Summary of "Community Dispute Resolution, Empowerment and Social Justice: The Origins, History and Future of a Movement"

Summary of

Community Dispute Resolution, Empowerment and Social Justice: The Origins, History and Future of a Movement

By Paul Wahrhaftig

Summary written by Brett Reeder, Conflict Research Consortium

Citation: Wahrhaftig, Paul. Community Dispute Resolution, Empowerment and Social Justice: The Origins, History and Future of a Movement. Washington, DC: NAFCM Press, 2004.

From Paul Wahrhaftig's perspective, conflict resolution is "more than a profession, it is a social movement." Community Dispute Resolution, Empowerment and Social Justice traces the history and development of this "movement" through the eyes of the author, who recounts his own experiences and offers his insights along the way. In doing so, Wahrhaftig hopes to provide a historical context from which to understand the origins of Community Dispute Resolution (CDR) and to stimulate "creative thought" on how to better implement the potential for social change he sees in the CDR "movement."

The book begins by recalling the historical context in which CDR was developed. This includes the late '60s and early '70s Civil Rights movement and the Anti-(Vietnam) War movement. In this social climate, a CDR movement developed which envisioned itself as a nexus for empowering communities and spreading a culture of peace. Key to this new "movement" was the concept that "when people develop, change, or modify any social programs, there will be an impact on society beyond its immediate scope." That is, CDR programs are thought to impact society in ways that extend well beyond resolving specific conflicts. Indeed, from Wahrhaftig's perspective, the "direct service" provided by CDR (conflict resolution) programs pales in comparison to the indirect impacts of the programs. Specifically, Wahrhaftig is interested in "community empowerment" resulting from CDR programs.

According to Wahrhaftig, empowerment amounts to obtaining the resources, knowledge, and confidence necessary to identify collective problems and then to do something about them. Wahrhaftig believes that this empowerment is an inevitable consequence of a successful CDR program. But who is empowered will vary depending on who "owns" or governs the program. A program, Wahrhaftig asserts, inevitably conforms to the values of its "owner," since the "owner" frames the structure of the program, determines the necessary qualifications of the mediators, controls necessary resources and so on. Thus, who "owns" the program is essential to understanding the nature of the program, as well as its impact on society.

The book identifies three "ownership" structures. First (and most common) is the Court System Model. An example of the Court System Model is the Night Prosecutor program of Columbus, OH. This program is run by the courts and is primarily concerned with resolving specific conflicts. It was created in an attempt to lower court case loads and save the taxpayers money. In this "ownership" structure, the court system or the state is seen as the body being empowered.

The second "ownership" structure is the Agency model. The 4A program in Rochester, NY is an example of an Agency program. In this model, the program is based outside of the court, in a pre-existing organization responsible for activities that extend beyond dispute resolution. This distinction has largely fallen out of use, and "ownership" structures that fall into this category are often now thought of as variations of the third ownership structure: the Community Model.

In the Community Model, "ownership" of the CDR program resides in the community which it serves. Thus, the community is thought to be empowered by taking an active role in resolving its own disputes. The first example of such a program is the Community Assistance Program in Chester, PA. In this and other community-based CDR programs, community members are thought to be empowered as they become more civically active and learn peacemaking and democratic skills. These skills and concepts are then thought to "infect" others in the community with the "peace virus," eventually empowering the entire community. That is, CDR programs change individuals by empowering them and institutions are thought to change as the individuals that comprise them change. Thus, Community-based CDR programs are thought to change institutions. This Community Empowerment is the basis for Wahrhaftig's claim that CDR programs comprise a social movement. It is these community-based CDR programs that Wahrhaftig is primarily interested in.

Unfortunately, there are various impediments to the implementation of such programs. These include finding an appropriate location to "house" the program, meeting the demands of the source of funding, co-option into the court system and inclusion of the whole community into the movement. The perils in constructing a truly inclusive movement are given special attention in this book. Wahrhatig discusses the difficulties he encountered battling institutional racism as chairman of the National Conference on Peacemaking and Conflict Resolution (NCPCR). Further, once minority populations were "integrated" (began to participate) in NCPCR, he encountered difficulties of "inclusion" (full participation including leadership positions). In order for CDR movements to truly be community-based, and to thus empower the community, they must include the entire community. A community program is "owned" by the members of the community included, and when certain populations (usually minorities) are not fully included, the program is community-based in name only. Indeed, full community inclusion is one of the basic principles of mediation according to this book.

While a full list is not given, that people can play a major role in solving their own problems and that democratic principles are desirable for a healthy society are also given as "basic principles" of mediation. These principles are seen as common to all successful community-based CDR programs, but the specific techniques used to implement these principles will vary between cultures, as different cultures have different norms regarding conflict resolution. The American empowerment model doesn't work everywhere in every culture. For example, Wahrhaftig points out that Canadians tend to be more trusting of the courts, resulting in programs more closely linked to the court system than their American counterparts.

Despite these differences, according to Wahrhaftig, community-based CDR programs can be the nexus for social change all around the globe as long as they share the basic principles of mediation, tailor their techniques to the specific culture they are attempting to serve, and are persistent enough to overcome the various impediments along the way. It is his hope that Community Dispute Resolution, Empowerment and Social Justice provides the necessary historical background for future generations to creatively pursue his vision of CDR programs as mechanisms for social change.