Bringing Contemplation to Life—Gretchen Steidle

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Bringing Contemplation to Life—Gretchen Steidle

At CSC, we are often asked to describe the positive impacts of incorporating contemplative practices into our lives—from the way we see ourselves and our relationships, to creating balance, managing stress, and succeeding in our careers. But because the benefits are diverse and because there are so many practices to explore, it is a challenging question to answer. For this reason, we are sharing personal stories of transformation and discovery—to help us all better appreciate and understand the powerful effects of contemplative practices. We hope you enjoy this interview with Gretchen Steidle who sat down with us for the CSC series, "Bringing Contemplation to Life."

Gretchen Steidle is a 1996 graduate of the University of Virginia and the founder of Global Grassroots, an organization that cultivates mindful social change for women in post-conflict countries around the world. She is the producer of the Emmy-nominated documentary The Devil Came on Horseback and co-author of the book of the same name, which chronicles her brother’s time as an unarmed military observer of the Darfur conflict and resulting genocide. Her latest book, Leading from Within: Conscious Social Change and Mindfulness for Social Innovation, is published by MIT Press. She has been honored as a CNN Hero for her work in Haiti to support earthquake survivors. Gretchen speaks nationally on topics including leadership, mindfulness, and her experience working with women in post-war Africa. She is a practitioner of the healing modality Integrative Breathwork and Breath-Body-Mind, which she regularly uses in her work around the world to help women and girls heal from trauma and to find ways to use that self-healing to positively impact their communities.

Q: Like so many people, mindfulness began for you as a very personal journey geared toward managing the stresses that came from your work in some of the world’s most dangerous places and situations. Tell us how you came to the practices and how you realized the ways you can use them to affect change across the globe.

Steidle: When I left UVA, I went into international banking and then got my MBA. I was very much this Type A, ambitious, high-stress person with very little individual self-awareness. But I was passionate about the work I wanted to do in the world. At one point, someone had suggested that I take a course utilizing breathwork as a primary modality for self-awareness, not just for managing stress, but going through personal transformation work. It took me a little while to decide that it was something I might try. It was for my own sanity, but it was so incredibly transformative that it became the core modality pathway that I began to invest in for myself so I could come to terms with my own issues of figuring out what my passion was going to be, what I was going to do, and how I could go out into the world and do it more mindfully. I did not recognize it as integral to my work until partway into starting my own organization, Global Grassroots, and when I was working on the Darfur crisis.

Q: Tell us about Global Grassroots. How did it come about and what is it focused on doing?

SteidleGlobal Grassroots is an international nonprofit that I founded in 2004. Our focus is on working with vulnerable women and girls in East Africa, many of whom are survivors of gender-based violence and genocide and subsistence farmers living on as little as $2 a day; they have little education but many ideas for social change. Our program supports them in healing from trauma, developing mindfulness-based leadership tools, and providing them with a social venture incubator for turning solutions into viable nonprofits that will benefit other women and girls in their own communities.

Q: What is your primary trauma-healing methodology to help these women?

SteidleIt is called Breath-Body-Mind, and it was created by Dr. Richard P. Brown of Columbia University and Dr. Patricia Gerbarg of New York Medical College. It is a sequence that is highly researched and drawn from a number of lineages that have actually had practices built around the same rate of breathing used in this practice. It starts with Qi Gong movement, which helps survivors of violence and trauma to shake off the outer layers of tension in the body where we hold a lot of stress and reconnect with the body that we often experience dissociation from when we have a traumatic experience. The practice incorporates Coherent Breathing, which involves consciously breathing full breaths through the nose at a pace of about five breaths per minute, which means six-second inhales and six-second exhales. This pace brings you into a state of synchrony between your circulatory system, your respiratory system, and nervous system and produces brain waves that allow you a level of alert relaxation. Essentially, it is stimulating what is known as the parasympathetic side of your autonomic nervous system, which stimulates restoration/relaxation and helps you to "turn off," but also helps your body to regulate its stress response system. BBM also includes Open-Focus mediation and breath-moving meditation, where you are imitating the breath moving inside your body and broadening your focus, which combined with integrative experiences, allows participants to make sense of what they have gone through. These practices have been shown to have a significant impact on PTSD.

Q: How did you come to realize that these practices that had helped you could play a major role in helping these women bring much-needed change to their communities?

SteidleAs I started working in the advocacy realm, and was working with grassroots change agents, I realized a few things. I saw angry activists continue to do whatever was necessary to get people’s attention, often in ways that were not ethical. I saw nonprofits competing with each other for limited resources, even though they had common values and should have been collaborating. And I saw that my own change agents were not well. They were traumatized from their experiences and it was very clear to me that without an investment in our own inner transformation, we would not be able to do our work. I wanted to ensure that if I were going to be training the next generation of change leaders, that I could be certain that they would go about their change in a way that was more mindful, and that would allow them to be able to take care of themselves and sustain their work. So, I began to integrate contemplative practices in the way I was working with them, and it quickly became apparent that this was integral to social change, and that there was actually a design methodology where mindfulness can be used as a tool in the way we think about change, and about real solutions in communities.

Q: Please tell us about the importance of working with women in these regions on these initiatives you are helping to launch.

SteidleWomen, in many cases, are the ones who are the most deeply impacted by the social issues around them. They are the caretakers of their communities, and they are deeply knowledgeable about the needs of their children and their surrounding community members, and about the issues that affect all of them. They are also the ones with the least access to the resources and training and opportunities to advance their ideas. But they are courageous, and they are willing to persevere no matter what in order to solve these issues, so we have found them to be one of the most powerful levers for change.

Q: Can you share a success story about the women you have helped?

SteidleThis story is very dear to me. We met this group of women in 2006 in Rwanda. They were working on the issue of water access and clean water. These women usually had to walk three miles, or several hours, down a large hill to an often-contaminated site to fill up five-gallon jerrycans that weigh as much as 50 lbs. that would have to satisfy the daily water needs of families of up to 8 people. The process was filled with risk and violence, as they often had to travel in the darkness, though remote areas, making them targets for sexual assaults. Their long absences were also often a trigger for domestic violence when they returned home. Those who were disabled, blind, sick, elderly or pregnant often could not collect water on their own, which made them vulnerable to sexual exploitation by men who would trade sex to deliver water to them. This group wanted to figure out how to put a water access point in the middle of their village, so no one had to walk down the hill. Their idea was to put a gutter on the side of a church to collect water, purify it in a tank and sell it to those who needed it while giving it away free to those who could not afford it. We funded the initial process and they started serving 100 households. They took the money they made and funded initiatives for orphan school fees and women’s health insurance, and a revolving loan fund that helped vulnerable women start their own small businesses. We started to see gender roles changing. Men who had not been willing to help now wanted to join the project and began to share chores. The women began teaching others how they had done what they were doing. They expanded to three sites and currently serve over 9,000 people with clean water and are seen as leaders in their community, even consulting with local government officials to help identify the greatest areas of need. One of the most amazing things is, of these 19 women, only 7 actually know how to read. The leader is a mother of 8 with only a first-grade education. Her first-born child began university last fall. And here they are in their 12th year of sustainable operations. They have all but eliminated sexual exploitation in their community, which has also seen a 96% decrease in water-borne diseases – data points that show that when women lead in these regions, change happens in very significant ways.

Q: How can people connect with your work? How can people who want to do what you are doing on a small or even bigger level find out more?

SteidleI teach a course at UVA during the January Term called Conscious Social Change, and it allows students at the graduate and undergraduate levels the opportunity to explore contemplative practice related to social innovation. We go through a series of examples of personal transformation in an attempt to better understand change from the inside out, and what it means to be a mindful leader. I also have a website,, that includes tools like guided meditation practices and resources like links to TED Talks on related topics. There is also a series of courses to certify people in the methodology over a 15-month period around learning mindfulness and understanding how it is applied to social change, and how an organization can use it to do even more for its community.

Q: Tell us about some of the initiatives you have planned for the future?

SteidleAs I wrote the book Leading From Within last year, I began to map out the landscape of others working in the space of social change and contemplative practice. In an attempt to better connect with social innovation, I realized there are these amazing examples of this in so many sectors, but that people are largely unaware of each other’s work. So, while the movement has yet to be clearly defined, I am making space to begin creating an initiative that would help bring forth more of these programs and concepts and tools, and to create venues to support people working in this field of “Conscious Social Change.” I am now in the process of building an Institute for Conscious Social Change that will help bring these kinds of communities and resources together.

Photo: Gretchen Steidle with a group of women who were participants in an early venture in Rwanda called The Community Vocational Training School (CVTS). CVTS was helping to educate former prostitutes in sewing and other vocational skills while providing an education for their children so that the women could gradually earn school fees through new pursuits and meet their family’s basic needs without being vulnerable to falling back into sex work. Global Grassroots work focuses on clean water access and women’s rights versus on solely economics.

Listen to short excerpts or the whole podcast here.