Based in Toronto, in the Humber River watershed on Treaty 13, Natalija Vojno works at the cross-section of watershed-based governance and positive peace. Natalija is the founder of Our Future First where she draws upon her background of convening diverse stakeholders on water issues to offer mediation and engagement design services. These include delivering innovation labs for young people such as UNLEASH Hacks Japan 2021 and the Water Innovation Lab Danube+. She is currently completing a thesis on environmental peacebuilding as a Rotary Peace Fellow through International Christian University in Tokyo, Japan, albeit virtually, and holds an MSc from UNESCO-IHE in the Netherlands. A self-professed green mediator, she comes to mediation through environmental policy and hosting dialogues. Her thesis focuses on ethical spaces of engagement and implementing two-eyed seeing management strategies for Lake Ontario.
Natalija has been interested in building peace since her childhood when her family fled the civil wars in the former Yugoslavia. Growing up in Canada was an education in peaceful pluralism. These experiences, along with living and working in other parts of the world, have informed her understanding of identity, belonging, and the criteria for positive peace. Her lifelong experience with conflicts – at the international or interpersonal scale – led her to study water conflict management, as she “wanted to understand how to support spaces, platforms, and policies that allowed people to cooperate for the wellbeing of life-giving waters.” After receiving her undergrad from the University of Toronto, she worked as a speechwriter for Ontario’s Minister of the Environment during the early implementation of the Water Opportunities Act. Wanting to deepen her knowledge of water governance, she studied at UNESCO-IHE Delft Institute for Water Education in the Netherlands, a country that is known for its role in advancing water diplomacy.
Being in a water-wise context allowed Natalija to gain “tacit knowledge,” to become a founding member of the Water Youth Network, and to ultimately immerse herself in her area of study. Following her time in the Netherlands, she returned to Canada and worked as a campaigner for Environmental Defence and a few different organizations, before realizing that peace was ultimately the core of what drew her to study water in the first place. She was privileged to become a Rotary Peace Fellow and received the opportunity to study at the International Christian University in Tokyo. Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic has prevented Natalija from actually traveling to Japan, but she says that she has still had an amazing experience learning from fellow students and faculty while also exchanging strategies for building peace. Making the most of modern technology to connect people the world over, she co-hosted an innovation lab with fellow students to engage young people to brainstorm solutions for SDG 4 on Education and SDG 16 on Peace, Justice, and Strong Institutions, where their tag-line was “peace is more than just the absence of war.”
Natalija had been following MBBI’s work for a while prior to joining, but it was not until 2019 under the leadership of Kelly Rico and later Suzanne Sherkin that she became involved with MBB Canada. She is grateful for the continued stewardship of the community by current Board Chair, Catalina Chaux-Echeverri. Her background had been in water policy for the past decade, so she “always felt that that is what I do and mediation is this thing that, you know, I’m not certified to do.” However, she eventually took the plunge and has built on her mediation skills and knowledge immensely just within the past year. In early 2020, she joined MBBI’s Democracy, Politics, and Conflict Engagement (DPACE) team and has had the opportunity to learn from Ken Cloke, Wendy Wood, Dianne Williams, Shelley Allen, and Ei Ei Samai, and to develop training on polarization with the fractal forward Duncan Autrey. The mission to build conflict engagement skills and a diverse community of conflict transformation practitioners is what spurs her to be an involved member. She aims to build her own capacity to serve this community while navigating uncertainties and personal hurdles.
Future of Mediation
Natalija feels that the future of mediation will grow as conflict literacy and positive peace norms become more broadly understood and accepted. If the field becomes more prevalent, mediators may be able to step into a wider variety of contexts and roles, in relation to applying the Sustainable Development Goals or supporting families to align on their values in a number of different conflict scenarios. “As people become more aware of what mediation is and what it can do, there will be a greater willingness to accept complex systems and to trust their own ability to address conflict constructively. And, that could create a higher level of organizing. It could unlock our potential.” Natalija personally hopes to step into a mediating role when it comes to negotiating agreements over shared resources and watershed management. Although she feels she would need more experience at the interpersonal level prior to taking on the conflict at the national or international scale. She explains that mediation entails constant learning, as “each group of people that you’re engaged with has their own perspectives and their own dynamic. So, to a degree, we’re always in that state of unknowing and always collectively sensing our way through it.”
Article by Tess Hargarten, MBBI Writer