Jane Olson: Storytelling Exposes Humanity

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Jane Olson. Photo credit: worldcitizenthebook.com

Seeing is believing. Oftentimes tragedy, oppression or suffering can be dehumanized, merely defined by statistics, policy decisions and ends-justifying-the-means rationale. It isn’t until the personal stories and imagery of those affected by war, extreme poverty and tyranny are seen that a deeper understanding and empathy of situations emerges. Jane Olson, former chair of the International Board of Trustees of Human Rights Watch and decades-long humanitarian activist, brings these stories to light in her new book, World Citizen, Journeys of a Humanitarian.

Olson joins host Robert Scheer on this week’s Scheer Intelligence to give a glimpse into her life’s work, which defines much of the book. From the atrocities of the Vietnam War to her work with the Landmine Survivors Network—an organization devoted to those affected by landmines recover from their traumatic experiences—Olson demonstrates the power of storytelling and the importance, especially now in the midst of the war in Ukraine, of documenting the real effects of government decisions.

“In my first talk, I spoke about how many people were killed, how many refugees [were displaced], women raped, I had all the statistics. I talked about the geography, the history of the region… People were falling asleep. So I put down my notes and said ‘Let me tell you about this amazing woman I met named Mincy,’ and I started telling stories. Ever since, I have found that that is what informs people, what makes people care about these conflicts and their devastating effects on humanity and also moves people, moves them to make a difference,” Olson explains.

Olson and Scheer explore the humans responsible for these wars and how stories like the ones included in her book should be at the forefront of decision making. “The real enemy is war itself. As long as we support violence committed in our name, in any form, then it is on us,” Olson says. 

The book also includes myriad photographs accompanying the accounts of the victims and survivors because of their effectiveness and “because you need to put a face on that Other. Show their dignity; describe their resilience, their survivorship, their ability to help out and reach others even when they are so devastated themselves,” Olson remarks.



Joshua Scheer