with victims of the violence perpetrated by the military, guerillas, and other armed actors. We spoke at length about the moral and spiritual imperative to engage with such victims. He also emphasised how crucial it was to fulfilling the Commission’s mandate that they learn from the victims’ first hand experience with the dynamics of political violence.

The “non-repetition” part of Commission’s mandate was to contribute to the transformation of the Colombian system that had produced decades of terrible violence. I am wondering, more generally, about the imperative for  systems transformers to engage with the victims of the systems they are trying to transform: the people who in different ways are excluded, marginalised, and oppressed. Sarah Schulman, the author of Let the Record Show: A Political History of ACT UP New York said: “In order to understand the truth of any situation, you have to start with a place that every person is equally valuable, and what they have to say must be heard. And whether that is in a clique where somebody is being shunned and blamed for everything, or whether that’s an entire class of people whose experiences are not taken into account, it’s the same formula from the bottom to the top: to let everyone speak and let everyone be heard. And until then, you cannot have a solution that addresses people’s needs.”

What is the role of victims in systems transformation? Why is such engagement important and for whom? How can it be undertaken, practically and ethically? 


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