Newsletter 138 - Thursday July 20, 2023
by Heidi Burgess and Bill Froehlich
New Civil Rights Mediation Oral Histories Now Available!
We are delighted to announce and share our work revisiting and updating the twenty-five-year old Civil Rights Mediation Oral History Project. The original project, which was undertaken in the early 2000s by Heidi and Guy Burgess and former CRS Regional Director, Richard Salem, sought to preserve, for future generations, the insights and experiences of civil rights mediators from the US Department of Justice Community Relations Service (CRS).
CRS was established under Title X of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, "to provide assistance to communities...in resolving (the) disputes, disagreements or difficulties relating to discriminatory practices based on race, color or national origin...." that would inevitably arise under that landmark legislation. Some Congressional supporters of the Act thought CRS would be able to head-off the violent conflicts that were occurring as a result of civil rights protests. Others saw CRS as a potential voice of reason in tumultuous disputes. And others wanted CRS to serve as a buffer between disputing parties and the courts. In the almost 60 years since the Civil Rights Act, CRS mediators and conciliators have responded to thousands of volatile civil rights disputes, including virtually every major racial and ethnic conflict in the USA that that has surfaced during that period. In 2009, with the passage of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, CRS's jurisdiction was widened to include "real or perceived race, color, national origin, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, religion, and disability."1
The original Civil Rights Mediation Oral History Project website is still freely available and is fully functional, although it is still using the Web technology available when it was made in the early 2000s. It is soon to be updated however, as part of round two of the Civil Rights Oral History Project.
We (Heidi and Guy) have been working for the past two years with Grande Lum, former Director of CRS, and Bill Froehlich, Deputy Director of the Divided Community Project, to supplement the oral histories collected 25 years ago with ones collected recently. Six new oral histories – from CRS mediators Patricia Glenn, Timothy Johnson, Miguel Hernandez, P. Diane Schneider, Ken Bergeron, and James Davis – are now publicly available at https://www.youtube.com/@
Genesis – The First Civil Rights Mediation Oral History Project
In 1998, Dick Salem, a former Midwest Regional Director of the Community Relations Service, came to Guy and Heidi, asking if we could help archive some CRS history that he feared was getting lost. CRS was downsizing at the time and was clearing out offices, planning to throw away boxes and boxes of documents. We were running CRInfo.org—the Conflict Resolution Information Source—at the time, which was widely seen as a significant clearinghouse for conflict resolution information.2 We told Dick that we didn't have the space, ourselves, to save the documents, and probably wouldn't be granted authority to do so either. But, together, we came up with the idea of interviewing many of the early CRS mediators to get them to tell us stories about their most interesting and challenging cases, and the lessons they learned from those and other cases that they thought were worth preserving and handing down to later generations of civil rights mediators, both within the agency and beyond.
At the time, we (Heidi and Guy) were particularly intrigued with this idea because we had long been telling people that intractable conflicts were generally not mediatable, and that racial conflicts were intractable. So, therefore, racial conflicts, we said, we not resolvable through mediation. Yet here was an agency that mediated civil rights conflicts all the time, and claimed success in doing so. So "where is the disconnect?" we wondered.
That is not a simple question to answer. Some of it has to do with scale and time frame. Particular incidents were defused, relationships and understandings were improved, but clearly racial tensions, either within particular communities, or more broadly, did not go away. So, using John Burton's useful distinction between disputes (which are short term and negotiable) and conflicts (which are long-term, deep-rooted, and often non-negotiable), we realized that CRS was successfully mediating the disputes, even though the underlying conflicts persisted. We also realized that, while they were unable to resolve the larger conflict, they were often able to broker large numbers of agreements that dramatically improved the way in which civil rights conflicts were handled going forward in the communities in which they worked.
In the first round of interviews (done between 1999 and 2002) we talked to nineteen former (and one acting) conciliators and regional directors. We typically did two hours per interview and three interviews per person, so six hours overall, learning the details about some of their more interesting and challenging cases (such as Silke Hansen's work in L.A. after the Rodney King beating, Ozell Sutton's work in Memphis before, during, and after Martin Luther King was assassinated, and Dick Salem's work at Wounded Knee, among many others.) We learned how CRS typically dealt with the intense disputes that arose when police shootings (or other actions) were widely seen as excessive and unjustified. We also learned about how they help communities more constructively handle a wide range of other racially charged disputes including, for example, those that arose in schools regarding the treatment of racial minorities.
So, we were delighted when former CRS director Grande Lum contacted us a few years ago, asking whether we would be interested in re-visiting our original project and updating it with new interviews. Working this time with Bill Froehlich, we have completed eleven interviews so far. Six of these are currently available on YouTube, four more will be coming soon, and the last will likely be available in early fall. Also by early fall, we plan to integrate all of the new the material into the original project's website: https://www.
In addition to the video interviews, we are now working to publish edited transcripts, and coded transcripts segments on particular topics.(The original CRS project included complete transcripts and collated segments on particular topics, but no audio or video recordings).
Value for Teachers
For individuals teaching mediation, dispute resolution, conflict resolution, or peace studies, the oral histories of these civil rights peacemakers illuminate valuable concepts. For example:
- You might use Wallace Warfield’s transcript as a point of entry for discussing neutrality in civil rights mediation and as a lens on mediation theory.
- You might use James Davis’s discussion of CRS’s role during a hostage crisis as a lesson for how dispute resolution skills add value outside of a traditional mediation session.
- You might use Kenith Bergeron’s discussion of his work with indigenous communities. He contrasts distinctions between mediations with Black and Hispanic communities and discusses nuances of working with indigenous communities.
- You might use Rosa Melendez’s discussion of a mediation between Seattle law enforcement and indigenous community members after the police-involved shooting of an indigenous, deaf, wood carver as an example of applied cultural humility and the value of preparation [this oral history will be posted shortly!].
- You might use the oral histories as a companion to Grande’s book America’s Peacemakers. For example, Thomas Battles [in an oral history that will be posted shortly!] discusses his work in Sanford and with Elian Gonzales’ family.
Value for Researchers
If you are engaged in research connected to community-focused civil rights mediation, community civil rights conflicts, or conflict resolution more generally, you might find the interviews to be a valuable source of information and data. Edited, searchable transcripts of the original 19 interviews are available now, as are collections of interview segments devoted to more than 200 particular topics (such as conflict assessment, building trust, mitigating tension, power disparities, neutrality, measuring success, and more). Once we have the completed transcripts of the new interviews (in the next few weeks), we will be adding those to the updated site, and adding the coded sections to the compiled topical segments, enabling researchers to examine what has changed over the last 25 years. Also, for the new interviews, we asked respondents to reflect on whether the nature or challenges of policing (and education) have changed over the years and how/if that has affected CRS's work. We also asked whether the current political polarization has had an impact on their work. But otherwise, we tried to keep the interview questions largely the same in the second round, facilitating then-and-now comparisons.
Value for Students and Practitioners
Long ago, when Guy and I were first starting out in our conflict resolution careers, we very much appreciated the opportunity to just "hang out" and listen to the stories of the experts who went before us. We imagined how great it would be if we could convene an actual or "virtual dinner party" where "old timers" could get together with conflict resolution students and new practitioners and just share some of their vast knowledge and experience. This was the image we had when we put together the original CRS Oral History Project, although our questions were more structured than they would likely have been at a dinner party. (We first asked conciliators to talk us through some "typical cases" step by step, explaining the challenges and hurdles and how they dealt with each of therm. We followed those specific case histories with overarching questions such as how they dealt with the media, how they measured success, how they knew when was time to exit, etc.) Regardless of what you are studying, whether it be conflict resolution theory, practice, history, civil rights, policing, these interviews are fascinating! We strongly encourage our readers to read or watch one and see what you think. Though they are long, they are well worth the time and effort.
More "Virtual Dinner Party" Interviews
A few years later, we undertook a related effort, when we asked a recent Carter School graduate3, Julian Portilla, to interview some of the leading conflict resolution scholars and practitioners at the time—coaxing them to tell stories about the most meaningful aspects of their work. Like the original CRS interviews, these 100+ interviews (including audio and transcripts) continue to be available on Beyond Intractability. and they are broken out into roughly 850 interview segments each addressing specific topics.
All together this material provides a wealth of history about conflict challenges (domestic and international, identity-group focused or not) and the key learnings of the conflict resolution field over the last 25 years. The addition of the new CRS interviews is an important addition to this collection.
1"America's Peacemaker: DOJ's Community Relations Service is a Resource for Community Engagement and Conflict Resolution" U.S. DOJ Dispatch. April 2023. 16:4. https://cops.usdoj.gov/html/dispatch/04-2023/doj_community_relations.html
2CRInfo has since been integrated into Beyond Intractability.
3 When Julian was there, it was the Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution at George Mason University, it was not yet the Carter School.
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