Massively Parallel Peace and Democracy Building Roles - Part 2



Newsletter #226 — April 9, 2024



Update on the MPP Roles - Focusing on Actors

by Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess

This is the second part of a three-part series of newsletters exploring the various massively parallel peace and democracy building roles. This series offers a more detailed overview of the many individuals and organizations who are making important contributions to the massively parallel societal effort to limit destructive hyper-polarization and strengthen democracy.  This series builds on the overall framework outlined in Newsletter 179 (December 3, 2023) and the two accompanying videos, (Introduction and Roles). 

In the first, March 26, 2024 newsletter in this series, we explained that massively parallel problem-solving is the way in which complex societal systems learn. It is not merely a description of some new strategy that we think everybody should follow. It is our name for a strategy that people, out of their own sense of civic responsibility (as well as their own self interest), are already pursuing. As we further explained, it is a division of labor-based strategy in which large numbers of people and organizations undertake a variety of specialized roles and tasks that, together, are making it possible for society to effectively respond to the enormity of today's big challenges.

In the last newsletter, we also explained why we find it useful to distinguish between the "strategists" who help us all understand what needs to be done and the "actors" who actually do those things. The earlier newsletter outlined the many different types of strategists and offered a few examples of the kinds of contributions that these individuals and organizations are making. In this newsletter, we turn our attention to the many different kinds of conflict actors who are working to implement the suggestions offered by the strategists.  

Fuzzy Lines

As we do this, we want to make clear that the line between strategists and actors (as well as the lines between the various different roles) are quite fuzzy. Actors tend, based on their extensive real-world experience, to have quite sophisticated images of the nature of the problem and the things that need to be done without consulting strategists. In other words, many actors are also making important contributions as strategists themselves. The boundaries between actor roles are also quite permeable with many actors filling more than one role. Still, It is important to remember that nobody can do it all. Our problems are so big and so complex that they can only be successfully addressed is through a massive division of labor-based approach.

There is also a tendency for pro-democracy efforts to focus attention and action on some roles while largely neglecting others. Correcting this imbalance is one obvious way of increasing the effectiveness of overall efforts to strengthen democracy. So, we urge people to look for areas where not enough is being done and consider focusing your attention there.

With that as an introduction, let's look more deeply at the first four clusters of actor roles:

  • Visionaries — who help us imagine a society in which we would all like to live (and be willing to work to help create),
  • Peacemakers — who help us reverse escalation and polarization dynamics, stop and prevent future violence, and cultivate mutual trust,
  • Constructive Communicators — who help us replace evil stereotypes and enemy images with genuine understanding, and

In the next and last newsletter in this series we will look at the final three categories of actor roles:

  • Issue Analysts — who help us understand the specifics of a particular complex problem and evaluate possible solutions.
  • Collaborative Problem Solvers —  who help us identify and pursue mutually beneficial ways of dealing with her problems,
  • Power Balancers —  who enable us to wisely and equitably make tough decisions in cases where mutually acceptable solutions aren't achievable,
  • Defenders — who help us effectively oppose those who seek to inflame our differences and undermine democracy.

While we have highlighted a number of individuals and organizations working in each role, it is important to remember that these examples are just the tip of the iceberg. There is much, much more going on. So, if your activity or organization, is not included, we apologize. We simply ran out of space and time. That said, we would appreciate hearing about other projects and activities that should be included in this list. We are in the process of building a much more exhaustive listing of ongoing activities associated with each role which we will be highlighting on a new section of Beyond Intractability.


Visionaries help us imagine a unifying vision for a diverse society that maximizes self-determination while promoting joint action to protect the commons. One of our favorite visionaries is Ebrahim Rasool, a former South African ambassador to the United States, who gave an amazing talkat the Alliance for Peacebuilding's PeaceCon2020 in which he reflected on the way South Africa emerged from Apartheid and what that might suggest about how the United States might best approach race relations.  Rasool named seven steps that South Africa went through to reach the level of reconciliation that it has (which he admits is far from perfect, but it is way better than the bloodbath the world was expecting).  First, he said, you have to understand that "the other is here to stay." They are not going to disappear.  So you are going to have to co-exist with "the other." Second, he advised, "start with the end." Define your ultimate vision for your society. It must be one that has a place for "the other."  For example, he explained, "The ANC vision was that South Africa belongs to everyone who lives there, Black and White. That not only was that a statement of vision, it was an extension of friendship.  It was an act of generosity."  That vision and the acceptance of "the other" in that vision, is what enabled South Africa to make all the further steps that it did toward reconciliation, including the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

We often wonder — what would happen if most of Americans agreed that "America belongs to all who live here" and start trying to figure out how to make that work? Rasool's approach highlighted the importance of developing both a prospective and a retrospective vision.  The prospective vision tries to imagine how very different communities (often with deeply troubled pasts) can learn to peacefully coexist with one another despite deep and continuing differences. The retrospective vision tries to imagine how these societies can constructively come to terms with the wrongs and injustices of that past — wrongs that are, in many important respects, unrightable. The coexister role outlined below focuses on cultivating a prospective vision while the healer focuses on the retrospective

  • Coexisters articulate a forward-looking democratic vision based on constructive competition balanced with a pluralistic spirit of tolerance and mutual respect.  As we described above, the South Africans who followed Rasool's seven steps were coexisters. Examples of people doing this work include Mari Fitzduff who recognized the critical importance of this aspect of peacebuilding when she chose to call her new program at Brandeis University, the Coexistence Initiative2; the New Pluralists, the Liberal Patriot, and John Inazu. All of these people and programs are trying to imagine a society in which disparate groups can live together in peace.  The Aspen Institute and Civity are trying to cultivate an overarching American identity that can bind the country together despite its still unresolved inequities and rapidly changing demographics. The United Nations also updated its Agenda for Peace — the document that coined the word "peacebuilding." Francis Fukuyama highlights the advantages of liberal democracy's strategy for allowing people to live together in peace and freedom, explaining why it is better than the alternatives called for by democracy's critics. Suzette Brooks Masters is telling us why it is important to look at democracy's successes as well as its shortcomings. Still others are looking at the humanistic beliefs upon which coexistence is based and the ultimate test of any system of governance — its ability to produce human happiness.
  • Healers help people come to terms with the profound wrongs of the past in ways that lay the groundwork for a more attractive future. Examples include people who establish and run Truth and Reconciliation Commissions, psychologists and other peace workers who do trauma healing (for instance see Agnieszka Alboszta's article about the Trauma-Informed Peacebuilding being undertaken by Mediators Beyond Borders, International and the several articles in BI that look at the way narratives and story-telling can be used to heal past trauma: see this, this, and this. The Foundation Against Intolerance and Racism and Coleman Hughes are offering what they believe is a less divisive strategy for dealing with the United States' racist past. Network Weaver offers another strategy for "facing race" while the Canadian Friends Service Committee is helping to mobilize indigenous voices for reconciliation and Nigel Biggar is advocating for balanced look at history —one that merits occasions for both pride and shame.


Peacemakers help us diffuse our escalated and hyper-polarized politics by working to replace anger, hostility, us-vs-them demonization, and, sometimes, violence with a willingness to peacefully and constructively engage with the other side in ways that can lead to mutual understanding, joint fact-finding, and collaborative efforts to address common problems. We find it useful to divide peacemakers into three sub-categories: escalation educators, mediators and conciliators, and crisis responders.

  • Escalation Educators expose the dangers posed by conflict escalation and closely linked hyper-polarization, and help people in all walks of life learn the skills needed to avoid escalation and polarization in the first place, and if it is too late for that, reverse it and start to heal its wounds. Many organizations are warning about the dangers of escalation and hyper-polarization including (in addition to BI and this newsletter) the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the Brookings Institution, and the International Catalan Institute for Peace ICIP. Fortunately, many more are teaching the skills to prevent and reverse escalation and polarization. These include most conflict educators and most most bridge-builders, among others. Examples include: Citizen Connect which offers scores of videos on how to bring people together across political divides, More in Common which offers advice on how to build trust and limit animosities, and Rachel Kleinfeld who warns us about the possibility that overly alarmist and inflammatory rhetoric about the possibility of an imminent civil war may be counterproductive. 
  • Mediators and Conciliators help deeply-conflicted parties break down their polarization and escalation by helping them, often for the first time, really listen to and come to understand the concerns of the other side, and helping them reframe their conflict, so they no longer see it as the fault of the other side, but rather as a mutual problem that can be solved. Once parties begin to do that, they can begin to work together, if only in small steps, to identify areas of common ground, possible ways of solving mutual problems, and developing an increasing level of trust and mutual understanding.  Examples of mediators and conciliators who help parties do this include the conciliators of the Community Relations Service, and the mediators and facilitators of the Consensus-Building Institute, the Keystone Policy Center, and the Meridian Institute, all of which which have long worked with deeply divided parties over very intractable issues to come to agreements few would have thought possible. 
  • Crisis Responders act quickly to prevent or contain violent (or sometimes just especially hateful and destructive) confrontations.  Their focus may be on preventing eminent violence, bringing an end to ongoing violence, or preventing violence from reemerging (or all of the above.) They may focus on investigating and, where appropriate, correcting inflammatory rumors (such as those that commonly arise following police shootings).  As they do this, they also provide assurances that  incidents will be investigated and those responsible for wrongdoing will be held accountable.  Such efforts are much more effective if they are set up in advance, rather than in response to a specific crisis.  This is a role that the Community Relations Service (CRS) often plays. It also tries to recruit and train local people to play that role once the CRS leaves the scene. (The Civil Rights Oral History Project has transcripts of interviews with 20+ former CRS mediators, who explain in detail how they do this.) The Ohio State University's Divided Community Project does much of the same thing, and has free training materials for communities to download to help them plan in advance for effective crisis response.  (See BI's interview with DCP Director Bill Froehlich for more information on DCP and links to many of their free materials.) The Trust Network is also trying to recruit local conflict resolvers to be on the watch for brewing problems and to respond to them quickly before they escalate further.  Local organizations, such as the "Violence Interruptors" in Chicago (see the Frontline Documentary) can also do similar things with respect to smaller scale, criminal violence. Beyond this, organizations like the RAND Corporation and the wide array of governmental and NGO "PVE" (preventing violent extremism) projects are engaged in large-scale and longer-term efforts to understand and combat the kind of extremism that leads to violence.

Constructive Communicators

Constructive communicators help us develop more accurate images of the world in which we live and, especially, the actions and motivations of others. Given how big our societies are, we no longer can understand much about what is going on without relying on one of the various forms of mass communication to tell us what's happening in our communities, or states, nations, or the world. So those "communicators," in both traditional and social media, have enormous power to shape our images of what is true and what is false, what is good and what is evil, what we should think, say, and do, and what we shouldn't.  To the extent that those communicators give us false information, we are all the worse off.  And the pressures on communicators — on all sides — to do just that, to tell people what "their side" wants to hear, regardless of whether it is true or not, is tremendous. There are three broad strategies for combating this problem. One strategy concentrates on teaching people about the distorting effects of mass communication and offering them suggestions for using the media in ways that overcome these difficulties and yield more accurate and reliable information. A second approach focuses on creating opportunities for people to interact directly across political divides in constructive ways that break down inaccurate and hostile stereotypes. Finally, there are efforts to reform the various systems of mass communication in ways that help limit the above problems. These three strategies are, to varying degrees, being pursued by the eight groups of communicators listed below.

  • Bubble Busters help people see beyond the self-righteous, us-vs-them, good-vs-evil information bubbles in which so many of us now live. Examples include the journalists who show up on the top of Ad Fontes and/or AllSides media bias charts. For instance AllSides lists the BBC News, the Christian Science Monitor, Newsweek, Reuters, Real Clear Politics, The Hill, and the Wall Street Journal as being "center," while Ad Fontes lists the BBC, the Hill, and the Christian Science Monitor as slightly left leaning, and the Wall Street Journal as slightly right leaning. (The only truly center organizations they show are NewsNation and Straight Arrow News.) Either way, any of these organizations are likely closer to the center, and hence publishing more reliable news than the many, many organizations farther to the left and right that most of us rely on.  All Sides, itself, does a good job, not just of publishing "centrist" news, but by sending out a newsletter, and highlighting on their homepage stories written by people and organizations on both the left and the right, so readers can see for themselves how each side is viewing different contentious events. Other examples of efforts to take us out of our information bubbles include this New York Times article that asks readers to consider the possibility that they (not their political opponents) might actually be the bad guys or this article that tries to help progressives understand the appeal of Donald Trump. Other examples include this article that tries to help people understand how information bubbles distort our view of the world.
  • Communication Skill Builders focus on teaching people the skills that they need to communicate more effectively with their fellow citizens and, especially, help facilitate communication between people with differing views. Examples include Essential Partners' five steps for having illuminating conversations, Braver Angels  "E-Courses," Living Room Conversations  guide to talking about polarization, Divided We Fall's secrets of political conversation, the Horizon Project's guides to making sense of world events and narrative competency, and the Alliance for Peacebuilding's exploration of the mind sets that surround peacebuilding,
  • Bridge Builders facilitate direct human connections that cross political divides and dispel inaccurate and inflammatory stereotypes. This includes the many conflict resolution organizations that do dialogues, including, for example, members of the Bridge AllianceEssential Partners (which we profiled here), the Listen First Project, LivingRoom Conversations, Empathy Circle's empathy game, the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious UnderstandingFighting to Understand, which runs "Dinner and a Fight" which we profiled here,  We are also encouraged by Gov. Cox's Disagree Better campaign and the proposed new Building Civic Bridges Act.
  • Mass Communicators are journalists, artists, and opinion leaders who scale up bridge building activities in ways that reach vastly larger numbers of people. In addition to the Solutions Journalism Network. Other examples include Search for Common Ground with their efforts to teach journalists how to report from conflict zones and empower young radio journalists in addition to their pioneering use of radio soap operas to teach conflict resolution skills and bring deeply divided peoples back together, first in Rwanda and Burundi, and later all around the world. (This is a wonderful article about these programs.)  Digital Community Stewards take a different approach by training those who host online groups in strategies for limiting destructive conflict and building social cohesion. There are also charismatic leaders like Gandhi, King, and Mandela who have been able to use low-tech communication technologies to build large followings for campaigns that simultaneously pursue peace and justice. (Unfortunately, today's most popular and charismatic leaders seem to be taking a much more divisive approach to social advocacy — with the notable exception of the governors who have founded and expanded the Disagree Better Campaign.) Despite these efforts, it is clear that there is still a critical need for more projects that combine a sophisticated understanding of constructive conflict strategies with ability to effectively use today's powerful mass communication technologies. 
  • Free Speech Advocates defend the free flow of information between people with different perspectives and different sources of information. Examples of such organizations are FIRE (Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression. Other examples include the Institute for Free Speech and Free Speech for People.  In the past, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) was a vigorous defender of free speech, defending, for example, the right of white supremacists to march in Skokie, Illinois in 1978, and even in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2018. More recently, however, they have, as Lara Bazelon documents, become part of a larger movement supporting limits on such rights for people whose views are seen as politically unacceptable. There is now a major conflict between this movement and more traditional free speech advocates who are actively opposing restrictions being advanced from left as well as right-leaning perspectives. These advocates include, for example, those talking about how to build a culture of free speech and how to deal with the unwillingness of some people to tolerate political opponents.  
  • Convenors / Facilitators recognize that the real value of free speech comes from the exchange of views between those who see the world differently. Free, but homogeneous, speech spoken only within tightly constrained information bubbles is much less helpful (and often makes things worse rather than better). Fortunately, there are individuals and organizations who specialize in bringing together people with differing views and facilitating the kind of constructive exchanges that produce shared learning. Examples of the many activities in this area include the Difficult Dialogues National Resource Center's program for fostering such exchanges in higher education; BridgeUSA's efforts to do similar things at the high school as well as the college-level; the National Week of Conversation's open invitation to join in a wide array of guided, face-to-face conversations; International Storytelling Center's program for encouraging us to tell and exchange stories, and Living Room Conversation's set of do-it-yourself guides for convening productive exchanges.
  • Disinformation Fighters reduce the influence of deliberately deceptive and malicious disinformation and propaganda campaigns designed to inflame tensions while, at the same time, promoting the exchange of reliable information.  Both the U.S. government, and the E.U. (and probably many other governments as well) are trying to tackle online disinformation. In the US, however, these efforts have come under attack from Republican lawmakers and commentators like those at the Public newsletter who believe that these programs are coercing social media platforms into removing information critical of the Biden administration — and information that that the administration considers to be "offensive" or misleading. Others have reminded us that misinformation is being spread by the left, as well as the right. Still others try to educate users about how to spot disinformation. One example is Jay Kang's story about the very successful disinformation education programs that have been implemented in Finland and Estonia.  Organizations like Comparitech monitor censorship (and the disinformation that it is ideally trying to suppress) on a global scale while organizations like IPIE provide us with a systematic review of misinformation countermeasures.
  • Media Reformers focus on improving the many different types of communication media to in ways that will better promote civic life (at both local and national level) while resisting pressures to feature demonizing and divisive content.  For example, the Solutions Journalism Network has been working to demonstrate that less divisive, more solutions-oriented journalism is, in fact, financially viable. A More in Common study has demonstrated that Americans really do want more balanced news coverage.  ETH Center for Security Studies has been trying to figure out how large-scale, online dialogue can achieve the kind of transformative results that face-to-face dialogues can produce. Yair Rosenberg as showed us how we can use social media without being used by the social media companies.  Kate Klonick has documented the potential of media oversight boards. And, the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism produced a major study outlining steps that the media could take to earn the public's trust.
  • Conflict Educators and Trainers help speed the flow of information on more constructive ways of handling conflict that show people that there are better ways of preventing and solving conflict than fighting (sometimes violently) about it.  Examples include all of the elementary, secondary, and college-level conflict resolution teaching programs (such as peer mediation at the elementary and secondary schools which are documented by the Conflict Resolution Education Connection. Beyond this, there are certificate and degree programs in peace and conflict resolution at many colleges and universities around the world. There are also programs like Educating for American Democracy and the National Civic League that try to strengthen such efforts. Finally, there are the  many NGOs (far too numerous to list) that offer conflict resolution training to businesses, government agencies, and other organizations (such as churches and schools) to help them better deal with their internal and/or client conflicts.

In the next and final newsletter in this series we will look at the last three categories of actor roles:

  • Issue Analysts — who help us understand the specifics of a particular complex problem and evaluate possible solutions.
  • Collaborative Problem Solvers —  who help us identify and pursue mutually beneficial ways of dealing with problems,
  • Power Balancers —  who enable us to wisely and equitably make tough decisions in cases where mutually acceptable solutions aren't achievable,
  • Defenders — who help us effectively oppose those who seek to inflame our differences and undermine democracy.


Rasool's talk starts at 58:26 on this video.

2 Mary has now left Brandeis, but the initiative has expanded into an entire Master of Arts in Conflict Resolution and Coexistence.

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