The Re-entry Problem

Mark Gerzon

Private facilitator, Mediator, Trainer, Author and key organizer of the Congressional Civility Retreats

Interviewed by Julian Portilla, 2003

This rough transcript provides a text alternative to audio. We apologize for occasional errors and unintelligible sections (which are marked with ???).

Q: So what happened in the retreat?

A: We designed a process. I had a facilitation team of ten people from the field, for both retreats. There were different teams, but it was me and ten other people. And the ten people were there support what we called the co-leaders, which were the Democratic and Republican co-leaders. So in each room, there was a Democratic and Republican co-leader and then a facilitator helping them in any way they needed to be. To use Bill Ury's terms, almost like a third side for the Democrats and the Republicans. There's a facilitator to be the third side in case the two of them, you know, went crazy. I'd say the most exciting part of it was the small group process.

That's where they actually sat in circles and would answer questions

like, "How does the quality of discourse of the House floor affect you personally?" Sitting in a circle with Democrats and Republicans and their spouses, talking about how it affects you. So you're sitting in a circle and the woman next to you is the wife of a member of the other party says "I couldn't stand watching my kids watch TV and hearing lies about their daddy" You're sitting there, and you realize, yeah, that happens to your people too. And so they discovered their shared pain about the process. They witnessed each other's pain and they developed through that experience the desire to do something about what wasn't working.

And I remember one moment, when one person said, at the end of the session, and I forgot who it was, a Democrat or a Republican, and that's the first time that's ever happened. So they really became human beings and that's exactly the process that happens in other settings. Whether it's Israeli and Palestinian, or black and white, or pro-life and pro-choice, that after a while, the clich‚, the powerful clich‚ disappears and you see the person behind the stereotype. And so that's a general answer to what happens, specifically in terms of output, they develop concrete proposals that they promise to work on after the retreat.

And this gets to the disappointing part, which is that the Monday after the retreat, my job stopped. All the other jobs of any other person related to the retreats stopped and they, members of Congress went back to Capitol Hill and they were back to being Democrats and Republicans. So there was no infrastructure to continue the process.

That was the big weakness of the design, and they repeated that twice. Even though the second time I said "You've got to build it in, you've got to build it into your on-going work." But there was no funding for it, no staff for it, so what happened is that the impact, the powerful impact of the retreat itself, after a period of months was less. There was no way of, despite some attempts to create like a bi-partisan room, there was no money for it, no power for it.


Q: Anyway, talk a little bit more about how you design a infrastructure for the re-entry problem. How do you move from individual transformation to either institutional transformation in the case of the house or social transformation as in the case of race relation dialogues or deeply divided society dialogues? You said you came back a second time and said, "let's design something", talk to me about it.

A: Well, in my work, I often witness individual transformation of people's consciousness. But they're apart of an institution that hasn't transformed, so then there is tension between the institution and the individual about what's going to happen. There is the question of whether the individual is going to transform the institution they're apart of or is the institution going to basically eliminate the transformed individual? So there's tension, but a creative tension.

So to me the challenge, if you work from the point of view of individual transformation, is to get enough individuals who are transformed enough that they can have leverage on the institution. In the House, I think the forces that are there that keep the House operating the same way, the partisan forces, were much stronger than the individual transformation. So a number of people have had a powerful individual experience left, and a number of others found ways in their committees to implement it in a small way. Others found ways to implement it in friendships with members of the other party and that had a much more subtle effect.

So I would say the big challenge, is if you don't have the power, than you can't come and change the institution through power. When you do change it, it's through the changing of individual leaders, which had been my approach. That's the big question, how do you get that individual change to lock into the institution in a way that then changes the institution. I think Congress is an example of how that didn't happen, and that's not to say that many Congress people can't tell you wonderfully powerful stories about how it affected this committee or that legislation. Or how something would've been much worse if it hadn't been for this event.

I don't want to say that there were no positive effects. There were a lot of positive effects, but they were informal positive effects

, not institutional effects. I don't see any major institutional changes in the House of Representatives because of those retreats. I think that's a realistic assessment and a natural one because there was never a strategy for institutional change, it was always about improving relationships between the members and that has to be done on an on-going basis. You can't work at the relationships in 97 and then in 99 and expect them to affect 2001 or 2003. It's got to be on-going work, as in a marriage or any other relationship.