Director, Partners for Democratic Change
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 ???).
A lot of Americans don't know their neighbors anymore. So the first time to see your neighbor, to make a complaint for a lot of people is very, very uncomfortable. So you're looking for a third party. Now if you go to the same church you might use a priest or a minister or a rabbi. In more cohesive communities you would find a third party. In San Francisco, maybe 20-30 years ago, if you were Chinese you'd go to the Chinese Family Association. It's very interesting if you look at court records from the turn of the century into the 1900s and throughout the 20th century and earlier, you don't see Chinese or Japanese in American courts in San Francisco. You just don't see them. And the reason you don't see them is not because they don't have disputes. Obviously they have disputes. They just used mechanisms that were culturally normative-value based; they used the Chinese Family Association, Japanese Community Association.
In other words, they took their disputes because they had a homogeneous community. The only time you really see it is when one of the parties is not Chinese, and generally somebody's brought a Chinese to court, not the other way around, a fairly foreign mechanism. So you start looking at urban areas with highly diverse cultural groups, more likely than not the cultural groups will be living close to one another. They will create their own mechanisms for dispute management. If you look at it closely, generally it's a third party -something- family associations, respected elders, and bankers. Some person or group that the two parties will appear before, talk, or who will use shuttle diplomacy, do some mediating between, or who's legitimate. This is very, very common.
It's when these mechanisms break down that we have a big gap between the institutional structure and everything else. So you need to create, really and truly, some mechanism in front of the institutional structure. The other thing too that hasn't been explored well in this country, and is deserving to be explored, is that not only is formal justice after the fact is the most violent, in the sense that violence obviously takes place before you enter it, but so are social services after the fact.
So all social services in the United States, for the most part, come through deviant channels. You can't get social services unless you're on probation or you've gone through a court system and you've been ordered to do psychiatric care, social something, you're a deviant through school systems because you didn't show up in school. You know, your parents abandoned you and you're a welfare recipient and you're getting something. In other words, unless you come through a deviancy channel, it's very hard to get social services in the United States. Only the worst cases are the ones who get the services, so there's very little service orientation for prevention and early intervention.
One of the reasons the system is so bloody expensive is that we get people very, very late who are in the most dire straits. If you put social services next to early intervention/prevention programs, or you say to the Chinese Family Association, "Hey, have you got a kid who's on dope, and needs to get cleaned up, or have you got someone on heroin or alcohol?" You don't have to make a record. You can openly refer them and the state will pay for it. That is closer to California's new policies. Now you're talking about resuscitating civic life because then people have another reason to create these systems because you can see quickly who's in need of help. It would be voluntary and it wouldn't be state mandated, but not everybody needs to be state mandated. It would use more peer and social pressure than it would use institutional pressure - record-keeping and all that. It isn't a panacea and it isn't something for everybody, but for early intervention/prevention, it would pick up a lot of people and situations early on, as opposed to waiting as we do so late. So there's another whole dimension to this that's worth certainly exploring. Next the Community Boards received Ford Foundation grants, and we did what we called Planning and Development Institutes around the United States. We were training people in the Planning and Development Institutes how to create a community board or a school-based mediation program. The school board program is everywhere. It's just literally everywhere. It's probably most successful beyond the neighborhood program. It's international. I think we've totally lost count of where this program shows up these days. It's taken on a huge life of its own. It has definitely gone global. It's a recognition of the importance of training young people and educating young people how to listen, how to communicate, how to negotiate, how not to be afraid of a conflict.
These are skills that you have to teach, and they have to be learned skills. It is not the case that just because you grow up and you're an adult you have them.
Everybody has ears, but very, very few people really listen. You have to train people to listen. I think the earlier we do it at schools, the more likely that we're going to have people who can talk and communicate with one another and not feel so frightened about it and have ways and skills to do it. The school program is probably one of the great successes of Community Boards. Everyone has really been pushing the school program, and everybody's been very proud of it. I think now it's something that's taken for granted, when in the early days when this was all like putting on scenes on granite, but it's not any longer as obvious today.