Michelle LeBaron

Professor of Law at the University of British Columbia and Director of UBC's Dispute Resolution Program

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 ???).

I was fortunate some years ago to be asked to do an evaluation for the Kellogg Foundation of a dialogue that had taken place between pro-choice and pro-life activists on the subject of abortion. I was interested in these dialogic efforts, but not particularly confident about them because I couldn't really see a way to think of integrated solutions about abortion. To me it's a matter of conviction, it's a matter of identity, it's a matter of deep meanings, and I actually don't know if we should try to shift someone's identities and meanings and convictions, so I was curious about what that would be like. I was particularly curious when I was asked to go talk with a group of clergy on both sides of this issue who'd been in dialogue with each other over a long period of time, about 18 months, and they'd been doing it monthly. They had been doing it a some significant cost, because they were arousing suspicion from their own congregants about what it was that they had been doing and why they weren't putting more time in on various other priorities and indeed on the front line of advocacy either pro-life or pro-choice. So I thought it was very curious, so I went to them and one of the questions that I asked them was, "Why are you doing this? Why are you keeping at this with some cost to yourself and raising questions of trust with your own constituency? Why are you doing this?" There was a pause and one of the men, there were men and women, but one of the clergymen got tears in his eyes and said, "I do it because I see God in the eyes of the other." That always stuck with me because it said to me that his image of the other, his dance with the other, had changed. And that had become so compelling to him that it was worth the cost that it was costing him to continue to participate in that dialogue. Of course many interesting, practical things came out of those dialogues, which was also very useful for me to realize, but I think that moment of him describing the recognition of the sacredness of the other or the humanity of the other was very powerful.

Q: Wow, that's sort of a story of impact on the larger process. That's just the tip of the iceberg and your job was to evaluate the whole iceberg. That's exactly what I was looking for, the inspirational story. Can you talk a little about the iceberg? What did it take to get two people on opposite sides of the fence to see God in the eyes of the other?

A: I talked to then a doctoral student of mine who is now a Ph.D. working in the field ?????. We talked to over a hundred people, and we asked them about the process.

Q: Sorry, how many people were in the dialogue?

A: Well, these dialogues took place in different cities across the US and Canada, so in any dialogue there might be anything from 12 to 24 to 30 people, typically around 18 people. One of the things we found is that not one person ever said they had changed their mind. They came in with the view that they left with, which was very comforting to me. I wouldn't want to hear that people were changing their mind from one side to the other of the issue. One of the other things that I thought was quite fascinating is that they really put a lot emphasis on storytelling, it's interesting in the view of the website in what we're talking about because they spent quite a lot of time having people talk about "Here's my story on how I came to this view." When people tell those stories they are very powerful, they arouse empathy, they create connections that weren't there because I've actually had the experience, which is quite a disturbing experience on one level, of hearing two people tell quite similar stories with two different conclusions, and that's lovely to actually hear that. The other thing they talked about was heroes and heroines. I saw that talking about who's your hero or your heroine is kind of a conduit into what you really care about, what you really value, and again sometimes they found that their heroes or their heroines were the same.

Q: So it sounds like it may have not been said so articulately as that one pastor said it, but, that the ultimate affect was not that I changed my views, but really that I did see the human in the other, the reason behind. So the larger question is the impact that it might have on the larger community would be what?

A: I saw that it had some very important practical impacts. For example, some of the pro-choice and pro-life activists got together and wrote a paper about, "What the are appropriate conducts outside of clinics?" One side doesn't think there should be clinics, but they put that question aside and said, "Given that there are clinics, what can the two of us agree on in terms of acceptable limits in terms of decreasing violence, making it so that clients of that clinic are not subject to some of the harassing things that they've been subject to before?" "Harassing" has a particular value judgment that I'm aware of, so the kinds of interference or the kinds of advocacy that they might have experienced before. So there is a very practical outcome. Some other activists wrote together about adoption and promoting options for adoption in their communities, addressing the feminization of child and female poverty. So they found lots of things they could do together and that's really interesting to me. No, they didn't figure out "How do we solve this issue about what should be the social policy about abortion?" They never did that. What they did is they reduced the charge around the conflict and they reduced the level of violence around the conflict and I think as more and more people got involved in these discourses, they made it so that those people on either side who were advocating violence or very, very extreme views became more marginalized. I think that's the hope as well.

Q: Is there some effort to institutionalize what they talked about in some sense? On one hand we're talking about personal change, around that circle, of course there is always that issue of scale-up or re-entry, you know the eighteen different angles to look at the problem.

A: This was a project of Search for Common Ground which was in the early-mid nineties. There were a couple of Common Ground conferences for people who had been involved with issues related to abortion and also ordination of homosexuals, where they'd use this kind of dialogic process and as you know, now there are many other vehicles for dialogue. That particular work around abortion stopped. Their principle always was, "We work when local communities ask us to come and work," and they started getting fewer requests and they started to get less funding. However, Laura Chasin, through Public Conversations Project, is still involved in some of that work and there are other groups still involved in some of that work. The way I see it is the work continues, and that particular group is not doing it, but there are other groups. I think that, I really do believe that it's having an impact in terms of changing the way that the discourse is unfolding and changing the way that the press depict the discourse. One of the things about the Common Ground conferences they had is that they included the press and they talked with them about the way those issues are covered, which is often part of the issue.