Civil Rights Mediation Oral History Project

By Heidi Burgess and Guy Burgess



This post is part of the Constructive Conflict Initiative Blog


In 1999, civil rights mediator Richard (Dick) Salem came to us, asking whether we'd be interested in working with him to document the past work of the U.S. Department of Justice's Community Relations Service, with which he used to work.  CRS was undergoing significant changes due to funding cuts at the time, and he was afraid the experience and skill sets from the past could be lost.  We were intrigued, because we had been asserting for quite some time that intractable conflicts (as racial conflicts tended to be) could not be successfully resolved through mediation. Yet Dick told us that CRS was expert at it and did it all the time.

So together with Dick, who was then a private mediator with his own firm Conflict Management Initiatives, we obtained a grant from the Hewlett Foundation, which allowed us to carry out extensive (six hour) interviews with nineteen current and former CRS mediators.  We asked them about their background, and we had them "walk us through" the entire "life cycle" of a case—stating with how they got involved, how they assessed the situation and decided on an action plan, the steps (and missteps) involved in carrying out that plan, the results, and how they "exited." We also explored themes that were almost always important, such as developing trust with the parties, getting parties "to the table," how they dealt with the inevitable power discrepancies between the parties, how (or whether) they were able to maintain neutrality or impartiality (or whether they even wanted to do that), the nature of the agreements that were attained, and how they made sure that the changes implemented would be long-lasting.

Since we did this in 1999-2000, all of the cases discussed were before that time.  But they involved the very same issues that are being struggled with now.  Many of the mediators we interviewed were in Los Angeles during and after the Rodney King riots.  One was with Martin Luther King when he was killed, and was immediately "on the scene" when riots broke out. Several others were at the Native American occupation at Wounded Knee. All the skills that they brought to bear to de-escalate those and hundreds more situations are relevant today.  Indeed, though they keep a very low profile, they are almost certainly active in Minneapolis and at other George Floyd protests around the country.  Anyone interested in learning (as we were) how they successfully mediated the hardest cases will find a treasure trove of knowledge here. 

All of the interview transcripts are published—in full and by question—on, the website of The Civil Rights Mediation Oral History Project. 

All of the interview transcripts are published—in full—on, the website of what became named The Civil Rights Mediation Oral History Project.  In addition to having full transcripts of the nineteen interviews, the site has all of the answers to each question we asked, tabulated and presented together.  So you can read what everyone said about whether they tried to analyze or address power disparities between the parties, or what they did to diminish tension between the parties, or how they measured "success."  You can also search for whatever term interests you, and see what everyone had to say about that.

Since this project was done with minimal funding, the transcripts are not perfect, and they weren't analyzed nearly as fully as they could be.  But there is a wealth of information here, most all of it relevant to the challenges we are facing today as we are trying to figure out how to respond to the George Floyd killing and its aftermath.