When did you begin working as a mediator with CRS?
In March of 1972.
What were you doing prior to joining CRS?
Just prior to CRS I was a senior budget analyst for Model Cities in New York City. That was sort of an intern job. But prior to that, I was a deputy director of a community action agency in New York City and did organizing around community-based issues including education and economics. We had some neighborhood youth core programs. This was one of your standard CAP [Community Action Program] agencies back in the old days.
What was it that attracted you to CRS?
Part of it was that I was looking for a job. At the CAP agency, when I was just a volunteer doing tenant organizing in the lower west side of New York, the person who recruited me was Wallace Warfield. He left the CAP agency to work for CRS in 1968. So a mutual acquaintance of ours told me that they had some openings and that I ought to give Wally a call and find out about it. I did and found out they were looking for an education specialist. I was just finishing my master's degree in urban education and applied for the job and got it and was thrilled. But, the clearance process took a long time, so while I was waiting and I really did need a job at that point that's when I started working at Model Cities as a budgeting person. You'd never know that now, because Lord knows, budget is not my strong suit. But I did a good job for them while I was there.
Give us an idea of how you became involved in a certain case. What did you do, why did you do it, and those types of things. Also, give us the background for it.
Ok, this was a case of a national company that had a history of not being trusted by segments of some minority communities. In fact, there had been boycotts specifically organized against this company. There was an occasion where an official from that company made some statements at a public event which were seen as particularly outrageous by the community. That sort of renewed the need for something to happen in terms of the relationship between that company and the minority community. There were some discussions taking place locally and on a national basis, and our agency was able to coordinate, or facilitate, a collaboration among a number of minority organizations that were interested. They all had an interest in trying to approach this particular company, and the company was willing to at least explore the possibility of meeting with this national level coalition to address some of the issues and concerns that had been raised. Some of our national staff helped to make some of the national contacts, but we in this region were the ones that actually worked it. I co-mediated that with Leo Cardenas who was a regional director. We were the ones who went on with the logistics of actually pulling together this coalition of minority organizations, arranging the first meeting with the company, and doing pre-mediation work.
Ok. So from that point, did CRS take it upon themselves to go to the various minority communities, or did the minority communities approach CRS?
I think it was a little of both. CRS is one of the few federal agencies that doesn't need an invitation or a request for assistance to get involved. We can go in under our own motion. In this case, there were some discussions taking place nationally, and to be honest with you, I am not sure whether we first approached the organization or whether the organization approached CRS. It was sort of a mutual acknowledgment that this made sense. We certainly helped once an interest was expressed in pulling together, and we helped those organizations that were interested in forming a coalition.
So it sounds like most parties, or all the parties, were interested in becoming involved in working out some of the differences.
Was there any party that was opposed to CRS being involved?
There was another minority organization coalition that formed on its own around the same time. They decided they would prefer to approach and negotiate with this company on their own without CRS assistance. However, the other group that I'm referring to welcomed CRS assistance and the role that CRS played.
Did it cause a problem to have this independent group operating sort of in parallel?
It did not for us. I think down the road, the company was concerned that they were carrying out two negotiations at the same time. They were concerned that one group might have the perception that the other group got a better deal. So in fact, as it came close to a formalized agreement, I think they took pains to make sure that they would not face a situation where they had to explain to one party what the provisions were in the other agreement.
Did CRS feel any additional pressure having an outside group involved?
I don't think so. One of the things I have learned as I'm responding to any conflict in a community is that it's never the entire community that's prepared to negotiate, that's prepared to sit at the table. So I have learned to go with those parties that are willing to participate and use that as at least a starting point. I made it very clear that any agreement would have to be limited to what these parties could agree to, and in fact when I do mediation training, that's always one of the things that I emphasize. As you bring parties to the table, make sure that everybody understands what kinds of commitments those parties at the table can make and whom they represent. Just because it's a Black organization for instance, or a Hispanic organization, or a Native American or Asian organization, does not mean that they represent that entire community. So make sure that it's clear at the beginning who they represent and for whom they can make commitments. In this case, it was a particular segment who represented particular organizations, and they could speak for those organizations. The fact that there might be others out there who were negotiating as well or who had other grievances, I did not see that as pressure.
So that didn't effect the job that you were doing?
I don't think so, no.
Once this came to your attention and CRS decided to become involved, what was the next step? Who did you initiate contact with, or how did you initiate contact?
I don't remember. Again, I think some of the initial contact was made out of our national office in consultation with our regional director. So when I actually got involved in this case, I was in meeting with the minority coalition. Right now I'm talking about the whole mediation process, sort of what I would call a pre-mediation session, and how that would work, and what the procedures would be, and making sure that they're together. You're all here in the same city at the same time. I needed to make sure that mediation was still a process that made sense to them and that they, indeed, wanted to use our mediation services in pursuing this. I also had a similar meeting with the company to make sure that they had that same understanding.
So you provided advance notice to both parties? Was there any party that was uninformed that you were becoming involved?
No, not really. Not that I am aware of.
Was most of the contact done by phone, or did you meet in person?
It was a lot of both. Initially, we had personal meetings with the coalition all meeting together in the same room. Then we had meetings with officials from the company. Then we had the first joint meeting after some basic explanation of what mediation is and so on. Because this was a coalition which consisted of top leaders and executives from around the country, we ended up doing a lot of telephoning, discussion, negotiation, and exploration of options in between face-to- face meetings.
How did you decide how to prepare for this particular case? How did you come up with your game plan, so to speak? Is it something that's standard with each case that comes to your attention?
Typically, when I approach a new mediation case, before I even bring the parties together, I try to find out what the specific needs and interests of each party are, what is it that they hope to get out of this, and why. This way, I have some sense of where the common denominators are and where we're going to have some problems before we actually bring them together. So I do a lot of ground work with the parties before I ever get them to the table. I'm not necessarily referring to this particular case, but I don't like bringing parties to the table without knowing what's going to happen. I hate surprises. So if I don't think that there's at least some area where they're going to be able to reach some agreement, or some understanding, I typically keep them apart. If anything, I do shuttle diplomacy because I don't want this first experience of actually eyeballing each other to be one of further conflict and disappointment and failure.
So do you start working them toward a consensus?
In at least some area, yes. I do a lot of what I call shuttle diplomacy.
You actually get the idea of what the interests and issues are of one side. Then, do you go to the other side and say, "This is what they are thinking?"
No, no. I don't ever do that. I let them do that at the table, I just try to find out what their interests and needs are and where the flexibility is. Sometimes I might ask some "what if" questions. What is your reaction to this concept and what do you need in this and so on. But I don't try to become a messenger for the parties. On the contrary, I avoid that. Even if we're in a mediation session and we're at the table, you always make sure there's a room for caucuses. If I caucus with one party or the other, before we go back into the room, one of things I make sure is determined is, "Okay, which of you is going to bring this back to the table, because I shouldn't be the person." I am strictly seen as the mediator, rather than a messenger for either party. So I make a specific, conscious effort to not become the messenger. The closest thing to being a messenger might be if there is, in fact, a proposal made and I try to estimate what their reaction would be. I would say, "I don't know, but let me check, okay?" Then, even if I am not sure if that's going to work, I try not to actually deliver the message per se.
How often did you try not to put yourself in that situation, but then stuff happens?
Not terribly often. There's something that's so interesting in mediating civil rights issues, or mediating with a party from a minority community. There have been so many times when I've gone and as I meet with the minority community to explore whether this might be a mediation case, or even just to get ready for a mediation case, I don't set any time limits. I just assume that it's going to take a long time. I don't make hour appointments for that and most of the time I end up being bombarded with what probably is like years, if not five generations, of frustration.
How do you open this up? What questions do you ask to get this going?
Just, "What's the conflict here?" Usually I am there because something has happened or somebody has issued a petition. So I just say, "Okay, so tell what this is about." One of the questions that I have learned is, "When did this happen?" I am thinking of a case of police use of force in Indian country. As I met with the minority community, I heard horror stories of the kinds of beatings that had taken place and abuse of citizens and so on. The first time, I was overwhelmed. They were all terrible. Then I found out that some of them had taken place 15 years ago. "It happened to my son who is now in college." That doesn't make it any less important. I am not minimizing the relevance of that, but I did learn to ask, "When did this happen?" instead of just assuming. My mindset at first was like, "Tell me what happened." I would hear the stories assuming that it had happened at least within the last year. But what I am hearing isn't just what happened in the last year, but the whole history of this. So when I asked, "When did it happen?" in that case, I tried to make sure that they didn't feel what happened twenty years ago wasn't important, but as we get closer to the actual joint meeting, it's important to know what the long term history is and what's happened more recently.
But it's an angry setting. I see the anger and the frustration and sometimes hopelessness that this community is experiencing, because they really don't know what to do with it. Again, at first we say, "oh god. I hope I can get these people to the table, I hope I can keep this under control." And a few days later, I get these same people at the table. I remember at least one situation where I ended up calling a caucus and talking to the minority group. "What happened to all the anger?" It isn't that I want them to lose their temper, but to some extent, I want the other party to recognize how much hurt and frustration is there. I'll ask them, "what about all of those points you had made to me? Who is going to raise that?" Once they get to the table, and they have gotten a lot of the emotion out of their system. I was amazed the first few time at how calm they were. I don't want to say they were reasonable, because sometimes for me it's reasonable for them to be very angry. It would unreasonable to be calm, controlled, soft-spoken, once they got to the actual mediation process.
Did you coach them at all in that, or is this something they specifically do on their own?
A little bit of both. I try to coach them to be clear, to present their needs, and to state their position. I start with, "What do you think is important for the other party to know? Who's going to say that? Who's going to present that?" I also tell both sides that part of my role as mediator is to control the process, and that I'm not going to let it get out of control. They also need to understand that there are some emotions here and there is some anger here and that is part of what we're here for, but to trust me, that I'll keep it under control. So far I've been able to do that. It's more than just coaching on how to be calm participants. It's an approach that they themselves pick up and use. Again I've not always seen that happen. I've seen it enough times to sort of almost marvel at the change in presentation. It's not a change in outlook, but it's a change in presentation. I think probably they're wanting to be seen as people who are sincere and wanting to work this out, so they believe that they need to appear to be reasonable, controlled and organized in making their presentation. So yes, I do some preparation towards that, but it's more than that, it's more than just good pre-mediation training. To some extent I admire them because we had very sophisticated people on both sides, as opposed to the more grassroots leadership that I frequently work with. That degree of sophistication means we still made some preparation. We make sure we work with both sides so that they recognized what their specific needs were and what some of the options and alternatives might be. We didn't do the kind of basic role playing that I might with a more grassroots party.
Going back to your initial case, how did you approach the company?
Very carefully. The company was not as open to having us participate in their caucuses. I think they were more apprehensive about what exactly our role would be, and even though they agreed to it right from the get go, I think it took some time before they, in their own minds, acknowledged our impartiality. I think the fact we were from the Justice Department, but we would talk about being a part of the Civil Rights Act, and so the hidden messages I think was that they were not convinced initially that we were totally impartial.
They let you know that? Did they say that?
No, they did not tell us that. I wish they had, because then we could've discussed it. There were times when they clearly wanted to caucus strictly on their own, and more often than not they did not want us in there. I am not sure that they were quite clear yet whether or not they could trust us.
They thought you were spying?
Yes. Or we were civil rights advocates. Even though we were a biracial team, I think their initial inclination was to be suspicious. What is interesting though, was that once the agreement was signed and there was considerable publicity surrounding this, we had the occasion to meet with one of the officials who had been involved in the negotiation from the company. He mentioned that he was getting calls from other companies. In essence, these other companies were saying, "God, we saw what happened. Can you give us any advice on how we can avoid this? How we can stay out of this?" His reaction to these companies was, "you don't want to avoid it. This mediation process is one of the best things we've ever done. You ought to pursue it." That's why I say there was a change. Even though they may have been a little apprehensive at first, by the end of the process, they were absolutely sold on the idea of using mediation.
What did you do to reduce the initial distrust from the corporations?
Good question. Even though we might not have been part of their private caucuses, we did meet with them in caucus. So that part of it was their realization that we kept our confidence when we said we would. I think they began to recognize that kind of shuttle diplomacy, and in this case, not just shuttle diplomacy but shuttle telephone diplomacy, that we were facilitating, was in fact bringing the two parties closer. I think they began to see our even handedness, that we didn't try to push them or pressure them into accepting deals or making agreements with which they were uncomfortable. The more time we spent on this, the more they began to realize that we were, in fact, facilitating and not trying to coerce them into accepting the position being presented by the other party and vice versa.
Can you give us the general interests of each party?
Yes. Employment by the company was an issue. What vendors or contractors they use, to the extent to which minorities were included in that? They also had branches elsewhere, and to what extent were those managed by minorities? Those were some of the issues that come immediately to mind. With the company itself they didn't want to lose control. They focused on quality assurance. They focused on what precedents might be set and, particularly, keeping in mind that there was another negotiation going on at the same time, there was some question of not making commitments that they would not be able to keep over the long term. This is one of my favorite examples of how the whole relationship between parties changes over the course of the mediation process, so that mediated agreement isjust a small part of the change. I think that one of the most important outcomes of a successful mediation isn't so much the agreement, but the changed relationship which makes that agreement possible. These negotiations took close to a year, and the closer we got toward the actual agreement, the more the minority community was willing to accept terms like "the company will attempt to," as opposed to "the company promises that." The company had been able to persuade them that they were serious in terms of keeping their promises. The community group got to the point where the company could say, "Look, we're going to make every effort and here is the effort that we will make," and the community organization or minority coalition accepted that because they had reached a trust level at that point that certainly had not been there at the beginning.
Was that done strictly by dialogue, or was there actual implementation along the way?
No there was not. There was no implementation that I recall. There might have been, but it was mostly dialogue. The company provided a lot of generated credibility. They explained the operation and showed the fiscal report and so on. So if they said, "No, we can't do this," they gave reasons why. They were then willing to say, "...but we'll make these efforts to reach that point." Eventually they set down a rule that was accepted, and it was a good faith effort.
How instrumental were you as a CRS worker in developing those interests and directing both sides to maybe show the data or show that good faith was there?
Of course I want to say it wouldn't have happened without us. I think we were instrumental. I think that some people see facilitators as just sort of being there and making it happen. After a while, I think you almost unconsciously help frame it in terms of making sure that both sides see what the significance is. You make sure that both sides take out the significance of the information that they were getting from the other side and understand why that information was being presented. I think that's what is often missed. Frequently, you have two parties in a conflict and there's been a lot of talk and a lot of alleged communication, but just because people are talking, doesn't mean that they're communicating. So part of the role that we, as mediators, play, is making sure that if people are talking, that the other side is listening and understanding. In a setting like this, I think that was as crucial as any case that we've worked in.
At any time during this case did any of the parties involved ask you to do something that you were unable to do?
Not that I remember. I don't remember that.
Did you have to help the minority communities frame their issues or did they have it pretty well in mind?
No they had it pretty well in mind.
Did they change over time?
Not the basic issues. What it would look like in terms of an agreement and how it might be addressed, that's what the whole mediation process was about. I think what they wanted was pretty consistent all the way through.
Did that help shape what your ultimate goals were toward the mediation process? You were able to hear what their various interests were, did that help shape what your goals were?
Oh, I don't have any goals. That's a trick question isn't it? I am only being partly facetious in this. Seriously I think our goal is to help those parties reach agreement, and more importantly, to create or form a relationship which is going to continue beyond the agreement. I can honestly say that we didn't have our own goals of what we were hoping one side or the other would do. I think almost inevitably in a mediation case, and I am not talking about this one, but in a more long, drawn out mediation, I find myself fluctuating between this side being so reasonable and that side being so obstinate and then that changes. So on any given day, I might have favored "one side" and wished that the other side saw that. But that changes, it doesn't remain consistent through the mediation process. To me, that's just a verification of the fact that I don't have a specific agenda of what I want the agreement to look like. I might have some ideas of what might work, but even if I do, I am very, very careful to inject that in a way nobody will be too influenced. When the agreement is signed, it is very, very important for them to see that it's their agreement. I don't mind them thinking that Hanson helped them reach that agreement, but it's got to be their agreement.
Did you see your role changing during this particular case? You mentioned being a facilitator?
Not really. When we were doing some of the telephonic things, a major role ended up being a scribe. But of course, what we would do is focus on a particular aspect of the negotiations and then put together suggested language based on what we think we heard. Then we'd send that out to everybody and get the input and revise it and so on. But I think it's all part of that mediation process. There are about 30 or 40 different roles mediators play, and to some extent, I suspect we probably played them all at one time or another. Sometimes we were the scapegoat, sometimes the reality tester. But it was fairly consistently sort of a mediator/facilitator role throughout this case.
How did you decide when to bring the parties together?
Usually, as a result of the telephonic shuttle diplomacy we had made significant progress in a certain area and were ready to go on to another part. I would summarize and confirm that everybody was seeing the same thing at the same time in the same room, confirming what we have accomplished. Then I would lay the ground work for where are we going next, and begin the process of deciding how we approach that. We probably met face to face every month or so and frequently we set a tentative date for when they might be able to do it again. Because this is not a group you could get together on a week's notice.
So you're doing a whole bunch of telephone work in between?
Did the conflict ever change over the duration of this case?
Not really, I think the issues were made pretty consistent.
Was there ever a point during this case where you felt the minority community may not receive the fairest deal or get the most out of the resolution?
I see that, but again it's always who decides what's fair. We can have a couple of mediators get together for beers at the bar and discuss, " is it my job to create a fair agreement or is it my job to reach the best agreement?"
Talk to us about that difference. Is that something that a mediator thinks about?
I think it is. A mediator runs into danger as an impartial mediator if she begins to get an image of what would be fair. I would rather have the parties describe at the beginning what they would consider fair. Then they need to look at how they present that. Then the mediator must make sure that both parties have an understanding of what the other side would consider fair. I can think of one mediation in particular, not this one, which was probably a very good example of this. These two parties hated each other. There was no trust there at all. You could not discuss the issues at all until you could get some of that hostility out of the way.
So one of the things that we did is to start off in very general terms talking about their hopes and priorities and expectations for the community. We would ask them what a fair agreement, in broad terms, would look like to them. As we discussed that, there was the beginning of seeing that there is some agreement here. We may have very different approaches, but there are some common denominators there. We didn't call it "fairness" at that time, but that's really what we were talking about. If we are talking about a fair system, that would include the principles that everyone agrees to. But I really do think that a mediator is going to get into trouble if they try to control whether or not an agreement is fair. On the other hand, I do think that a mediator has some responsibility to not allow a party to negotiate away basic civil rights.
Did that ever happen?
No. The closest thing to that was in a case that never actually made it to mediation. In this case, there was competition among a number of vendors serving the same clientele and some had arrived there fairly recently and the others were more old-timers. So these newcomers, as interlopers, were cutting their prices to undermine the other companies' business and they were lowering their standards and providing a poor product. As a result of that, their appearance was detrimental to all of them. So one of the things that they wanted to talk about is how to not undercut each other by having a similar price structure.
When I discussed that with the antitrust division, the man at the other end of the phone was absolutely appopletic. The poor man could hardly talk. I would say, "Calm down. We haven't done this yet." He was totally hysterical because he had visions of having to go and drag parties into court who would then produce a mediation agreement signed by the Department of Justice Community Relations Service. So he was not a happy camper. I tried so hard to calm him down, but he was absolutely hysterical.
The bottom line is, we could not make that one of the issues to be negotiated. The parties, even though they had agreed to other issues to be discussed as well, like quality of service, appearance, and training, they were not interested in negotiating any of these other points unless they could also talk about the pricing. So we never entered formal mediation or even informal mediation. We had some meetings with the group to explore whether or not to use mediation, but we never actually entered mediation. I think there was a good result though, and this isn't the only time this has happened.
There are times when we get involved and begin to do an assessment to see whether or not we can do mediation in a very heated, potentially violent, situation. Sometimes just our involvement has enough of a calming influence that tempers cool off and the whole thing de-escalates. So even though we didn't help them reach a mediated agreement, it diffused enough so that other forces could then enter into the process and it didn't become violent. In this particular situation, there had been many physical confrontations and it really did look like it might result in serious violence among competitors. But it never reached that level of tension again. The very fact that we did, in fact, have them talking to each other to some extent, they began to hear each other's specific needs and concerns in greater detail than they did when they were trying to push each other out of the way. So we helped to defuse the actual tension that had existed. This was a successful CRS case, even though it certainly wasn't a successful mediation case. I do think that our involvement at that particular time did play a positive role in diffusing that situation.
When you're going into a situation that you think is potentially violent, do you approach it differently than others?
Very carefully. I don't know what you mean by differently. It depends on the kinds of violence that you're talking about.
I don't know give me some examples.
Ok, very recently, we were in this case where we worked together with the Kansas City Regional Office. We're in Pine Ridge and AIM and Pine Ridge Leadership wanted to march into White Plains to protest. There had been a couple of recent murders which had been unsolved. There were allegations of mistreatment of Indians in the town and that the town was using the sale of alcohol to the detriment of the Native American community. There had been a march the week before which had gone peacefully, but as the marchers got ready to return to the Pine Ridge reservation, others stayed behind. There was some burning and looting and destruction, so when plans were made for another march, there was a real concern that this might become violent. It was at that point that CRS got involved.
So there was a potential for violence there. One of the key things that we try to do before an event which might lead to violence is that we get the key players, the leaders, together to talk about what expectations each one has about the coming event. We talk about what parameters each one has set, what are their absolutes, and what is negotiable, so that each side would know what to expect of the other. In this case, we arranged for a meeting between the march leadership and the Nebraska Law Enforcement, particularly the State Patrol. We tried to come up with an understanding of how far marchers would be able to go. The Nebraska Law Enforcement understood that there was no intent to create any violence or to destroy any property. They understood, in fact, that the marchers would be training self-marshals. CRS helped, to some extent, in doing that too. AIM has a very effective security staff themselves, so they served as marshals to some extent in controlling their own group.
When we actually got to the border and the point at which Nebraska Law Enforcement said, "This is as far as you can go," there were a number of demonstrators who wanted to contest that restriction. They wanted to cross that boundary and be arrested, and some did just that. Other leaders worked very, very hard to draw attention off those marchers, away from that confrontational setting, to avoid actual physical violence. There were police lined up shoulder to shoulder in riot gear and it was like 95, 97 degrees outside. It's not where I would have wanted to be at that particular day! Yet the marchers said they were not leaving until those arrested were returned.
CRS tried, but was unable to negotiate an agreement whereby those arrested were released on their own recognizance because these marchers really wanted a court test of their first amendment rights, of where they could go and what they could say there. On the other hand, nobody really wanted violence. Eventually they were released, but they were not returned to the border, where there was still some tension, but they were transported back to Pine Ridge, away from the confrontation site, and released there. We had a debriefing with the law enforcement and march leaders later that day or the next day, and all of them were convinced that, had it not been for the meeting prior to the march, and the understanding that had been reached there the trust that had been built up. I remind you that they were not "best buddies," but there was a trust level established. Had that not been done, this probably would have ended up violently again .
So I guess what I am saying, in probably way too many words, is that our primary response to a potentially violent situation is to try to get the key parties together beforehand to avoid that violence. Because once things have gotten out of control, it's difficult to use mediation skills to get it back on track. When you do this kind of preventive work. you can see where there might be actions that are exacerbating the violence, and try to deal with that. I know that the phrase, "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure" is sort of a cliche and trite, but that really is true. Usually even the people who might be involved in violence don't go out wanting violence. They might want to make a particular statement, and they might want to get arrested, but there are ways of doing that in a controlled manner which gives everyone what they want.
When you did this sort of thing, were you ever in any danger yourself?
Yeah, in Boston, I was. And there's been some others too, where there were demonstrations that sort of went bad. But I am probably stupid, in a way I am not overly timid. But I know when to get out of the way.
For instance I was in South Boston High School back in '74 , '75, when a white student was stabbed by a black student and all hell broke loose. It got to the point where white students formed bans marching through the school looking for "n*****s," as they called them, to attack. I don't mean to justify the initial stabbing, but you should understand that this happened after a long time during which black students had routinely been attacked. They had been harassed, they (the black students) always felt vulnerable, so this episode had a history. I am not defending the fact that one of the black kids had brought a knife and stabbed one of the white students, who was not killed, by the way, he survived.
But all hell broke loose after the stabbing. Teachers were trying to get black students into classes and lock the doors to keep them safe. At one point I knew that there were like 3 or 4 black students behind me, and up came a group of about 15 white kids looking to see who they could beat up. Now I can't stop 15 white kids running down the hall, so I just tried to make myself as big and conspicuous and sort of in the way as I could not to stop them, but to at least give the kids behind me additional time to get out of the way. In fact when Columbine happened, and some of the students were talking about their experience inside the building I had an immediate flashback to the halls of South Boston High School. There were a lot of similarities in terms of the things being completely out of control and the panic and the fear and just being so irrational and feeling totally helpless as to what to do to avoid this. In South Boston, it ended up being an all day event, much like a military maneuver. In no time, word got around the entire community. You had, literally, thousands of white parents and neighbors in front of the building yelling to "get the black students" who were inside, even though that wasn't the terminology that they used . . .
Were they yelling at you?
Not at me, specifically, at this point, as I was inside. Most of the white students were outside and eventually even the white staff were outside too. But they ended up getting all of the black students and staff into the auditorium which was inside without any windows because they were throwing things at the windows. Then the police came, including equestrian units, to try and move the crowds away, but they'd just come back. They'd move away, and then come back again from another direction.
So there were white parents actually trying to incite a riot?
Oh absolutely, absolutely.
How long had CRS been on-site?
We'd been there pretty much every day since school opening because it was such a potentially volatile situation.
What were you doing there while you were on-site?
We were mostly looking for what was creating tensions in the building, looking at what kind of training we could do for staff in the school on such things as dealing with a diverse student body. Since integration had just started, they hadn't had to deal with diversity before, so they needed to do some contingency planning. They needed to consider what was the relationship between say, the school and the police. We also talked with staff and students about their concerns within the building regarding diversity issues. We tried to develop ways of responding to the concerns and resolving some of those problems that would diffuse tension and create a healthy educational setting.
How long had you been there when the stabbing took place?
I am trying to think of when this actually happened. I had been there since school opened which would have been early September, and I think the stabbing was probably in November.
So all your work hasn't really had time to take effect yet.
Right, in some ways that is true. But as a result of this incident, we helped create a community monitoring program in each of the schools. And we developed a tension assessment instrument and trained school staff in what to look for in schools to decide whether or not there were tensions brewing that might, in fact, result in violence. Plus we formed bi-racial parent councils. These were court-ordered. In Boston the schools really didn't do a whole lot, at this point, unless it was ordered by the court -- which made the court real popular! In South Boston I was the next best thing to the court. The presiding judge never went to South Boston High, but Silke Hansen, from the Department of Justice, was there everyday. So I was part of a "hit list." They literally had a hit list. The presiding judge was number 1; Silke Hanson was number 2. It got to where I would not go to South Boston at night at all.
One reason that I was there most of the time is that CRS could not safely assign non-white staff there because they could not walk through South Boston without being assaulted or even killed. So it was very, very intense probably one of the ugliest situations that I've ever been involved in.
Were you ever able to do anything that successfully diffused the tension there?
The biracial parent council we formed in South Boston did do that. That was one of the most remarkable groups of people that I have ever met. I remember the day we formed that group. The basic strategy of South Boston was, "Don't do anything that the court orders you to do." A lot of parents weren't even sending their kids to school because they were ordered to go. When the court ordered the formation of biracial parent councils, it was up to me to try to make this happen. We had a meeting, and the auditorium was packed with parents who wanted to make sure that no one would cooperate with this. So here I was, with my little briefcase, in front of an audience of a thousand, talking about the value of forming biracial parent councils.
We did not have an election that night. Somehow I guess I had done enough talking and the right talking that it eventually worked. We asked people to please let me know if they would be willing to participate in something like that. And we got about half a dozen or so parents who contacted me afterwards. One of the them told me afterwards that he came because he knew that "the Justice Department" would be there, so he figured there wouldn't be any problems. When he realized that "the Justice Department" was this one lady walking in with a little briefcase, he was really upset. "What do they mean the Justice Department was going to be here what the hell is she gonna do?" he asked himself.
Are you being accurate with these numbers that there were a thousand parents there and out of them only 6 volunteered?
Were you surprised with that six?
I was delighted that there were six, yeah.
Three whites, and three blacks?
No, these were all whites. These were all in South Boston and Roxbury, the other side of town. We didn't have any trouble getting enough black parents to participate. But most of them, at one time or another, faced harassment and threats from their own community for participating in this council--slashed tires, threatening phone calls, broken windows, that sort of thing. It just breaks your heart. Once I got a call at night and I still get emotional, just even thinking about some of those settings but I got a call from a woman who lived right across from school. She had agreed to be on the council even though she had opposed forced busing. She thought it was a terrible idea, but she wanted her children to get an education, and the only way to do that was to go to school. So she wanted to make it work. She called me around midnight. Her husband was diabetic and had lost at least both feet, so he was not very mobile, not in position to do a whole lot to protect himself or his family. There was a crowd outside of her house throwing rocks at her window and yelling horrible things basically threatening her for participating on the biracial council. She had called the police, but this was the South Boston precinct, so that did absolutely nothing. Her husband was feeling totally helpless because he wasn't in a position to do anything and so she called me. I don't remember what we did exactly, but I think we called central police headquarters and possibly the U.S. Marshal's office too somebody beyond South Boston, so that at least there would be somebody to go out to defuse that situation. Just sending your kids to school at all was taking a major stand and this was not an activist woman. This was just an older woman who had relatively young children for her age, who wanted them to get an education and wanted to do the right thing. And the hell that she went through because of that! At times like that, you really feel frustrated at not being able to do more.
One of my favorite people on that council was a guy named Jim. Again, he wasn't really an activist, but he wasn't shy either. He had some involvement in his local church and he became one of the key leaders of that council. When Vice President Rockefeller sent somebody to Boston to get a feel for what was happening in the community, we wanted to make sure that he got some feedback from the white community that was trying to comply with the court order, not just from the "Louise Hicks" [uncooperative] types.
So Jim invited them over to his house, and had a number of his white friends including all of those who were on the biracial parent council and he started to talk to them. The council had been in effect for a while now, and he explained that some of his newest, but best friends couldn't be there, because, he couldn't assure their safety if they came to his house. He explained that there were black parents who were serving on the council, but if they walked down the street they probably would get killed. He said, "You know, I've heard so much about violent blacks and rioting blacks, and how destructive they are, and how you can't trust them. Well, I'm going to tell you something," he said, "I remember watching the march in Washington and thousands of people standing in the rain quietly praying. If those had been a bunch of Irishmen who had been treated the way black people have been treated in this country," he said, "they would've taken that damn Washington Monument and wrapped it around the Capitol! So don't ever, ever come to me talking about violent blacks, because that's a mistaken notion and I'm not going put up with it!" I was really impressed. This was not the speech that Rockefeller's envoy had expected to hear in South Boston. But people like that are the ones who sort of make this job worth it. He became a real leader in that community.
There came a point where we had police in the buildings.... Actually, I think they might have been there before the stabbing, as well, just because they knew in South Boston black students would not be safe, regardless. So they had to have protection for them. One of the first issues that the council addressed was that black students weren't going to feel much safer if all of the cops were white. They decided that, as a council, they needed to go to the police department and talk to the police chief about getting more diversity among the police at South Boston High. The group that went included two white parents, Jim and one other, and two black parents. They met with the chief. Jim was the one who took the lead on this, and the police chief was simply blown away when he had a white parent coming from South Boston to his office saying we need more black officers in that school. So these few parents had a huge impact.
A great bonding took place among those black and white parents, as it became very clear very quickly that they all simply wanted their kids to be safe and they wanted their kids to get an education. That was such a strong common bond that there really was very little tension among them. There was apprehension, because neither knew exactly what to expect from the other, but they got very close very quickly as they began to realize that they were all just parents wanting the best for their kids.
What's the approximate time frame from when you first began this case to developing these biracial committees?
Probably 3 or 4 months. School opened in September of 1974 and the court order came in June. But before school opened we did a lot of work with community leaders, including clergy, with the school system, and police department, trying to do some contingency planning. We assumed that there would be demonstrations, but we wanted them to remain peaceful. So we planned what these groups would do in case of an emergency. Who was going to be the liaison between school and police for instance? We also started looking for ways to form multiracial student councils so that, as these new groups of students were brought together, that they would have a mechanism for being able to work together. Unfortunately, in South Boston, that was next to impossible, because white kids and certainly their parents were very clear that they didn't want to do anything to try to make this successful.
I was in front of school the first day that school opened in 1974. I really hadn't been personally actively involved in civil rights movement, per se. I was on the Poor People's Campaign in Washington a number of times and I had seen Selma, Alabama. I had also been in Memphis right after Dr. King was killed, and in part of the march there. So I knew there weren't too many friendly looks there, but it's one thing to see something like that on television even when the police used fire hoses and all of those atrocities -- but to be right in the middle of a group that exudes that kind of sheer hatred. I mean you can feel it and see it. What it does to people's appearance is amazing. People literally all look ugly-- and not because that's what they were naturally, but just looking into those eyes and seeing that hate... Then when the students got there, I said to myself, "God, I thought high school students were bigger than this." They just looked so small and vulnerable. And then there were these adults, mostly women, who were yelling obscenities at them, and they started throwing things in just sheer hatred of these kids I will never forget that.
Did this happen right when you started at CRS?
Yeah. I had started with CRS in March of '72 and then in '73 CRS underwent a major riff. Before '73 we had close to 400 people and then in '73 we went down to just a little bit over a 100. So all of our field offices were closed, there had been about 40 of them, at least one in most of the major urban centers. But we had to shut those down and go down to only 6 regional offices instead of 10. But Boston and Denver, which had been field offices before became regional offices to coincide with the traditional federal regions. The only reason that I survived that riff, being the new kid on the block in New York, relatively speaking, was that I was willing to take a transfer to Boston. But I'd been with CRS just long enough by then to know that if I could keep a job with CRS, even if it meant moving to Boston, I would love to do that. One of the first things that we dealt with when I came to Boston, about a year before desegregation, was when was when somebody was doused with gasoline and set aflame over in Cambridge. I really came in at the end of that. So that was sort of a quick introduction to just to the overall climate in Boston. When I got up there in fall of '73, we already knew the desegregation case was there was in court, and that the decision would probably come within that year. The decision came in on June 21st and so from then on, for about 2 years, desegregation was almost the only thing that I had worked on. It was definitely my first major case.
Did the parent councils gain any more people over time?
That was supposed to be the approximate size, but they eventually got a little bit more support. As we got monitors in the buildings, things got a bit better. Also, all of the schools hired some community aides--again trying to hire people from both sending and receiving communities -- to help provide a community presence within the building. One of the aides in South Boston was the older sister of the student who had been stabbed . But she was really supportive of efforts to improve relations in that building. She also was in support of that parent council and tried to help identify positive student leaders in the community who would help work towards improved relationships. So there were some interesting dynamics going on. We also set up a volunteer monitoring program, but getting volunteers was hard. The League of Women Voters sent some, so did the churches. We had to be careful, so that we wouldn't inadvertently recruit people who'd go in and become instigators. We also made sure that the instrument which we developed was one which called for very few judgements. Basically we told the monitors just to describe what was happening so that somebody else could make the judgement from that.
We've used that same concept since then, in fact, in other situations where we've needed monitors or neutral observers. I've done quite a bit of training in that area. The issue is how do you do that in a way that everybody who sees the same thing would describe it the same way. For example, if two people saw a policeman arresting someone, one might say the police officer was confrontational, while another would say he was just being professional. So we get people to be very specific. Tell what the police officer did: he spoke in a very loud voice; he put his hands on the person; he made threats; we trained people to be very descriptive, rather than making judgements.
Did you ever turn down offers of assistance or outside resources?
People who wanted to volunteer? I am trying to remember whether we did or not. I seem to remember that there were some who decided on their own that they couldn't do this because it was too emotional for them or because they felt too strongly. They didn't think they could be neutral if they saw something happening, they felt very strongly that they had to intervene and deal with it, rather than just be observers. I don't recall that we actually turned down volunteers but it might have happened.
Besides monitoring what did you do to try diminish tension after this incident?
From there on, a lot of our focus was on working with, supporting, and providing some training to those biracial councils, not just in South Boston, but in other schools as well. South Boston was my major assignment, partly because I was the white on staff, but in many ways, South Boston kind of became the standard against which to measure what we were doing in other schools as well. We also continued working with police, and tried to get our local organizations to participate as monitors, in an effort to get them involved in a positive way, even if they weren't interested in being advocates or anything.
How did you do that?
We just asked. I think everybody agreed that nobody wanted violence, so if this was an effort to stop violence from occurring, then people were willing to participate in that.
Sticking with this the desegregation case, I want to talk about the issue of trust. It seems like trust is very, very important in this particular case. How were you able to build it and sustain the trust of the parties that were involved?
I think part of it is that I tried to show some experience, some expertise that might be useful. I made it clear that it was their choice about whether or not to trust me, and at the same time I tried hard not to over-commit or over-promise what I could do. Over a period of time, we just got to know each other. With some of those white parents on the biracial council, it was just the fact that I was there every day. And they knew that they could call me at midnight if they needed to. That created a certain sense of trust . For many of them, I was practically the only "outside" contact they had -- "outside" in terms of being someone they knew who was intimately involved in the internal operation of the process.
The other thing that I ended up finding was a key tool in generating trust with somebody like school officials, and even police, is that I tried to be at the court hearings and I took notes and made sure that I got copies of things like court orders , or anything that was issued in writing. I was amazed at how often that information or those documents never got to the local school building. So that in many cases, I was one of the primary sources of accurate information--I was sort of a one person rumor control system. I knew what the accurate information was, when no one else did. So that, I think, did a lot to help gain me some credibility and trust. But again, it's a gradual process. At first I was maybe tolerated at best. After a while I would try to find people to talk to and see whether I could have some input with, and then eventually people actually approached me for assistance, including the principal. It was a gradual process.
Do you think you were able to work effectively when the trust levels were on the lower end?
Probably not. The white community in South Boston was so distrustful of this entire process that I sort of epitomized the court order, so they didn't trust me at all. Even the people who eventually served on that biracial parent council were there because they supported complaints about the court order. But they wanted their children to get an effective education, and they wanted to avoid violence. None of them, initially, was a strong supporter of desegregation in Boston.
To some extent what was happening in South Boston just confirmed that this was a terrible idea, because who needs this? But some, like Jim in particular, reached the point of saying that this was long overdue. He felt they had to do that because they couldn't continue living with the attitudes that existed in that community. But none of them were strong pro-desegregation activists, and Lord knows, they were very cautious about what role if any they would play in this process, and whom to trust.
Did you ever feel that your race or gender was a factor in your gaining trust with the parties?
Here in Boston in particular or in general?
Well, Boston first . . .
If I had not been white I couldn't have gone there everyday, just for safety reasons, so it would've been difficult. Now we had black staff and a Hispanic person who could sort of get away with going out there, but I did it more. We didn't have any permanent Hispanic staff in the regional office at that particular point. If the black staff knew exactly where they were going, and how to get there, and they didn't get out of the car until they were in the parking lot, well in the school they were safe, but otherwise they were not. We had one conciliator who came up from the Atlanta office who got lost and got in trouble. He just managed to get back in his car and almost threatened to run some people over to get out of there, but he was feeling very unsafe, trying to figure out where to go and how to get there safely. So if we had staff from out of the region, there was no way we could safely send them into that part of the community. It got to the point where I felt much safer in the black neighborhoods than I did in South Boston, because there were folks in South Boston who knew me and who weren't crazy about me. During the day it was pretty much safe, but I didn't want to walk dark streets at night alone in South Boston.
What about the gender issues? You mentioned Jim coming in and being so effective. I am wondering if he was able to get across the message more effectively because he was male versus being a female?
Well first of all, the message he was bringing across was supposed to come from a parent council and I wasn't part of the parent council, and so I wasn't even at that meeting. I just heard about it from police afterwards and how astounded they were. There is no question that he was probably the strongest participant from the white community. At the same time, the strongest leader from the black community was a woman. Sarah was her name, and she had been involved in civil rights in North Carolina, I believe. Early on, as we were sort of getting to know each other, she talked about some of her experiences there. One of the concerns that this council had was that, "There are so few of us, what can we really do?" and she was saying, "You know, Jesus Christ only had 12 disciples and look what he did! We've got 12 people here so we can do a whole lot in this place!" And so, she was great and she sort of became the mentor. Jim was a strong leader because he believed this situation wasn't right, but she was the one who had the experience. She was the one who could talk about her own history in this kind of a situation. So people looked to her for sort of some of the moral leadership in this. They made a remarkable team.
Did you facilitate the parent council?
Yes, to some extent. Certainly, I did, during those first meetings and I brought them together in the first place.
Did you help to set their agendas?
Did they do any formal negotiating?
Not really. They did negotiate with the police department to send more black officers and they did it very effectively. The next day there was a remarkable change in the complexion of the officers at South Boston High. They had a profound impact, since everybody knew that South Boston whites opposed forced bussing and that the entire community felt that way. So when the police chief found someone this forceful and this adamant working together with black parents and coming jointly as a team to say this is what we need in South Boston, oh yeah that made an impact, it definitely did!
Q - Tell me a little more about the dynamics on the bi-racial parent council. How did the black and white parents learn to trust each other?
I just got them talking about their hopes and fears and they found out how much they had in common. Of course the black parents focused more on the security issue and the fear that they had for the safety of their children, but that had a profound impact on the white parents because they realized it was their neighbors that were generating that fear. I don't know if "guilt" is the right word, but the white parents certainly could identify with the black parents' fears. So at least within that setting they wanted to be a resource to turn to, so those parents did not have to be afraid. And they wanted to show that even though there was just a small group of them, that there were those in South Boston who did not want to see any children get hurt.
Was there ever any time of impasse in this whole process?
Not that I recall. I think that part of it was, to some extent, that they were working in a crisis setting the whole time and the crisis of keeping that school safe was such a big issue that very little got in the way in trying to promote that.
When you said the whole time, how long are we talking about?
A school year.
Were things better the next school year?
They were slightly less volatile, anyway. Part of it was that by the next year there were some of the more reasonable white kids in there. In the first year, some of the potentially most violent white kids were the ones that were there because that was their job, almost, to make sure that this didn't work. They weren't there for an education; they simply wanted to prove that this bussing thing wasn't going to work, not in South Boston, anyway. That wasn't true of all of them, of course, but it was true of some of them.
Well what happened to those kids?
Well, some of them were still there the next year, but there were more of the moderate kids, if you will, that began to come back. And I think as the reality set in, that this was not going to go away, more moderate white kids began to come back. Very few of the students actually supported desegregation or forced bussing, but they were not wanting to boycott any longer, at least.
I'll never forget one day I don't remember whether it was in the first year or the second year, but there were a lot of white kids who had returned. And there was an assembly, because Up With People had come to town, trying to promote good will and understanding. So here they were at South Boston High School, on stage, and one of the first songs that they sang as soon as I heard it, I said to myself "Oh no!" was "What color is God's skin?" The white kids started yelling "white, white, white." It was a disaster. And so predictable. I could've told them that would happen, that they shouldn't sing that song in South Boston -- I mean I love the sentiment, but trust me it's not going to go over in South Boston. They had those kids beaming and dancing up on stage, and of course, they were mostly white -- they weren't putting a whole lot of focus on desegregating that group at that time, so it really was a disaster.
You mentioned earlier that you were a source of accurate information. Was there ever a time where there were factual disagreements? For example, one group saying one thing, and another, the opposite?
I am sure there were, but I can't remember specific examples. Sometimes, there would be a court order and snippets of that would filter into the community, but it would be totally distorted. For example, even in the formation of those parent councils, it took a long time until the accurate information actually filtered into the school in terms of what was supposed to happen. There were rumors that there would be roomfuls of parents who were going to control the school, and this kind of thing. So I learned if there was a new court order, I always made extra copies and took them with me, so that I could at least give them to the principal and some of the key leadership so they would have accurate information on that.
So you waited until the parties came to you with the inaccurate information ?
Sometimes I initiated it. For instance, I'd take something to Dr. Reed, the principal.
That was one of my ways of getting trust with him because, initially, I don't think he was necessarily thrilled about a fed coming into his school. Dr. Reed was an interesting person. He was able to retire he had been in South Boston High forever -- parents of the kids who were in school remembered Dr. Reed as their principal. I mean he was an institution. He was one of the most highly-regarded and highly-respected people in that community and he could have retired before desegregation. But he stayed on, even though he was opposed to the desegregation plan and to force bussing, but he thought that his leadership there would be able to minimize the disruption and violence. I think that he was deeply hurt and scarred by the anger and the negative reaction and the hostility that was focused on him, because he was seen as a turncoat. So it was an incredibly difficult time for him. He wasn't necessarily looking to the federal government for his salvation; let me put it that way, so I had to build up his trust. If I had important information that I could share with him, or give to him, then I became a resource, which is how I wanted him to see me. So it went beyond just squelching rumors.
What brought this whole situation to an end? How did you extricate yourself from that?
Well actually, what really happened was that I was transferred to Washington to help coordinate our desegregation efforts nationally.
Did the federal office take over for you?
Just the local staff at CRS was still there. Things slowed down during the second year. During the first year, I don't remember working on anything other than Boston. We were working 12-14 hours a day -- it was unfortunate we weren't documenting comp time at the time I could still be out on vacation otherwise! But typically, I would be at the school before 7 o'clock in the morning, because school opening, when the buses got there, was always one of the tense times. Then I'd stay until mid-morning, and then go back to the office when we'd have our staff meeting and look at what we needed to do for the rest of the day. Then I'd either go to some of the other schools or to South Boston for the afternoon ,and there were inevitably evening meetings somewhere, community meetings, parent meetings, or church groups that wanted information on how to become involved and so on. And then I'd go home and get my phone calls there they were about this too--it was a very intense year.
The second year, starting in Fall of '75 was the second phase. That's when Charleston desegregated. Charleston was sort of the seen as almost the sister school of South Boston in terms of being as anti-bussing, with strong Irish opposition. So there was the anticipation of the kind of violence and hostility that had occurred in South Boston. There were media there from all over the world. But Charleston actually went fairly peacefully. There were some minor skirmishes, but but it was nothing even close to what had happened in South Boston the year before. And there were all of that media there looking for it. I had to laugh because you ended up reading more articles about media covering the amount of media covering the event than you did about the event itself. There were literally reporters interviewing each other and then covering who was there. All of Bunker Hill was covered with reporters and TV cameras and everything else and when there wasn't much happening in the school they started panning across the field and taking pictures of other cameras. It was amazing, but clearly there had been some lessons learned during that first year. South Boston had toned down somewhat and the multiracial parent councils were sort of the norm for most of the schools. So in year two, we actually started working on some cases outside of Boston.
We started going up to Maine, for example. There are a number of reservations up there and we had some cases near there, and there were other school cases, but not necessarily desegregation cases, in Connecticut and so on. Since I was the only education specialist, or person who'd been originally hired as an education specialist, who was still left, I would be used as a resource around the country, even when though I was assigned to Boston. So I was doing some travel outside of the region already, once things toned down somewhat within Boston
Once I moved to Washington, I began working on other desegregation problems. Detroit and Milwaukee and Madison were desegregating, as was Louisville, Kentucky. And Boston was just finishing Boston. So I went back to Boston to see if they had done anything in terms of monitoring. Since so many cities were going through the same thing, it made to have some central coordination, at least in terms of resources. I ended up staying in Washington for three years to coordinate efforts in all those different cities. Even though I appreciated getting to all of these different places, and having all of those different experiences, I really missed seeing a case through from beginning to end. As a coordinator, I typically just went out as a resource to the local staff. I did a lot of training of local monitors and I did a lot with discipline policies. and In both Louisville, Kentucky and Detroit the courts asked us to do an analysis of how discipline policies in the school system served to either support or undermine desegregation within the system. In some places, discipline policies were being used to re-segregate the classrooms because minority students were being suspended at just incredible rates. So the judges asked us to look into that in those two cases and to make recommendations of what alternative disciplinary policies could be put into place to keep that from happening. I enjoyed doing that -- it was exciting, but I still missed actually working an entire case. Not because I didn't totally trust the people who were doing it-- we had wonderful people there-- but, you know, once I got my nose in somewhere, I had a hard time getting it out.
Did you consider the work you did at South Boston a success?
Yes, a success to the extent that I think I made a positive difference. I mean the situation is such that there isn't any way one person could make all the difference. Boston was so complex in some ways. They never had just one basic racist situation. So I don't know what could have been done to make the entire desegregation process peaceful. But I do think that my being there and the things that I did there and the activities and efforts that I got involved in made a difference in some key areas. And to that extent yes, it was successful. If success means that the whole thing was non-violent and Boston no longer has a race problem-- no I didn't quite accomplish that.
Do you think CRS measures success the same way that you measure your success?
I think we have to. I think we have a hard time sometimes, and we typically have difficulties in explaining to Congress what it is that we do and why it is so important. It's very difficult to measure violence that didn't occur. How do you document situations that could have become more confrontational, had you not been there?
I think what we have learned to do is to focus very heavily on what we would call "the assessment process." That is assessing who, in fact, are the parties, what are the issues that are on the table or are at play here, who are some other parties who are on the periphery parties that might have an interest in this, or have other resources or skills that might be applicable. In light of all of that, CRS considers what it can do in a particular setting. Very often it isn't solving the big problem, but it's being able to deal with a little piece here and there. If we can deal with that little piece, we would consider that having been successful, even though it might still be in a broader sense, a very tense and very conflicted situation. Right now we've got two CRS people in this region, for instance. Even if we concentrated all of our resources on just one case, we wouldn't be able to resolve that enough that there wouldn't be any more racial problems there forever and ever and ever, but we can identify an immediate peace . If we can make a difference for that time, we would consider that a success.
You talked about the presence of the media. How did you typically deal with the media? Did you see it as a help or hindrance to your process?
Oh heavens! Are we talking very specifically or are we talking in general?
In general, for a start.
If I'm mediating, I absolutely avoid having the media there. So far I think there's only one exception to that statement. I generally do not allow media into the mediation. I make sure that I explain to them beforehand why, and try to explain that if media's in the room, we end up having two levels of negotiation. We have one level of negotiation which was sort of typical mediation, trying to resolve a problem. But we've got another level where they're talking strictly to the media wanting to make sure that they say what needs to be in the paper in the morning. That is not necessarily conducive to actually solving a problem. I have generally found media to be very understanding of that and accepting of that. If it's a formal type of mediation process, I try to tell them that when the mediation is completed we will be sure they get a copy of the signed agreement. We will have a press conference where they can talk to the parties that were involved, if they want to do that. But we ask them please understand that at the time negotiations are going on-- within that setting-- it just would undermine the process. They've usually been pretty understanding of that.
You mentioned Rodney King in L. A?
I ended up spending about 5 months in Los Angeles after the Rodney King event and as part of that lump of things. I was involved in arranging for, and then actually conducting mediation between a group of Korean businessmen and the federal, state, and private agencies and organizations that were in Los Angeles for disaster response. That included FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Administration), the California version of FEMA, the Red Cross, Administration and others. A lot of that ended up being almost like a cultural training, because a big part of the concern of the Korean business people was that they weren't familiar with American culture. For instance they didn't have a clue as to what to do with the dry beans they were being given for food assistance. If they were going to be getting food assistance, they needed things they were familiar with. So we got the Red Cross to look for more fresh vegetables and rice. In some cases it was just a matter of looking at the physical layout of the disaster relief center it was called the DAC Disaster Application Center. I looked at the layout and considered how that lead to or avoided confrontations between inpatient people who needed help. Sometimes we ended up just playing a role in rearranging the furniture in a way that made it more conducive to having people being served at various sides at the same time, rather than having long lines which made people lose patience.
There was a real sense all along on the part of the Korean victim community that they were not being understood, that the severity of their situation wasn't being dually acknowledged and they could not understand why nobody was taking responsibility for the fact that they, through no fault of their own, had suffered all of these losses. They couldn't figure out why nobody had resigned yet -- you know, out of shame, for having allowed this to happen.
And the other piece which was major, particularly early on, was that they did not believe that they were receiving protection from the police or national guard for their businesses. So they ended up forming their own protection force a young adult team which was heavily armed and spent nights patrolling streets of Korean businesses to make sure that they weren't vandalized, attacked, or destroyed.
As they began to go through the process of applying for assistance at the DAC, and then waiting for a response, and looking for help, there was a lot of impatience. Language was a big problem. They were threatening big demonstrations in front of the DAC at first, and later on they did have demonstrations at City Hall. It took awhile to get mediation going. When we were trying to arrange it, there were one or two Koreans who wanted to speak for everyone. We tried to explain that while it wasn't that we didn't trust them, and we were sure they were honorable people, we couldn't take their word for what the entire Korean community wants. We insisted that we have more participation from the Koreans. There were a couple of business associations we got to participate and we had the leader of this Korean young adult team which was doing the protecting service. There were a couple who were clearly sort of elders within the Korean community, too. The entire process had to be bilingual, so I had to have a translator, because I don't speak any Korean at all. These were all day sessions, and we ended up going on for three days. I could never persuade any translator to come back for a second time because they were so worn out, so totally exhausted after one day. So there was no way I could persuade them to come back again. Part of what happened is that some of the Korean victim party who spoke at least some English, so if the translator didn't get it just right, they would jump in and say "No," so this poor person had a very, very difficult time with it. The other challenging thing was that almost everybody at the table on both sides were men, and here I was, a woman, taking charge of the process. But I did it, and it was fascinating, just because of the dynamics of what was going on, some of the interactions among parties. Never mind the actual negotiations between the parties. I ended up becoming very close to that leader of that adult group. He calls me "Mom." I'm his American mother. So we ended up being a very close link into that particular community. They really they were concerned that they receive protection. They would've much preferred that L.A. police do it, so later on, we managed to arrange for some meetings between some of them and law enforcement on how to coordinate security services in these neighborhoods It didn't become a full time vigilante group working in the community, but it was certainly challenging.
Did you provide technical assistance to both sides?
Yes. I always provide technical assistance to both sides. Now sometimes, the technical assistance required by an establishment side, just for the purpose of kind of grouping them, they require less assistance than the minority community. But I make sure that I offer pre-mediation training and preparation to everybody who's going to be involved. In this case, there was actually relatively little preparation for each. Partly because of the immediacy. I think some people thought they were just coming to a meeting. But I made sure that we kind of put it into a mediation session rather than a free-for-all conversation, because it was the only way to accomplish what we needed to and, well, I'm a mediator, and that's what I do. But I really thought in this particular setting -- we must have had at least thirty people in the room that we needed mediation. We had many response agencies maybe about twenty people, and six, maybe eight Korean representatives. So we had to have some kind of a structured process so this discussion could actually take place.
Part of what came out of that is that, after all the broad issues were addressed, was there were then sort of splinter mediations, if you will, or splinter meetings. And the one that comes particularly to mind was with the Small Business Administration. Besides FEMA, SBA ended up being one of the major sources for financial assistance. They had an excellent director there on-site who really bent over backwards to understand and meet the needs and be flexible. He was one of the least bureaucratic bureaucrats. So that made a big difference. They helped out with business loans, because it was mostly businesses that were destroyed during that time. We helped facilitate the Koreans applications, helping them to apply by giving them technical assistance to make the application process easier.
So the negotiations were basically over what kind of assistance was going to be provided and how and when?
Yes. And what the procedures would be for making that happen. A lot of it was even just how you get access to some of the leadership of some of those agencies if you know there's a particular issue in your community that isn't being responded to. And in some cases, the time line was a problem, because when people apply for a loan they'll get an answer within a month. But these folks were looking for an answer next week. So how do you handle some of those emergency situations? In some cases, it was just a matter of really clarifying what the procedures are and what has to be done to have to go through that.
Can these many mediations be seen as a way to reduce some of the power disparity that exists in between the groups? You mentioned that the city was represented by maybe twenty...
Yeah. But it wasn't the city, what you really had was about five or six different parties of maybe two people each. I know that math doesn't add up. But it wasn't that one party that had twenty representatives and another party that had six representatives. Instead, you had, well as I said, SBA might have somebody, FEMA might have two or three people there, the California Emergency Organization might have two people there. Red Cross had a couple women there, so I wasn't the only woman in the room. And so, even though they were all sort of the white establishment, if you will, they were not one party. They were different entities. And so for those three days, all of them were there.
Was there any problem with coordination between the agencies or internal conflicts between the agencies about who was doing what?
There probably were, but I can't give you specific examples right now. One situation that I do remember was a misunderstanding between one of the members of the Korean protection team and one of the white agency people. One of the Korean protection team came into the mediation late. He'd been out on patrol during the night and came in and sat down in the Korean group. I sat closer to the back so maybe five, six, seven people down, closer to where the rest of the establishment group was sitting. But he came in, he was exhausted, and he began to play with something he had in his pocket. Turns out it was an ammunition clip. And he kind of put it on the table and started fidgeting with something else and later on, and I kind of noticed it, but it didn't look terribly disruptive, and so I continued with the process. Then later on one of the White parties described that as an example of an open threat by the Koreans of how they saw this because he was clearly demonstrating his ammunition and what would happen to them if they didn't give the Koreans what they wanted. I was shocked, because it did not look at all that way to me. I've seen threatening gestures and it's not that I don't recognize them. If anything, this kid was nervous, because most of it was being done was in English. Even though you had the translation, this was probably more White people than he'd probably ever encountered in one setting before. So he was just trying to figure out what to do with himself while he was in this very formal setting with a lot of people that he didn't know.
But people see what they expect to see. And clearly there had been information, word had gotten out about this young adult team out there acting as a vigilante group, protecting Korean businesses, and some folks were very apprehensive about that. And I'm not saying that was totally unfounded. I don't happen to think that vigilant groups are a good idea under any circumstances, including here. But then all he had to see was this Korean with this munition clip and he just thought it was a threat. Of course, he probably came in threatened. So this was just conformation to him on how threatening and hostile this group was. It was really interesting.
Was this a power issue? Did the different perceptions occur because of differing power levels, and if so, what did you do to try to level the playing field?
I think power and balance is more than just numbers. And certainly to some extent, just having that translator there was a way to level the playing field. And again, it wasn't just to make sure that everybody understood, but it was also a visible part of putting everybody on an equal level. So it had symbolic value as well as helping with communication. So the symbolism and I'm just saying it was just a gesture, but the gesture itself, aside from the value in communicating and so on, of making sure that nobody has the advantage because of language.
Was that your recommendation?
Oh yes! I wouldn't have done that without a translator. There were perhaps some in the group who could have negotiated even if it had been all English, but the majority of that group would have been at a distinct disadvantage and they would have felt disempowered. So there's no way that you could have done that particular mediation without the translator there.
Actually we didn't use caucuses that much, and in some ways I'm surprised because usually this is the kind of setting where I would have expected to use a lot of caucusing. But I prepared everyone ahead of time, so they knew what to expect and weren't just shooting from the hip. That doesn't mean that other issues didn't come up, but at least there was some sense of preparation. So I think that serves to help empower.
And I tried very early on in the mediation process to make it clear that I am, in fact, controlling the process. If there's a specific question, I make sure that that's addressed and that's responded to. I make sure that if there is a point that's made that everybody understands it. If I think that somebody might have missed it, make sure that it's either repeated or that the party itself repeats it. Sometimes I will ask questions, not so much because I don't know, but because I think it's important for everyone to hear what the answer is. So I'll do ask. I'm very good at saying, "Call me stupid, but..." Sometimes you can see that one side or the other is puzzled, but you can also see that they don't want to ask. So I'll play dumb at that point and ask the questions that I think they want to ask but won't. I have no problem being the person who needs the information because I just don't understand. So I think all of those help in that particular setting.
Now you mentioned something a couple of times that's interesting to me. We talked about the idea of neutrality and impartiality. How does that affect specific relationships?
That [relationship with my Korean "son"] was after the mediation, by the way.
I was just wondering how you were able to develop that relationship and still be neutral or impartial?
First of all, that relationship was not there during the mediation process. In fact, it really started off almost like a joke. And one of the subsequent meetings with SBA, I was in New York and he was there too. And his English was not terrific. He speaks it well enough to be able to get along, but it's a halting English and it's one of those where you sort of have to get used to hearing it to be able to understand it. And then somewhere along the line, as we were talking about Los Angeles and what we hoped to do here in the SBA meeting today, he asked me "Well, how old are you?" And I said, "Why? How old are you?" And he was twenty something. I said, "Oh shoot. I'm old enough to be your mother." So he said, "Okay mom." And that's how that started and it just sort of stuck. And then I heard someone say, "Oh, there comes your son." I said, "My son?" And so it was sort of an evolving relationship if you will.
Now we ended up becoming closer friends, but I think even there it was more a matter that I had developed enough trust so that he felt comfortable coming to me and I could convince him, for instance, to negotiate with the police about security without his roaming the streets armed at night. And I guess I almost inevitably, it's not necessarily a relationship, but most cases I've been involved in, I've developed relationships with both sides. So for instance, if I was in someone's town, I'd probably call and say hi, so that it gets beyond being purely professional. I think part of that is just my personality.
Did those relationships ever put you in a position, unintentionally of course, in a situation where it's difficult....?
Sometimes. One of the things which always became interesting within the Korean community was that there was a lot of competition within the community itself. It was like, everybody was the leader. So as an impartial third party working in this, an ongoing process was to make clear that, "I understand that you represent this group and we want to make sure that you are included and that you're a part of the process, but there are others who feel just as strongly that they have a valid or maybe even THE valid perspective. And so we need to make sure that everyone is included. Over a period of time they began to recognize that and appreciate that.
When I was there the first time for those five months, from May until September of 1992, as that long detail was just about over and it was clear that I was going home, four different victim associations, who to some extent were sort of in competition before, came and visited me at my office and brought me plaque of appreciation. And it really became quite emotional. First of all I had not expected that. And I said, "I really feel like I didn't do a whole lot. There are still so many needs and so much more that needs to be done here. But they said, "Silke, at least you listened."
I tell that story often, not because I want to show off the plaque, but it again was sort of a visible validation of the importance of just listening. There are times when I'd be there until late in the night or would come at almost any hour of the day or night just to listen. You spend a whole lot of time listening. You begin to realize how much of the conflict and how much of the frustration and then anger on the part of the victim communities come not so much from what's not being done, but a sense of, "They aren't even listening to me. They don't even take me seriously." And so listening is such a crucial part of what you do.
Much earlier in our conversation I mentioned going into a community and almost being accosted with the anger and frustration and then hearing all of these stories. Then all of that gets toned down by the time you get to the tables. But I think the key to that also is that regardless of how angry and how almost belligerent they might be, I'm listening. And it's probably one of the few times that someone that they think might be able to do something came and actually listened to everything that they had to say. So that listening and hearing is such a crucial part.
How did you know when it was the right time to leave that situation?
When Washington said my assignment was up. It was close to the end of the fiscal year, for an agency with the budget of CRS, it was a major investment even though FEMA supported a lot of the actual cost for that. But again for an agency the size of CRS, it was very costly. We were a little bit larger then. We had a little bit over a hundred people. Leo Cardenas was the regional director here. In essence, he lost his senior person for five months. So that's a long time.
Going back to the beginning now, tell us how you typically get involved in a case.
Would you say that most of the cases come in here by people calling you and asking you for help,
or do more come by you saying, "I think we ought to get involved," and going out proactively?
You know, I'm not sure. I think now it's probably more from people calling and asking for
help, or calling and notifying me of a situation. These people are often not even directly involved
in the cases they report it's just that I've been around enough, and enough people know me, so
I've made a lot of connections. That wasn't necessarily the case before, but it probably is now. Of
course, there are still quite a few cases that we read about in the paper, or hear about on the news,
and say, "We ought to alert that" (I'm sure I must have described the alert assessment process, or
somebody from CRS must have.) So at any rate, we still get cases both ways.
How many alerts do you have per month, in comparison to how many cases you actually get
involved in? Just rough numbers.
A month? Well, for a year we get anywhere from 100 to 150. Actual cases well, that's
probably closer to 25 or 30.
So how do you decide which ones to take on and which not?
In some cases, after we have alerted them, we may decide that they're not even in our
jurisdiction because they're individual-oriented cases rather than community cases. Also, if there
is somebody else who is already dealing with the situation, since we have such limited resources,
we might say, "Well, it looks like it is being handled." Sometimes, it's just a matter of not having
enough resources and not being able to respond to everything. Those are the main criteria that I
can think of.
Sometimes we're alerted to a case, but by the time we get ready to work on it, it's already been
resolved, or it's no longer the emergency or urgent situation it appeared at first to be. There are
times when our getting involved would be essentially re-opening something that has already been
resolved, so it wouldn't make sense. It would be one thing if we were looking for work. We
could probably find it. But that not being the case, there are some that just take care of
themselves. Or sometimes there are cases where the parties just say, "No thanks, Silke, we really
don't need you for this one. I think we can handle this without your assistance." And that is fine.
There are just some minority communities who would prefer to say, "We got them to do it,"
rather than, "We reached an agreement." And they don't want to have anybody else assisting
them unless they think they might not get what they need.
Do you have any pattern you follow in terms of who you talk to first when you are trying to
do an assessment of a case?
Oh, I probably do without realizing it. If it's a request for assistance, I will generally talk to
the person or group that made the request first, just to find out why they made the request and
what is going on. So, if it is a police department that wants assistance or a school district that
wants assistance in training or planning or something, I would talk to them first.
If it's a complaint, an actual conflict between a minority community and an institution, I would
probably go to the minority community first. In many cases the institution won't be available, or
certainly won't acknowledge that there is an issue. So, there is no point in going there and trying
to find out what the issues are, because they will tell me, "There are no issues." So I would go to
the minority community first and find out what's going on, what their issues are, and what their
perceptions are. Then I have that information when I go and talk to the institution or agency or
the office with which the community has the dispute. Doing it the other way around just wouldn't
get me any information.
How do you determine who exactly to talk to?
If it's something that was just in the paper, and I don't know anybody there, I would start by
trying to locate the organization and/or any names that were mentioned in the paper. I would try
to find a way of contacting them and talking to them. If there are no organization names or
specific individuals to start with, then I'd try to find out which minority organizations exist in the
community in question. Then I would figure out whether I knew anyone in the community who
might be able to get me connected to the actual "players". I still would prefer to start with the
community perspective because that is where the conflict seems to exist and then move on to
the institution. In each case, I would ask the people that I talk to, "Who else would I contact to
get more information, to get a broader perspective on this?"
What kinds of questions do you ask?
Well, after I say, "I am from the Federal Government, and I am here to help you," which is
actually funny, especially with larger meetings..... I do that and I know people are going to laugh!
But it also helps to ease tensions a little bit, and loosen people up. I can remember one meeting
that I went to where there was a lot of tension regarding law enforcement in a predominantly
Hispanic community. Once I got there, it was clear that at least some of the community wasn't
thrilled about having the Justice Department there either. It just so happened that this mass
community meeting was on April 15. So the introduction was something like, "Okay, so this is
your tax dollars at work: Silke Hansen is here from the Federal Government to help you!" I
intentionally used that line to say, "I know what you are thinking, so just let me see how I can be
helpful." I think the fact that I made fun of myself a little bit didn't come across as too
"officious," if you will, but rather acknowledged some of their misgivings and doubts helped
cut through at least some of the tension.
I was still challenged, of course it was not a piece of cake. But after the meeting, people said,
"Well, it's a good thing we've got a real facilitator for this meeting." I think being able to use
some humor and, I find, particularly self-deprecating humor helps. I don't like to imply that I
have all the answers. Sooner or later, they're going to realize that I don't have all the answers
anyway, so why pretend in the first place?
Now, with individuals or small groups, I start by asking them, "What's going on? What is
happening here?" Usually, even though I explain the role of CRS and the fact that we are
impartial third parties that we are there as mediators and that we work with both sides people
will try to "bring us over to their side." Maybe that's just human nature. They will come up with
proof and documentation and offer to get more documentation. So it always becomes a balancing
act. On one hand, I don't want to cut them off, and make it look like I don't care. So I accept that
behavior, because it might also provide useful background information.
On the other hand, though, I use it as an opportunity to remind them that I am not conducting an
investigation, and that even if they were to convince me that they are absolutely right, that
wouldn't resolve this particular conflict. I say something like: "Yes, I appreciate the information
that you are giving me, and it will be helpful to my understanding. Remember, though, my role is
to get you together with the other side and to see how we can resolve this. So thank you for the
information, and it will help me understand some of the dynamics, and maybe point me toward
other questions that I need to ask." Then I have to hope that they'll understand that I don't need
the documentation. If they ask if I want all their documents I usually say, "Yes, that's helpful, but
if you can't find it or can't prove it to me, I don't need the whole paper trail that you have.
Documentation is not going to change the dynamics of what I am trying to do here." Eventually I
think people catch onto that.
Now, is that primarily true of minority communities or do you see the same thing on the
I see that to some extent, on both sides. But remember that it is usually a minority
community trying to prove a case against the authorities, so they would be the ones most likely to
present their evidence. But I think to some extent, even the institutions do this (here I'm using the
term "institutions" to apply to the city, county, police or whatever.) They may show me some of
the records on the incident or will get studies that they have done or I'll see copies of their policy
that prove that they are not racist. So you get some of the same dynamics on the institutional side,
with perhaps less intensity. But you do get that on both sides, because everybody wants to prove
that they are the good guys. So to the extent that they think they can document that, they will try
to do so. Then I will say, "Well, even if I am convinced you are the good guys, what we now
need to do is to convince the others that you are the good guys, too. When you both think that
you are good guys, then I have done my job."
Is there anything else that you try to do in the initial meeting besides finding out what their
view of the issue is?
To some extent, I am already trying to lay the ground work for potential mediation. Now of
course, the majority of the cases do not end up going to mediation! But let me give you an
example. This could be any community. I go into the minority community and let's say that they
are concerned about a racist school superintendent. So I will go in and say, "What's the
They say, "We've got a racist superintendent."
"What do you want to do?" I'll ask.
"We want to get rid of him." That is their number one demand, get rid of the superintendent.
So I go on. "Okay. So if you get rid of the superintendent, then what?"
"Well," they say, "we will get a superintendent who isn't racist."
"Fine," I reply, "but who hired the superintendent?"
"The school board."
"Okay. Who is going to hire the next superintendent?"
"The school board."
Now we're getting deeper into the issue. "Well, how can you be sure that you are not going to get
"We'll tell them that we don't want a racist."
"But how do you know that he is not a racist?" I'll ask. "What are the kinds of things that this
superintendent is doing that let you know that he or she is racist? What are you going to tell the
board that will convince them so that they will not hire another racist?"
"Okay," they'll say, changing their approach a bit, "we'll say we need somebody who hires more
Okay. Now we've gotten somewhere. So then I start writing on my flip chart if there is one.
"Okay, so part of the problem is the hiring policies here," I'll say. "What else?"
"Well, look at the discipline here. They are expelling and suspending far more minority kids than
"Okay, so the discipline problem is an issue." I continue writing on the chart.
By having that kind of discussion I am now helping the community to focus not on the
individual, but on the existing policies that need to be changed. Because the reality is that even if
they get a different superintendent, if he or she does the exact same thing as the one they have
now, they haven't gotten anywhere. On the other hand, if the current superintendent can be
persuaded to do things differently, the problems could be resolved. Now, of course, I'm not at
that point yet with the group. But if the superintendent would change some behaviors if he
would do certain things differently then he wouldn't be seen as a racist that needs to be
replaced. Yet initially, the only option that the community sees is, "Get rid of the racist bastard
and get somebody better."
So when you start taking about what somebody better would look like and what the differences
would be, we now begin to get some issues that I can then take to the superintendent. I can't just
go and say, "They think you're a racist," because, obviously, the superintendent is not going to
agree that he is a racist in most cases. But often, after some conversation, the superintendent does
agree that his job would be easier if he had a better relationship with the community. And even
though this is just a small, minute trouble-making part of the community it always is [in the
superintendent's view] he begins to realize that his job would be easier if his relationship with
them was better. So if I can show him that I can maybe improve relations with that community,
and he is willing to talk about some of the hiring policies and the disciplining procedures, then I
have something I can work with. If we can talk about those issues, rather than whether or not he
is a racist even though I haven't talked about mediation a whole lot yet I have begun to lay
the groundwork for identifying what some of the actual interests are. This shows that the
frustration isn't so much the one person as it is with what's happening to the children of that
community. And by helping them to define that, I am also helping them to address it.
So how do you bring that up to the superintendent when you go into his or her office? How
do you say, "These guys have a problem with some of your policies? "
Well, I start by saying, "I'm from the Federal Government and I'm here to help you." Then
he, of course, tells me that he is being strictly fair, non-racist, equal-opportunity, that he treats
everybody fairly and so on. I never argue with him, but I do try to get across to him that as long
as there is a perception in the community that he is not being fair and that some of the policies
are not fair, then he is going to continue to have a conflict with the community. I ask, "Wouldn't
it be in your best interests if you could develop a more cooperative relationship with the
And it is interesting. Very often the representative from the institution, in this case the
superintendent, is just afraid of not being able to communicate with that group. "Those radicals,
you can't talk to them, they have made up their minds, they don't want to listen to reason." So if I
can provide him a setting where there can be communication, where I promise that they will
listen to him, just as he will listen to them, and I promise that I will keep it under control and it
will not get out of hand, he'll [probably accept that]. Sometimes I am surprised at how valuable
of a process or how valuable of an opportunity that sort of situation can be for someone like a
Do they recognize that ahead of time?
Yes. It takes some persuasion, but most people want to do the right thing. Sometimes it is
hard to convince the community people of that, but I have frequently found that the
administrators or chiefs feel sorry for themselves. They feel totally misunderstood. You know,
"Poor me, nobody understands me. Those people clobber me in the media and so does everybody
else. I'm not really getting a fair deal here."
So I have found that just spending time listening and understanding what some of their problems
are goes a long way towards developing some credibility with the institutional representative.
Eventually, they begin to think, "You know, maybe this woman really can help me." So then they
are willing to give it that chance.
I am thinking of one case that involved a small, rural community. I spent a long time there
talking with and mostly listening to the sheriff. I think that he was really surprised that a
government official wasn't there to clobber him. He was really surprised that I understood him.
I said, "You know, one of the things that I have learned in this work is that law enforcement
personnel in some of these small rural communities face challenges that New York and Los
Angeles and Denver never even think about. It's hard doing law enforcement here." He was
astounded that I understood that. "Hey, here is somebody who understands what I'm up against!"
One of their biggest frustrations is that they are not New York or Denver or Los Angeles, so what
works in the big cities might not work for them, but most people don't understand that. I don't
need to agree with him or what he is doing, but if I just have a sympathetic ear and recognize that
I need to understand his perspective as well as the minority community's perspective then
that's a big step in the right direction.
The importance of really listening is sometimes underrated. Maybe I mentioned this before, but
in one really major conflict I was involved in, I really wasn't sure how much of a difference I had
made in the overall scheme of things. But one of the things I was told near the end of that case
was, " Silke, you at least listened." Generally, people don't do that. I have heard that many times
since. Even in cases where there really wasn't a whole lot I could do and it was hard to say where
mediation might be useful, if a community actually felt listened-to and not just ignored, swept
aside or totally disregarded, that has made a huge difference!
That is part of what I try to get across to each of the parties. If, in fact, it might go toward
mediation or some similar method of resolving some of those local tensions, I ask both sides to
just listen to what the other is saying. "I am not asking you to agree, or cave in, but just hear what
they are saying and what their concerns are. You might even have some solution for them that
they didn't even think of. But first, just listen."
It's amazing how important that is to people in conflict. Part of what intensifies the conflict and
violence potential in many cases is that people think that they are not being heard. The reason
they are shouting is because they think if they shout, someone will finally hear them. Of course, it
doesn't work that way. But I think part of the reason for the volume is that they haven't felt
listened-to, so they think, "Maybe if I get louder, they will actually hear me."
Haven't you run into situations where the establishment side (I'm assuming that it would
occur more on that side) says, "No, there is no problem"?
I can remember one small rural community near an Indian reservation where I was talking
to an institutional person, and at first I thought he was talking "tongue-in-cheek". He was saying
things like, "They are all lazy, and just living off government funds. And they are all alcoholics."
I suddenly realized this man was dead serious! I mean, totally serious. He had absolutely no
expectations for these children, so it was no wonder that Indian kids in that school district were
getting nowhere. I came back to that community later and tried to get in to see this guy's
successor, but he wouldn't talk to me. "Don't come, I don't have to talk to you." He called my
boss, and said, "Send Silke Hansen home." Of course, I made it clear that just because he chose
not to talk to me, it didn't mean that I would disappear and fade into the woodwork. But I never
met with him because he just didn't want to talk to the Federal Government. So it happens.
So what did you do then?
In that kind of case I just make sure that the community knows what other options they
have. I make sure they know that they can go to the Office of Civil Rights and the Department of
Education. I tell them what state resources are available, too, and maybe help them identify their
issues similar to the kinds of things I was talking about earlier. I help them figure out what
kinds of things need to change in their community instead of just focusing on eliminating one
particular person. But ultimately, in reality, I went on to other cases that were more ready.
You mentioned at one point that the majority of cases don't go to mediation. What
determines whether a case is appropriate for mediation or not?
Well, for a start, you need parties that are identifiable enough so you can say
"These are the sides." Sometimes that is not clear. Sometimes there is tension in the community,
but it is hard to define who, exactly, the opposing parties are. Second, you need specific issues
that are clearly-definable. One of the things that's difficult to mediate is, for example, if there is a
court case and a community believes that even bringing the case to court was an injustice, or the
disposition of it is not fair. Usually you can't mediate that. So in that case, I would look for ways
to bring some healing, some communication, some positive interaction among members of the
minority and the majority community. I'd just try to begin to get some common interests, some
common goals to deal with race relations in that community in general, without going through a
formal mediation process.
Now, I'm one of those people who starts off every case initially by saying to myself, "Okay, how
can I bring this to mediation?" It helps me from day one, minute one to have an agenda in my
mind. As I'm working toward that, it may become clear fairly quickly that the case is not going to
go to mediation, and that's fine. But if I start out thinking that it might go to mediation, I have a
perspective to work from when I approach the parties. If that doesn't work, then I ask myself, "Is
there some training we can do? What other kinds of assistance can we provide? Are there some
documents I can give them, or maybe I can just facilitate some meetings?" or whatever. But
usually, unless I am asked specifically to come in for some other purpose, I'll assume we're trying
to initiate mediation.
Remember the case I was talking about earlier, about tax day? In that case I was asked to come to
facilitate the meeting. I ended up facilitating another one similar to that about a month later in the
same community. And there were some great things that came out of that, so it was a very
rewarding and beneficial event. But that would be an example of where I didn't attempt to go
toward mediation, even though there were some pretty good outcomes that arose from that
When we were off the tape, you started to tell us about the "two taproot" theory. Tell us
I heard this from Gil Pompa, so I refer to it as "Gil Pompa's theory" [Gil Pompa was a
former director of CRS]. In essence, what he says is that in racial conflicts, there are two taproots
growing simultaneously. One is a perception or belief of unfair treatment or discrimination. The
other is a lack of confidence in any redress system. There is the belief that, "Even if I complain, it
is not going to make a difference." And those two beliefs (or taproots) are growing in force, side-
by-side. Then there is a triggering incident. Rodney King was a classic example. And that
triggering incident then results in these roots really exploding. Now the reason that I said I have
changed it slightly is because I can't really see roots exploding. So I have changed it to say that
there are two fuses leading to a bomb, and those two fuses are constantly strengthening and
growing in intensity.
But even though these two fuses leading to the bomb are there and are becoming more
dangerous, it's not until that triggering incident that the bomb explodes and you have violence. If
you could have disconnected or defused either of those fuses, the triggering incident wouldn't
have done anything. If people who feel they are facing despair had an effective redress system,
you wouldn't get that tension. If you didn't have a perception of disparity in the first place, you
wouldn't need that redress system. But with both of those growing in intensity, that triggering
incident and it could be almost anything will then set it off.
And then once you have that triggering incident, I think one of the mistakes that we often make
in responding to that is that all we look at is the triggering incident. We try to resolve the
triggering incident, and we totally miss all of the pieces of those two fuses. We don't even look
at those fuses! But the fuses are still there, so unless they are dealt with, they are going to regroup
after a while, even when people don't even remember the triggering incident anymore. So part of
our job, if you are really trying to deal with and respond to a violent conflict, is to recognize what
those two fuses look like. Because if you can't deal with them, another triggering incident is
going to set it off again.
With the Rodney King situation, if you remember the disturbances or "civil disobedience" or
"riots" or "revolution" the semantics of what you called it became a very big issue those
events occurred not when Rodney King was beaten, even though you would think that the
beating would have generated anger. But rather, the incidents occurred when the redress system
didn't work. When the police officers were found "not guilty", that is when all hell broke loose.
The anger was about much more than the Rodney King incident, it was about these two fuses that
had been growing. Rodney King was just a triggering incident that set that off.
And you can look at other examples of that as well. But it's an illustration which makes sense,
even when you present it to institutional heads; they understand the importance of addressing
perceptions of inequality. Even if they think they are doing everything fairly, they realize that it is
in their best interests to not have those fuses growing in their community. So I say, "Maybe what
is needed here isn't labeling you as racist. Maybe what's needed is for you to have a better
opportunity to explain to the community what you are doing. Maybe the community just doesn't
understand all of the positive things. I can help you with that, too." But, having the illustration of
the fuses is a good way to help people understand some of the dynamics of a community. If I ever
get around to writing or becoming more re-aligned with academia, I would like to do some
research, at least paper research, which either supports or kills that theory, because to me it
makes a lot of sense. I would like to develop more material and resources which either support
that idea or say, "Silke, you are out of your mind. That might sound good from Gil Pompa and
apply there, but if you look at the broader picture, here is what really happens."
I am assuming that most of the time when CRS gets involved, it is because there has been a
Certainly if there has been a triggering incident we will get involved, but we also get
involved before a triggering incident takes place. It is just as likely that there is, for instance, a
community that's just frustrated and has nowhere else to go. Maybe that's because they can see
that the lack of equity and the perception of discrimination is there, and they have tried some
avenue of redress that hasn't worked, so they come to CRS and say, "What can you do for us?"
And usually, especially if they're people that don't know us that well yet, but maybe just know
the Justice Department, they will expect an investigation and fact-finding and some kind of order
being issued. So we have to constantly re-explain how CRS actually works, but it's their one
hope for resolving this, because they don't see any other options. Frequently, there is a triggering
incident, but not necessarily. And especially in the case of people who already know us, maybe
from a previous triggering incident, maybe they will call us and say, "Silke, or Rosa, or Phillip,
we are facing such-and-such and so-and-so, and she won't listen to us, and this has been going on
and something is going to happen if you don't come." I remember my very first time in a
particular reservation I hadn't been in the region that long yet, and to this day I don't know
where they got my name but they called me and basically said, "If you don't come" -- and this
was a police relations issue "we are going to start marching in the streets, so you'd better get
down here." And it sounded urgent enough so that I did indeed get down there. We ended up
having a fairly lengthy mediation session that ended with a good agreement.
So ultimately, in this case, they were trying to avoid a triggering incident, but they were
concerned with what they saw as ongoing physical abuse by the local police of Indian citizens. In
their mind, anytime there was an Indian apprehended, they had to take him to the hospital before
they could take him to the prison because he was so badly beaten up; they always resisted arrest,
so they just said, "If something doesn't happen here, we are going to have a triggering incident
and we don't want that to happen. So Silke, it is all up to you." And I thought, "Gee thanks, I
Do you have any routine assessments or anything you do, where you go into communities
and try to figure out how long these fuses are, or how quickly they are burning, however you
want to use your metaphor? Do you go in and assess the situation without being called in?
Well, I do try to find out how much support there is in the community for a particular
perspective and for a particular perception. I do that partly to get a better view of what's going
on, partly for practical reasons I mean, if we are supposed to be dealing with community issues
and it is really just the Hansen family that doesn't like the way the local police captain is
handling things, it is going to be difficult to handle that as a potential mediation or as a
community conflict. So, just to see whether there is, in fact, a real community entity that wants to
deal with this issue, because if there isn't, it is very difficult for us to do anything. So, it's really
just to evaluate the depth of support and willingness to engage.
I might find that everyone I talk to whether in the local restaurant or at the local Post Office or
wherever agrees that such-and-such is a problem but no one really wants to do anything. Then
my hands are tied, too, because if I don't have two parties with which to mediate, there isn't a
whole lot that I can do. And in meeting with the institution... Now if that institution recognizes
that there is some problem in their relationship with the community, they might want some
training or some facilitation meetings, or some examples of how to do things, or approaches they
might use with the police department or the school. And of course, we would be willing to do
But, it's difficult if there isn't a critical mass, and it doesn't have to be a large mass, but there
needs to be some core community base which wants to bring about the change. And the other
reason that that "critical mass" is important is that those people are going to need to keep things
going after CRS leaves. If changes are made in a community only because the Justice Department
recommends them, there's a real risk of the changes falling apart once the Justice Department is
gone. Unless you have a local body that is going to hold the right people accountable, there isn't
a whole lot that CRS is going to be able to do in the long run.
Going in a very different direction now, let's talk a little bit about how you build trust with
the people you are working with. One of the things that I am especially interested in is that you
are a white woman.
I did. But the people reading your interview won't know.
Quick story: I belong to a church out in Montebello which is predominately African
American; I am not the only white, but I am the exception rather than the rule. Anyway, our
minister out there is African American as well, and he was preaching about race relations one
Sunday the idea that color really doesn't matter, and how we ought to get along with everyone,
and how inclusiveness is part of what we pride ourselves on in that church. And that's true. And
he said, "You know, sometimes I forget that Silke is white," and I said, "Well, don't worry about
it. Sometimes I forget, too."
So it depends on the setting, it depends on who I'm talking to. Early on in some cases, I'll say,
"Look, I understand that I am a white woman who used to live in New York. What do I know?
So help me understand. What do I need to know to be able to work here? I don't try to pretend
that I know what you are going through because I don't. Even if I do, I am not going to say that I
know, because I recognize that I need to learn from you." And, most people appreciate talking to
someone who doesn't think they have all of the answers. And again, I do a lot of listening. Time
is no object. Those first few trips I schedule very few meetings, because I want people to have as
much time as they need to tell me everything that they think I need to know. If they get angry,
that is fine. If it takes a long time, that's fine. And if you want to beat up on the government, that
is fine too. You know, I have broad shoulders I can take it.
I also try to be very clear about what I can and can't do so that people don't have false
expectations, and I think for the most part they appreciate that. "Now, here is what I can do and
here is what I can't do." The other thing that I have found is that in many cases and particularly
in some of these grassroots communities people just appreciate you returning their calls, not
dismissing them, just acknowledging and validating their concerns. Even if I can't change the
racism that prevails in a particular area, it doesn't take terribly long to have that common human
denominator and get past the "Well you are white and I am not" or "You're Indian or you're black
or your Hispanic or whatever, and I am not" phase.
What about building trust between the parties, how do you go about doing that?
I think a number of different ways. If I can actually get them to the mediation table and get
them to where they are actually listening to each other, then it is actually embarrassing how easy
it is to reach an agreement among the parties. That's because in most cases, they have never really
done that before. They have talked at each other and yelled at each other, and they've said things
about each other to the media and so on, but they have never really listened and responded and
then listened again. So once they actually hear what some of the needs and what some of the
obstacles are that each of them faces, and once they talk to real individuals and not "those
people" or "those administrators," it just comes to a whole different level.
There are certainly cases where the two parties never get to a point where they trust each other;
there are also cases where the parties agree to trust each other only because I'm there. Even in
those cases, though, they each agree to do something and that is a step in the right direction. So,
you know, I am not going to pretend that the parties suddenly become "good buddies" and live
happily ever after just because Silke Hansen was in town. But at least they have grappled with
one particular aspect of their conflict, and in that regard they have a better relationship than they
had before. That's a step in the right direction.
Would you say that having trust between you and the parties is more important than having
the parties trust each other?
Ultimately, my objective is to have them trust each other, but I think it is difficult to
accomplish that if they don't trust me first. I am the one who is trying to arrange the situation in
such a way that they can trust each other, so I mean if I had to choose between the parties trusting
me and the parties trusting each other, I would choose the latter, because that is, after all, what
we are working toward. And although my ego likes being massaged as much as anybody's, I like
thinking that people trust me. That doesn't do me any good, though, unless they ultimately end
up trusting each other. But I think one grows out of the other.
Can you be an effective mediator if the parties don't trust you?
I guess it depends. My immediate response would be no, but I guess it would really depend
on why they didn't trust me. If there is just some hesitation at first about whether or not they can
trust me, that's one thing. If they don't trust me for a particular reason, that's different. I think that
if they have a particular reason that they might not trust me beyond, "Can you trust any white
women?" it might be difficult. But if it's just, "We're not sure, but what the heck -- we will give it
a chance," well, that situation has possibilities.
I can think of one mediation in particular: The case was in court when I was contacted. The judge
called me and asked and of course it was the one day I came to work in jeans if I could go to
court that afternoon. I said, "Sure, no problem," and then I had to decide whether to go shopping
over lunch or go home and change. I decided that shopping would be much more fun; plus, I was
closer to the store than I was to home. So I went shopping so that I would look semi-respectable
going into court. Anyway, I was ultimately asked if I would be willing to mediate this particular
case. I had some familiarity with both parties I had, in fact, mediated a case in that community
seven years earlier, involving some of the same people.
I found out later that some of the institution representatives had felt a little bit as if they were
forced into that first agreement, so there wasn't a lot of trust at that point on the part of the
institution. They expected that I would bully them into an agreement; on the other hand, their
only other choice at the time was court. The community wasn't very optimistic, either -- they
didn't believe that mediation would be very useful with that particular institution, because the
institution was too hard-nosed, racist and inflexible, so they had very low expectations.
Nevertheless, when the judge asked the parties if they'd be willing to mediate, neither party
wanted to appear to be the unreasonable one. So they both said, "Sure."
That ended up being a fairly long mediation, but they did reach agreement. The attorneys then
prepared the settlement agreement and so on, which was an outgrowth of the mediation
agreement. The institution representative came up to me -- this was either near the end of the
mediation or right afterward -- and said, "Silke, when we started I didn't have any confidence in
you at all, because I had heard such-and-such. This really worked well, though, and thank you for
helping us on this." That person seemed very positive and appreciative of what I had done during
that particular mediation process, so it was interesting.
How many court-referred cases do you get?
Not that many. I think that they are the exception rather than the rule. I have had a few
others in which I've contacted the parties after their case was in court. In one case, the parties got
a continuance from the judge after informing [her] that they were going into mediation. In
another case, the parties didn't even need a continuance -- it was a small community, and the
parties were pretty well-defined, so they were able to reach a mediation agreement fairly directly.
In cases like those, I have always managed to let the attorneys write up the final agreement and
settle it, because I figure it has to meet their standards at some point, anyway.
"They are getting paid for it, so they might as well do the work?"
No, that is obviously not the main rationale, but it makes sense for the attorneys to word the
agreement in a way that makes sense to them. Only they know how they're going to present it to
the court and so forth, and so having them do the writing and such is much more efficient than
writing a draft myself, only to have them redo it. I mean, they have the gist of the notes that I
keep and the agreements that are reached during the mediation process, but they then fashion the
final agreement. I review it, and if I think there is a problem, then we reword it. But as I said, that
is the exception rather than the rule.
The next question that I have on here, we covered pretty well -- about what you actually do
in the mediation meetings. But the one thing I wanted to talk about a little bit more was the
extent to which you help the parties develop solutions. Or, do you really stand back and let them
come up with their own solutions?
No, I mean if I do think I might have a solution that they might not come up with, I try to
frame it in a way that will ultimately allow them to take the credit for it. I don't want them to say,
"Well, we did what Silke suggested." Because then, first of all, they don't have the ownership in
it that they should. Second of all, if it doesn't work, it becomes my fault and not their fault. And
so I think that for the sake of the agreement, it is better if they believe that this is something that
they worked out and that makes sense to them. But if they are just struggling -- if I know that
they're looking for a particular solution -- I will put it in terms of, "What if you....?" rather than
"Why don't you...?" And I will try to just expand and put a different twist on something that they
already have, rather than suggesting something else entirely. I certainly make it clear from day
one that I am not there to tell them what to do; I am there to help them work something out, and
you know, if during the process of doing that I have ideas of my own, then I'll throw those into
the pot as well, but always in a way that allows them to take ownership of my ideas, so that they
don't end up saying, "Well, let's do what Silke says."
One of my favorite examples to give parties -- and again, if I do mediation
training, I often use this one -- is the one with the girls fighting over the orange: One wants the
rind for the cake, the other wants the juice to drink, so it looks like neither one can get the whole
orange. Many times you'll hear that example stop there, though. There's more: The girl who got
the rind -- if she hadn't gotten the rind, maybe she could have used vanilla flavor or almond
flavor or maple flavor. The point is that she didn't actually need the orange; she just needed
flavoring. And likewise, the girl who got the juice -- if she didn't get the juice, she could have
had milk or apple juice or water or coffee in my case beer but she was really just looking for
a beverage. So they fought over the orange, but the orange wasn't necessarily what would best
meet their respective needs they just saw it that way.
Part of my job, then, is to get the girls to see that the orange is not necessarily the objective;
rather, I need to get one girl to recognize that she is looking for flavoring and then investigate all
of the various ways that she might obtain that. Similarly, I need to get the other girl to realize that
she's really looking for a beverage and explore the possibilities of obtaining that. Eventually, you
may get to the point where the orange itself isn't wanted by either of them anymore, but their
interests and their needs have been met, and I think that's what differentiates good mediators
from outstanding mediators, if you will. It's that ability to help replace the rind with another
flavoring and the juice with another beverage, because once the parties can do that, their options
are vastly multiplied, because they don't even need the orange anymore.
And they pay me to do this -- I love this job. I sort of get on my little soap box and I apologize
when I do that but it really is exciting when people in conflict begin to see that there are ways
of dealing with their problems that they haven't even explored before. It's pretty exciting.
I have a theoretical question for you. At the Conflict Consortium, we have been working on
a theory of intractable conflicts for a long time. We have said that intractable conflicts generally
cannot be mediated (almost by definition) and that identity conflicts, including racial conflicts,
are particularly likely to be intractable. So as I was listening to your discussion about the orange,
I began to wonder, how do you get people to reframe a conflict from being about race to being
about something else?
It's what I started talking about early on. You don't talk about race; instead, you ask, "What
are the hiring policies?" or, "What are the discipline issues?" You ask, "What does the
curriculum look like?" or, "Do you have access to the establishment, to the superintendent?"
Because even though the community sees the superintendent as being racist and as being the
reason why they can't get what they want, the real issues and I'm not going to say race hasn't
influenced what has happened there but the next level or the level at which this needs to be
resolved isn't race; it's policies and procedures, and access, and communities, and processes. It's
about interaction and communication, both of which were sorely lacking in this case. The race
factor just made it more difficult because both sides believed, "Those people are difficult to deal
with because of what they have been taught." Race was the orange, but it wasn't the issue.
The community could get a person of the same race in that position who didn't change the
policies, and that would be more frustrating, because now one can't even blame it on racism
anymore. But if they got somebody else who is white, but who changes the policy and is more
responsive to the community, that will decrease the perception of racism. And that will diminish
the taproot or fuse of inequality and disparity. So even though people see the issue as race, it
really isn't race at all.
Another example of that is the issue of sovereignty, though I haven't yet been able to get the
parties to understand this, and so I haven't been successful in reframing in this area. Sovereignty
is a big issue with Native Americans, particularly when it comes to law enforcement on
reservations. There is less and less willingness by tribal leadership to allow a non-tribal law
enforcement to have any kind of role on the reservation. This also applies in cases of hunting and
fishing rights disputes.
One of the biggest obstacles to developing some effective collaborative approaches to law
enforcement on and near reservations, and to hunting/fishing rights on and near reservations is
that both the American Indians and state officials approach it from a perspective of, "Who has the
sovereignty? Who has the jurisdiction?" What I try to get across is, "Okay, if you have the
jurisdiction, or if you have the sovereignty, what is it you want to do with it? What is it that you
want to accomplish?" If I could get them to talk about what effective law enforcement would
look like, regardless of who has the jurisdiction and the sovereignty, I really think they could
work that out. I totally believe that. But it is such a sensitive issue, it is very difficult to get
beyond that. The focus has been on the sovereignty, because it's a symbolic issue as well as a real
issue. Symbolic issues are very difficult to surmount.
There was one hunting/fishing case that I was called in to, where the state and the tribe had been
in negotiations but reached a deadlock. That's when someone called me. They said, "Well, so-
and-so says Silke Hansen claims she can do this. Let's call her."
"Oh gee, thanks a lot!" I keep telling people, "Why don't you call when you start these
negotiations, not when they fall apart?"
But I went up anyway, and they showed me what they had done, and I said, "I don't even want to
see that." I started putting stuff on the white board. "If you have regulations, what are your
objectives? What is it you are trying to accomplish?" And they were like this [she linked her
fingers together] they absolutely agreed. So once they agreed on that, it was just a matter of
determining what kind of policies each side needed to bring those objectives about. Both sides
gave a little, and at the end of a very long day, the people at the table reached an agreement.
That's the good news. The bad news is that when it went back to the tribe the tribe didn't buy it,
because they said it was encroaching too much on their sovereignty.
Another case in the same state ended the same way. It involved a similar kind of negotiation. The
parties reached an agreement at the end of the day, but in that case it was the state that blocked
the agreement. The negotiators went back to their superiors, who threw out the agreement, again
on issues of sovereignty. So there was no agreement.
But to me, it proves a point. You have to cut through and disregard the identity issues well, you
can't ignore these issues totally because they are there. But the mistake that we usually make in
most discussions is that we make racism or sovereignty the issue, and that is not the issue. The
issue is, "How can we get past that to provide effective law enforcement?" "How can we get past
that to provide good stewardship of our natural resources?" But the history of feeling attacked
and encroached-upon and the perception that "they are just trying to whittle away at what we
have, piece-by-piece," prevents people from focusing on the real issues. On the other hand, there
is the concern that the state "should not give those people special rights and recognition." These
feelings are so strong that it is very difficult to come from a different perspective. But I am
absolutely convinced if they could just throw out that "orange" and deal with the "flavoring" and
the "beverage," there would be much more common ground.
When you succeed in getting them to do that, what is the long-term result in terms of
identity and symbolic issues and race relations? If they can cut through those things to resolve
this incident, does it have a long-term effect on other incidents?
Well, I think it would if it worked at all, but as I said in the two examples that I gave you, it
didn't work. The people at the table were able to reframe the problem, but their superiors were
not willing to do that, and the agreements were thrown out for political reasons. It was seen as
giving too much or losing too much in terms of sovereignty and jurisdiction and control. So
neither agreement held up.
I do believe that had it held up, it could have provided a good model, a good precedent for how
we can get cooperative agreements on issues like this. In fact, there are other states where there is
less mistrust between state and tribe, and where in fact we do have better cooperative
relationships. If you could either just not mention "sovereignty" or acknowledge that each of
them has sovereignty, and that the two separate governments of two sovereign states are reaching
an agreement, I think it would be doable. But there is so much tension and mistrust in this
particular setting that it is difficult to make that happen.
What about other settings though? Such as, for instance, the principal who was accused of
being racist, where you were able to reframe it in terms of discipline policy and hiring and that
type of thing? Would that have affected the long-term relationship on race relations in the
It would, because the potential triggering incidents are less common, so the "bomb" is less
likely to go off. Now there is a precedent of communication. There is a mechanism and an
expectation that people will address and deal with problems before they get to the point of
explosion. So it is the redress side that's handled more effectively. Once there is a precedent for
communication, it makes a big difference.
Probably one of the most positive examples of that is the same tax day facilitation. There were
anywhere from 75 to 100 people in that room and at least as many when I went back for a second
meeting. But out of those meetings came a sort of "community board" which included Hispanic
and Anglo participants, including law enforcement people. They formed this board and I trained
them in three days I gave them three days of basic mediation training. I remember one of the
members of the group said, "Gee, you know, Silke, I think this is the first time somebody has
come and said, 'I'm from the Federal Government and I'm here to help you,' and then actually
done it." I thought that was a huge compliment at the time.
That board still exists today, and is still dealing with problems involving the police and
community relations. But they also began to look at other sources of tension within the
community. This community started out as very mistrustful. There were a lot of accusations
about how Hispanics were being treated by the law enforcement system. But now the leader of
that system is working with that Hispanic community to deal with education issues in the
community purely because people are talking to each other now. And they pay me to do that!
What do you do when you get the parties to the table and they reach an impasse, and just
can't go forward?
I can think of only one case where we actually got to mediation and that happened. It was a
court-requested or court-ordered mediation. And it was after days of work. I did what I usually
do: I usually start with what I would call shuttle diplomacy I hedge my bets. I like to know
what the parties are going to say when they come to the table before they come to the table. So I
do a lot of work with the parties individually before I actually bring them to the table. In this
case, they were in the same building, but in separate rooms. It became very, very clear that we
were not going to get anywhere.
So I ended up just telling the court, "Your honor, I'm sorry, I tried, but it's not going to happen
here," without saying whose fault it was. You know, I had my own perception, and I thought,
quite frankly, that one of the parties was probably foolish, because they could have gotten some
gains and they ultimately lost. I think they could have negotiated some gains out of this. So in
that case, I didn't have a clue of how to get past the impasse. But that's the only one I can think
of where parties agreed to mediate, but where they didn't reach at least some agreement.
There was another one that wasn't court-ordered, but which had been in court, and it included
some hiring and affirmative action-type provisions. The parties reached agreement on most of the
pieces, but not all of them. In this case, I think that part of the reason they couldn't agree on all of
it was that one of the parties was given false expectations by their attorney. The way we left it in
the agreement was that we stated the areas in which they agreed, and the rest went back to the
court and the judge would issue a ruling. In each case, what the judge ruled was what the other
party had offered in the first place. So, unfortunately for the other party the minority party in
this case they really didn't get anything more than they might have gotten if they had continued
to mediate and reach a settlement that way.
One of the things that I always do at the beginning of a mediation session, is get the parties to
agree on what to do if there is partial but not full agreement. If there are ten issues, for
example, and they can only reach agreement on seven, does that mean they go ahead and sign an
agreement on those seven, and leave the other three hanging? Or, if we don't reach agreement on
everything, then do we throw it all out and say that there's no agreement, period? I think you
want to get that understanding before they start. It's much better than getting half-way through the
mediation, only to have one party suddenly say, "I'm sorry, if we don't get such-and-such, then
all bets are off." So getting an assurance from both parties that partial agreements are acceptable
is one of the ways of avoiding a major disaster. Sometimes, just pointing out how much
agreement they've already reached then becomes an incentive for continuing the discussions.
I can think of another case in which there was huge mistrust and even hostility between the
parties. Some of the issues were complicated enough that it would require, or certainly benefit
from, some outside expertise. So in that case, what we did was have each of the parties
recommend a consultant who could provide expertise, and then we picked a third person within
that field of expertise. So we had those three consultants or experts meet, and come up with some
proposed approaches to dealing with the issues in contention. They did that successfully, and
then they were able to sell those ideas to the parties, because they had credibility. So that enabled
us to get them to agree to some approaches, and that would have been very difficult had we
brought in only one consultant. If we'd had only one "expert," both parties would have said, "Is
that consultant on their side, or is she on our side?" So having a panel of three worked very well
in that particular instance. It was expensive for CRS, because CRS doesn't have those kinds of
resources. But we did it in that particular case, and they did ultimately reach an agreement. So
that's another approach to get past an impasse.
And those three consultants met by themselves?
Initially. And then they served as resources to the mediation process, until the overall plan
or outline was agreed to. And then when it came to finalizing you know, crossing the "t"s and
dotting the "i"s that we did ourselves, just myself and the parties.
Oh, I remember another case with an impasse. Here the parties had reached agreement on all the
important stuff. We were working on finalizing the wording, and we got to the point of saying,
"Each community and each ethnic group has a right to be represented and have its culture
represented in the curriculum and other processes at the school." But that didn't work, because
everyone wanted to have his or her own culture mentioned, but no one could decide what each
group would be called. For illustration, let's say the conflict involved and Asian group. So do we
say, "All Asians?" "No, no, it can't be Asians, it has to be Vietnamese specifically." But someone
else said, "No, not Vietnamese, but Southeast Asian." And others just wanted "Asians." So just
the wording almost blew the entire mediation.
We finally got around that impasse with some wording that I came up with: "All children
whether they call themselves Vietnamese or Asian or Southeast Asian or whatever, have the right
to have their culture and history reflected." So that way, it wasn't the parties labeling the
children, it was the parties acknowledging that the children would label themselves in whatever
way they wanted to. We came to this idea at about 9:30 at night, and the attorneys were like,
"What is this?!" But the parties were absolutely adamant. They would not agree on anything else.
So it's amazing what can sometimes sort of throw that monkey-wrench in there.
That's a great story, and it seems to me that it illustrates one of the theoretical ideas we've
been advocating that identity conflicts tend to be intractable. Because what they were arguing
about, essentially, was identities....yet your wording found a way around that.
And, again, the reason that we found a way around it was by facing it, not by just working
around it. You don't minimize and you don't pretend that the identity issue doesn't exist, but you
try to figure out where the identity is important. I think that we got down to realizing that what
was important was that the children needed to not have their identity defined for them. And by
framing it in terms of the children calling themselves whatever they wanted to, we got away from
either party labeling them. So that identity issue was acknowledged. But it was acknowledged in
a way that neither party imposed their ideas of "identity" on the other, and that's where the
That was a very interesting case. When we started on that one, neither party had very high
expectations of reaching an agreement. So it was a very slow, gradual process, which we took
piece by piece. And I think they really surprised themselves when there was any point on which
they actually reached agreement. But any time they did, they thought, "Well if we can get this
piece, maybe we can get this next piece too," and by golly, they did. I'm not going to claim that
this is now a perfectly happy community where they all lived happily ever after, but the process
of going through that mediation was valuable for everyone, even though there was still some
mistrust between the parties afterwards. But in trying to implement the agreement, there was
some effort at a common approach, rather than a win-lose competition. And that was huge in that
situation. I think both parties would have liked to have been the winners, but it probably
wouldn't have gotten them very much.
Have you seen acknowledgment of a group's identity as important in other cases as well, or
the value of a group's identity?
Well, to some extent, the sovereignty issue that I was talking about before the reason that
sovereignty is so important is to maintain identity. I don't think there is any group in the country
today that is more concerned about having their entire identity stolen than American Indians.
They really feel that they are under siege in many cases. Obviously, I can't talk for everyone there
any more than I can speak for any other group. But I think there is a real sense of it being a
struggle to hold on to their identity, and that's why sovereignty becomes so important.
Let's talk a little bit more about the issue of power disparity between the parties, and CRS's
role as a neutral. Even though you say you are a neutral, you also, in a sense, try to empower the
low-power group, do you not? How do you balance that?
If you mean how do I justify that, let's start with that piece first. Very easily, because I don't
think I can do an effective job of mediating between two parties if there isn't some balance there.
So unless I help bring about that balance, mediation won't work. Of course, you can't necessarily
assume that because one side is a minority community that it's the powerless community. That's
another issue. But let's assume that, in fact, there is a power imbalance. Unless I can help balance
that, and empower each party to effectively participate at the mediation table, we're not going to
have an effective, successful mediation. So I explain that to the institution and I offer pre-
mediation training to both sides. I also use that as a way to help each of the parties identify what
their interests and concerns are, and what they hope to get out of this process.
Sometimes, that's particularly important for the institution, because they often start out from the
perspective of, "Okay, how much do they want, and how much of that are we going to give
them?" They rarely think in terms of, "What do we want, and how much of that are we going to
get?" The reality is that they usually do want something from the community, so this helps them
become aware of that. This is another trust-building mechanism as well because I'm
acknowledging that, "You need things too! What is it that you want? What is it that you're
looking for?" I want to make sure that both sides are heard and that we can talk about how each
side's needs can be met. I also let the institution know that it's in their best interests to have a
well-trained, capable party on the other side because it will be easier to deal with and negotiate
with them if they are capable. Part of what the institution is afraid of is that they will have a
group of ranting, raving maniacs on the other side that they can't communicate with.
So part of what I'm providing is some security, some format which is reasonable from their
perspective. I may say to the institution, "Now, you understand that party A is angry and they're
going to need to express that. But trust me, we're going to get beyond that, and get to problem-
solving." So I lay the groundwork for there being some anger. I hate to call it "venting," because
to me "venting" sounds too patronizing. I don't want to be allowed an opportunity to vent; I want
to be allowed an opportunity to be heard. So, even though the term "venting" might apply, I
avoid that word because it does sound patronizing to me. It has undercurrents of, "They're just
spouting off, and they really have nothing to say." In most cases they have a lot to say, but
they've never been allowed to say it and be heard before.
Once both parties understand this process and it's really part of the ground rules or at least the
"ground expectations" that's going to make the process much more effective. If I explain this to
the institution, they'll understand that. They also understand that it's going to take less time to
train a police department to come to the table as a team than it does the community (with a police
department, it's easy, they just look to the chief if the chief says it's okay, it's okay, even
though they're there as a team.) In terms of a community, they require a lot more ground rules, a
lot more preparation, in terms of how they're going to operate at the table.
If there isn't a clear leader, sometimes, I try to split up the leadership role. I try to have different
people on the community team take responsibility for leading negotiations around certain issues,
so that everyone is head-honcho for a while. But doing that, and helping them to identify their
interests and needs, is going to take longer than it does with a police department or a school
district. But the institution recognizes that when they're at the table, their time is going to be
better-spent and there'll be less time wasted if we do it this way. So they're not worried about the
time the fact that I might spend three times as much time with the community as I do with the
institution. They understand that it all helps to lay better groundwork for the process at the table.
The other thing that I have found and at first, I was surprised, but I've gotten now to where I
almost expect it is that when I have those initial meetings with the community, I get a lot of
that venting. I hear a lot of the anger. To some extent, it is almost directed at me. But I know it
isn't really it's just that I happen to be there at the time, and they're saying, "Well, you're an
official, so why can't you fix it?" I can see that there are some very angry, frustrated people there,
and I usually say, "Look, I hear the anger, but I want to make sure that you can express that anger
to the institution and help them understand why you're angry."
Then, when we get to the table, all of that anger has already dissipated to some extent. I can
recall at least one case where I actually called a caucus because the community was so calm, and
said, "Wait a minute. You were chewing my butt yesterday and you were ranting and raving.
What's going on here?" I almost had to remind them of the points that they wanted to bring to the
table. Now that they were actually at the table and communicating that was such a big
achievement already that the rest of their issues almost didn't matter anymore. My concern
wasn't to advocate for the community, but if those issues weren't brought to the table, that would
undermine the effectiveness of any agreement. So I thought it was important for an effective
agreement to make sure that all of that was on the table.
The preparation I did with them was important too. It gave them some confidence at the table
they knew they were prepared, they had an agenda, they knew who was going to cover what, and
they trusted me and the process, at least to some extent. The same was true for the institution:
they knew that I was going to control the process, they trusted me to keep the discussions on
track. That's empowering for both sides. The fact that they really are talking to each other as
equals is very, very important for making that process work.
Do you set the ground rules before you get to the table, or is that something that you do
once you get to the table?
I do a little bit of both. Some I will set rules beforehand, but then I will ask at the table if
they have any more that they'd like to add. But the parties are relying on me to control the
process. They really want that. Usually, these groups have encountered each other before and
gotten absolutely nowhere, and both think it's because the other side was out of control. So an
important piece of what I'm providing here, aside from any mediation skills, and my help
identifying interests and the kind of things that you and I might talk about, is that I make sure that
the process is not going to get out of control. "Trust me. They're not going to be able to roll you
over. I'm in control." And I try to demonstrate that from very early on.
That's probably just my style. I know there are other mediators who are much more easy-going,
kind of laissez-fare from the beginning. I start fairly controlling; I hold the reins fairly tightly. As
I see that progress is being made, I loosen up. It can get to the point where they almost don't need
me anymore, and that's fine. It's almost like being a classroom teacher which I've never been,
by the way but if you don't take control at the beginning, then it's going to be very difficult to
get it later. So I start off controlling.
How do you do that?
Oh, just things like not letting somebody interrupt, making sure that if one side has spent
some time speaking, then the other side has a chance to respond to that, designating where people
are going to sit, and then enforcing the ground rules.
And what are the basic ground rules?
The most important ones are: confidentiality, not interrupting, focusing on the issues, no
name-calling, that kind of thing.
Also, if somebody says something that is either very esoteric, or something where I am really not
sure that the other side knows what was just being said, I'll play the dummy. I'll ask questions, so
everyone understands what is going on. To some extent you can see that you need to do that by
watching body language. You can tell when people are confused or angry. Also, if the
community starts making accusations that "so-and-so is racist," rather than just leaving it at that,
I'll ask, "Well, can you explain what kinds of things they do that you see as racist?" So, we
immediately get beyond the labeling to the problem-solving. Or, if the institution starts talking
about their budget restrictions or throwing around the alphabet soup and so-on, if I even slightly
believe that they're blowing smoke, I'll make them define it or explain it. "What does that have
to do with the discipline policy? Why is there a connection there? What would you then need to
be able to deal with that?" So they don't just throw out a lot of regulations and guidelines and
procedures without explaining why that's important. I do this so we keep getting back to the
problem we're trying to solve, and get away from who's right and who's wrong.
Is there any conflict between allowing the parties to tell their stories with the emotions that
are behind those stories and maintaining control?
No, because I tell both parties that that's going to happen, and try to explain that we need to
start with that, because we're not going to get anywhere if people feel like they're being stifled.
But that's just the initial groundwork, and we're going to get beyond that. But this piece needs to
happen in order to get to the problem-solving stage. I can't think of an example where people
didn't understand that.
Do you put any time limits on that sort of activity?
Not really, no. I might be controlling in terms of the process, but as long as I think it's being
productive and it's contributing to better understanding, I allow it to happen. Again, it makes a
big difference, I think, if the institution is prepared for some of the things that might be brought
up by the community side. One of the things that institutions find frustrating is repetition. So
particularly during the story-telling part, I try to prepare the institution for why it's important for
John as well as Juanita and Lucille to each tell their stories. I explain that they each have slightly
different perspectives and, "Even though it might sound redundant to you, it's important for each
of them to give his or her perspective, because each of them needs to be part of the solution. So I
understand that it might be a little frustrating to you, but bear with me and allow them to do that,
because that will make them much better participants and problem-solvers when we get to that
stage." As long as people understand why we are doing this, and they expect it, and know that it's
going to get beyond that, they'll deal with it. Also, if I spend a lot of time with the parties before
we get to the table, so they sometimes don't feel the need to be so repetitive at the table. That
What makes a good agreement at the end? Are you looking for something that is going to
establish a long-term change?
A good agreement spells out what each party is going to do. It's important that each party
does something. That gets back to what I said earlier, acknowledging that the institution has
needs, as well as the community. So, even though the issues were originally raised by the
community, it's important that the agreement isn't just what the institution is going to do for the
community what they'll "cave in on," if you will. Both sides must make commitments about
what they're going to do. And it can't just be that they're going to be less racist or more
accessible, but the agreement must say how they are going to do that. It must set out some very
concrete steps. Now, in many cases the parties will want to have some long-term goals as well,
and that's fine. But you want some very specific steps of what each is going to do. You also need
to include some provisions for what they're going to do when the agreement either isn't working,
or when one party believes that their counterpart is not living up to the agreement. So, if is there
is a glitch and/or a problem with implementation, there should be some built-in procedure for
dealing with that. They must know how they can address that.
And what would that procedure likely be?
Well, sometimes it is better on paper than it is in reality, but we try. Usually, the first step is
for the parties to talk to each other. If there is a commonly-respected resource in the community,
they might go to that resource to try to help work it out. Or they might ask CRS to come back and
meet with them again.
I can think of one case in which we had a wonderful agreement, but eventually one of the parties
just basically said, "We don't want to do this anymore." The other party was very frustrated, of
course, and that was an agreement which included a provision that either party could go back to
CRS to assist. But the first party refused to meet; they completely refused to talk about it, even
after the agreement had worked well for eight years. So it does happen. But I do try to at least
include some provisions for that, so that parties know what will happen if it doesn't work.
The other thing is that the final agreement may be written in fairly formal legal terms, especially
if there are lawyers at the table. I don't try to make the agreement sound like a legal document
we try to forget the word "whereas," for instance, at the beginning but some parties may feel
that it sounds more authentic that way. This is most often true if both parties have lawyers at the
table. I don't think agreements need to sound like legalese to be effective, but again, that's just a
Do you often have lawyers at the table?
And then are they typically the spokespeople?
Not if I can help it. Sometimes a party most typically the community will want the
lawyer to be the spokesperson, because they don't have enough confidence in themselves. They
believe that their lawyer will represent them better. But if I can persuade them that both sides will
have a lawyer there as an advisor, but that the lawyers should not be the spokespeople, I find that
more effective. And once they've started in the process, that works. But I'm not always
I can think of at least one example where there was a great deal of hostility between the parties
and, in fact, the lawyers are the ones who made the agreement happen. In this case, the lawyers
had gotten beyond personal hostility issues and were able to advise their parties on what made
sense. The lawyers devised a solution that met both sides' needs, and then they sold that idea to
their clients. There was no way that the clients could have done that on their own, because they
weren't getting beyond their mutual resentment and hostility and total lack of trust in each other.
But the lawyers didn't assume each other to be jerks, so they were able to work out an agreement.
Without the attorneys, an agreement would never have been reached.
Did the agreement hold?
For a while, for quite a while. I don't know what the situation is now. Again, this is one of
those communities where there has been conflict for decades, if not centuries. But it certainly
held on those particular issues, at least for quite a while. I haven't been there for a number of
years now. I suspect if I go back now, the same parties will still exist and some of that same
hostility and distrust will still be there. But there is at least a significant core of people who
participated in that mediation process and in reaching that agreement, and who saw that this
But again, it's not just up to the people at the table. Everyone at the table has people behind
them, out in the community who aren't at the table and who don't benefit from that process. So
those pressures on the people at the table ultimately have their impact again. I think the
agreements that are easiest to carry out and ultimately implement, are the ones in which the entire
party is at the table, without a lot of constituents out there who are going to look over their
shoulders or second-guess them, or even worse, have to approve the agreement that gets reached
at the table.
Did you ever try to leverage resources, such as using other organizations, to continue some
of the work you've done in these communities?
Not really. However, if there are local resources or leaders, we try to help give them some
skills and abilities on how to follow up on their agreement. I don't do community organizing
training, per se, but we do explore options and alternatives with the parties and identify other
resources they can use. But if there isn't already something there, even getting a Vista volunteer
would take time and resources that you just don't usually have.
I think once there's been some basic agreement, and the communication is there, then you get a
change in the relationship between the two parties. There are certainly communities where that
was built-onto, and better relationships developed throughout the community, but it doesn't
happen in as many communities as we would like especially those of us who have a community
organizing background prior to being mediators.
I know there have been times that I've gone into a community and sort of wished, "Gee, could I
take off my mediator hat for a year and just do some community organizing here, and then come
back as a mediator again?" That's because it's much easier to arrange for mediation if there's an
organized community and institution, than if there is just a frustrated community with no
organizational structure. They can't deal with the institution, and it becomes very easy for the
institution to either divide and conquer or just ignore the situation, because the community isn't
cohesive enough to really be able to make a difference. Of course, I'm sure that part of the
community's frustration in many cases is that they think, "You're from the Justice Department.
Why can't you make it better? Why can't you go and tell them what they must do? Why can't
you make a difference?" And then when I say, "Well, my job is to try to help you to make that
difference," I think they sometimes see that as a cop-out. They think, "If we could do it by
ourselves, we wouldn't need you. But we can't, so what are you going to do?"
I know that there have been communities which have been frustrated because I have come and
nothing's changed. But the reason nothing changed is because there isn't even a core
organizational structure to work with. It doesn't need to be hundreds of people, it doesn't even
need to be a dozen, but there does need to be a community core that picks this up as an issue and
stays with it and works with it. I know it's a lot of work, and it's slow and tedious, but the only
way I can really make a difference is if they have that. I explain that, and then I work with that
group to help them deal with the institution.
That's one of the things we are trying to do now. We're trying to help communities form human
relations commissions. Right now that's still at a very grassroots level. John Dulles who is the
regional director for the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights for this region and I have worked
cooperatively on a number of cases, particularly in Indian country. But unless there's some
support from the tribal structure or the tribal government, it's very difficult to get that off the
ground. Even though I personally think that in some ways it would be more effective if it were an
even more grassroots initiative, there isn't enough of a grassroots core there willing to do the
work, so here we are talking community organizing. "What are the entities that you would want
to be a part of that?" I ask. We've conducted workshops on how to establish a core team how to
decide who should be included .
We have some brochures on how to form human relations commissions and I've developed that
into a workbook too. But, we can't do that for the community. They have to do that for
themselves. For example, there was one community that formed a small group that just started
documenting every case of police abuse. It was a "who, what, when, where, why" kind of thing.
They developed a chronicle of what was there. So when they then went to the city council or
county commissioner, they had some documentation of what was going on, and not just
anecdotal evidence. So we try to encourage at least starting with that piece. But it's difficult to
make that happen if they don't see some immediate results. So that's an ongoing struggle.
This discussion brings up another question that has been raised a lot in academic circles:
Are there some cases that really should be litigated and not mediated? For example, what would
have happened if the Montgomery Bus Boycott had been mediated, or if Brown vs. Board of
Education had been mediated? Are there some cases that really shouldn't be mediated, but should
be left to the courts?
Yes. I think it's up to the community; they need to decide. If they want to set a legal
precedent, then they don't want to mediate. I would be the first one to say, "If that's what you
need, and that's what you want here, good luck, God bless you. Call me when you need a
I think one reason that CRS has been effective in many communities in resolving conflict and
helping to fashion agreements, is that many of the situations to which we respond would find it
very difficult to make a legal case in court. We can come in without "probable cause," which
allows us to intervene and to have an impact on situations which might be very, very difficult to
pursue in court, but are nevertheless generating tensions within the community.
But if a party wants to set a precedent, then they shouldn't use mediation. As much as I love
mediating, and being a mediator and I probably believe that more things can be mediated than
some people.... I'm almost a mediation evangelist I recognize the importance of legal
precedent. If that's what a party needs, then mediation is not the answer.
Some of those jurisdiction cases in Indian country, for instance particularly the one that
centered around whether or not State Patrol was allowed on reservation roads. In that case, the
tribes wanted a court ruling and they got one that basically said, "No, they [State Patrol] don't
have jurisdiction on the reservations." Now, I would think that once they got that ruling and they
had that legal precedent, it would be easier to mediate the conflict because both sides would be
coming from a mutual power base, if you will. But we actually never quite reached that stage.
That's why it's one of the conflicts that I would continue to make myself available for
indefinitely, even when I'm no longer with CRS, because I really do believe that a resolution is
possible. Now see, that's an example of a case in which you need to develop much more trust
among the parties before you can have that kind of a discussion. But then, that issue [of
jurisdiction] is one that probably should not have been mediated at that time anyway, because it
was important to tribal leadership and to those nations to establish that they had jurisdiction, and
that non-tribal police did not.
You've been in this a long time, as we've said. Do you think that there have been changes in
the Civil Rights Movement that have affected the way you work? And if so, what are they?
Certainly one difference is that there is less official opposition now to the concept of having
civil rights. I think that nowadays, it's very rare to find someone who reports to be opposed to
civil rights and equal opportunity and non-discrimination. Now what that would look like is
another issue, and even as we were watching the [John] Ashcroft hearings [confirmation hearings
for appointment as Attorney General under President George W. Bush] recently, I think we were
certainly aware of the fact that opposition to civil rights is a difficult thing to recognize in a
I think that from the perspective of communities of color, in many ways, the civil rights issues
have been more difficult to deal with because the racism and discrimination that they see have
become more covert. And because of that, you don't have the national outrage at the lack of civil
rights. Many whites in this country who aren't somehow involved in or immersed in the civil
rights and race relations issues, genuinely believe that everything's fine. Yeah, you have your
occasional Jasper [Texas, referring to the dragging death of James Bird in 1998] which is oh,
that was horrible and you have a Rodney King, which shouldn't have happened. But they really
believe that for the most part there is no more racism, there is no more discrimination. Yeah
there's some idiots out there, yeah there's still a few Klan folks and skinheads, but everybody
knows they're idiots, it's no big deal. There is a perception that people are just "playing the race
card," if you will, that they're just the troublemakers, and that things really are okay in the great
scheme. And if somebody discriminates, they're prosecuted and dealt with.
One of the stories that I always use in talking to white friends, is of a colleague of mine, a
mediator from one of our regions who travels a lot. He's a tall, black man, athletic, and he likes
to run in the morning. When he's traveling, he has learned that before he runs in the morning, it's
a good idea to call the local police department from the hotel and say, "Look, I'm so-and-so, and
I'm with the Department of Justice Community Relations Service. I'm staying at such-and-such
hotel, and I'll be out running from five to six in the morning. I just want you to know about that."
If he doesn't do that, guaranteed he's going to be stopped by a cop and asked, "Who are you?
Where are you going, and what are you doing here?" You see a black man running down the
street, and you assume he's running away from something. And he's accepted that, and most
times he laughs at the whole thing. He'll see a patrol car and they'll wave at him, because they've
gotten the word. If he doesn't make that call, though, they'll stop him.
People don't think that sort of thing is happening, and what's even more sad and dangerous, if
you will, is that even the cops who would stop him don't realize that their actions are racist and
discriminatory. They think they're doing their job: If you see a black man running down the street
and he doesn't belong there, you've got to question him. And so, now the whole racial profiling
issue is hitting the papers. It's been there forever, though; it's not a new phenomenon. People of
color have been aware of that for a very, very long time, and they're not surprised by it.
But you know, the perception is largely that everybody is being treated fairly. And when that's
the perception, it's much more difficult to make the case that "something's rotten in Denmark,"
or in this case, Colorado. Anymore, it's not so much the officially-sanctioned discrimination that
results in outcries; it's much more subtle forms of discrimination that are ongoing. So, well-
meaning, well-intentioned people really believe that some people will just never be satisfied and
will keep playing the race card. They end up wondering, "What does Jesse Jackson want,
anyway?" And so that mindset makes it more difficult to get people to acknowledge that there is
a problem that needs to be dealt with. You'll find that, to some extent, in almost any white
community that you go into.
My job is to try to persuade and convince them that it's important to address some of these
problems that they really are problems. You know, I tell them, "I'm not accusing you of being
racist, and I'm not accusing this community of discriminating. I'm saying that as long as that
perception is out there that there is discrimination and racism you're going to have a problem.
So let's see whether we can get the parties together and deal with it." And then once you get that
rolling, once that community of color has a chance to explain what they see as being racist, you
can begin to deal with that. We have to get away from the finger-pointing, and cooperate to
figure out a solution. And that's fine. But I don't know whether that answers your question.
What do you think are the most important skills and attributes of an affective civil rights
I think you need an understanding of the history. I think you need to know something about
the history of any problem you get involved with, not just the problem in its current form. You
need to know something about the civil rights movement in general, the history of oppression
and slavery and discrimination. I think those are things that are difficult, again, for the white
community to grasp and to understand. You may know a young black person in your church
whose parents might be richer than you are, and you can't understand why he's still discontent.
For many white people, it's difficult to understand how the life of a person of color is shaped not
just by his or her own personal history, but the history of his or her people. Even though there
isn't slavery anymore today, and even though we don't have plantations anymore today, and even
though you may have never said an unkind word to a person of color in your life, and have
always been a generous, loving white person who hates no one, the history of what has brought
both of you here today doesn't change.
So, I think one of the most important pieces there is helping people get past defending
themselves to seeing that there really is a problem. It may not be anyone's personal fault, and I
keep saying, "I don't care who's fault it is. The point is, there is a problem here, so how do we
begin to solve that? How do we begin to address that?" People don't look back far enough and
again I'm talking primarily about white folks now, because they frequently perceive that there's
no more discrimination and they don't realize that the history of discrimination still influences
who you are today. And in addition to that, the subtle kinds of things that we were talking about
earlier are still there, and white folks have no idea about those, for the most part.
One of the "news magazine" shows did a wonderful piece once: they looked at a black college
student and a white college student of pretty similar educational, social, and economic
backgrounds. They had these two students separately perform a number of daily activities,
though, and followed them with hidden cameras. Both of the students went to an interview,
rented a car, walked through a store things like that. And it was amazing. The black student
was watched and followed through the store, while the white one wasn't; the two of them were
asked different sorts of questions in the interviews.
Of course, nothing that the black student had to put up with was technically illegal, but if you're
a person of color and this is how you have to live on a daily basis, then it's not hard to see that
there's a fuse burning there. When a triggering event occurs, though, and things blow up, the
white community is caught off-guard. They don't understand it at all, because they have no idea
that these fuses are quietly burning. And that aspect that the fuses are burning more quietly and
covertly these days means these problems are much more difficult to deal with.
I think that one reason that people are so focused on blaming, is that if I can say to you, "It's your
fault," than I'm absolved of any responsibility for fixing the problem. I used to think it was just
defensiveness, but it's more than that. If it's not my fault, then I can pull away and forget about
So part of the mindset that I find is important to engender is, "You know that it doesn't
matter who's fault it is, it's a problem in your community, and unless you get together to fix it,
regardless of whose fault it is, it's going to get worse. So it's my fault, blame it on me I should
have been here, it's all my fault, I accept the responsibility. Now that we know it's my fault, what
are you going to do about it?" Because that's really what we need to get to what they're going to
do about it, not who's to blame for it. It involves shifting the focus of what we are really
concentrating on. I'm not trying to minimize the need for accountability and acknowledging
responsibility; that's obviously a part of it. But I do think that sometimes the focus on trying to
decide who's fault it is, is just a cop-out and a way of removing yourself from dealing with the
issue. Because if it's not my fault, I don't have to deal with it.
Are there any other lessons that you think are worth giving to people who are just getting
into this kind of work? Any guidelines that you would give to people who are involved in a racial
conflict for the first time?
I'm sure there are hundreds, and if I'm working with someone else, I find myself thinking of
them as we go along. I think one is to remember that you're always learning. If you don't see
yourself as a student and learning in the setting, you won't do as well. I make it very clear to both
the community and the institution, that they have all sorts of knowledge and all sorts of insight
that I need to learn from them. I'm not even close to knowing everything. "Here's what I know. I
know how to mediate, and I'm fairly confident in that, and here is what I can do, but now I need
to learn from you. What is it that I need to know to understand where I am? What do I need to
understand about your community? What do I need to understand about your situation? What do
I need to understand about what your needs are, so that I can do my job as a mediator?"
Asking these questions does a number of things. It gives me more information, which is useful,
but it also illustrates, in a subtle way, that they are somewhat responsible for the success of the
process. I'm letting them know that they need to train me, and if they don't do it right, we're not
going to get this job done. So now, I'm sharing the responsibility a little bit by making it clear to
them that I'm counting on them to straighten me out when I need it. "And if you think I'm not
being impartial, stop me and tell me, so we can deal with this. I mean to be impartial, I mean to
be fair. If it doesn't look that way to you, you need to tell me that so that I can fix it. I can either
explain to you why I did it that way, and why I'll continue to do it that way if I think that's
important, or I can change it and do it differently, because I now know that this isn't going to
work for you. But you need to keep me honest, even as I'm trying to keep the process honest." So
again, that helps create a sense of partnership among the two parties and myself, rather than the
confrontational "us versus them" kind of thing.
So you need a combination of attributes. You need a healthy amount of confidence in yourself in
terms of your skills as a mediator, but you also need humility and openness and flexibility. You
need to be able to adapt and learn. Just assume that they have answers that you'll never have, so
pay close attention, because otherwise you're going to miss it.
I genuinely believe that I'm not better than anybody else. I have some skills that other people
have, but other people have skills that I don't have. I think that some people confuse confidence
with a sense of superiority, and that will get you into trouble. I think as a mediator, you want to
exude confidence, because if you don't think you can do this, how are you going to convince
parties that you can do this? The parties look to you to take charge.
I can think of one example that just came to mind, and it just so happened that I had a trainee
with me that time. There was a conflict with an institution, but there was also a conflict among
members of the same minority community. We had sort of reached agreement about trying
mediation between the institution and the minority community. But there was one segment of the
minority community that had some connection with the institution, and the other was the more
grassroots component. I had arranged for a meeting between the two minority groups. We rented
a meeting room in a hotel and arranged for coffee, even cookies! It was a big expense here for
CRS to arrange for this meeting.
But the institutional group was a little apprehensive that they were going to be over-powered, if
you will. They thought that they would be "bullied" by the grass roots community. We get to the
meeting and there were six to ten people from the institutional group, and the grassroots segment
started off with approximately that many. But then a nationally-known leader from that
community arrived with his entourage. After some discussion of some of the issues, it became
apparent that there was actually a lot of agreement between those two factions they just hadn't
talked with each other. But the national leader then said, "Well, Silke, we really appreciate that
CRS brought this meeting together, and it's kind of you, too, because we couldn't do it ourselves.
So we thank you for doing that. But now that we're here, we really don't need you anymore. So
you can leave now." I said, "You know, national leader, I'm glad to hear you say that, and I was
certainly more than delighted to arrange for this meeting. But, I had made certain commitments
regarding things that I would do today, and what we would cover, and I feel a responsibility to
adhere to those commitments. Now once I have finished that, and done what I promised I would
do, I will leave. Then if you would like to use our room and use these facilities, you're more than
welcome to stay as long as you would like." There was no outrage; that worked.
At one point I had to be a bit forceful to keep control, and I actually interrupted his daughter.
That didn't go too well. I didn't realize that was his daughter. So he called me on that, but we got
passed that, and in fact reached some agreement, some consensus between those two groups. We
eventually got to the mediation table.
What was interesting is that years later I did a mediation training and made the point of the
importance of maintaining control, and I used this case as an example. I thought that I had
disguised it very well, but it happened that one of the trainees was a member of that same
institution-related minority community. She came up afterwards and said, "Silke, you were
absolutely on target. If you hadn't stayed, you would have lost all credibility with our group and
probably some of the others too, and nothing would have happened."
So you have to maintain a balance. That was challenging in this case, because this was such a
renowned figure. There was a temptation to concede to the wisdom and the importance of this
particular person. "Who am I to not give in to so renowned an individual?" But the reality is that
this person was just a member of one of the parties, and he should not be able to control the
meeting any more than an institutional head should. I was facilitating that particular meeting; it
was my meeting.
I might have had just a little bit of fear; I know that the adrenaline pumped a little bit more, in
that situation. But knowing what your objective is in a meeting, and living up to whatever
commitment you make is crucial. In some cases that means standing up to renowned leadership.
You have to do that to maintain your credibility.
It's also important because sometimes that's just testing. I don't think it was in that particular
case, I think he really wanted me to leave and I did eventually, but not just then. But sometimes
when you're confronted, it might just be a test. So you need to be aware of that. You need to be
sure of what your objective is, and what you can do and what you can't do.
Be very clear about what you can't do. Maybe sometimes that's more important to know than
what you can do. You come into some situations where the need is so great that it can be very,
very frustrating. But you can't save this community and save the world. That's important to
recognize. You need to be able to explain what you can do in this particular situation and what
you can't. Then start working to do what you can. It's worth it it really is.
Putting it another way, I think it's important to not allow the parties to frame the issue.
Because part of what you as a mediator bring to the table is helping the parties to view the entire
setting from a different perspective. The only mediator joke I know is, "How many mediators
does it take to hang a picture? Answer: They don't hang them, they reframe them!" So that
reframing the way the parties frame the issues is already laden with bias. So the important thing
that you need to do is to reframe those issues in a way that allows the parties to resolve the
problem. You need to address what their initial concerns are, but those concerns need to be
framed in a way that will have both parties equally willing and even enthusiastic about resolving
those problems. There is no way that's going to happen if you use the issues the way the parties
A couple of examples: We talked earlier about the community talking about the racist
superintendent. If the community were to frame the issue, it would be "eliminating racism in the
school district". Well, the school district isn't going to have any enthusiasm for participating in
that kind of conversation. And you would have to get beyond whether or not there is racism. So
whether there is or there isn't, you've got the problems which get in the way of the two parties
even talking about that. So if you make "whether or not there's racism" the issue, you're never
going to get agreement.
You are going to get an agreement that they need effective staff, and if you can get an agreement
on that, then you can probably get agreement on the staff being able to deal with people of
diverse backgrounds. And maybe one way of getting staff that deals with diverse backgrounds is
to get staff of diverse backgrounds. Now you're really reaching out there. And there you can
reach that kind of consensus. If you try to focus on whether or not there's racism, you're not
going to get it.
Same thing with sovereignty if you try to make sovereignty on the reservation or near the
reservation the issue, then you're not going to get anywhere. Both parties are going to dig in their
heels and stand right there, because they both feel obligated to not give any ground. But if you
frame it, not in terms of who's got sovereignty, but in terms of, "How can we provide effective
law enforcement, or effective education, or stewardship over our natural resources?" you're
going to find a lot of agreement there. And once you've reached agreement there, then
sovereignty doesn't remain the issue anymore. Sovereignty is a tool that you can use to bring
about certain outcomes or to solve certain problems. Sovereignty itself is not the issue.
So you need to get people to think not about, "How can I maintain my sovereignty?" but rather,
"What is this that I'm trying to accomplish, and how can I do that? What are the various options
for obtaining that? I'm thirsty, so where can I get a beverage?" Getting the orange is one way, but
there are other beverages out there too. So, that's part of the contribution that the mediator makes
to that process. But unless the mediator plays a major role in framing those issues rather than
letting the parties frame them, you're going to run into a road block that shouldn't be there.