I am pleased to interview Emilia Lahti, a social activist and researcher with a special interest in applied positive psychology. I first met her in 2013 when she was presenting the Finnish construct, sisu, which means determination and inner strength in the face of adversity, I have followed her work with great interest ever since.
A year ago, Emilia launched a project called Sisu, not Silence, a movement for peace and compassion intended to empower people who have survived violence. Lahti has overcome domestic violence herself. Now, it is only a few days until Emilia starts a special campaign in which she will run 50 ultramarathons in 50 days along the length of New Zealand. Along the way, she will facilitate community events in New Zealand and take part in media education. I invited her to tell us about this amazing initiative that will start on January 18, 2018.
Marta: Sisu, not Silence is a pioneering movement to end the silence and stigma around interpersonal violence. Could you tell us more about it? What is its objective?
Emilia: Sisu not Silence is a movement and nonprofit foundation aimed at ending the silence around interpersonal violence, eradicating the stigma and shame suffered by those who have experienced it, and creating a community that centered on integrity and courage.The aim is social impact in the form of a paradigm shift in the way we speak about interpersonal violence and how supported the billions of overcomers among us feel.
Designing this campaign, I had one simple guideline: to make it as audacious and bold as I possibly could. Ultrarunning was simply the hardest thing I could imagine, but it also serves as the perfect metaphor for social change and healing from trauma: no matter how slow the pace, as long as you keep moving, you will get where you need to go.
Sisu not Silence is my way of serving by dismantling harmful systems of shame that perpetuate suffering and by building this planet’s most amazing community. On a more basic level, I’m a human trying to do something positive and useful with my passion, gifts, and experiences.
Marta: Interpersonal violence is a fact that is present practically in any culture or social system: our families, our communities, and our places of work. However, it is a subject that is hardly ever talked about. What do we understand by interpersonal violence? What is its impact on the world?
Emilia: Interpersonal violence is one of the most pervasive yet under-recognized human rights issues in the world, affecting hundreds of millions of individuals across the globe each year from every social class, income group, race, and culture. Furthermore, UNICEF estimates conservatively that 275 million children worldwide are exposed to violence in their homes.
The consequences of abuse reach far beyond the physical and mental bruises inflicted on the victims. Systemic effects cascade across generations. Research shows that women and men who have been exposed to domestic violence in their childhoods are more likely to commit violent acts, or conversely be less likely to leave abusive relationships. Exposure to violence is linked to long-term health problems such as anxiety, post-traumatic stress, and depression. Victims are at increased risk of substance abuse and suicide. We can and must break this cycle, seeking to reinforce empowering narratives that focus on recasting survivors as amazing, bold, badass women and men with bright futures ahead of them.
Marta: Undoubtedly, Sisu, not Silence is an initiative that seeks to create a real impact on society. Having a framework that serves as a guide is essential. What are the elements of the framework of this movement?
Emilia: The elements of Sisu, Not Silence are:
- Sisu: A society that holds integrity and courage in high reverence is one in which people flourish and have the chance to live free of fear. Sisu means to have the courage to take action against very slim odds, to stand up for what is right, and to have the integrity to take responsibility for one’s actions. Sisu can be used to create psychological safety and a culture of zero tolerance for abuse.
- Systems Intelligence: This is the belief that humans are ‘systems intelligent beings’ that can learn, grow, and modify their behavior in the context of complex systems involving interaction and feedback loops.
- Sharing Stories: We must embrace trust, respect, and social justice as the cornerstones of our communities. It is these elements that lay a foundation for culture that fosters sharing and openness in place of silence.
- Safe Spaces: to create a safe space for someone means to be present in a way that is free of judgment, shaming, and labeling. The good news is that compassion, empathy, integrity, and active listening are all skills that can be taught and cultivated.
- Standing Up: Domestic violence thrives in silence, secrecy, and the shame that society enforces on its victims. Breaking the cycle of violence, which can consist of generations of abuse, begins with the initially difficult task exposing the systems that perpetuate abuse by sharing our stories.
- Shining a Light: Eradicating violence is a conversation that needs to become more prevalent in the mainstream discourse. We each hold immense power to change the public dialogue. Everything changes the moment you become a participant, an active member, and a change agent.
Marta: It is interesting to know what makes people decide to be part of a movement like this and to participate and contribute to that change. Is there any social or psychological theory at the base of this movement aimed at generating a social impact?
Emilia: The work relies on a theory called systems intelligence described above. The systems intelligence approach stems from a deep belief in human potential. It upholds what is good in us, as opposed to merely fixing what is broken. By tapping into our collective capacity for intelligent behavior, we can create a paradigm-shifting opportunity to influence our immediate surroundings and ultimately, entire social structures. Because our connectedness is embedded within our very existence, seemingly small actions can create huge ripple effects.
The run is part of my PhD research on the Finnish construct of sisu, denoting endurance and inner strength in the face of adversity. My work is in the intersection of action research, grounded theory, and autoethnography.
Marta: Sisu, not Silence is not simply an idea, it is a large-scale project that is being carried into practice. What do you aspire to see in the years to come?
In the years to come, I hope to see hundreds of millions of survivors of domestic abuse and sexual violence gain access to similar levels of social acceptance, emotional support, and empathetic understanding as experienced by survivors of other adversities. My greatest wish is for a massive decrease in the prevalence of abuse of any kind. I hope to witness the birth of an increasingly compassionate world, where humanity is freed from the bounds of psychological harm to be able focus on making the most of our precious lifetime on earth.
Marta: A campaign of this type, in which you embark on 50 ultramarathons in 50 days, should require a lot of both physically and mentally training. How have you prepared during all this time to face the run?
Emilia: I have done the obvious thing, which is to build my strength and stamina through endurance training over the last year, mainly running, but also swimming and biking. As part of this training, I completed my first full-distance Ironman in March 2017.Throughout my training, it’s been of utmost importance to cultivate a kind and compassionate relationship with my body. I have been learning to hear its messages that are often subtle, and not simply use it to achieve a goal. The key to this kind of training is to honor myself and run to the beat of my own drum, not anyone else’s.
The way we generally approach running may be a bit flawed. Expressions like “No pain, no gain,” and ‘Go hard, or go home,” come to mind. It’s not supposed to hurt and feel like a grind. In reality, people often push themselves way too hard too soon. We lack the patience to build endurance slowly: to run at the pace we are currently at, not at the pace we wish. Even a tough looking endeavor can be done in a kind way. Again, it’s not what we do, but how and why we do it. Since the goal of the project is nonviolence, I will not do justice to anyone by violating myself. I’ll be writing more in the future about how I train and what I mean by compassionate running.
Marta: 50 days are many days to run, so it is likely that difficulties will arise along the way. What will help you overcome the obstacles you encounter?
Emilia: Knowing my limits and remaining kind to myself. Remembering that this journey is between me and my body and that my job is to honor and respect her and therefore, to lead by example. I will give it my all but not at any cost. Our sisu should be informed by reason.
Marta: Finally, we would love to know how we can contribute and participate in the campaign and how to be agents of change in our communities.
Emilia: The campaign is more than anything an invitation for each individual to become an upstander instead of a bystander, that is, to become a person who takes action to build a more positive future.
Eradicating violence is a conversation that needs to become more prevalent in the mainstream discourse. We each hold immense power to change the public dialogue, redefine what is tolerated, and determine how domestic and sexual violence are discussed. The only way to realize this power is through action, because being passive is a way of casting a vote. This applies to all social issues.
The way to do this is to seek knowledge about systems of abuse, to realize that they exist and influence our behavior, and then to start within your own circle of people. Show unconditional respect to the people in your life, and seek to build psychological safety. This also means being clear about boundaries and the kind of future we want to see manifest. You can say “No” to abuse and seek to elevate the level dialogue wherever you go (at the work place, school, in your family). We CAN create a better collective consciousness. We need to start with ourselves and then take what we have learned into the world.
Other than that, we would love to hear your stories about overcoming abuse, standing up against abusive language and acts in your community, or any kind thought you might want to share to support us. You are also encouraged to perhaps organize a community meeting or a run to gather together people who are passionate about social impact and peace work!
The run will start on January 18th, 2018. You can follow and join the conversation via social media, as indicated in the reference section below. Sisu, not silence is also accepting donations to support our initiatives.
If you want to help to build a world and a society that advances towards healing and hope, a society based on honesty, integrity and courage, you can help spread the campaign and be an agent of change within your local community. The world needs you, and you can have an impact on the social environment in which you live.
Hämäläinen, R. P., Jones, R. y Saarinen, E. (2014). Being Better Better: Living with Systems Intelligence. Aalto University Publications. Helsinki: Nord Print.
Donate via the Generosity Web site
Photos in this article are used with permission from Emilia Lahti.