Beyond Intractability
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Power Dominant Relationships
Nancy Ferrell
Former CRS Mediator, Dallas Office; Private Mediator and Trainer
Interviewed by
Julian Portilla
2003
 

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A: I have seen minority communities sometimes still pressed, even though the power brokers have stopped pressing. Legally the organization or the power broker or the establishment has done legally what they're required to do, but the minority hasn't recognized that the door is open. So they stay in the room, and they stay bound by the past. Even though we've taken the lock off the outside of the door, we're certainly not going to open it for you. Do you see what I'm saying?

Q: Yeah. Elaborate for me, the restraints have come off, but the door is still closed, we're not going to open it for you, so what does that mean?

A: That means I'm still oppressed by the past, even though the oppressor has walked away. And in families, in these abuse situations, sometimes I don't even have to abuse you anymore. Just the potential of that keeps me in line, or in the relationship for fear of leaving him.

Q: That's a fairly provocative idea. Are you saying that the minority or the low-power party in that situation needs to take responsibility for getting themselves out of the room, or are you saying that the overall structure is still such that it's very difficult for them to get out of the room?

A: It could be either. It could be both. That's what affirmative action was about, is opening the door. The power structure or the establishment's first response was, abide by the letter of the law. We took the lock off. We're not opening the door. But then the society said that's not enough. We've got to open the door. The establishment's not necessarily going to, but the society will. The society will open the door with these affirmative action kind of efforts. And people began to see the path out and move out. So it's both. You're still going to have to have some impetus on the ones who've been oppressed to walk through the door. Now it's open, now there's some assistance and there's some path finding efforts for you, but you still have to open that door.

What role does the mediator play, either in the civil rights scenario or in the family mediation scenario, to either provide that impetus for the low-power party to step out of the room or to convince the high-power party to go further and open the door?

A: I think that the mediator's role is to say to the high power person, what's it costing you to hold on to this position, and what are some benefits of you doing differently, of you assisting or providing assistance or facilitating a change? And they have to see some benefit and it could be economic benefit, it could be emotional benefit. In a family it could be the benefit of not having the struggle, making sure your children are taking care of. In society it could be the economic cost of maintaining a system or society where some people are not producing at optimal benefit. The cost of how you're community is perceived.

On the other side of the low power, at least in this context the low power person, what can you do to take on some personal responsibility? Even if the path is shown to you, you've still got to be willing to take a step, and are you ready, are you prepared, are you willing to do that? One of the things we asked in the civil rights mediation was always, are you ready to accept your responsibility? If we set up a system of redress for you, you have to be willing to sit on the board for redress. You've got to be willing to show up to the meetings. You've got to be willing to participate in the process. A frustrating situation I dealt with in Oklahoma was where Native Americans in a small community believed that the police department was especially abusive with Native Americans. In that particular community that police chief was an elected official and Native Americans were predominate in that community.

Q: So you said...?

A: Vote him out. Take responsibility. And what would that look like? How do you organize yourself to the point where you say we have the power here. We do have the power. We just haven't been exercising it.

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