Melissa L. Stone, Ph.D., is a human development advocate with more than 20 years of experience managing international programs at the intersection where social and behavioral determinants of health, peace, and security meet the public policy agenda promoting human rights, rule of law, and democratic process. She specializes in the wide-angle definition of health, particularly for vulnerable populations, including women; racial, ethnic, national, linguistic, and sexual minorities; children; persons with mental and/or physical disabilities; migrants and displaced people as well as persons deprived of their liberty and those at risk of being trafficked. In this episode, she shares a personal inquiry that has guided and informed her work. We explore how she uses humor and human connection in her leadership and the importance of setting healthy boundaries and self-care.
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CLAIRE: Today my guest is Melissa Stone.
Melissa is based in Tacoma Park in the DC area, Maryland. She has had a lifelong passion for human rights for all people, and it's been her question. She's really, held that question very dearly: “how do people create resilience through their trauma? How do they navigate trauma in different ways, in ways that, create either great resilience or suffering.
Melissa, welcome and thank you for being here today. I am so delighted to have you.
You and I have met about 10 years ago. We were enrolled in the same leadership program in a program that actually was helping us develop the spiritual and emotional intelligence,, that you and I have been so interested in exploring over our whole adult life. And, we were at the time already exploring how do we bring these dimensions into leadership? And I know that you spent your whole life, , navigating those questions. So, I'd like to hear first, a little bit about your career trajectory so we can get a sense of you, and then I'll just give you the floor to share more about these questions.
MELISSA: Thank you, Claire. It has been, lovely also to see your career trajectory and, I'm thankful to you for inviting me, to speak with you today. I think that a lot of my career has centered around one question, and that's the one that you identified. About what is it, how do people, how are people resilient? What is the source of resilience that people have?
For example, the big question I had when I was in college and I was studying World War II and what happened in World War ii, including the Holocaust, including the use of these, horrible nuclear weapons, was that some people who had gone through trauma like the Holocaust, uh, would come out on the other side seeking, growth and spiritual development, and they were far more developed, maybe less ego, but far more connected in their lives with people, , than if they hadn't had such. Terrible experience.
And then other people who have that same experience are just devastated from it and lose all function. And so that question really drove me to learn, study Russian, learn Russian work in the former Soviet Union work in former Yugoslavia. And in countries that have since then actually fallen apart.
Yugoslavia and, well, former Soviet Union fell apart in 1989 and then, the former Yugoslavia fell apart in the early nineties. And so, I've spent a lot of time working in both of those places, whether Russia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, and in those environments in part, with some side jobs to places like Africa, Asia, Latin America, but still looking at those same questions really, my question has gotten only bigger to be honest about how we humans, can be supportive of each other?
So, from the question of trauma has come, has emerged a new question. And that is, you know, if you look at the world now, you look at Covid, you look at Ebola, you look at H I V, you look at the biggest infectious disease crises, malaria, TB, all of those, the World Health Organization has identified, it's actually not the infectious diseases that caused the most human injury and mortality.
It's actually what we do to each other. And so, being part of the solution, bringing healing rather than bringing more damage is the question that I haven't ever to completely answer. Or maybe it's an ongoing question. It's a litmus test. It's the, the canary in the coal mine.
CLAIRE: I really resonate with the way that you hold this question, which reminds me of that line from Rilke, which says essentially “Live the questions, rather than trying to answer them, and they just become bigger and deeper”. And so, it seems that this question has really been the thread of all of your work and, and I just wonder, how does this question inform your leadership in the workplace? inform your choices.
MELISSA: Well, from the first time when I was running a small non-governmental organization called Compass Resources, I became an executive director of this little organization when I was about 29. Um, we focused at that time on environmental exchanges of academics and scientists between the US and the former Soviet Union.
And part of what I envisioned and ended up actually being able to deliver on was to make the organization's focus on the quality of human life, and so we expanded beyond environment to include education and health. . And that's really how I got more into the human rights work because human rights has everything to do with human health and human wellbeing.
And that's, that was really my springboard into human rights. And then from there, I, the war in Kosovo started when I was still there. and I ended up working with the network of East West women, a group of women's scholars. A lot of them had descended from Jews in Central and Eastern Europe who had either left during the pogroms of the Holocaust. And to put to New York City. And one of them, one of the lead woman was working at the new school for social research at the time, which is now known just as the new school. And, there was just a tremendous amount of work to do with them. They had a, a human rights lawyer exchange.
It was actually more the people would come to the US and do a fellowship, and that was when I, I actually met a bunch of women who were working on, who were very concerned about the discrimination happening there and how the discrimination had occurred in Bosnia, had led to a massive war in Bosnia, uh, and Herzegovina.
Their whole Balkan region is still recovering, still reverberating, still in a frozen state of conflict in many places. And so that is what led me to those places. To work and then to ultimately, from there to join the organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, where I worked for 10 years and continued to support a US Department of State contract that supports the organization for security and cooperation in Europe, which also happens to be a United Nations affiliated organization.
And the organization that was assigned by the UN to observe or monitor in this case ceasefire violations after the Russian takeover of Crimea and the takeover of part of Eastern Ukraine, which has obviously evolved into a full War that is currently threatening the world and where people, the same fears from my college years back in the eighties, of nuclear war are back on the, are back on the table, are back, in the forefront of people's minds and hearts and list of worries.
CLAIRE: Yes, and isn't that interesting? , isn't that a manifestation of trauma to be cycling back again and again and again until we actually, live it in a different way or bring resilience to it. I'm just wondering because you're, you're in situations and in environments with people that carry a lot of trauma, right? , and so as someone who's animated by the desire to transform it , what, what kind of a, resistance did you encounter? And, there's probably more than one but what are the most common resistances that you, that you encountered?
MELISSA: Well, I think that whenever you work for a larger organization, there is a significant amount of pressure to fit in with the organizational culture. And in some cases, whether you're working for government or even for an international organization, there are definitely lines of hierarchy. And sometimes those lines of hierarchy can lead to any individual person feel that they don't have the space or the ability to fully express themselves or, or their views.
So I think that the way that's one thing is the organizational culture, the source of sort of pressures or confinements. And then, in the case of for-profit organizations, for example, one of the issues with the US government right now is that there is so much work that they're supporting that they're paying. That it's impossible for them to actually do the hiring and, and to have government workers doing all the work. So, they hire contractors and there are different kinds of contractors that they hire. Some are maybe civil society organizations who have a mandate to support the public interest, and then others might be for-profit corporations.
And a for-profit corporation has usually as its mandate to make, which is, you know, well and fine. That's the basis of capitalism. But still making money sometimes can mean that their interest is to get as much work out of their workers that they possibly can while paying them as little as possible.
Whereas on the other hand, if you're with a not-for-profit organization or you're with an international civil society group like O S C E*, they really encourage you to take your leave. Because you need to recharge, because you need to take care, because you need to maintain your connections with your family, with your friends, especially when you're working overseas and, you know, spending your 24 7, whenever you're on duty, focused on your job, you can get really tunnel vision.
You can really become a workaholic very easily. And so, it's super important to keep in mind. that a job is not a be an “end all to be human”, to both consecutively and not just, you know, when you're off duty is when you're human. But to really take care of yourself also in the workplace and to recognize the humanity in your colleagues.
To recognize the humanity in your people, other people who you're working with might be beneficiaries of your program to listen, to be available in a human way. Not just to focus on the, the process or the results, but also to focus on the connection; and the fact that we are all here. In the same place at the same time, and to find, to recognize, to honor, to revere the sacredness of that, of being in the same place at the same time on this earth.
In addition to, I mean, that's more of the simultaneous, bringing yourself simultaneously in presence in, into your work and also making time, uh, when you're doing that without your work, your, the, the paid work that you do. And making sure that you're having learning opportunities, growing opportunities, that you're, you're feeding your heart, your mind, your soul.
Maybe not with the latest Hollywood, you know, action Game of Thrones or whatever, violent conflict film, but maybe also seeing something beautiful and like seeing art and going dancing and, you know, having love in your life.
CLAIRE: Beautiful. I'm curious, how did you learn this? Was this something that you found in the culture of the places you worked for, or did you have to look for this inspiration elsewhere? Because that's very inspiring what you say, but it doesn't sound to me that this is mainstream.
MELISSA: Actually, you know, it depends on where you go. It depends on where you work. And, I would say in different places, at different times. I had different experiences. For example, in Kosovo where I was for a total of eight years. Because of our people are very, very welcoming. In fact, there there's an idiom there that the guest is next to God. And so welcoming someone who you don't know well into your home is really a, a, a gift, a prize, a, a wonderment. Um, and so I felt so welcome there. Um, Although the culture was very different, oftentimes they would ask, you know, are you miss or are you misses?
Meaning, you know, are you owned or not? by a man. So, after I got my PhD, it was delightful to go back to Kosovo and they would say, are you miss or are you misses? And I would say, I'm Doctor.
CLAIRE Make whatever you want from it. .
MELISSA: Right. But no, I mean, in their cultural paradigm that that is very important and, you know, making family and, and families bonding together through marriage and is part of what makes community in their social fabric. So, I certainly don't mean to, I I have a great respect for their culture. They tend to take a lot better care of people who are aging than in the West. And that's a beautiful thing. In other places, uh, for example, Azerbaijan, because it's a, a post-Soviet environment, I didn't feel nearly as welcome. I think that there was not it, people who were foreigners who came from outside were not welcome.
There were to be feared. And so for example, for the whole, I was in Azerbaijan for three years. I don't think I ever went over to an Azerbaijani colleague's house. I was never inside an Azerbaijani’s house during that time.
CLAIRE: It seems to me that connection and community is very important to you and I'm wondering. If you didn't have it in Azerbaijan how did you create it in your own leadership? Um, I think that there, there were parts of it that were there. Like there was one thing that happened every time somebody had a birthday.
they would generally bring an entire birthday cake to the office and they would roll around on a, the birthday cake, on a cart and go from office to office and give everybody a piece of that cake. . It was so sweet. I loved that tradition and I don't think I ever declined a piece of birthday cake. Now, maybe that tells you a little bit about my sweet tooth, but um, I think every culture has its ways.
There was something, there was, there was a wonderful woman there who I, I will remember for all of my life, her name was Olga. She was a, a retired ballerina, and she would take everybody from the O S C E Mission when they were new and they were new to the country, she would take them around and help them find an apartment.
So she knew all of the available apartments in town, and you would go in and you know, she would get an idea first of what you wanted. Did you want a one bedroom, two bedroom washing machine? No washing machine, balcony. How close to the office, whatever. and then she would take you around. And I loved going around with Olga and seeing apartments.
I think every time I looked for an apartment we visited at least 20. Cuz it was so fun to see actually how they were laid out and what kind of light fixtures they had and what kind of views they had and how people had decorated and yeah, so, so there were definitely opportunities for connection.,
Yeah. And people, people in Azerbaijan actually had a wonderful, wonderful sense of humor. Knowing you for quite a while now. I know that you have a pretty good sense of humor and you use it a lot in social situations.
CLAIRE: So I'm wondering if humor is part of the qualities that you bring in your leadership. Do you dare bringing humor in the workplace is this something you do?
MELISSA: I do. I really do., like bringing humor into the workplace. Especially in difficult circumstances.
I think that humor kind of keeps everybody, , relaxed rather than tense and really focused on the fact that what's happening right now, everything is temporary. What's happening now will also pass. I just imagine you, you know, dealing with a quite serious situation.
CLAIRE: You just mentioned you were in Kosovo during the war. , I can only imagine what you were dealing with.
MELISSA: You know, actually it, it wasn't quite during the war. Right after the war when I went to Kosovo. Six weeks after NATO rolled in, NATO had bombed a lot of the bridges and the roads, and so we drove from the capital city of Pristina out to Pec, which was about now it probably takes an hour or less to drive there now that the roads are good, but at that time it could take you two hours each way.
and on the way there was this big bomb hole in the road and I, I somehow every day would forget exactly where that bomb hole was. And we were driving fully armored vehicles and somehow every day I would just whack into that bomb hole in the road and the whole car would go and shutter and, for some reason that would make me laugh.
No, it sounds ridiculous. I was doing damage to this vehicle. I didn't mean to, um, but, you know, that kind of thing and would actually make me laugh. And I think that act during those times when things were very serious and we had, um, there were still many reports about landmines and unpaved roads and, um, there was a whole de mining operation going on in the farm areas.
Um, and so there were a lot of serious things going on. One day we had a meeting with the, with the mayor of Pec, and when we went back to our office, it was, the whole road in front of the office was full of burning cars and people screaming. Um, because there had been, essentially a convoy of people leaving, there were Serbs who were leaving a majority Albania area, and apparently, they had been making symbols, you know, like I'm going to slit your throat, kind of symbols, with their hands in front of the local population who just wasn't gonna tolerate it.
And so they went to the vehicles, they turned them over. and set them on fire. And the NATO had to come in and do essentially a rescue operation for the people who remained in those cars.
So there was, there was still a fair amount of conflict. I've seen a fair amount of conflict in my work. But in terms of, I think that knowing when to say yes and knowing when to say no. , um, is super important. I think in my younger years I really wanted to say yes, and when I was in a management position, um, for years, I would tell staff, uh, who worked with, with our team that, um, please help me say yes to you.
Everything you asked for and it was, I always wanted them to feel that I was 100% behind them. So, one of the policies I had was, please no surprises. If you think that something is going sideways or not going well, I wanna know as soon as you know, so that I can help you fix it. , don't wait until it's an emergency or you know that something is really going wrong Before you tell me, tell me at the earliest time and let me help you, let me be behind you.
Let me work with you, let me support you.
And it's just been in more recent years, it's kind of embarrassing, it's been in more recent years that I've learned how to say for example, in my, in my current job, there's just, my workload has increased by a factor of about two and a half in the past one year.
And I found myself, just, you know, it wasn't so much that I was working 50 hours or 60 hours a week, it was that I would get up and the first thing in the morning when I was drinking my coffee. I was turning on the computer before I would go to bed at night. I was again looking at the computer for work, you know, and I recently had just had to say, no, no.
At five o'clock I'm turning the computer off; at nine o'clock in the morning. I'll turn it back on. Again, regarding my work computer and if there's more work to do and it's Friday afternoon and I've already worked 40 hours, count them, then that work will have to wait because I've already, every single day I prioritize what I do, to do the most important thing first, the most critical, the most time sensitive, the thing that has the deadline. And if it doesn't fall into that category, so sorry, Monday's another day. I
'm a person, I'm a woman. And I need to live this life. I, I need to have time for my meditation. I need to have time for my reading, for my exercise. I need to have time. I love to cook. I need to have time to buy vegetables and to cook and to make beautiful food and to share it with people I love.
And you know, I'm not going substitute that. I'm not going to, I'm not giving up on that. I'm not gonna, that there, that's not negotiable. Mm-hmm. These things, my care. Uh, so knowing when to say yes and knowing when to say no is very important. Yeah.
CLAIRE: And of course when you say no, you're also, you're also saying no to be able to say yes.
CLAIRE: To say yes to what exactly I want, and need, I have to say yes to myself.
MELISSA: Yeah. And sometimes that, yeah, it's all about balance. I think it's all about balance, especially when you're so committed and when you've been, all your life has been about creating change , and serving it's so important to also, Clarity on what you need.
It's so easy to sacrifice , your personal life for your calls, and that doesn't serve anyone. In the end. It's also very, very easy. Coming from the country that I come from and having been born through no choice of my own or no, it is not like I deserve to be born in this body.
Like I did something special, to be born in this body, in this time in history, uh, in, you know, in this country. But I'm very aware. that because of the body I have and the place I was born and the family that I came to, that I have more privilege than other people I have seen in this world. I'm acutely aware of that each and every day. And so being on one hand, it feels very important to me to be a channel of resources, to be a resource in my life to others. Um, and then in, in other ways, I also know that it's sort of like, you know when you get on an airplane and they tell you put on the, the air mask first, you have to do that in order so that you can't take care of the person or the child beside you.
Yes. So those two are constantly looking for balance those ideas.
CLAIRE: Well, thank you Melissa. There's so much here and what you shared that I think will inspire younger leaders because, like you just said, you know, to be a channel or a resource.
is not just for the people that you're serving. But also, to be an example or role model for the younger generations of leaders that are engaging in this work with all their hearts, with all their values and, and vision for change with all their awareness of being privileged
to actually be in the position that they can do this work. And your message I'm hearing is, you know, do it, but don't forget yourself in the process because you are needed, your gifts are needed, your resources are needed. And that's so inspiring.
MELISSA: Thank you Claire, and thank you for being the channel for all this information, for bringing the voices together of women who work in development, who work internationally, who work in a, in helping ways to support others who are less fortunate on our planet. And for bringing these reminders, for sharing them, it's really a special role that you have identified for yourself and that you are responding to standing up and bringing everyone together. And it's just wonderful to see you also growing in this way.
* Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe