Building Peace Through Supporting Youth and Education. Member Spotlight: Sonia Birdi

Sonia Birdi is a court annexed mediator who lives and works in Nairobi, Kenya. Along with the cases she receives from the court, she provides private mediation services, and works at a Sikh cultural school that she helped open in her community. Though it is now central to who she is, mediation didn’t come into Sonia’s life until after she had explored many different roles. She’s been a member of the Kenyan Parliament, a radio and media professional, and even the founder of a yoga studio. However, Sonia recognizes that mediation is a calling, and nowadays she sticks to doing what she does best – bringing people together to solve conflict and find peace.

From Media to the Parliament

Though Sonia’s family has roots in Punjab, India, she is a third-generation Kenyan. Earlier in her career she worked in the media at a local Punjab radio station in London. In the early 1990s, she reported on the moment when the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania were under siege from terrorists, and the experience deeply marked her. Her role in the media had always been very community oriented, but after this event her desire to serve the public began to grow. 

“I broke all barriers.”

Back in Kenya, Sonia was elected into the national Parliament in 2013, in a fairly unconventional way. She had worked closely with the deputy President at the time, and though she didn’t have any previous ties into the political system, this link allowed her to break in. Coming from an Asian background, and particularly as a women, Sonia notes that she truly “broke all barriers” by entering Parliament in the way that she did. However, getting elected was only the first challenge that she would face. As a politician, she dealt with a great deal of negativity and judgement due to people’s lack of trust and respect for the profession. As a woman, she had to manage the complicated workspace, even with the knowledge that she would have been presented with many more opportunities if she were a man.

However, Sonia’s 5 years in Parliament brought her to the forefront of community leadership. She strongly believed that public service was about nothing more than justice and representation for her people. Coming from a minority group in the country, Sonia constantly sought to advocate for her community and articulate their issues. However, she also became very aware that as a Parliamentarian, she was constantly so busy that she wasn’t able to pay attention to her community as much as she would have liked. Throughout her time in media and parliament, community connection, representation, service, and justice was what drove Sonia forward, and after her last year in Parliament this continued to be her passion.

Back to the Community Level

In 2017, Sonia opened a yoga studio. She became certified in yoga and mediation, studied teaching, and did wellness consultancy. But still, she couldn’t shake the feeling that something was still missing. She became a Rotarian and a fundraising manager for Rotary Nairobi, and then continued to work with the organization as a secretary. However, after the controversial Kenyan elections in 2022 she saw her country dive into confusion, turmoil, and a lack of legitimacy in government. Since leaving Parliament, she had found herself spending a great deal of time on the community level, especially with her Sikh community. She soon found herself in mediation, working through the issue of political dispute between parties. She was able to use her natural skills in mediation in her community, and therefore cement the ambiguous community leadership role she had.

“It’s the leaders who have problems with other leaders, and their problems trickle down to the grassroots level.”

From her time as both a member of Parliament and a highly engaged community figure, Sonia came to realize that the conflicts between leaders in the government create rifts in society and public governance, that trickle down to the grassroots level. As a community leader, Sonia used her mediation skills to help people come together and resolve conflicts that would have been much more time consuming and complicated through the legal system. She recognized that if she had a background in mediation during her time in Parliament, she may have done some things differently. But now, she finally felt empowered to use her skills, knowledge, and insight to help her community where the Parliamentarians were not able to.

A Path Forward with Mediation

Sonia’s experience has led her to believe that one of the biggest challenges to the field of mediation is the lack of knowledge surrounding the field. She recognizes the vital importance of conflict resolution, but sees that most people don’t know enough or understand why they should be interested in it. People often ask first whether she is a lawyer, and do not take mediators without legal qualifications seriously.

Sonia hopes that more recognition and awareness will be brought to the field. She believes that this starts with the youth. As she currently engages with a school herself, she hopes for a future in which school children are educated on mediation from high school on and taught basic conflict management skills like any other skill they learn. This kind of initiative would sensitize people to the importance of non-violent conflict resolution early on and equip them to become members of a society that rely more on communication and empathy than anger.

Further, mediation is often only called for when there is an large-scale conflict breaking out. Sonia thinks that mediation must be done on a more sustained and proactive basis, where it is available on the grassroots level at all times. Better implementation of cultural integration, gender inclusion, and empathy between groups would also be vital to more healthy communities. This preemptive work could play a major role in evading violent conflict, and foster stability and peace throughout societies. 

Recommendations for New Mediators

Sonia believes that a mediators main strength comes from their ability to listen to both sides with empathy, and without judging them. She notes that a mediator’s duty is not to solve the problem, but solely to facilitate the parties in coming together to solve their own problems.

“As a mediator you need to learn how to listen to both sides without judgement.”

Sonia says that it is key to maintain the impression of neutrality in order to be taken seriously by both parties. Even if you need to take a break or go to the bathroom and laugh or make a face, both parties must feel equally heard and respected. It is just as important to recognize that the process is theirs, not yours. All that a mediator is doing is helping the parties to explore options, arrive at new possibilities, and decide on a solution that is the culmination of their efforts and desire to reach peace.

Sonia refers to one instance in which she met a family who had been trying to resolve a conflict through the court system for 57 years, but were finally able to resolve the issue in the court mandated 60 days through mediation processes. Though it is not easy, Sonia recommends staying patient and always keeping hope, because even though mediation work is not always easy to come by, it can be extremely impactful and change the course of people’s lives.

Highlights of Mediation & the Sonia Birdi Trust Foundation

For Sonia, the highlight of her work is meeting new people. Every person she meets brings her valuable new knowledge for free, and she loves being able to bring peace to other’s lives. In the present moment, Sonia believes that we need mediation in every aspect of our lives. Today she is often called on to do mediation jobs just because of her reputation and well-respected skillset. It has been a long journey to get here, but Sonia enjoys the flexibility, resilience, and strength she’s developed in her life.

At her core, Sonia believes that ultimately we must learn to understand each other better simply as human beings. Sonia hopes that she is able to be useful to the greater good of mankind, and she wishes that we are all able to judge each other less and love each other more. In this way, Sonia knows that we can be the best versions of ourselves going forward.

With this goal in her heart, Sonia opened the Sonia Birdi Trust Foundation in 2014. Through this foundation she donates any extra income she has to a school that educates the least fortunate children who cannot afford to pay for education themselves. With this, Sonia contributes to the future of these children and Kenyan society, leaving the world a little bit better wherever she goes. Sonia hopes to partner with any other mediators of professionals who are interested in this goal, and would very much welcome new connections related to her Foundation.

Article by Elise Webster, MBBI Writer