Roberta Wall: Cultivating Peace with Compassionate Communication

| By Polly Medlicott |

“In my daily life as a parent, grandparent, social justice and peace activist, and trainer in Nonviolent Communication and Mindfulness, everything that happens is an opportunity for me to live and work for relationships and a world where everyone’s humanity, and the needs of all life and our planet, are encountered with compassion, and valued and met. This is the core principle of Compassionate (Nonviolent) Communication (NVC).”

Roberta Wall & Grandson

Roberta Wall & Grandson

Roberta Wall is the first Asheville resident certified as an NVC trainer by the International Center for Nonviolent Communication. She is also an ordained member of Zen teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh’s Order of Interbeing, and an active participant in the Asheville Jewish community. Wall moved to Asheville last year from Woodstock, NY to join four generations of family here. In the same year, she gave empowerment, advocacy, and communication trainings on five continents to – parents in Botswana, women in the Guatemala City garbage dump, Israeli and Palestinian activists, HIV health providers in Southern Africa, and Buddhist practitioners in Europe. She also led trainings for NGOs in North and Central America, Africa, and the Mideast.

Wall began working for a more just and peaceful world as a high school student in Brooklyn in the 1960s, and was one of the leaders of the student strike at Skidmore College after the US invaded Cambodia in 1970. After dropping out of college to be a full-time antiwar and community organizer, she moved to Gary, Indiana where she was one of the first three women in the history of the US steel industry to be hired as an ironworker. As a steelworker, Wall was one of the founders of the women’s committee of the United Steelworkers Union. A young working mother, Roberta succeeded in gaining more representation for women and workers of color in the union and won important health and other accommodations for pregnant and breast-feeding steelworker moms.

After the birth of her second daughter in 1980, Roberta moved back to New York City. While working as the Executive Director of the Fund for Labor Defense, she decided to apply to law school to continue as an agent for social change. Wall received a prestigious public interest scholarship to attend New York University School of Law. Working as a civil rights litigator in NYC in the 80s and 90s, Roberta represented tenants and activists, as well as people suing against discrimination, in the workplace, government, and at the hands of police. She also represented conscientious objectors in the Gulf Wars.

“After years of activism and struggle ‘in the trenches,’ I was looking for new ways to counteract injustice and violence in the world. I realized that to be part of the change I wanted to see in the world, I needed more inner peace myself. Otherwise, how could I offer peace to anyone else?”

Over the next two decades, Roberta phased out her legal career and explored spiritual paths and spiritually-based activism, including retreats with the Dalai Lama in India, street retreats in NYC, and bearing witness at Auschwitz with Buddhist teacher Bernie Glassman, and living and travelling with the community of Vietnamese Zen Master, Thich Nhat Hanh. She also deepened her connection to Jewish spiritual life in the Jewish Renewal movement. In her striving for inner, interpersonal, and world peace, Roberta met Marshall Rosenberg, founder of Nonviolent Communication. After a seven-year process, she was certified as an NVC trainer, and has traveled the globe giving trainings and retreats in schools, communities, organizations, and war zones. She also coaches individuals, families, and leaders worldwide.

“For the past five years I have been devoted to building the Nonviolent Communication community in Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank. Being in community with hundreds of Jews, Muslems, and Christians who dedicate themselves to transforming their own hatred and despair and to modeling new ways of being together on the planet has given me unimagined healing and growth.”

Roberta is passionate about teaching NVC and Mindfulness in service of families, schools, and parents. “I experience the fruits of my practice every day, because there are four generations of my family living here in Asheville. Last week I spent the day with my 91-year-old mother. We went to Grove Park Inn and sat on the Sunset Terrace for hours, looking at the beauty and talking about death. NVC Mindfulness helps me stay fully present and open for these moments of connection.”

Last September, Roberta travelled to Africa for the first time. She was invited by HIV/AIDS activists in Botswana and South Africa to explore how the principles of Nonviolent Communication could support change in a region plagued with a 50% HIV infection rate and much violence. During a Women’s Empowerment workshop she led at the only domestic violence shelter in the country, the residents and staff shared their stories and she asked them, “What would support you in having more freedom and empowerment in your life?”

The women spoke up and every one of them shared the pain they felt when other women didn’t offer true support or friendship – both before and after they had come to the shelter. Roberta asked, “What is difficult about asking for the support you need?” One woman told of how vulnerable she felt sharing her story, because she feared judgment and stigma. Wall asked her a question that is often asked in NVC trainings: “Would you like to hear back from anyone else in the room about how they are feeling hearing your story?”

“Yes, yes,” she answered, “I would. I would like to hear from so-and-so.” And she pointed to another woman. She was very willing to answer, and said, “I’m so happy to hear your story, because it’s so much like mine. I have felt so lonely and so afraid to tell my story and now, hearing yours, I feel you are my sister and that you understand me.”

“This was the experience I had over and over in Botswana,” Wall said. “People who were living with HIV, people whose closest relatives had died from AIDS, were yearning to share their stories, yearning for the closeness and shared empowerment of strategizing ways to protect themselves, yet holding back because of the fear of judgment and stigma.

“We put NVC in service of individuals and organizations by looking deeply with fresh eyes at problems. The NVC method gives people new insights by looking with the lens of connection instead of correction – we connect with the needs people are trying to meet. No criticism or correction. And then we create partnerships with everyone to find new ways, less harmful ways, to meet those same needs.”

Roberta is also here in Asheville as a new grandmother. In learning to negotiate the multiple roles of mother, mother-in-law, grandmother, and the needs of her daughter, son-in-law, grandson, and herself, the practice of NVC has given her a huge degree of trust that there are many different ways to meet the same needs. For example, everyone shares a need for the safety and well being of the baby.

“Our strategies – the specific actions we take to meet that need – may be radically different: everything from immunizations to the use of the word ‘no.’ The guiding NVC principle is that when we identify, share, and accurately hear each other’s needs, we see that our needs are never in contradiction to anyone else’s needs. Conflict only arises at the level of the strategies that are used to meet needs. And there is always an abundance of strategies. Any problem we have is really only a crisis of imagination. The beauty of the system and consciousness offered by NVC is that it applies in relationships, organizations, spiritual paths, families, world systems, and among diverse, even warring, peoples.”

Visit Roberta’s blog, robertaindia.wordpress.com, and her website, www.steps2peace.com, for information. Roberta is very excited to begin a Compassionate Communication Ambassador Training Program locally for Cooper Riis this month. In September, a four-week class series on Anger & Forgiveness at the Asheville-JCC will be open to all. Please e-mail info@steps2peace.com to register and for information about classes and events.


Polly Medlicott is a student of NVC and co-producer of the film, A New Kind of Listening (www.anewkindoflistening.com). People may also email her to find out more about Roberta’s classes: polly.medlicott@gmail.com.

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