A Life Dedicated to Addressing Conflict. Member Spotlight: Nicole Widdersheim

Nicole Widdersheim is a Senior Policy Advisor for the Center for the Prevention of Genocide at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Prior to this, she was the Director of African Affairs with the White House’s National Security Council. She has over 20 years of experience in managing international political transitions, atrocity prevention, and crisis response programs for USAID OTI, Oxfam, andInternational Rescue Committeein numerous countries including Sudan, Mali, Côte d’Ivoire, Kenya, and Haiti. She completed her Master’s degree in Political Theory of Human Rights at the University of Essex and her Bachelor’s degree in International Relations and African Studies at Kent State University and St. Lawrence’s University of Nairobi program.

MBBI Connections

Nicole came to be a member of MBBI because of her extensive international experience and desire to contribute to conflict mediation, especially in light of the January 6 United States Capitol attack. “I started thinking, do I have anything to contribute domestically in light of what I’ve seen in my own work? My home state of Ohio has the second largest number of anti-government extremist groups in the country.” She has been coordinating with different people in Ohio to organize a seminar at the University of Dayton for individuals working at the state and international level to share knowledge on political extremism and prevention of polarization in communities. Through the MBBI network, she was able to meet someone in Cleveland who is actively mediating with local police forces and bringing communities together to address these difficult topics in the region.

Exposure to Global Conflict Zones

Nicole’s eyes were opened to mediation and peacebuilding efforts at an early age. She attended Kent State University for her undergraduate education where they had a Center for Peace and Mediation studies –  a result of the Kent State shootings in 1970. Nicole was then offered a spring semester  internship with the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Africa Program. This was the same year in which the Rwandan genocide took place and Nelson Mandela ran in the presidential election. After working in South Sudan for several years, she pursued her graduate degree to look at the intersection of human rights and power, to better understand individuals’ motivations and how to navigate disagreements. Upon graduating, she went straight to Darfur with USAID to address political stability and human rights, shifting her career in a way that would allow her to address root causes of conflict and see the effects of genocide.

The Mediation Golden Principle

When asked about how she’s handled peacebuilding when engaging with tough personalities, Nicole says you have to go back to the mediation golden principle: “you have to be able to talk to everybody. That’s been difficult in my previous work. It was difficult working in the White House on African policy, especially with the ‘shithole’ comment.” In 2018, former President Donald Trump questioned why the U.S. would accept more immigrants from Haiti and “shithole countries” in Africa as opposed to countries like Norway. “As an African Studies person, as someone married to an African?” She gives a chagrined smile. “I completely understand and have been in other situations where the other person is so appalling that I can’t be the one to talk to them.” She shares an experience where she was part of a team preparing U.S. government officials in Sudan to  attend meetings and shake hands with Omar al-Bashir, the  president of Sudan at the time. “And he’s essentially orchestrated this entire genocide that has killed 100s of thousands of people!” Despite our personal beliefs, Nicole reiterates that we still have to try and address these problems through difficult conversations. “If I don’t try, what good am I?” As she’s worked in different countries, she says she has developed the emotional maturity to see the value in communicating with those you don’t always agree with. These are skills she values greatly and continues to develop.  

DEI in Peace

Nicole says that even in the human rights and peacebuilding space, the sector is still dominated by white males. Every Administration, Republican and Democrat, as well as most all organizations, still have a long way to go in addressing true diversity in their ranks. However, she is optimistic about recent changes in the last two years around improving workplace diversity, inclusion, and equity. Like other women in the workplace, she says that she’s occasionally had to address discriminatory treatment in the past, but has learned to avoid these individuals as much as possible when furthering her career. She has also learned in the last two years, avoiding them isn’t the solution.  Today, she says, she sees a new corporate decision being made to not tolerate that behavior anymore and it’s not something she’s seen before in her lifetime. Nicole hopes that this is truly a watershed moment in which all of the consultants different organizations have recruited, all the DEI plans, the actionable items teams have identified to make progress…that this will all make a difference.

Slowing Down

Acknowledging that operating in conflict zones can take a significant toll on individuals’ mental health in this sector, Nicole has reminded herself in recent years to slow down and more fully process her experiences around the world. “I’m not afraid to admit I was always ambitious, that’s not a negative thing, but you have to be mindful and ask yourself, ‘what am I absorbing, what am I doing, take a breath.’ ” She points again to her personal journey in developing a level of emotional maturity while working in difficult contexts. “I was always running from crisis to conflict to issue and I think I realized, if I keep doing this, I’ll go numb.” As she continues to work in difficult contexts for the protection of human rights and atrocity prevention, Nicole reiterates the importance of remembering why we continue to do this work and the passions that drive us.

Article by Chloe Pan, MBBI Writer