Professor of International Peacebuilding, Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, University of Notre Dame
Topics: Narratives and Story-Telling, insider-outsider distinction, mediation, and transformation
Interviewed by Julian Portilla — 2004
Listen to Full Interview
Q: I usually start out with a question a lot of people laugh at, which is, a brief overview of your work...?
A: A brief overview of my work... Well, my work falls into different kinds of categories, I think the primary piece of it is I've been working for many years to accompany people who are trying to address deep-rooted conflict and basically accompany a lot of their preparation and design and supported their implementation. I have tended to work much more at the community or middle-range level of society, and because of long-term relationships in a number of places and with the right sets of people, occasionally that translates into direct connection to higher-level, official peace processes, but the mainstay of my work has not been to focus directly on formal negotiations or working at sort of the Track I level and close to it and in support of it. That has happened, but isn't the mainstay of it. I also do a good bit of teaching, both formally within the academic setting -- certainly done a lot of that over the years -- and more in the informal sector in adult education, like training (that I would refer more to as capacity building), and that often takes place at local levels...wide, wide, wide variety of kinds of people that I work with there. And I think the third big area for me falls into sort of writing reflection and trying over the years to create a little more space for that, because I've seen it as a important part of what I contribute to the wider field. At times it takes the form of reflecting on the practice in order to build some theory which is probably some of the books that are a little more well-known in the field, but there's also a whole component of that which has to do with some of the deeper issues I think we face for the long-term work in this field. So those kinds of reflections cut across anywhere from theology even into the arts and poetry and... I produced a couple of CDs with a song writer where we've combined storytelling and singing and so... I guess you can call me a "dabbler." I dabble, I have a sense of the core things I do, but I dabble around the edges to keep myself alive and keep alive the things that are happening that aren't always seen when you get really focused on one thing and can't kind of break out of it. And I should be real clear that my formal connections have been with the academic settings since about 1989-90, but I've spent at least half of every academic year on a practice component, and at this stage in my life that's even translated into a much more significant component cause I feel more my vocational call is to be closer to work on the ground as much as I can.
Q: Yesterday we were in a meeting upstairs talking about all kinds of things and you mentioned storytelling as an important element of your work and you mentioned why. Can you tell me why, why that's a big element? I mean storytelling, what's the big deal?
A: When I first came into this field I bumped into the word "storytelling" in reference to a phase in the mediation process, but it was actually a rather narrow definition of story: tell us what happened and why you're mad so we can get you past being mad and find a solution. And that reference point -- while at times a powerful component, because people may have some other emotional release, and I'm thinking here of course of the US model of sitting down in a one- or two-hour session in which the storytelling component is a twenty-minute phase -- the term I'm referring to, or the content, or the understanding I would give to storytelling is much more about finding a way to reflect in a much wider sense on what's happening in a situation and/or the experience of people. Storytelling in that regard is much more like an art form and in the art form you're doing certain things that, I believe, help break you out of an exclusively cognitive, linear rational understanding of both conflict analysis and solution seeking. A story, like other forms of proverbial wisdom - sitting around a campfire and hearing people talk - one of the interesting things about a story is that there is a holistic component to it. And whoever the listeners are interact with it like it's a painting. If you stand before a painting, everyone has an opportunity to say, "this is what it's saying to me. This is what I see." And the story very much has that component to it. It is both on the side of the storyteller to put forward things, the ways they configure it, the ways they draw it out, but then it becomes very much of a live process in which there is an interaction and the interaction itself is something that's open for interpretation. So suddenly you're in a community of meaning-creation, and I think that's a lot of what conflict is about. It's about the search for meaning; it's about how do we makes sense of these things that are going on, and what are the ways that we might respond to it, that can move it toward - at least in terms of my wider goals - finding our way back to being human, being in the community, in as constructive a way as we can? And so for me, storytelling has those elements of it. It touches people at a level that includes but circumvents the limitations that our mind wants to put on things. That is, the mind wants to put control on a lot of what we do in a way that doesn't let us touch the more whole part of what's going on with the process and stories and other forms of art, I think, keep walking around it in a more holistic way.
Q: You mentioned creating meaning, it seems to me people already have meaning when they're in a conflict so why do they need more meaning?
A: Well I actually think that meaning and shared meaning is always at play, I mean, we constantly, day in and day out, all day long, are in the process of construction of social meaning. A lot of things we take obviously for granted. I mean, I wake up and make coffee, I don't think twice about it, cause it's something I do on a regular basis. Sitting and talking with my wife and 95% of the time, even though our sentences may not be longer than two or three words we know where we're at. But in situations of conflict, what's at play is essentially people really looking hard at what things mean. I mean, one of the things conflict does is it makes you a lot more attentive. You start looking, "why'd that eyebrow raise?" "That tone of voice - that word meant this. That word meant this supposedly, but that tone of voice told me that's not what it meant." I'm attentive. I'm attaching meaning constantly. And obviously, in the big picture there may be a meaning structure, for example, we're oppressed. Or we're threatened. And around that then I watch for signs that indicate that that's proper meaning...
Q: Looking to confirm a hypothesis...
A: But I think that meaning is never static. We're constantly in the process of doing it. It's one of the most exciting things about this field. You're just constantly in the process of figuring things out. It's never boring. And one of the big disciplines I believe for peacebuilding is, and this is part of what, in The Moral Imagination, I put out as one of the "four essences," is we have to create a discipline to remain curious. Curiosity is a constant... ok, so what do we understand that's going on here? And by my view, when you lose curiosity, you think you have it - then truth is finished. You've got it all wrapped up, there's no need for the search for meaning, it's all very clear, but it's actually quite a dangerous place to be. In my view, because I don't think that we've arrived there. The whole paradox of the human community and human existence is that we're in a constant search for a deeper understanding, a deeper engagement. Even things that are very common to me can speak to me in a new way. That's why I like going on walks. You go on a walk anywhere in the woods, or any place things jump out at you that you hadn't quite seen in the same way before and it adds a new level; something that you understand.
Q: That's very interesting, Paul Weir said something very similar last year when I talked to him, you guys have obviously worked a lot together; so can you give me an example of where storytelling may have changed the shared meaning or the understanding of a situation?
A: Well, I have obviously the experience of being in places where I relate stories, how much it creates an immediate impact I'm not sure is always clear. A lot of response I get from people when I do storytelling at a conference or a meeting is that it tends to break open what's being discussed in a new way. I think maybe what you're after is more significant at the level of - when you're involved in real-life situations and you see things emerging - you know, and I... there are, I don't know which ones you might want to pull out but... for an example, I had an experience one time in Peshawar in Pakistan which is right on the border with Afghanistan, and this was during the early years when the Taliban was rising, Afghanistan is still quite obviously chaotic in a lot of ways and the University of... the people that had connections to universities located inside Afghanistan had located themselves onto the border areas and were doing kind of a process of reconstituting a university teaching setting. And some of those folks we worked with in developing an effort to provide some materials and curriculum on peacebuilding and conflict transformation. So at one point I had an invitation to visit. And I recall this because it's one of the ways I've been intuitively paying more attention to the role of story. When we first sat down in the meeting, some of the people who were the professors, a handful of which were keenly interested in this, others who were suspicious, and then some of the key people in the wider university sector, who were actually advisors and who were worried about, "Is this a Western thing or can we root it deeply in the Islamic teaching?" Of course, the depth at which those issues are important in Afghanistan are always always present. And I'm not only coming from the West, I come from a Christian tradition, and you're quite transparent about who you are. There's no bypassing honesty and transparency. We'll catch up to you at one point or another if you either try to hide it or sneak your way around it. But all that adds into the question and the sort of the context. So we sit down and we aren't into this meeting for more than two minutes and a process begins whereby they explain the current Afghan conflict, which is complex, deep, dates back across the ???, the whole kit-and--caboodle which is one humongous mess. Of course when they finish, all eyes turn, my image of it was a lot of people with turbans and big white beards, "So what's the solution of our problem?" This is a question of course, you get a lot of places, but is totally loaded. It's loaded first of all because there is no solution anyone could give particularly from the outside, to their conflict. So that's not to say there might not be learnings that could be garnered from other places, but there's no real solution. And they're really not asking for a solution, in some regards its always a bit of a testing. And the test is, as soon as this person with all their wisdom of wherever he's come from starts down this pathway, we know that's not going to be the answer; it's going to be rejected. And of course if he says he doesn't know, what's he doing here? So where do you head? Well my feeling is, where you head in places where you're not sure, the best fallback is a story. And what I pay attention to is what pops into my head, this is where I would say intuition is really important. But intuition, I think I was telling somebody yesterday, intuition falls, in the best picture, somewhere between Tourettes and wisdom. You have to sort through when and at which point what's popping into your head is heading to a kind of burst of things that you would later like to have a better control of, or whether a voice is talking that says, "this is the time," etc. So it's not an easy one to get your hand on, but the story that came to me was one that just very recently - I had heard in Africa and have subsequently over the years heard in a number of places, in fact one person told me it traces in several religious traditions to the early Sheiks and Rabbis, both in the Islamic and Judaic traditions, but it's a very simple story. In Africa it was a story that said there was a very wise chief and he was so wise everybody respected him for miles and miles - I was telling the story to the group of folks gathered - and there was a small group of boys that said, "We're gonna see how wise this chief is." So they went out into the forest and they found a small little bird; a bird that could fit into their hand. And they went to the chief and said, "Chief, in my hand is a bird, I want to know because you're the wisest person in the village, I want to know whether the bird is dead or alive." If the Chief would say that it is alive, before opening the hand they would crush it, and open it - the bird would be dead. And if the Chief said the bird is dead, they would release it and it would fly. Either way, they were going to catch him. So they went before the Chief and they said, "Chief, in my hand is a bird, is the bird dead or alive?" And the Chief looked for a long time at the boys and at the bird, and said, "You know what? I don't know if that bird is dead or alive - what I know is the bird is in your hands. And whether it lives or dies is up to you." So I said, in reference to your conflict, I don't know. I don't know whether this is the right or the wrong way, what I know is ultimately it's in your hands. From there we could go forward on some things but two things I noticed right away. The first was they were totally engaged with the story. Story always has a bit of the capacity to connect with people at a sort of level that talking at folks with answers and theories and ideas doesn't always do. And the other was, I would call it, much of what I do is aimed at finding a way to join, to accompany, to - at times I use the word "alongside-ness" I'm not sure if there is that word in English. But there's a sense of how to respectfully and appropriately enter the circle of that web of relationships. And, at least in that particular instance that was a way that provided more of that possibility. If you want other kinds of stories, certainly one of the other ones I put in the book in a chapter on the arts was Smilovich in Sarajevo, which I had actually heard. And a lot of us heard. People that heard it remember it very distinctly and that was a radio interview that came across the wires and was rebroadcast in a number of places. I heard it just through a very small way through NPR. In essence it was this fellow who just after a massacre was playing a cello in the middle of the city while snipers were shooting. And the interview was short and was basically saying, "Why are you sitting here while people are shooting at you...are you crazy?" And his response was, "I'm playing my cello; that's not crazy. Why don't you go up to the mountain and ask the people shooting down here why they're doing what they're doing, because that is crazy." So I went hunting for the story and found there's actually a CD that's produced of the songs that he played during that period in Sarajevo. A member of the national orchestra there suspended during the war years, lived in Sarajevo during the war, during the massacres, this particular massacre was called the "Bread Queue Massacre". The bread store didn't open up there everyday so when it did people would queue long lines. And in the open plaza where they were queued, mortar shells were launched in and it was 10s of 20s of people that were immediately killed or wickedly injured. Smilovich found himself running - it was close to where he lived -- picking people up, and carrying them out. Through the night into the early morning, when he woke up - hardly able to sleep -- the next morning, he looked in the mirror and made a decision. He put on his full tuxedo, the full garment like he was going to a concert, took his cello, went down and sat up - right in the square where the shooting had taken place. And started playing. He starting playing what he didn't even know was adagio, which is a song almost mourning like but he played it in an extraordinary way. He said he got lost in the process and didn't even know what was happening and people all around started gathering to listen. And then he picked up his cello and went down to the coffee shop where he always goes and in the coffee shop people started to come in. And they said "(Sigh). This is what we needed." And so it occurred to him that he shouldn't stop. So he decided to do it every day for as many days as there were people killed in the massacre. So he played for several weeks on end, in an area where sniping, shooting would continue to come.
Q: And he never got shot?
A: And he never got shot. And I'm telling you, you tell that story and you play that music and you have people just sit for a moment and listen. I still have a small recording he actually did with an Irish guy called Tommy Sans, they combined Irish and Bosnian stories and music mostly. It's a powerful thing. And it's extraordinary that it has a transcendent quality to it, because it's simultaneously, the moment that it happened, a deep form of mourning. But it was also a deep form of what you might call, "Prophetic Witness." You know, this is wrong. And you have something that accompanies these things that I think are very powerful.
Q: Yeah it also has this timeless dimension about it, where it says this is the way it used to be, remember? And this is the way it could be again. Maybe a small seed of sanity among madness. It's interesting, when I asked you to tell me about stories, I was expecting you to tell me about stories that people told about their experiences with conflicts that went against the common wisdom of what was going on and the conflict more. I guess that's because I was thinking more from an appreciative inquiry standpoint. Within a bad system there are things that are working well. So is the approach more that you come with stories from other places, so they can get sort of an outside perspective on their own situations?
A: Well, that certainly is the case, but if you take what I just told you it's precisely that. You could go up to, say Ireland, there's a group called the Spirit of ??? that traces back to a bombing, I can't think of the guy's last name... Gordon... it will come to me eventually... but the story is essentially of a man who was headed to ??? with his daughter when they got caught in one of the bombings that went off. In where they were located they basically ... a wall crumbled around them and he found himself lying under this rubble unable to move. And the only thing he could touch was his daughter's hand who was just beside him and in that moment, she actually passed on, so she had her last words with her father, as he lay there. He couldn't move or do anything about it obviously, just touch the edge of her hand and hear her voice and she said, "Daddy I love you," it was her last words. People came and eventually lifted them out, and he found himself sitting, waiting for the ambulances to come when again a reporter came by. And somehow in the moment it came to him that this was a moment to speak very clearly about ... and he said, "I don't want anybody to seek revenge for what happened to me here." And he told what just happened to his daughter and said, "I don't want anybody to avenge this." But from that process he came out with a very keen sense that he wanted to find the people that had done this. So he set about over the next years until he was eventually able to sit down with the ones who were very close to the people who put off the bomb and it was this whole process of inquiry that he began to seek, to understand, and to say what it was like for him. It became very powerful and that recording by the way had a huge impact on the listening audience. ... many people will remember...
Q: They recorded the conversation?
A: Yeah, the recording of him just after the bombing... sitting in what just happened... I want no vengeance. And part of that pushed him to a whole thing that they're now working very extensively on - well they began a number of things - but one of them was working with youth and taking youth together to different places from both sides of the conflict - so it had this kind of life that began to emerge out of it. And in both of these cases what I'm saying is, there are very clear stories of people going counter - against the current - the opposite of what you might feel is happening, they've found ways of moving that have made a tremendous impact. And of course one of the interesting things to me in reference to our field is most of them are not professionally trained. It is something that happens that any of us can touch at the level of our human capacities. It lies within our capacities to find these ways. I think the stories are compelling and yes I do often share them as I feel they are appropriate in a variety of things. But quite often the stories themselves emerge straight up out of the context in which you're working in the same kind of a thing.
Q: That's a great story. I had never heard that one. I had heard the Serbian one at some point or a version of it at some point but it's quite an impacting story of the father with his daughter. We talk a lot about transformation in this field and you come from a university that calls itself a program of transformation - conflict transformation - is there a moment in your work or a part where you personally were transformed? Something that really made you get into this field, or really believe it?
A: Yeah, there were a number of things. And some of the more significant things were prior to having a field per se. My lifetime journey ... my adolescence would have been in the formative years of what became a field. Obviously the start of it dates back to earlier stages and you see pieces of it here but the field per se probably dates into the mid '70s or mid '80s when you start seeing university programs emerge and a variety of other things. But probably the most formative thing for me, at a personal level ... well, I should say that I come from a faith tradition, the Mennonites, that have had a long tradition dating back to the 16th century of a theological perspective, of respect for life, often referred to as pacifism, although the language may vary and the theological traditions and how we describe that. It's considered one of the historic peace churches; I grew up in a context and I'm still a very active member in my wider Mennonite constituency and the local congregation here. In fact the church here in Boulder is the one I helped to start in '82 when we were here, so I have to give absolute deeper credit and attribution to the context in which I grew up, which I think was very formative. My father was a pastor, and I would have heard from very early on the themes that many people who come into the movement from other sectors would see as something they were attracted to; there were elements of that that were very clearly a part of it. So I had a conducive environment for this obviously.
But one of the formative things was for me -- I grew up in a rural small town area out far west in the Northwest, in Oregon, and a particular moment in our family life, pursuing some education issues, my father was continuing his education and we ended up for a year in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, which was a very formative year - big city, opposite of the country, in the south and it fell in the late sixties, I would have been in the 6th or 7th grade - that age or early on. 7th grade is what I'm referring to now which was the year that Martin Luther King was assassinated. Our family came very much from a perspective that what was happening with the civil rights movement was a powerful, positive thing. But from several standpoints, not just from a standpoint of what it represented for greater equality of people of color, especially the African American community, but for what it represented in terms of a leader who could articulate a theology and a practice that was very coherent and congruent with our understanding. This was extraordinary.
And we had things that happened during that year that really demonstrated how much communities were divided at the time. My father, we wouldn't attend the events of the school he was training in because they would always hold them in retreat centers and swimming pools where only whites could go and we'd be the one family who wouldn't go and there'd be a lot of pressure about why we wouldn't go. My mother worked in a hospital, and I've told this story on a CD, about an experience that she had in the hospital of being the one white nurse who'd attend to the black patients who were required by the new laws to have access to the hospitals and the white staff didn't want it. So there's lots of tensions that ...
I remember so clearly listening to - on the radio in particular - the speeches that Martin Luther King Junior would give. They still resonate. And I remember real clearly the day he was assassinated. Riots broke out in Winston-Salem like they did in other places. The town shut down. I remember trying to drive home, we couldn't get through. There were areas where fires were burning. It was a powerful moment.
I had some very direct experiences in school where most of the teachers who openly talked about the events and all of my colleagues, I was in a very large junior high school, there were no African Americans at that point. it was a totally segregated situation at that point and so the apartments that we lived in, my public school would have had absolutely no or little variety of color within it. And when people talked about... the school was cancelled for three or four days and when we came back, in the first classes we had, teachers would say, "What do people think?" And I was sort of stunned to hear the range of responses that came from my fellow students.
For me it was formative because I look back at points in my life, what was I--13? 12? or something. I began to in the next years to develop an interest in this. It was pushed initially by trying to figure it out theologically, what's this faith thing that this has to be something beyond belief, it has to be practice in some form. Stopping my college education half-way through to go on a three-year voluntary service assignment, to Belgium where I worked very extensively with - it was a house full of international students from Africa, Latin America.
Very formative kind of things, and then at that point actually making a decision that I would look for a peace studies degree if I could find it. This would have been '76, '77. There weren't very many at that point but I knew that coming back to a Mennonite college that had just started a major, Bethel College in central Kansas, and began in '76 and '77 as part of that, doing my first reading in the field. And Jim Lowy and Kenneth Boulding and Paul Wehr and Johan Galtung, so I was reading lots of stuff in Europe while I was still on my voluntary service assignment, but it was kind of an extension learning thing that I connected back to the program. So I majored in peace studies and in history as an undergraduate.
Q: And then sociology... and the rest is history... Ok last set of the questions and I won't take up too much more of your time, but one thing you mentioned when talking about Afghanistan and a few of the other stories was this role of being the outsider and you mentioned that outside, American model of mediation is very much predicated on outsider, neutral, impartial, equidistant from the parties, but you've also written, with Paul Weir, about a different kind of role that you were looking at in Latin America and Central America, I think it was a case in Nicaragua, and lately, these past few days at this conference here in Boulder, Colorado we've been talking a lot about other roles that are available to conflicts that have less to do with an outsider impartial or mediators as people who are advocates or a variety of roles, but if you could talk a little bit about how you came upon the insider partial, outsider neutral distinction.
A: Sure. The context is, I had come to Boulder to work on my Ph.D., attracted primarily by the fact that this was the home of Kenneth and Elise Boulding and Paul Weir and others and the sociology department here at the University of Colorado had just initiated an emphasis on social conflict that Paul was heading up. And out of that, my wife and recently-born daughter and I headed down to Latin America, Central America specifically, to work with a region-wide portfolio related to peace and conflict resolution training, mostly with church leaders and community leaders. We were living in Costa Rica and I would work in the region more generally and as part of that period of time I was also working on doing a kind of ethnographic study of how people in a Central American setting make sense of conflict and respond to it from sort of an everyday perspective. I used the term in my proposal that I wanted to do an "Ethnoconflictology" and the word never stuck anywhere, I don't think anyone other than Kevin Auverick ever ... the idea was that people make sense of conflict from out of the meaning structure in which they're located and that's really where we needed to place emphasis on the conflict from the perspective of the... and that there deeply cultural elements that accompanied that. And that's what I was interested in and in the end I ended up, there was a lot of things that happened over those years, but one of the places where this term became clearer for me was what you referred to about the outside and inside was a year and-a-half- or two-year-long project that we were involved in in Puntarenas, Costa Rica, mostly aimed at the neighborhoods in Puntarenas that had what they call there in Costa Rica tigurios, which are the land occupations that people would do almost overnight. There's unoccupied land that somebody quite wealthy has disattended to and people who have no land would set up houses and try to negotiate their way in creating a neighborhood that could be legitimately long-term and set up. Puntarenas has all around it what look like normal neighborhoods that are actually they grew out of these occupations... All over Latin America so the particular initiative was in these areas to ... there was a lot of unemployment, there was a lot of delinquency, drug issues, social conflict and so with the ministry of education and justice and some international organization support, a couple of us were involved with being facilitators of a small group that would try to develop strategies of constructive response to the internal conflicts that were often accompanying these areas. It was youth - it went from about ages 14, 16 all the way up to grandparents. So it was a real diverse community of people and we used a very participatory methodology: who we are, what we do, what are our goals, what do we understand and then exercises to get us... it was a very formative kind of thing for me. The writing that came later about the elicitive approach to conflict had some roots in that. But I'm eventually coming to a point here, Julian, one of the things that consistently happened in that group, is that when we sat and talked about specific instances of conflict and what to do about them and the places they were... I mean we would work with things that were live in the communities at the time, we would sit and strategize. I began to notice in very concrete ways how different the mindset was of sitting with this group of people and what I had been sort of trained to think in in reference of my formal training in the academic world in peace studies, or more specifically in mediation. When you would say, we have this problem going here with this set of people and this set of people, what's our approach? What should we do? Among the very first things that would happen was... the immediate fallback was the relationships and the networks and I've explored a lot with the metaphors that accompany that of why conflict for example, one of the common words is ???, a kind of tangled net and the net is precisely where people go when they're in a conflict. And one of the terms I heard real consistently there was to get into the conflict, I'm translating now, to get into the conflict you have to get into the person. [Repeats in Spanish]. But to get to the person you had to know who were other people, and the term they use was one I had never heard, for example, in Spain, was la persona ???. Ajegar??? in Spanish, the word basically means a person who is like a door or entry point, someone who is very close to it - right next to, very close to. And what you look for, in Costa Rica they use the word Papas???. Who has the papas???, who has the feet that can carry you from one world to another and to do that you have to be able to locate the entry points into that person, into that community, and so looking for someone who is very close to and trusted. You're actually doing it in a way that thinks about it on both sides. And if you can locate a single person who has it, then you got it. But often it's about finding some combination of people that kind of create the entry points. So what was curious of course was in their minds, who matters more than what. The who comes first, then you figure out the what. But if you just sit around and try to figure out the great negotiated solution to the problem, and you don't have your who's lined up - forget it. Anyway, so this is the backdrop of what then became a very intense experience of working with a conciliation team in Nicaragua between the Miskito Indians and the Nicaraguan government that came out of the fact that I had done my early training in Nicaragua with Moravian leadership that was from the East Coast of Nicaragua and with an organization that was called Separ???, which was a development organization of the Protestant Churches of Nicaragua located in different places. One the Moravians much more on the East Coast and Separ??? having its headquarters in Managua and working across the country. The conciliation team was, people have obviously read this from other articles I've written, but the conciliation team was people from these two organizations who as individuals especially kind of represented by the heads of the organizations which was Dr. Gustavo ??? on one side from Separ??? in Managua and Andy Showgreen who was the superintendent of the Moravian church but was Miskito-Creole from the East Coast of Nicaragua on the other; they combined in effort to create access points to both the Miskito-East Coast resistance essentially -- Yatama ??? was the formal organizational name at the time -- and the Sandinista government and as I started reflecting back, I could see the micro- and macro-level processes all using a similar kind of, what I consider to be, some very culturally-embedded understandings of this process. So I started writing, I wrote this into my dissertation that Paul was the chair of, then he and I combined on a couple of articles that followed that in which we coined, for the purposes of kind of looking at it theoretically that you could distinguish a kind of a spectrum of possibilities in which the North American mediation model and its normal presentation advocated very much a kind of an outsideness in order to create fairness. And that outsideness used different terminology from neutrality to impartiality to equidistance. But its always a kind of, you come from the outside and you will be fair because you're not connected. You don't have opinions, you won't have agenda that leans one way or another. You don't have inappropriate connections to one side or another, and all of that adds up to a way that you can trust the process. On the Central American side in Puntarenas, the starting point was the exact opposite. Which then I saw again happening at the level of this macro-mediation effort. And that was that partiality was not necessarily an obstacle; it can be an enormous resource because partiality means you've got tremendous connection. The question is, how do you translate partiality into something that's constructive. And what typically would happen would be it creates some forms of combined bridging, that it, somebody ???(Spanish) close to this side and close to this side finds a way to create the linkages that is able to move these things forward and the characteristics are, actually, connection to - closeness to - deep trust and understanding. In the case of Miskito-Sandinista thing there are some very significant cultural components that accompany the difference between the indigenous worldview and understanding and one that came from a sort of national government that was Latino. People who are close to one side or the other have understandings of why it is that people see things this way. Why is it that that's a sensitive thing? But it requires the creation of a different sort of a space that we refer to in this writing... in the early part of the dissertation, the notion of insider-partials that link-up. That hook in ways that provide different kinds of spaces. I began to see it in a lot of places I was working. In a lot of the traditional societies, but even in the non-traditional ones, there's a lot more of this going on than meets the eye. We tend to give it a nice overlay of outside neutral impartial sorts of things but when you look really close, the real ways that things happen in the real world are often far more nuanced than are captured by those terms. So it was for me a very formative period. In large part because I became deeply convinced about how culturally formed many of the models are that we propose as universal. That was one of the big things that came out of that Central America experience for me in reference to the academic work that I pushed on in those early years.
Q: The reaction from someone who comes from that acculturated model of outsideness is ok but how do you guarantee fairness if these people are partial? If they're insiders?
A: Well the discussions that we've pushed in some of the writing and in a lot of the concrete things is that no matter where you fall in a spectrum of these things -- and you can actually see it as a spectrum of different kinds of options you continually construct and find the best way forward in a given situation, from outside to inside -- is that everyone of them comes filled with their sets of challenges. So the challenges, I believe, of the outside neutral-impartial model is not only how do you gain access, but how do you know you've actually touched the deeper meaning structure of what's going on? Because you often see it in ways you attach meaning that may not be the ones that are really there. And your "trust" is often a trust that has a thin veneer to it. We trust this outside thing as long as it appears to be somewhat beneficial for where we're headed. But it's often in reference to our relationship exclusively at the level of sort of professional connection we have for the work that I'm doing. So our relationship won't really go on beyond me providing the service to you. That's kind of a curious understanding of trust, from a lot of people's view. It's trust in order to accomplish a particular service that's being provided. So what comes with the challenges on that side is numerous things, but among them a question of sustainability. You are, in essence, in and out of the lives of people. So how do you know what you've done may have moved things a certain way, how does this look across five or ten years? ...(interruption)... The challenges on the other side is that you're embedded; you're hooked. So what you have happening is what's on your doorstep everyday. So it can be overwhelming in terms of the amount of request and demand that's put on you, but it's also true that you walk an extraordinary fine line in reference to the polarization that exists in society. That polarization has a tendency to pull you to one side or another, push you to join, rather than to bridge. So how do you sustain? And in settings where there is violence, how do you sustain a space in keeping close to .. I'm hooked to this family, I'm a member of it. But I'm bridging across to the enemy who's in my same society. In the Nicaraguan case you can see it so clearly cause there's so many of these kinds of these relationships that exist, but it's extraordinarily dangerous. So there is an element of danger, there is an element of how much can you actually handle because the burnout factor can be significant, and at any point in time, the pressures of the polarization can accuse your partiality of having turned from a resource into an obstacle. That is, "we thought you were a good person, but now we know you're not." What I would argue, is that no matter where you fall, one end or the other, you going to have to face a variety of challenges. And I don't think that the challenges of the outside-neutral-impartial thing are any less or greater or have a higher value than the other thing. In fact I think the other one has some very interesting long-term contributions to make, cause I believe it's from there that infrastructure emerges for sustaining long-term change. But the literature, essentially, of the academic world, because it's emergent mostly in the US and Europe, especially in the practice formulation of this, places a much greater emphasis on sort of the notions of the professional side which give a higher value base than the others. So I've always been an advocate of trying to get a little balance there.