Executive Director of Search for Common Ground
Interviewed by Heidi Burgess — 2006
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Q: I am sitting with Sandra Melone, who is the executive director of Search for Common Ground, and it is January 26, 2006. We are going to talk about Search in general and her work with it. Sandra, could you start by telling us about Search for Common Ground and the things that they do?
A: Yes, it is a pleasure. Thank you, Heidi. I have been with Search for Common Ground for 11 years, and it has been around for 23 years. So it is starting to build up a whole new generation of searchers, if you will. One of the things that drew me to the organization was actually the name of the organization, and I'll just comment on that a little bit. At the time, I was working at Amnesty International in human rights advocacy in the Great Lakes region, and this... we are talking '94 or '95, which is just around the time of the Rwandan genocide. It was a very difficult time for everybody obviously, and a particularly interesting time for human rights advocacy organizations to try and figure out how they can have some added value. In the context of all this, I went to a Great Lakes policy forum, Burundi policy forum, and there I met John Marks, who is the president and founder of Search for Common Ground. The name Search for Common Ground really intrigued me, and I said, "Talk me through that; tell me what it means." It wasn't about the finding of commonalities; it was really about the whole process that's involved in bringing people through the different phases -- that it takes a whole process to actually reach some kind of agreement and to be able to stand on some kind of common ground. I thought that was kind of interesting, but more than the searching for common ground, the whole approach seemed to me to be so fresh because it is so positive. It isn't about tearing something down, which I was feeling we were trying to do, even if it was really good things that we were aiming at in the whole human rights advocacy movement, but it was about building something new with the realities on the ground, in places of violent conflict as they are. Bearing in mind the realities of who has the power, who has the influence, and all of the variety of people with whom you actually need to engage at all levels in society if you want to transform the way a set of conflict issues comes down on the side of nonviolence as opposed to violence. So, a couple of the things that seemed really fresh and useful, I thought, in Search for Common Ground's approach, involved the commitment first of all to actually work with and through local actors on many levels within societies on a long-term basis. So not to come in and to come out with just punctual, technical advice, but to really be present in the thick and thin of things. I started working for Search for Common Ground in Burundi in '95 or '96, and one of the first things that struck me, which isn't always clear when you are in midst of a conflict, is that you feel so often that there is no hope when you are there. Whether it is Burundi or Northern Ireland or Macedonia or anywhere in the world, the US, you feel like there are no solutions. One of the things about having an organization and a group of people who actually have experience in multiple conflicts around the world, and the resolution of multiple conflicts, is that you can actually show examples and you can say if A, B, C happens then maybe there is some light at the end of the tunnel. Just being there and helping to hold a space where you can actually explore possibilities and you kind of keep on shining the light on the possibilities, is a really big thing for parties and conflict and individuals who are there.
That is one thing. The other thing that I found really appealing about the approach was that it isn't just at the political level -- track I official negotiating at table-level -- that conflicts actually get resolved. Conflicts of course get resolved, if you look at things and you tackle issues with all the people that are affected by the conflicts, and the decisions and the negotiations. So often community groups, people at the community grassroots level, aren't actually consulted or involved directly in the decisions that affect their lives and the future of their country and their society and etc. So that the importance of having a holistic view of conflict resolution, working both at an official level and at a grassroots level, but very importantly being able to provide a link between those two levels. Because there is often a disconnect between the official and the reality on the ground. One of the tools that we use -- and it is a simple set of tools, but it is a useful one to help enhance dialogue between levels and with levels/different sectors of society -- is media. That is not usual -- the use of media for mediation -- but it is a set of tools that we found to be really effective and useful. Now they can't be taken in isolation, they need to be hand in hand with all kinds of other things, but it is a good set of tools/utensils.
Now when I talk about media, I guess there are different aspects to it. One is: you use media so that you can reach a lot of people. Fine, but everyone knows that media is also relatively shallow; it is not something that actually has very profound impact, unless it is taken hand in hand with all kinds of other ways of working with people through their conflict. On the one hand, media, even if you just, for example, provide very balanced information in so many conflicts around the planet. Just access to balance, to multi-faceted good information just isn't available; people don't have the access. So one of our assumptions is that that is one of the things that can be helpful. So if you have reporters and producers and media owners who only talk about, have access to, and represent particular parties or groups, be they religious or political or ethnic social groups, then you are never going to see the totality of the reality on the ground; it is just an extension of the conflict in fact itself. So trying to bring together journalists and media professionals to work on an ongoing, daily basis together to produce stories that actually reflect the multiple realities on the ground is something that is useful. But it is also not enough, because that is just news and it useful, but it is not enough. Most people, I think, think of conflict as something that is intellectual. Tutsies have emotional or gut reactions or [reactions] based out of fear. One of the big levels on which we try to work with our partners in a variety of different conflicts, is how you get to people in their guts and how you can also pass messages about dialogue and the situation and peace-building, through ways that aren't just didactic or scholastic or intellectual, but rather that address people's interests and that are fun and that are motivating, and that also are to a large extent easier to actually work with, because you can say things in a soap opera or in a song or through music that are not in-your-face political. By living in a world of fiction, you can pass messages in a way that people get and without being boring. So we do try to work a lot with children and youth through cultural and fictional methods, and with adults both at a semi-political, track 1-and-a-half level and on a grassroots level. Those are the things that really attracted me to Search and where I think we have a niche.
Q: Tell me a little bit about the soap operas and the kind of messages that you are trying to convey, and how you see this affecting peoples behavior in the conflict overall.
A: So the soap operas, for the most part, we have done work with television in settings where, like in the Balkans where it is relative to work with television because a lot of people have access to it, but most of the work that we have done, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, is with radio, because that is the medium of relevance that reaches the vast majority of people, and people listen to -- not just hear, but listen to. If I continue on Burundi, what we did is put together a very diverse team of people, Hutus and Tutsies, educated and non-educated, Muslim and Christian, from the North and from the South, refugees, diaspora, military, former rebels, I mean a whole slew of people of all ages together, under the direction of a very able playwrite to create a really fun and entertaining soap opera. It is about two families, one Hutu and one Tutsi, who live on a hillside in Burundi, who have all the trials and tribulations of normal families in countries that face a lot of different difficulties: economic, political, security, love, HIV/AIDS, and all kinds of conflicts. In each episode, they work through their conflicts, not at all in a didactic way, in a pretty real, human-sounding way and come out with solutions that aren't usually offered up and adopt them. They focus on finding cooperative solutions as opposed to violent solutions, and about 80% of Burundi actually listens to this thrice-weekly soap opera. Things are said like, "If you continue, Heidi, to act like that, the same thing that happened to Jean-Jacques in the soap opera is going to happen to you." There have even been a bunch of evaluations, external to Search, that have been done about the soap opera, and one of the things that the soap opera seems to have done is to broaden and deepen the dialogue space for Burundi as a whole and to enable people to talk about issues in a less confrontational way, in a more collaborative way, and those are issues, a huge array of issues. We have had people in Burundian establishments and your average Burundians say that they have learned to listen and walk a little bit in other people's shoes, and to look at problems a little bit differently, and to maybe not be quite so quick at reacting when there is fear or difference. Has it ever stopped a rebel leader or a young guy that feels like picking up a gun from picking up a gun? I mean, that is a question that you get and we have no evidence of that, but does it open up a dialogue for society as a whole to be able to tackle issues, instead of tackling each other? Yeah, it does.
Q: You mentioned early on that this was one of many pieces that together would help transform a conflict. Do you engage in those other pieces, or do you allow that to be done by other organizations? Do you make any effort to interface overtly with the other efforts?
A: Yes, on both sides. What we try to do when we engage in a place, which as I said is for the long haul, is try to find those places where we bring some added value. Obviously we don't want to be redundant. We have absolutely no pretension that any single organization can ever bring all the pieces that are needed together. It is one effort amongst the zillion that are necessary; we need to work hand in hand. What is important from the beginning is really to see the forest, not just the trees and to see who the other trees are or they might be. Therefore, try from the very beginning to both have a multi-pronged approach within Search, but also to see all those other prongs out there and with whom to form the strategic partnerships to really have some impact. That is one thing; and to not always look at the usual suspects, who are the people in that society who actually make things shift, even one degree, so that it is not going head-on, but that conflict has a chance of getting diverted in a way that fewer people are hurt. So, increasingly we are seeing that there is willingness on the part of governmental organizations, and individuals, and other NGO's to actually "get over yourself" mode, you have to do it together. So we are forming partnerships with local organizations and institutions, as well as with international organizations and institutions in a way that we weren't ten years ago, for example. That also means more work with the business world, because you know in places like Angola, the international community has said, "Okay, well the peace process is there, peace should come, elections are coming in 2006. Okay, peace is there; we can move out." Basically. Well, no. There is going to be a good ten years for sure, where you really have to pay attention and really help Angolans to get to a place where they can recover from thirty years of war, and they are doing fabulous things and you need more time, and this is the last time you want to pull out. Now you maybe do your work a little bit differently, for example in the business world, who is interested in a place like Angola today? Well, there is business. So let's use them for good things and for the most part, depends on what business you are talking about, businesses that need, that don't feed off of conflict, businesses that need stability, that don't want a war, are interested in investing in place like Angola because then they can have business. Then, increasingly, we hadn't been involved enough with outreach and actual hands-on partnerships with groups on the extreme, people who actually make use of violence themselves or actually advocate others and incite others to make use of violence. To a large extent, we had been working much more on the assumptions that the more you build the kind of moderate middle, then you will get there someday, to peace. But increasingly, we are realizing, like a lot of other people realized earlier on then we, that unless you also work with people who actually are involved in violence, in violent combat, officially and non-officially, all the efforts that the moderate middle makes can get literally blown up pretty rapidly. So that is what we are looking into more now.
Q: So, what are you doing with them?
A: Well we are going to see, what we are going to do. Trying to find the ways in which to engage. One of the things we are developing now is an initiative on child soldiers, globally actually, and how it is that one can curb the use of children, which actually is a doctrine at this point in most of the world, because they seem to be considered to be useful fodder. How one can find ways for that not to happen anymore. And in order to do that, you need to be able to bring a whole new set of options to people and solutions. How do you then work with the variety of different actors who need to be involved in this, because if you say to warlord X, "Look, you simply can't be using child soldiers in your combat," that person is really not going to care if there is just the kind of approach of, "Well, it is against the convention on the rights of the child, and a resolution, and X, Y, Z." There are no consequences in our current system if you don't adhere to these things, and with whom do you need to work on the justice side of things and many other dimensions. So actually you would have a whole set of carrots and sticks to engage people at the level.
Q: You said early on that you use media to try to connect the elite with the grassroots. How does that happen?
A: One of the reasons we started working in the Democratic Republic of Congo, for example, is that there was President Masire was running the Inter-Congolese dialogue, this was in 2000. He had become convinced that there was a complete disconnect between the political leadership and the enormous population of supposedly their constituencies. That what was going on in the conference rooms in Areca, Geneva, Sun City, etc. wasn't based on what it was the Congolese at large wanted, and conversely, the stuff that was going on in Geneva, Sun City wasn't being communicated back out to the millions and millions of Congolese. So, how could one provide in a country where the communication infrastructure is so difficult and the country is so big, how can you actually help to link track I and then communities? So we, with a lot of other people, not the least of whom was the UN, tried to develop communication links. Producing radio programs about all the issues relating to the Inter-Congolese Dialogue and trying to get them out by whatever means were possible and necessary throughout as much of the country as possible. That is the type of thing the Congolese at the time alone could not have been doing because you needed to get access through the UN, through flights, etc. to be able to create an infrastructure where there wasn't one. So it is not like that whole scene has entirely changed, but in some parts of the country, particularly Kinchassa and some parts of the east, there is a more effective way of communicating up and down and outward, but by no means a done deal needless to say.
Q: I can see how that goes down as you report on what happens with dialogues. How does it go up?
A: Oh, well then you spend a lot of time throughout the country really speaking to the Congolese, as opposed to their representatives or supposed representatives, and you bring those stories back to the leaders, through whatever mechanism that seems to work, but you have to create that communication channel because it doesn't exist, it definitely doesn't exist in that direction, in most places.
Q: How do you get people to trust you to do this? It seems like if you come in and just say you want to make a radio program that talks about this kind of thing, people would be very distrustful about it: "What are your motives? How are you going to twist this to use this against me?" How do you get people to trust you?
A: Time. That is really another thing for long-term is building the trust and just by your track record and that is only feasible with time. The quality of what you put out there, people judge, people are smart. I get really angry when people say the average listener or the average audience anywhere in the world is basically stupid. Well actually the average audience is pretty damn smart and they know if what they are hearing reflects their realities and/or is useful to them. You know, that in most places radio and media in general is just interviews of official speakers from governmental sources. You listen to that you know that it is only one thing and it is an important thing, but it is only one thing and the multiplicity of voices out there is one thing that really gets. People notice things, I can't tell the number of times when I heard, "Your program, your talking drums program in Sierra Leone, it was the first time in a conversation together that I have ever heard a representative of X faction speaking with a government official, speaking with a human rights advocate, speaking with a child educator, and speaking with a former rebel and they are all in the same room and they are all speaking." Usually, like me today with you, are actually pretty willing to talk about their point of view and if what you can do is provide a mechanism for them to do that and be treated respectfully for doing that. We train the people that work with us, so that they will have a role, not just as a journalist or facilitator, but as someone who is actually actively seeking both to be respectful and to be looking for points of common understanding between very different groups. That is how you do it. You know there are certain key moments, I just remember in 1996 in Burundi, there was a change in the government that wasn't acceptable to the US government, therefore the US government was by law, had to stop the activities of the organizations that were funded by them in that country. There had been a coup d'etat and they didn't accept that. Basically, we were the only ones who stayed. We were like, "We are not leaving. This is a time when there has to be continuity." And there was one other, also, partly US-funded organization that stayed, a humanitarian organization. And that's how you get trust and credibility. You don't hit the road just because the security situation is awful or because part of your funding is pulled.
Q: One thing we see around the United States a lot is that the right wing listens to the right wing radio stations, the left wing listens to the left wing radio stations. How do you reach all the sides of conflict and get them to listen to material that is potentially offensive to everybody, since you're trying to ride a middle ground?
A: That trend is certainly worldwide. Everybody has their media source or their set of media sources. People have often asked us, "Well, why don't you actually set up radio stations (as opposed to being radio production studios, which is what we are)?" There are two parts to that answer. One is that in times of trouble, the first place governments or rebels or opposition or whatever close down is a radio station. So, you're a target to begin with as a radio station. Our interest is not in having something that is Search for Common Ground property but on the contrary, to have as many possible media outlets actually using the programming. So, at any given moment you want to be able to have your programming on the national radio, on the regional radios, on the private radios, on the international radios, the BBC. And so what we do is really try to get the programs out to everybody, all the time. In terms of offensiveness, there are those people I'm sure who -- basically people are looking for good programming everywhere in the world. Our media market is very different in the States, but I'll tell you in parentheses, one of the things that gives international organizations credibility that I've observed is actually to the question, "What are you doing here? Why would you be in this place?" Of course suspicion is understandable. One of the things that gives an organization like Search, or any other organization who also does this is to be able to say, "You know what? We also work in the States as well." It's not a question of we're in someone's backyard. We're an international organization and we work wherever there might be added value and conflict, and dealing with conflict in the U.S. is absolutely just as important and we do that as well on some small levels -- important, but small. That is helpful as well.
Q: Sandra, that's really interesting and I appreciate your taking the time to talk to us and I hope we get to talk more.
A: Thank you so much, Heidi.