Kate Tickel


You’re the co-founder of Congo-Sourced, Conflict-Free (CSCF). Why did you decide to launch your own organisation rather than join one?

It happened completely organically; there wasn't really a deliberate moment of decision. I was already doing work that I really loved, working with shelter dogs and programmes for low-income dog owners in Los Angeles, when I first read about the civil conflict that was happening in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). I had always tried to be aware of the relationships between commerce and conflict, but as I read on about the scale of the war that happening there – the biggest since since World War II, with more than 6 million casualties – and how Western demands for the minerals native to DRC were fuelling the conflict, and that rape was being used as a weapon of war, I had a sort of reckoning. I think we only have those moments once or twice in our lives. I reached some sort of tipping point where I wasn't willing to accommodate my own good intentions anymore, or just shake my head about how awful the whole thing was. I had no idea what I was going to do, but I woke up the next morning a different person; Congo began to represent to me personally the entirety of my own culpability in being wilfully ignorant. I have a theory about most marriages, that few people marry the love of their life, they marry the first person they fall in love with after they decide they'd like to be married. I suspect Congo is like that for me: the weight of blitheness had become un-survivable, and then I met Congo. Which has not, I must say, been a marriage of convenience. 

Coming from a non-profit background already I was very aware, hyper-aware, of superfluousness in the NGO sector and the need for cohesion amongst groups. I wanted to find a way to be a go-between for the different agencies tasked with conflict mineral compliance, which became a process, which we open-sourced, which ended up becoming an organisation. I'm aware of the irony. 

What does Congo-Sourced, Conflict-Free do?

CSCF (Now absorbed by the OECD-ICGLR-UN Working Group and Conflict Mineral Public- Private Alliance) provides a single auditing template that meets the criterion of all the various regulation agencies tasked with enforcing compliance of conflict mineral traceability; it follows, say, tungsten, from inside the mine in Congo to certification, while ensuring safe working conditions for the miners and transporters, and reinvests the profits from the sale of those minerals back into DRC. The Democratic Republic of Congo sits on something approximating $7 trillion of natural mineral wealth, and yet is consistently weighted to the bottom of the UN Global Development Index, has a conflict nearing the end of its second decade, and has the distinction of being "the rape capital of the world." 

What would your advice be to somebody who would like to launch their own organisation?

A good organisation should have the same purpose as good art – in some way, it needs to name the unnamed thing. Surround yourself with good work and take your time. There's so much pressure on people starting out to distinguish themselves, but that's the wrong reason to try and channel the scant resources that exist inside the NGO community. Do something valuable first, contribute something first, and then start an organisation based on that if the need truly isn't being met elsewhere, before committing to starting up something that might be redundant or superfluous in the end. 

You have started to develop genocide prevention programs for internally displaced people (IDP) and refugee camps. What are those and how do they work? 

These are programmes that examine the basic nature of IDP and refugee camps, which is that camps are temporary housing for people who have had to flee their homes due to conflict. Looking at DRC as an example, we know that the current conflict had its origins in the Rwandan genocide of 1994; part of the cessation of that entailed booting the combatants into refugee camps into what was then still Zaire. The conflict lay dormant for a while but then restarted in a different guise, this time incorporating the pre-existing struggles of the Zairians. The idea is to invert the instability of refugee and IDP camps, to take that period of dormant conflict and, instead of allowing those tensions to regerminate, use the forced proximity and all those hours and hours of boredom to facilitate a better understanding.

How did you train for it and came up with the idea?

I'm still training for it; I'll always be training for it. I'm currently studying the psychological and social factors that breed terrorism. The idea came partially from finally throwing the glass against the wall out of anger and realising I could potentially spend the remainder of my life just reacting to genocide, or realise that genocide is perpetrated by human beings who, in other circumstances, are capable of the full range of human emotion. Relegating perpetrators into the realm of the Other might give us a temporary false comfort, but we need to accept that most genocidaires are made, not born. What are the conditions under which they're made? How do we intercept? 

You’re also Outreach Officer for Grassroots Reconciliation Group (GRG). What does that entail?

GRG was started in 2006; we work in the remotest regions of Northern Uganda that trail into South Sudan, reintegrating former child soldiers from Kony's Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) and the Ugandan conflict back into the villages from which they were abducted. That means providing them with the means to autonomy, so that when they graduate from our programmes they are no longer dependent on aid. It entails basic literacy campaigns, financial training to teach them how to save and invest micro loans, agricultural training including organic farming (which is in huge demand in Uganda) and caring for livestock, and, most importantly for me, psychosocial programs and community theatre projects that our give our participants means of processing and communicating their stories.

When I started with GRG a few years ago, something that struck me particularly was that so many development programs, for understandable reasons, are focused on investing in women and girls; in some areas it seemed that the women were doing all the work and the men were made redundant. So to visit our farming projects in the field and be met by a father who has been working in the garden all day, with his children assisting, was significant; to help the men regain their pride and sense of purpose, for them to model that to their children. Uganda is such a beautiful, happy place. A lot of my work at GRG is advocating for the humanities programs by reaching out to people in the humanities Stateside and looking for ways of collaborating: theatre and dance companies, documentary and film makers, psychologists, musicians, people who have an inherent understanding of the struggles returnees face and how important the arts are in facilitating a dialogue. 

What's a 'typical day' like?

It's akin to needing to complete a new puzzle each day and having to make a new set of pieces fit, but I never know what's going to come next. I could be at home, in the field, in academic mode, fundraising, lecturing, modelling. I think it's important not to put off having a personal life. I've learnt to prepare as much as possible the night before for the day ahead, and to enjoy the egg hunt of finding grace each day. I have a terrible time with insomnia and so I'm working with that. I'd like to settle a bit more. Not completely, but a bit. 

You’ve been named on a number of “most influential”-type lists. Why is it important to you and what does it bring to your career?

I'm private by nature and not at all good at self-promotion. I'm happier watching from the wings, so that kind of attention is a push onto the stage by someone well meaning. The work that I do isn't always popular at parties, or even amongst my own friends and family, and so to that end sometimes that little bit of recognition can go a long way. Ultimately media is only scrapbook fodder if you're already preaching to the converted, and so I look at those profiles as a means of being found by a wider audience: people working on gender violence issues, psychologists, philosophers, writers, others who have something to contribute to policy and might not even be aware of it. I also want to visible to other women thinking of working in foreign policy who might be uncertain of themselves, who are coming from other disciplines or worried that if they're also passionate about music or parenthood or medicine that there's no need for them in advocacy. Being named a thought leader makes it much easier for me to try and bring people from other disciplines into the fold and say, bring your passions with you.

Part of your academic education has been focused on health. How do you use it in your career?

A bit of it is to do with looking ahead one or two iterations and a possible future in bioethics- particularly palliative care and euthanasia issues. At Harvard, my intersection is health and human rights. The World Health Organisation defines "health" as "a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being" so 'health' is really a word that encompasses genocide prevention, gender violence prevention, psychosocial services, financial and cultural protections protected by international humanitarian law- the list is endless. When we look at global health, we have to look at the ways income and education positively affect the health of women, and conversely, how that same good health then reinsures school and job performance. Considering factors in poverty traps, we look at how stress elevates a person's cortisol levels, and when cortisol, which is the fight-or-flight hormone, is elevated, in inhibits long-term decision making. Considering epidemics like AIDS, or Ebola currently, we look at how socioeconomic and cultural factors lead to women being disproportionately affected in developing countries. Looking at the gender biases in terrorist recruiting, women recruits for suicide missions tend to be social outliers with elevated levels of miscarriage, domestic abuse, divorce. Health, in its many forms, is really a rubric that connects so many factors in human rights.

You’re also a trained philosopher. How do you use it in your career?

That appellation makes me nervous; I think most philosophers would consider me too soft to join their ranks but as we say in the American South: you dance with the one who brung ya. There are two strong ways: one is that philosophical arguments are about taking a thought to its ultimate conclusion, and that sort of training is obviously necessary as someone working in policy. The other would be that there isn't much that's empirical. A lot of our collective beliefs overlap; oftentimes, in what seems like conflict, we find that we just have different names for things. Here it is: in both domestic and foreign policy we are desperate for the reinstatement of civilised discourse. In our current tenor, it seems more important for our opponents to be wrong than for us to be right, which is absolutely the wrong way to affect change. If we truly have the conviction of our beliefs, shouldn't we be dedicated to making our arguments as persuasive as possible? How is systematically calling into question the intellect and character of the person across the aisle going to help you achieve that? Who are you attempting to persuade? 

As a model, you were an outsider when you started in foreign policy. Which specific hurdles did you have to overcome because of it but also how was it an advantage?

It reminds me of a Balanchine quote, about his being irked at the comparison of ballerinas to policemen because both disciplines require constant alertness and tenseness: "Ridiculous! Policeman don't have to be beautiful all the time!" I was extraordinarily sensitive about it starting out, and as it happens I needn't have been at all. I would try and hasten any oncoming derision by acknowledging having started out as a model, until someone close to me finally said, "The only person who ever talks about your modelling being deleterious is you. In fact, no one else even mentions it at all. Ever." Modelling was always a means to an end for me; I liken it to being an athlete. You can be born with a certain set of characteristics that open doors for you, and I was very selective about which doors I went through. University would have been very, very difficult for me to access without that revenue, and I learned poise, discipline, diplomacy, how to travel on my own and to be self-reliant. Now I've actually become proud of it. Some people are delivering pizza to get through university, some people are rounding up shopping carts, some people are housepainters- it's all good work; it's all just a means of getting from here to there. Stand up tall and own it, someone needs to hear it. Our lives have become so curated. I think when we try and edit the struggle out of our narratives, it can make the way forward seem impossible for someone starting out who can't see the way forward, when it's the people who understand struggle who we need in positions of representation. 

What are the most and least rewarding aspects of your career? 

The most rewarding: easily, being in the field! On my first trip to Rwanda, I would just walk and walk the roads; I wouldn't even come in out of the rain, I was just so happy to finally be there. Small, quotidian things: the way a cup of coffee tastes after ten hours in the Land Cruiser; the way the littlest girls at a village school are so shy to begin when I first meet them and then become little giggling candy thieves; crashing a wedding in Kampala. One moment: at an orphanage in Goma with a group of aid workers, four of us from four countries with no language in common, and Kate Bush's song 'This Woman's Work' inexplicably came wafting in from somewhere. We all looked at each other and burst into tears, crying together in four languages with strangers in a way you probably wouldn't let yourself cry in front of someone you know. 

Least rewarding: Remuneration. Comment sections. 

What are the key skills that make you good at what you do? How did you gain them?

I'm calm in a crisis and I tend to be adept at diffusing tension. Those are skills I was born with, but they were strengthened by an unconventional upbringing and by theatre training. 

What is the toughest lesson you have learnt?

That when you take a principled stand, people might not wish you well. I'm more settled about it now, but I hadn't really anticipated that moral ambivalence might ever be hostile; that was shocking to me, that people would aggressively defend inaction. I was unprepared for that.   

What is the mistake you wish you hadn’t done?

Early on I advocated for policy in which I was not completely conversant, out of solidarity with people I really admire. Outcomes are really the only measure of success. Good intentions are no consolation. 

What has been your biggest challenge and how did you tackle it?

Managing time. One thing I've learned: you have to integrate your passions, whatever they are, with your career. Don't delay happiness if it's in your purview. Personally, I think too many people see happiness and having a full life as something that will keep for a few more years, and it won't. Don't live your life on someone else's timetable.

What achievements are you most proud of?

My greatest achievements are before me, I hope, but for now I think it's keeping at my education even with so much to balance. Over the summer I started a women's health and human rights intensive at Stanford, but inevitably had to leave to go into the field, and it was arranged for me to keep up with the class online. It was all working beautifully until (again, inevitably) I lost access to the internet. I was so desperate to finish I ended up taking the final exam and submitting my final written assignments from my iPhone in the field. It's an example of a few things, not the least of which is tenacity, but also, someone in South Sudan can attend Stanford on her iPhone! And I'm proud of staying soft; I have been able to avoid callousing against atrocities.    

Do you have a role model and, if so, who and why?

I'm fairly self-invented. I do wish I'd had some role models to make the vision clearer. There's been a lot of feeling around in the dark. 

How would having more women involved change foreign policy?

A friend of mine who is a writer recently wrote, "women are entirely responsible for civilisation." He's at least half right; women are half of civilisation. More women involved in foreign policy means that those women still struggling for the most basic rights are not forgotten or left behind, that victims of rape in conflict have a voice during the negotiation of peace treaties in which only eight percent of delegations include women. If schoolgirls in Pakistan are being shot in the head for wanting an education, and you maintain that you're not a feminist – what are you?

Genocide Prevention Strategist/ Outreach Officer - Grassroots Reconciliation Group/ Creator and Co-Founder, Congo-Sourced, Conflict-Free/ Model

Four years' experience

CV in brief:

Studied: BA Philosophy, UCLA; Health and Human Rights Program, Harvard School of Public Health

Previously worked at: Program on Humanitarian Policy and Conflict Research at Harvard UniversityLuminous Being

Find her online

Twitter: @KateTickel

Diplomatic Courier's 2013 Top 99 under 33

International Policy Digest's Top Thirty-Five Young Foreigners Making an Impact in Africa

Job opportunities with Grassroots Reconciliation Group

  At the home of a returning Ugandan soldier

At the home of a returning Ugandan soldier

  GRG group counseling session, Lamwo district, Uganda

GRG group counseling session, Lamwo district, Uganda

  n the field visiting GRG farming projects.

n the field visiting GRG farming projects.

Helping former child soldiers build a new life: the Grassroots Reconciliation Group

  In Eastern Congo

In Eastern Congo

Farming for a bright future