An Interview with Elizabeth Schaeffer Brown: Nadia's Initiative and the Yazidi Genocide
Elizabeth Schaeffer Brown is an entrepreneur with expertise in advocacy, communications and partnership development. Elizabeth co-founded Uncommon Union in 2013, an organisation with a focus on advocating for global issues and and then Nadia’s Initiative in 2016, a non-profit organisation which aims to increase advocacy for women and minorities in areas of crisis around the world.
Q1. In 2010 you co-founded ‘Choose Haiti’ after spending time in the country as a student. Can you tell us about your experiences in Haiti? Do you think that the lessons that you learned there, can help you in your work for Nadia’s Initiative?
I first travelled to Haiti as a college student. I was part of an "alternative spring break" program at Columbia University with a mission to paint a local school and visit a hospital. Upon my return I struggled to understand the suffering I had witnessed and the international community’s inability to respond to it. Instead of working for an NGO, as I had originally planned, I went into business working for myself. After the 2010 earthquake, I returned to Haiti. At the time I believed it was possible to work outside the international system to solve practical problems in the private sector. Haiti needed economic development.
Six months after the earthquake, I worked with local and international businesses, the government and an NGO to produce hundreds of thousands of bracelets made from plastic water bottles and recycled newspapers from the streets of Port-au-Prince. Artisans sliced the plastic into rings and covered them with papier-mâché. As part of this program, hundreds of refugees living in tent camps were trained to make bracelets. By the end of the project, thousands of bracelets were selling at Gap, Forever 21 and Haute Look. Unfortunately, after the first orders, media attention shifted from Haiti and retailers failed to make more orders. I had to face a mother of three, who had been supporting her family by making the bracelets, and explain that there would be no more work.
This experience taught me that strong communications are essential to keep people engaged around difficult goals over time. Unfortunately, efforts that include communications tend to do so in a superficial way. Policy experts can also be disconnected. Getting everything to work is challenging and takes time. Long-term, systemic change is hard and requires many different kinds of commitments. I try to bring together the right groups and find ways of keeping them engaged so it is possible to build practices, education, and, eventually, policy.
Through the course of my career I moved away from selling products to selling ideas. Six years ago I started a small consultancy called Uncommon Union focused on raising the profile of important global issues through communications, advocacy and partnership development. I find that everyone wants to develop a narrative about how to change the world. This kind of messaging often comes with free and flattering PR. I founded Uncommon Union to seek the leadership that is committed to going beyond the story and are willing to hold themselves to accountable metrics that will indicate real change on the ground.
Q2. How did you meet everyone else on your team?
I have spent a lot of time working on initiatives that help empower women in populations where women are most vulnerable such as Haiti & Afghanistan. In June 2015 a friend of mine, Kerry Proper contacted me about the situation of the Yazidi women in Iraq. We were met a young Yazidi man named Murad Ismael who had co-founded an organization called Yazda. He and a few other Yazidis formed the organization in response to the August 2014 massacre of his community in Northern Iraq. Kerry and I hosted a gathering of our friends in NYC to greet Murad and other yazidis to learn about what was happening and how we could help. When Murad stood up to tell his story, people started crying, Murad started crying. Everyone there was powerfully affected. When people asked how they could help, Murad asked for a few hundred dollars to feed Yazidis in the camps. I remember Kerry turning to me and saying “we need to help him.” 30 days later Kerry, Murad, a film-maker named Taylor Krauss and the former prosecutor of the International Criminal Court traveled to Iraq to see how we could help. On the ground I think it was clear to all of us that no one really cared about the Yazidis. They were stateless. Their own government wasn’t protecting them. Our government wasn’t protecting them. We saw a pathway to start to do something.
Q3. Could you please tell us how you decided to co-found Nadia’s Initiative
For the past decade I have participated in New York-based groups and initiatives empowering women and girls. Nadia’s campaign, however, was remarkable. It is the first time I have seen a female leader with such a profound and direct impact; an impact that affects women and girls who are in the greatest need. Even if this campaign for justice falls short of all its goals, and the so-called “international community” will not stop an ongoing genocide, Nadia Murad’s [co-founder] leadership will have made a difference.She has given permission to many girls and women to speak out. They will project themselves into a future where they have agency because of who they are, where they come from, and what they have gone through. They will no longer be shamed and intimidated into silence. I have witness this transformation in meeting other female survivors from her community. Despite their losses they are intent to grow up to become lawyers, advocates, professionals, and leaders of all kinds. They want the world to know them, their community, and experiences. I don’t think Nadia herself even realizes how profound an impact she has made. Indeed, we are all discovering it on a daily basis. Her courage has served as an example to the most vulnerable women and girls in the region.
Q4. In an interview late last year, you mentioned that the team at Nadia’s Initiative is traveling to countries and meeting with leaders to try to turn the verbal support you have received into material action. Has there been any progress?
Yes. Nadia’s Initiative raised substantial commitments from the French government, the EU, and additional donors. Together with our donors we identify, evaluate and select implementation partners for reconstruction projects in Sinjar.
Q5. You were also involved with the Yazda Genocide Documentation Project which has been collecting evidence of Human Rights violations committed against the Yazidis. What was the response of the International Community to this initiative? Have they helped you achieve justice on behalf of the Yazidi community?
Progress has been made given, in September 2017, a UN Security Council Resolution was passed to call for an investigation into crimes committed by Daesh in Iraq. This team is now being lead by British Barrister Karim Khan. We recognize the investigation as a significant step toward achieving justice for the Yazidi community.
I want everyone to understand that the genocide against the Yazidi people is on-going. Without support from the international community to make the Yazidi community a safe place for them to return - without bringing the perpetrators of these horrific crimes to trial, we are complicit in the genocide against them.
If you are interested in further supporting Nadia’s Initiative, you can follow their progress online through twitter @nadiainitiative
Nadia’s Initiative also accepts online donations at https:// nadiasinitiative.org/. Proceeds go to helping support the Yazidi community rebuild and programs to help survivors of sexual violence globally. Every organisation, every person who reads about this situation takes real concrete action to help stop this genocide.