Cecilia Milesi

Global Change

Cecilia Milesi

Born in Argentina, Latin America, Cecilia Milesi is a professional and activist whose work is inspired by the vision of co-creating an equal and just world in which all human beings live in dignity and freedom.
Cecilia considers that this transformation will only happen if the Global South countries and their people play a leading transformational role in local-global politics and if societies are respectful of human rights and citizens’ participation.

Cecilia is now Senior Adviser South-South Cooperation on Peace and Development at the United Nations Office for South-South Cooperation. She is the founder of Cecilia Milesi | Global Change and Subir al Sur, a social enterprise that promotes volunteering in Argentina and the world.

Ogunte: Cecilia, how would you describe yourself in 5 words?

Cecilia Milesi: These are the 5 words that came to my mind when I think about me…

  • Purpose
  • Woman
  • Justice & Dignity
  • Love
  • Collective power

Ogunte: How did you get started in contributing to peace, and what were your top 5 significant milestones?

I was born in the city of Santa Fe, Argentina. I grew up in a typical middle-class family and neighbourhood. I went to a public school (state run, free) and had a relatively simple life of clubs, friends and family. However, from early childhood, I witnessed and suffered various situations of injustice and violence which mobilised my “resistance”. When I was 10 years old, I was sexually abused. I found myself telling my parents about the “smiley” security man who was supposed to “take care” of my building. I felt no fear. I learnt quickly what it meant to deal with the criminal justice system. My family supported me. A few years later, my father, a well-known cardiologist, decided to enter politics during the tense Argentine democratization process after the bloodiest dictatorship in the region. He ran for mayor. I accompanied him to every rally and visited my city's poorest neighbourhoods, especially the slums where nobody from my age group or school would normally go. I was only 13 years old and I learnt what it meant to live with literally nothing. I started asking myself: Why? How? I found no reasons; inequality strikes me. My father and our house were attacked many times. I learnt what political violence meant from a very young age -running from barricades, protests, jumping windows to escape mob attacks... My father was almost killed twice and we were with him. At the same time, my beloved father was sometimes quite violent himself. Reconciling these two aspects of him -the political warrior and the aggressive man- was one of the core questions which mobilised and inspired me for years. I only reconciled everything two years ago when he was dying. This was vital to understand the beauty of reconciliation, and the power of integrating the concept of “masculinities” in social change.

I’m a woman with a clear purpose since childhood. I work collectively with many others to co-create a world of justice and dignity for all. Love is my source and my destination.

Cecilia Milesi Global Change - Interview Ogunte CIC #ImpactWomen

"Designing policies was as important as re-designing myself, challenging my “silences” and complex history".

I’m not surprised to have found out that I had written notes about social justice and dignity since the age of 13. I was asking myself why children were using drugs or how I could possibly help people with less economic opportunities. At first, I thought I could contribute to change by studying occupational therapy. But then sociology appeared on my way. Devising transformative social policies motivated me. In the journey, I learnt that designing policies was as important as re-designing myself, challenging my “silences” and complex history.
As a woman also, in a very conservative society, I was educated to "stay": there was a pre-determined role for us which most of the time related to “staying” at home and becoming a mother. This also triggered "resistance" in me.

Change is not achieved by staying in the same place or following social obligations.

Change is achieved if we move! (physically and/or internally).

Perhaps that is why travelling also became one the methods I chose to promote justice, joy and dignity. Subir al Sur, [Literally: "Climb South"] the intercultural education organisation which I founded, promotes peace by solidarity travelling. But the most important journey was and is internal. I keep my eyes and senses open to detect when I’m hiding to myself the important truths and those factors that might be affecting if and how I become (or not) a driver and facilitator of social change.
In all, promoting peace is about justice, inclusion, voice and power. The encounter is about creating transformative opportunities for all - including us.

Cecilia Milesi Global Change

Ogunte: If you had to explain the mechanism that links social enterprises / activist networks or charities, to peace building, how would you put this forward? 

Cecilia Milesi: I would reverse a question to whomever is asking. I would ask: would you enjoy a life where you don’t feel safe, whole and dignified? Do you think that you can feel safe, whole and happy if others don’t? Building walls, making war, damaging the environment, not taking care of your community is directly affecting you/us in the short and the long-term. It’s a matter of self-love and love for our world. We are inter-connected.
Creating and supporting businesses or social projects which only aim to positive outcomes for the few and in the short-term, only generates hate, distance, grievances and limited positive results. Some people don’t see it that clearly. We need to strive for everyone to see and value the connections between “us” and “the other”, “us” and “nature”. This means going beyond designing, thinking and acting in relation to fictitious boundaries of any sort – from country to country, region to region or an initiative and the environment. This is particularly vital in a globalised and digital world in which a decision made anywhere directly affects our present and future, anywhere. In every specific context, and respecting each particular change process, we can identify the linkages and connectivity which make us as one. This is why systems thinking is so important!
This is one of the reasons why I’m passionate about supporting South-South cooperation these days. For too long, Global South countries and people were only object of exploitation and treated as subordinate partners. We still are. Suffering from exogenous interventions, our destiny is decided somewhere else, far away. Feminists and post-colonial theories, thinkers and activists bring back the voices of marginalised actors to the centre, back again. If we are, you are. More collective courage is needed for true global change.

Cecilia Milesi encourages Siemprevivas team to reflect on their impact and theory of change during a gathering of the group in Oaxaca

Listening to stories

Ogunte: What were the most significant encounters that challenged your thinking the most in the past 5 years, and what did they enable you to do / to think?

Cecilia Milesi: The top one was in 2015, when I accompanied my father as he prepared to die. It was the most beautiful chance to use all my peace-building and activism skills: I listened to his whole story, I held his hand and challenged his thinking, I forgave him and truly understood him as a man, with all his limitations and splendours. I thanked him with all my heart and said goodbye, also knowing that we are still connected. I shared a bit of this story here.

The second one was my experience working at Amnesty International. It was my first experience directly engaging in supporting organisational change to promote more Global South power. Amnesty was going through a huge restructuring process; over the years decision-making power was very concentrated in AI London Office (secretariat). During those years, we co-designed and facilitated a devolution exercise to move from a model of “centralised” to a one of “decentralised” power. From a model of “solidarity” to a one of “agency” in which the Global South offices were for the first time leading their own process to campaign for human rights. A campaigning relevant and legitimate for local and regional citizens and considering political dynamics. It was exciting. During that time, I met the love of my life. This was even more inspiring.

The third most powerful experience was taking the decision to manage my reproductive rights. In 2014, I decided to freeze my eggs. It took me months of preparation, deeply reflecting about what it meant to me to be a woman, a mother and, at the same time, an activist and professional who wanted to continue working at the global level without compromising my values by choosing to be with any man just for the sake of having some company, security and comfort. I was committed to love, motherhood and activism at the same time and found myself almost reaching 40 without any real possibility to form a typical partnership. I chose science. Today, I feel stronger and free because of this and I campaign for women’s rights to choose their reproductive path. It’s amazing what we can do these days!

The fourth one was the decision to choose financial insecurity over compromising my work and activism values. This is not new for me as I always choose to do what I believe was truly right so to promote justice and social change. But it was “something else” to choose financial insecurity when I just turned 40. I quit my job as Director of Planning and Performance at one of the most recognized peace-building organisations (Conciliation Resources), I started building Cecilia Milesi | Global Change. I don’t waste my time where there is no chance to make a difference for whatever reason. I started researching, publishing and facilitating change processes without any pre-conditions. Eventually, this led me to work at the United Nations today where I’m designing a South-South peace and development programme.

The fifth is always the pleasure to laugh and have fun with fellow change-makers, dreamers and anyone who is beyond the “must be/do” mandates.

Cecilia Milesi in Somaliland

As soon as we create the space, the "system" emerges.

Ogunte: How do you translate the language of social change and the importance of systems practice to investors, stakeholders or funders? 

Cecilia Milesi: I believe that experiential learning, dialogue and appreciative inquiry are the pathways to get deeper into realising how interconnected we are. When I work, I aim to create processes and moments in which everyone -by doing and narrating- appreciate the impact of the other and/or the context in us. As soon as we create the space, “the system” emerges. We start describing how this or that factor, enables or hinders our project and our life story. Creating this type of spaces and opportunities for sharing is more about practice than only presentational skills.
If I don’t have the chance to generate a conversation, an encounter and a project in which living and real-live experiences can be integrated and discussed as a means to embrace “the system”, then I use direct questions. I share a profound and direct question. I ask for someone to share his/her story or thought. I ask (sometimes) uncomfortable questions. The reflection that derives from this, most of the times, directly connects us to the system. There is no other way, it’s always an exploratory exercise which we learn to navigate…

I dream of a world where each one of us is intolerant to the pain of the other and to our own. This consciousness transforms us into activists working to minimise pain. This does not mean that we all have to work in NGOs, the UN or in public policies. We can contribute to pain-less societies from the place we occupy as soon as we ask ourselves how each action (or omission) promotes or not the dignity of the other, of everyone, our own. For example, do I pay my taxes? Do I respect workers’ rights? Do I asked for forgiveness if I have made a mistake? Do I treat my colleagues and family in a respectful way? Am I aware of how my level of consumption affects climate change? Do I vote for representatives focused on promoting inclusion policies for all? I also wish very much that the "Global South" (Africa, Latin America, Asia) continue a path of empowerment so that our populations finally enjoy the benefits of economic, social development, more education, peace and democratic participation. There will be no peace if this level of imbalance between countries continues and economic and political measures benefit a few countries and groups.

Cecilia Milesi in Sierra Leone Monitoring companies and public funds

Leadership is vital to embrace systemic change

Ogunte: Can you share a story of a time where you successfully got reluctant or incredulous people on board, transforming them into champions of change?

Cecilia Milesi: No. Most of the times, when I have had the space to promote truly transformative change, it was because the leaders or key staff of a given organisation were ready for it. This was the case of Amnesty International, #SiempreVivas (Luchadoras) or now the United Nations. Leadership is vital to embrace systemic change. Sometimes champions are there even when leaders are not ready -for example, low rank employees or volunteers. I have been successful many times in mobilising these champions, however, without leadership buy-in and openness the change is truly painful. But in an authoritarian or misogynist organisation -based only in vertical control and micro-management-, people suffer a lot and most of the time change comes but with lots of pain. Change, in these cases, may come from litigation and other type of strategies which are not necessarily dialogical. I don’t think dialogue is always and the only way to achieve change. We need to use various tactics and strategies keeping the vision as our horizon. In some occasions, l chose to leave because I did not see any real opportunity to affect change.
With this question, one story comes back to my mind: in 2006, I was nominated to become an Ashoka Fellow. When I went to my second interview after a first intense round explaining my “big idea”, I sat in front of the panel and just started crying. A few months before that meeting, I had lost a baby and I was asked to explain a “big idea” without any connection with me as a whole woman. I found these competitive methods very much disconnected with the true values of systemic social change. We are not going to achieve change by disconnecting the personal from the social or by promoting competition among ourselves. We need to create collective systems of mutual support and change in which vulnerability and power are recognised as two sides of the same coin. I was obviously unable to convince the panel that I was a “leader” … but they were measuring me with the lenses which create a male-centred culture of exclusion, competition and selfishness as pre-requisites of success. I only understood that after a while…. Luckily, I understood that it was not me, it was them! 😊

Ogunte: What are the top three leadership lessons you’ve learned from your journey as someone whose work is inspired by the vision of co-creating an equal and just world in which all human beings live in dignity and freedom?

Don’t get angry too quickly
Two P: patience and passion
Focus. There are no short-cuts.

Ogunte: Finally, who are the top 3 women who inspire you and why do they create such sparkles?

They are/ were in politics...

Interview produced by Servane Mouazan for Ogunte. 
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