Leadership and Gangs


Wallace Warfield

Former CRS Mediator, New York and Washington, D.C. Offices; Associate Professor at the Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution, George Mason University

Interviewed by Julian Portilla, 2003

This rough transcript provides a text alternative to audio. We apologize for occasional errors and unintelligible sections (which are marked with ???).

A: I think that the gang conflict, for a good example, with the stratification of leadership, and how they had ceremonial leadership. Many of the gangs in those days, the president of the gang was actually more a ceremonial position, more a representation of the gang than a functional one. They had some decision-making authority, but when it came down to fighting, the decision-making authority leadership had transferred to the war councilor. The war councilor really became the president of the gang during the life and time that there were hostilities, even though the actual fighting was fairly intermittent and short-lived. In the gangs I worked with, the vice-president of the gang was more of a social coordinator, in many ways. This is the individual who pulled together the dances and the parties and things of that sort. Roughly a triumvirate, but they played these functional roles at different stages of the gangs' activity.

It's interesting to think of it in that way, and how forms the decision-making, and how they are shaped up around these kinds of roles. Clearly, in all the other kinds of disputes and conflicts I've been involved in, leadership has been a factor. Even in community conflicts there were titular leadership and then there was situational leadership, similar to the gang thing but in a different kind of format. Then there was the importance of knowing who was who in what leadership capacity. Being able to assess that before you begin your intervention I think was really quite important, it still is.

Q: So leadership is not as simple as it may appear right off the bat?

A: No.

Q: And what benefit does it have to know which leaders are where?

A: No, I think it's important, because you don't want to get involved a series of facilitated negotiations, mediation, problem solving workshops, if you've identified the wrong leadership to be there, if you've identified the wrong people, particularly with some of the international work. Even in American community spheres, where people put themselves out as the leaders, and you find out after you've been at the table for two or three sessions that they are not the real leader. You get a phone call saying the real leader is so and so, and you're blowing it by not having him or her at the table. It is important, and this takes courage, to be able to answer, to be responsive to the opposing party, who will try to tell you who should be at the table for the other side. This is particularly true for power and balance kinds of community conflicts, where you're dealing with a kind of largely non-minority, male, white authoritarian leadership group - police chief, mayor, city council, business leaders, who are involved in some kind of conflict situation where people of color are involved. They will tell you when you are doing your pre-intervention assessments, "Well, you really ought to have so and so, they're terrific." It sounds good, and seems like this is going to be easy. They're agreeing, they're actually suggesting people that they can work with. I like this.

You need to stop and think but wait a minute, this is too easy. Then you start talking to the people in the community. Well, the reason they suggested him is because they have this thing going. There is a pattern of relationships that's been going on in this community long before you came to intervene in this particular community conflict. The leadership associations and the leadership elites are important to know. It's important to realize, if you think about it from the standpoint of Lederach's three levels of leadership, that you need to look at who's in this middle level, who's at the grassroots, who needs to be at the table, and if not at the table, finding ways for leadership voices to be heard. The successful implementation is not going to be up there, it's going to be down in the middle/grassroots level. That's where the rubber meets the road so to speak. By looking at success, I mean looking at the outcomes beyond simply just the agreement. So it's easy for leadership elites to reach agreements, such as Sharon and Abu Mazen in the Middle East. The real trick is to get the militants, the people down in the communities, those are the ones that are really going to be able to implement the agreement so the outcomes will be more sustained than simply what people sign off on at the physical table.

Q: That's interesting, because when you were talking about leadership, I instantly envisioned the top third of that pyramid, but you actually referring to leadership at each level, including the leaders in the middle and the grassroots levels.

A: I think the important part for conflict resolvers, and I want to reiterate that, it's not simply just what happens at the table, but having a sense of responsibility for the outcome. Saying okay, now my role has been to intervene, to help them reach their agreement, but do I have a role, do others have a role, post-agreement to see that there's a kind of leadership diversity that really is functioning from a standpoint of the implementation of the agreement. That's where you get into Mitchell's 13 roles, Fisher Kesley's complementariaty of roles, or where you look at all Bill Ury's thirdsiders notion. Bill puts it a lot more simply than the others do. That there's a multiplicity of roles that people can play, and oftentimes leadership people can play roles of intervention, containment, and resolution. Think of a resolution as a longitudinal process that tracks, Lederach talks about seven, eight years, fifteen years down the road. Then these diversified leadership roles are important down that path. I think that we need to take — we as external conflict resolvers — need to take more responsibility to help communities, using that in a broad sense of the term, think through what the leadership roles should be. Implementation is a whole other area of work that we tend to get involved in.

Q: Identifying people responsible for certain pieces of the process, after you've gone through, basically?

A: Right, exactly.