Civil Society

Ray Schonholtz

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 ???).

People in neighborhoods, we found, were attracted to the idea of being trained to help neighbors resolve disputes. Probably the most interesting thing was that people who had disputes would come to a panel. That was, of course, the key of the whole process, would people who had disputes come to a panel? And if so, why would they come? What would motivate them? It turns out people will come to panels, as we now know, and they come for a whole set of different reasons. Middle class people come when they have juvenile issues because they don't want records on their kids. The middle-class professional people are very sensitive about that. People in different communities and barrios are very sensitive about police, so they're motivated to find more social orientation.

Hispanic communities, generally, and Asian communities have a very strong interest in social processes over institutional processes. By that I mean they have more interest in seeing social and peer pressure, and social and normative values being applied, than institutional pressure and law enforcement being applied. So, although the program started with a youth orientation, it quickly became clear that there was no reason to limit it to that. So if adults had a dispute, or neighbors had a dispute, or merchants had a dispute with consumers and vice versa, there was no reason not to take the case. Quickly the panels, neighborhood boards became open to anybody who wanted to voluntarily step forward with a dispute.


In a democratic society I think what you're looking to do all the time is create mechanisms for the management of conflict and disputes. What you want to do is transform every conflict that has the potential to be violent into a dispute-management system that gives people an opportunity to communicate, a venue for the expression of differences. In that context, citizens in a democratic society are as safe as they possibly can be and the social structures are as constructive towards the management of differences as possible. Democratic society creates lots of conflicts, and you need to create management systems for those conflicts and make them legitimate disputes then citizens in a democratic society are definitely in danger.

We know this from looking at labor issues in the United States. We have a terribly violent labor history in this country. Now there are really and truly no labor conflicts. There are labor disputes, but you're expected to manage them through collective bargaining processes, negotiation processes, contract processes. You can't just willy-nilly strike in this country. You're going to have to go through a whole process. That's because we've taken the violence out of it and we've transformed issues that could otherwise be conflictual into disputes that can be managed in a recognized manner.

If you go out of those systems you'll be arrested and the state will appear. Otherwise the state doesn't appear at all. So what we want to do in institutional structures in democratic societies is to create as many venues and pathways that legitimate concerns that people have. We ought to say there's nothing wrong with a conflict, as long as it's peacefully expressed and peacefully resolved, and it's managed through dispute settlement mechanisms.

If one doesn't exist, it's the obligation of citizens and democratic governments to create those mechanisms. I think that's a democratic obligation. Community Boards is a vehicle and models like it at the neighborhood level of just creating venues and forums for the early expression and management of differences. It doesn't mean and it doesn't require state authority to do it. And I think we should do more of them. We should have them in schools, we should have them at churches and synagogues and mosques, and we ought to promote the civic nature of dispute management, make it a civic function, not an institutional function exclusively.