Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Dialogue and Demonstration: An Introduction

Bob Bordone - Austin Pillar 2012Like many of my colleagues in the conflict management field across the country, I have spent significant time over the last weeks and months asking myself questions about who we are as dispute resolvers, negotiators, and mediators. What tools do we bring to the cause of advancing peace and justice? What skills, concepts, and insights can we offer? How are we to understand our craft in this moment of challenge and urgency?

At times, as I’ve reflected on the potential of mediation, the task of bridging differences, and the call to build empathy and connection, I’ve wondered, “What’s the point?”

After all, the dialogue called for by many mediators and ADR professionals won’t fix a broken system. Indeed, it might even do harm. By calling for negotiation, inviting dialogue, and encouraging perspective-taking, might I and others in our field be taming or silencing a righteous anger, one that motivates the kind of activism capable of real and enduring structural change in our society and in our criminal justice system?

In the media and from the mouths of some of my students, I’ve heard that this is no time for negotiation. Negotiating, they say, with an inherently racist and broken system is co-optation, cowardice, and counterproductive to the cause of justice and dignity for all citizens. Others suggest that the time for dialogue and perspective-taking has passed. What’s needed now is sustained activism, a relentless re-examination of the existing power structures that have allowed racism to persist – even thrive – in our society and in our criminal justice system for too long. This is a moment for action – of re-awakening from the stupor our people have been living in for far too long.

These sentiments are heartfelt and excruciating for many of my students. As someone guided to work in ADR by my interest in advancing social justice, I resonate with and share the emotions and passion of my students.

And yet there is still another, more hopeful part of me that feels strongly that those who commit their lives in serious and considered ways to conflict management and peacebuilding are in a unique position to help build the more just, compassionate, and fair world for which so many are calling.

I remain committed to the necessity of dialogue, negotiation, and consensus building even in this moment. It’s also important not to dismiss the feelings of anger and frustration that tempt me to abandon the work of peacebuilding. Indeed, for me, these feelings are calls to action – reminders that those of us in the world of peacebuilding and negotiation aren’t doing enough. The task for me and for others in our field is to double down and devote ourselves 200% – not only to the projects and programs we have already created, but also to channeling our boldest creativity, our biggest dreams, and our best selves towards finding new and better ways for people to engage with one another. These efforts must be more than token. They must engage with the toughest, most searing, and most raw of our differences, biases, hurts, pains, and traumas. These conversations must occur on equal ground, in forums that level power differences and where all share vulnerabilities. We must protect against creating forums where some are invited to (or even expected to) share their trauma and pain while others are “educated” or simply listen actively while avoiding their own personal sharing of vulnerabilities, biases, and blind spots.

Our field, at its core, is all about perspective taking. Every act of injustice and every incident of violence is, ultimately, a failure of empathy. We in our field must confront and accept our contribution to the way things are: when we witness seething, unrelenting anger and frustration, it underscores how we have failed to provide space for people to be heard, and where we have failed to see racism, prejudice, and injustice in our midst. We all too often content ourselves with “dialogues” led by facilitators or conveners who simply lack the necessary tools, skill, and courage to ensure that differences are surfaced, held, examined, felt.

As conflict management and negotiation have become more “established” in many academic, consulting, political, and business sectors, perhaps we’ve allowed ourselves to become complacent in our roles. We’ve often lost the urgency and radicalism underpinning our work. All too often we remain outside observers, doing our work on the periphery of a dysfunctional set of power structures. A challenge for those who engage in mediation and negotiation work is how to be more entrepreneurial, persistent, idealistic and forceful—more “at the center” while recalling that part of being a good facilitator or mediator is remembering that it’s about the parties, not about you.

For many of my idealistic, spirited, and committed students, the events of this past fall feel pivotal. For some, the frustration feels so overwhelming that they may even consider abandoning conflict resolution work for a more strident kind of activism. Others feel the call to conflict resolution ever more urgently. Many feel confused and stuck.

The challenging times we are in, the calls to a new activism, the relentless flow of racial injustice in our power structures, and the temptations on all sides to demonize the other can inspire our field to a new vibrancy or pass us by. Instead of rushing to quiet the noise, it feels important to me that we as a community seize this moment as one of internal reflection and collective vulnerability. To provide my students and others in our field a platform for this exercise, HNMCP is publishing a special series of blog posts. The series, entitled “Dialogue and Demonstration,” is meant to provide a forum to take a hard look at questions that feel urgent and, at times, even existential. We want to see where our community stands, where the openings are, where there is hope, where there is not, and what we can cultivate, do, and imagine moving forward. I am grateful and excited that my students are taking this on, and I invite others to share their thoughts and engage in this conversation with us.

Robert C. Bordone ’97 is the Thaddeus R. Beal Clinical Professor and the Founding Director of the HNMCP.

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