Gretchen Steidle: Leading Change Globally with Compassion


Story By: Taylor Lamb

I’ll be honest. When I first heard about Gretchen Steidle, founder of Global Grassroots, coming to give the 2nd annual Beverly Cobble Rodriguez Lectureship for the Women’s Center… I was skeptical. I am often skeptical of people who seek to aid people in foreign countries– that they know next to nothing about– when there are many people right here in America needing help. I saw the pictures of her surrounded by black women and children, and I was a little upset. Did the Women’s Center really bring a white savior to UVA? However, after getting to hear her speak, I realized that could not have been further from the truth.


Gretchen Steidle is a “conscious social change agent.” A conscious social change agent works completely counter to the typical methods of social change we see today. During her lecture, Gretchen spoke of the people who typically do work in other countries. She said they have good intentions but tend to fail on delivery and execution. They are often outer-driven, self-focused, and have an “us vs. them” attitude about the people they help. Their outcomes are simply incremental changes that still fit within social norms. Although Gretchen never used the words, I began to think of the “white savior” I mentioned earlier. They are not bad people, and definitely have good intentions. However, because of the factors Gretchen mentioned, they do not bring about the best outcomes, and perhaps do more harm than good, if they do anything at all.

But that is not Gretchen. As a conscious social change agent, Gretchen says she is inner-driven, asking “What am I called to do?”, and other-focused. She begins her process with self-examination before examining others’ needs. The outcomes of this type of social change maximize what is helpful and possible, and goes for systemic change at root levels.

And you’re probably thinking, “okay so that sounds like a lot of self-focused stuff… but how is that better for the people they help?” It’s better because this type of social change seeks to actually address the needs of the people. So often, social change agents go to another country trying to fix problems the way Americans fix their problems. By doing this, they ignore that these countries have social structures completely different to those in America, that this approach isn’t sustainable, and that this is not what the people want. On the contrary, Global Grassroots and the conscious social change agents who work there go into countries like Rwanda and northern Uganda and say “What do you want? What are your ideas for change? What do you think can be better?” They then provide the education and resources to bring these ideas to fruition. And once the time comes, when these ventures created by the people themselves are successful and they’re getting all types of notoriety from their country and beyond, the name “Global Grassroots” is left out of it. Conscious social change agents truly just want to help, and are not trying to get any sort of fame for doing good deeds.

The methods of conscious social change have a much greater impact on the people they help than the typical social change approach. But even disregarding the impact, this approach to social change is valuable because it is important for an activist to think of themselves as well. As the saying goes, “you can’t pour from an empty cup.” If you do14902834_10154554704795120_1934969291597564902_o activist work without checking in with yourself and making sure you’re okay, you will get burned out. Activist or not, the idea of “burnout” is something I’m sure most every UVA student can relate to. You get stressed, anxious, exhausted, and just aren’t able to put forth any effort into things that matter. Now, imagine if you’re supposed to be helping people who really need it, and you get burned out. That has the potential to undo all the prior work you’ve done, and is very detrimental to whatever you’re fighting for.

That’s why Gretchen and all the conscious social change agents working at Global Grassroots have a mindfulness practice, “mindfulness” meaning paying attention without judgement. One can do anything mindfully but developing a mindful practice often starts with meditation. Mindfulness helps these activists check in with themselves and affect social change. In fact, the Rwandan and Ugandan women who participate in Global Grassroots’ “Academy for Conscious Social Change” also learn mindfulness practices to help them heal from the trauma many have experienced. Then they can began to make the changes in their lives. This is far from the mainstream approach to social change, especially the social change that Westerners practice in other countries. However, it seems to be the most beneficial to everyone involved, and incredibly effective.

When Gretchen spoke about the women she taught in Gahanga, Rwanda, women who eventually built and sustained an incredibly successful water venture, she said, “I don’t like the word “empowerment” because it still sounds like something I’m doing to you. But they already had the power within them.” That was the moment that I realized my suspicions were really off the mark, and she was helping the people who needed it in the right way. I’m very grateful to have had the opportunity to hear from Gretchen. I hope these ideas spread, because the world truly needs more conscious social change agents.