Intervenors Coming to the US? A Role-Switch Thought Exercise

By Heidi Burgess

September, 2019

Purpose:  This exercise is intended to help students—and conflict resolution practitioners—understand how recipients of conflict resolution services might feel when outsiders come in to help them solve their own conflicts.  Too often, Americans travel abroad and present themselves as "the experts" who know more about how to solve another community's or another country's problem than its citizens know themselves. The same can sometimes be true for mediators working within the U.S.  This exercise lets participants consider what it feels like to be on the receiving end of conflict resolution services, and consider what providers can do to make their services both more palatable and more useful for their intended "clients."

Time Needed: 60-90 Minutes


This post is part of the
Constructive Conflict
MOOS Seminar's

exploration of the tough challenges posed by the
Constructive Conflict Initiative.


Materials Needed:  none

Note:  I created this assignment five years ago, when the issue it highlights was recent, big news.  It is startling to see how little has changed.  Some students, particularly non-US citizens, may not remember these particular incidents--but that doesn't matter--similar ones keep on happening.  So the article--and this exercise--are still very relevant. 

Procedure: I use this exercise in an online course, and students do it individually.  It can also be done in a face-to-face group with students in small groups discussing the questions. Alternatively, it could even be made into a role play, with some of the students playing peacebuilders from Rwanda, and others playing various U.S. citizens.  The relevant roles for the U.S. citizens are described below

  •  Start by reading the article  If It Happened There: Courts Sanction Killings by U.S. Security Forces.  This, as you may be able to tell, is a news report of the aftermath of the 2014 Ferguson, MO and New York, NY police killings of black men and the subsequent court decisions, written from the point of view of another country "looking in"—a much the way we "look in" and "report on" other world trouble spots.  

Continuing from that point of view, consider how we, in the US, might respond, if peacebuilders from abroad (let's say a team from South Africa and Rwanda--places with a lot of experience dealing with the aftermath of racial and ethnic conflicts--decided they should come to the U.S. to "help us" deal with this and related situations. (Alternatively, you can look at what is happening with respect to race in the U.S. currently. You could look at the death of immigrant children on the border (a 2018-19 issue), or look at more recent police killings of racial minorities or police treatment of people of color more broadly). The same questions apply regardless of your focus.

  • What roles do you think the outside peacebuilders would and should play?
  • What could be done that would be well received?  What might they do that would not be well received?  (Consider the response of our national and local governments, civilians, the police, others).  (I put these two questions in bold because I want you to pay special attention to them.  Don't just think about your own reaction— people in conflict resolution programs are likely to receive such visitors pretty openly. Think, rather, about the people in power in New York and Missouri, and the local black and white citizens of those areas. (Or if you are looking at the current immigration crisis, consider the reaction of ICE--Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and the Trump administration, and the would-be immigrants and their supporters.)   What would THEY think of outsiders coming in to help solve "their" problem? 
  • Consider the possibility that the peacebuilders came without an invitation.  
  • What if someone (say a local leader) invited them?  How would that change things?  
  • What if a group of US Congressmen invited them?  How would that change things?
  • Lastly, what does your answer to this question have to say about US peacebuilders going into other places?  Did it teach you anything? (I hope it did!)  

Have students discuss these questions, write an essay about these questions, or even role-play these people to see how they'd respond.