Small Scale Reconciliation – Part 4: Leveling the Playing Field

Heidi Burgess
Guy M. Burgess

March, 2021

You can download this video from Vimeo for offline viewing.


This is the fourth of five videos on small-scale, bottom up reconciliation.  This video discusses how small groups of people can equalize power to more effectively reach reconciliation for all parties.

Full Transcript:

Slide 1:    Hi.  This is Heidi Burgess.  Today we are going to continue our discussion of small-scale reconciliation by looking at ways to “level the playing field” with the goal of addressing gross power inequities which lead to broader societal inequality overall.

Slide 2:   Leveling the playing field is the 4th item in our five-part list of ways to accomplish local, bottom up, small scale reconciliation.  In the United States right now, this is a primary focus, as much of the talk about reconciliation is  not only between the left and the right, but also between the races.  The topics of systemic racism, inequality, police brutality, and reparations are all talking about inequal power and the need to equalize that power in order to reconcile our society.  As we found out when we witnessed the global protests following last May’s killing of George Floyd, these issues resonate all around the world—they are not just U.S. issues.

Slide 3:   Perhaps the biggest “sticking point” to any “levelling effort” is resistance from the powerful who don’t want to give up their privileged positions.  That’s understandable, but it isn’t necessarily in their best interests. 

Several years ago, Guy and I had the privilege of interviewing about twenty highly experienced civil-rights mediators who worked for the US. Department of Justice’s Community Relations Service. CRS was formed as part of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, to help communities defuse serious racial tensions. (Although not key to my point, I’ll mention that two of their mediators were Jim Laue, and Wallace (Wally) Warfield, both of whom were later on the Carter School faculty.)  We did not have the opportunity to interview Jim, but we did have a wonderful, long, interview with Wally which you can access in the reference section along with all the other interview transcripts.

Slide 4:    One of the topics we discussed with all the mediators was how they dealt with power disparities.  Since these were racial conflicts, there were almost always power disparities.  Sometime thes conflict was between the minorities and the police, sometimes it was between minorities and the school system, sometimes it was with the government or White leadership more broadly.  In all of those cases power was unequal.

Most, though not all of the mediators said it was their job to equal the power between the opposing groups—not out in the community—they couldn’t do that, but around the negotiating table.  Once they did that around the negotiating table, then the minority party would be able to negotiate an agreement that would help them over the longer term to empower themselves in the community, or in the school system, or with the police.

Often, the high power group would complain about this—arguing that such empowerment work on the part of the mediator was “unfair,” that the mediator was supposed to be “neutral” and “unbiassed.”  The most often response to that was “well, do you want to resolve this dispute?” “Do you want this negotiation to succeed?” The answer was usually “yes.”  “Well, then, I have to help the Black representatives (or the Native American representatives or the Latin American representatives or whomever) understand the negotiation process, and help them navigate it effectively.  Otherwise, this negotiation is going to fail.”  That argument usually succeeded, and the high-power group would allow for power-equalization efforts around the table.

Slide 5:    Wally Warfield explained how the CRS saw “empowerment.”

“Let’s sort of walk through a typical process.  You come into a community, you meet with the [minority] leadership in the community, then you meet with the so-called establishment side, the local officials, the business people, and the first thing they say to you is, "So who have you met with on the community side?” and so you say, "Well, I’ve met with so and so." They say, "Ah. A, B, and C are fine, but D and E.....those guys or those people – they are known troublemakers, you can’t have them involved in the process.” So right from the very beginning, there’s an attempt, even before you’ve gotten into the formal sessions, to discredit people who, in fact, could be the people who could redress the balance of power in a setting. Because they know they don’t want those people there. They don’t want a balance of power.”

Wally continued, “so I think the job of the conciliator or the intervener, just to think of a more neutral term, is to convince the powers-that-be that if they really want this to be a successful outcome, without defining what success is at this point -- because you don’t want to do that -- then they need to be here. ‘You need to allow us to do our work, to make sure that the discussions stay on an even keel. We can’t promise you that there won’t be some explosions from time to time, but you know, you’re going to have to be prepared to deal with some of this if it happens.’" 

Slide 6:   So, bottom line, CRS Wally and the other CRS mediators argued, usually successfully, that it was to the advantage of the powerful group to allow the less powerful group to be empowered because it makes the whole system work more effectively for the powerful groups as well as for other groups.

That’s usually true at the community level, at the large-scale national level, and I think, at the interpersonal level as well.  Powerful people may be able to roll over less powerful people, and impose their will on them for awhile.  But that will only be stable for a limited period of time.  Eventually, the “less powerful people” will rise up and try to overthrow the people in power. 

That’s what happening now at the local, state, and national levels in the U.S. as Blacks and other people of color are trying to assert their will with respect to truth, justice, and reparations for centuries of oppression. 

They may not succeed this time, but demographics suggest that eventually they will—unless Whites agree now to share power more equally with people of color.  That, of course, is what Biden is trying to accomplish with his cabinet appointees—but he’s still being blocked as I am making this video by people opposed to power equality among the races (as this Washington Post article explains).

Slide 7:   Wally’s notion of empowerment was similar to Máire Dugan’s ideas in the essay she wrote for Beyond Intractability.

“Interestingly, she wrote, the word "empowerment" can be disempowering, when it is understood to mean the giving of power by the powerful to the powerless. …The appropriate role of the person or group with power is to share, not to convey or impose. If I give or even lend you my power, you are beholden to me for it. If, on the other hand, I help you build your own power base, the power is yours, not mine. I may do this as a mentor, a researcher, a facilitator, or an ally, since leadership and spokesperson roles need to remain with the group that is in the process of empowering itself. The group must make and own its decisions, so that group members can develop and experience their own power.”

Slide 8:   Dugan grouped the strategies for empowering disenfranchised and oppressed people into three general approaches: education, organization, and networking.

She looked at education through the eyes of Paulo Freire’s Paulo Freire's Pedagogy of the Oppressed. “Its underlying tenet is that the disempowered already know a great deal about the sources of their oppression and what must be done to overcome it.”  He advocates elicitive education, much in the same way Lederach has advocated elicitive conflict resolution training when peacebuilding trainers work outside their own countries and cultures.

Participants empower themselves by taking responsibility for their own learning (actively engaging as teachers as well as students), by increasing their understanding of the communities in which they live, and by understanding how they as individuals are affected by current and potential policies and structures. Equipped with this greater understanding and with new confidence in themselves, participants can develop policies and structures that better meet their needs, and strategies for bringing those policies into being.

Dugan continues:  To bring about the deep change required to resolve intractable conflict, educators must be willing to challenge deeply held assumptions. It is important to assess not only the weaknesses of the other and the strengths of one's own group, but also the strengths of the other and one's own weaknesses. This assessment can be a wrenching process, for both the educator and the students.

Slide 9:   As a community organizer, Dugan wrote, one of my first lessons was that poor people have no voice because they have no organization. An organization gives people a way of expressing their group needs in a way that cannot be ignored. This is the message that Saul Alinsky presented so powerfully in his books, and even more through the organizations he helped to establish, which are still active today.

In Alinsky-style organizing, power is built up in a step-by-step approach, which includes both recruitment and achievement. Small groups are organized first, for example on a block-by-block or small neighborhood-by-small-neighborhood basis. Once the small groups have met and worked successfully together on issues, they are brought together into a larger community-wide organization. The larger group thus has an infrastructure as well as experience

Slide 10:   “The groups begin with small, ‘winnable’ issues,” Dugan explaines. “The newly organized group is rarely ready to take on City Hall--yet. Taking on a task too big is likely to be ineffective and lead to the demoralization of the group, encouraging a ‘See, I told you so’ response, as members move back to resignation to intolerable or unjust conditions. The organizers must put a strong emphasis on helping the group choose "winnable issues" with which to begin.”

Slide 11:   Lastly, Dugan explained how structured networking can lead to empowerment of low power groups.  She gave the example of the Columbia Luncheon Club of Columbia, S.C., which, she wrote in 2003, had been holding monthly meetings for 40 years. I checked—it is still holding meetings 18 years hence! “When the American South was still segregated, the Club provided the only place for blacks and whites to gather socially in the state capital,” Dugan explained.  “The only requirement for club membership is a commitment to act with good will toward others, regardless of race, gender, or creed. … Columbia Luncheon Club members have "found jobs, apartments, and freelance work; traded services ... [and] sought investors."[18] Beyond this, the Luncheon Club has played a role in easing the community into a racially diverse sharing of political and economic power.  The CLC’s website adds that the “CLC actually facilitated the creation of the Community Relations Council, hence contributing to racial relations in Columbia more broadly.

Slide 12:   In addition to writing the BI article on empowerment, Dugan also wrote the BI article on Power, in which she explained Kenneth Boulding’s notion of The Three Faces of Power, which I also talked about in the escalation video.  There I argued that in order to de-escalate a conflict one should use the optimal “power strategy mix,” which is the optimal combination of all three forms (or “faces”) of power.

A mistake that many “low-power” or “disempowered” people and groups make is  to think only in terms of “coercive power” or even violence as “power,” and since someone else is always pushing them around, they think they have no power to resist or to assert their own voice.  Or if they do try to resist, they try to do it with their own coercion, or violence, because they think violence is the only way to get the opponents’ attention or to be “taken seriously.”

Well, violence does usually get the opponents’ attention, but it almost always unleashes a major counter-attack.  And since the “high power group” usually has more weapons to use, that counter-attack is likely to be pretty lethal, figuratively or literally.

But violence is not the only way to get attention or to be “taken seriously.”  In fact, it often did the opposite, as Wally Warfield’s story showed about the “establishment” that didn’t want to let the “troublemakers” at the table.

Slide 13:    In his book Three Faces of Power, Boulding argued that integrative power is actually the strongest of the three forms of power, because neither of the other forms of power work without the simultaneous use of integrative power, whereas integrative power is quite effective on its own.

For example, you cannot negotiate unless you trust the other side, to some extent at least, to negotiate in good faith and to follow through on whatever it is that they agree to.  So exchange power depends on integrative power to set the rules and expectations for the exchange.

Even coercive power requires compliance from the people who are carrying out the coercion.  If police won’t enforce the laws, the laws won’t hold.  If guards won’t protect the palace, the king or emperor or supreme ruler, whatever he is called, will fall.

Slide 14:   This was a primary argument of the highly esteemed scholar of nonviolence, Gene Sharp.  In his seminal 3-book series, The Politics of Nonviolent Struggle, and the  much shorter From Dictatorship to Democracy, Sharp pointed out that no dictator, no matter how (apparently) powerful, can survive if his “henchmen” abandon him—if they no longer agree to protect him, no longer agree to carry out his “dirty deeds.”  When his loyal followers abandon him, he will fall. Effective nonviolent struggle, Sharp argued and demonstrated, can be used to weaken the support of the leader’s followers, to the point that they abandon ship, and at times, join the opposition. 

This New York Times article from 2011 explains how Sharp became the guru for the Arab Spring, particularly for the first Tahrir Square uprising in Cairo, Egypt.  That, and the rest of the Arab Spring didn’t come out as well as was initially hoped.  But it wasn’t because nonviolence didn’t work to overthrow a dictator—it was because what happened afterwards wasn’t effective to establish democracy.  Why not is a topic for another time.

Slide 15:    My point here is that nonviolence is primarily based on integrative power, although it does also use exchange and nonviolent coercion as well.  Indeed, it uses an optimal power strategy mix. 

Now I should note that most nonviolent action campaigns are not done by individuals, they are done by large groups.  So perhaps this discussion should go in the large-scale reconciliation section.  But there are lessons that apply to small-scale, even interpersonal action too.

Slide 16:    Nonviolence works better than violence at the local level—even at the interpersonal level. Are you more likely to get your way by punching somebody out, or by talking with them?  Punching someone out may feel good—but it seldom changes people’s minds.  Rather, it usually makes them hate you all the more.

The nonviolent protests that occurred after George Floyd was killed have begun to bring about real change in many localities.  When the protests turned violent, however, they engendered more pushback.  (That, unfortunately, is why Trump and his supporters tried to foment violence in places like Portland. They knew that it would make the protests fail, while nonviolent protests were more likely to succeed.)

The article pictured on the right from the Harvard Gazette presents research by Erica Chenoweth who has demonstrated through much research around the world that nonviolent resistance is more successful in effecting change than violent campaigns.

One is the way Gandhi and King emphasized integrative power in their efforts.  This is exemplified in Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.  When he talked about “living out the true meaning of our creed,” he was pointing out that our country was founded on a principle which we all, ostensibly, believed.  So it was easy to point out the hypocrisy between the Declaration of Independence, and the way Blacks were treated in the U.S. at the time, or indeed, throughout U.S. history.  They were never treated as if they were created equal.  King harped on that notion, eventually convincing enough Whites in power in Congress that the laws needed to be changed in order to better abide by the principles upon which the U.S. was founded.  That’s integrative power.

So, too, is the notion of brotherhood.  And so, too, is judging a person by their character, not by their race.  Put another way, that is turning “us” and “them” into “we”—and it is integrative power that does that.

Slide 17:    That is why Gandhi and King so strongly emphasized nonviolence, and particularly integrative power in their efforts.  This is exemplified in King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.  When he talked about “living out the true meaning of our creed,” he was pointing out that our country was founded on a principle which we all, ostensibly, believed.  So it was easy to point out the hypocrisy between the Declaration of Independence, and the way Blacks were treated in the U.S. at the time, or indeed, throughout U.S. history.  They were never treated as if they were created equal.  King harped on that notion, eventually convincing enough Whites in power in Congress that the laws needed to be changed in order to better abide by the principles upon which the U.S. was founded.  That’s integrative power.

So, too, is the notion of brotherhood.  And so, too, is judging a person by their character, not by their race.  Put another way, that is turning “us” and “them” into “we”—and it is integrative power that does that.

Slide 18:    King learned from Gandhi that nonviolent action also needed to use exchange power or negotiation.  Years ago, I read about the Montgomery Bus Boycott in the fabulous history of the early civil rights era written by Taylor Branch, called Parting the Waters.  For those of you who didn’t study this, public transportation (as well as everything else in the U.S.) used to be segregated—there were white-only facilities and separate (and almost always inferior) facilities for all the other races.  In Montgomery, Alabama, there weren’t separate busses, but the Blacks had to sit in the back, behind a line that separated the “white section” from what was called at the time “the colored section.”

One fateful day when there weren’t any seats at the back of the bus, a young Black woman named Rosa Parks took a seat in the White section.  She refused to move when asked, so when the bus stopped, she was arrested, and hauled off to jail.  That initiated the long-lasting Montgomery Bus Boycott, during which time Blacks refused to ride the busses, which significantly cut into the profits the bus company was able to earn.

I had known all that, and knew that the end result was that the bus company and the White “Citizen’s Council” as it was called, finally gave in and allowed the busses to be integrated.  What I didn’t know until I read Branch’s history, was that King, who was one of the leaders of the Boycott, offered to negotiate a deal to end the boycott early.  All he asked was to move the line in the busses up, so there were more seats at the back.  To my astonishment, he didn’t insist on the removal of the line.  Lucky for him, for the Blacks, and for all advocates of justice, the White Citizen’s Council refused to move the line, the boycott continued, and eventually the Whites gave in entirely and the line was gone.  So exchange power didn’t save the day—but it was used!

Slide 19:   Gandhi, too, used negotiation as part of his nonviolent action.  As described by nonviolence scholar Paul Wehr, Gandhi intensified conflict in a step-wise, rather than spiraling fashion, in order to prevent the protests he led from spiraling out of control.  His first step was protracted negotiations.  If those weren’t successful, then he started a nonviolent action. Periodically, he withdrew from confrontation, however, and engaged in reflection, re-evaluation, and if possible, renewed negotiations. 

Wehr also explained Gandhi’s philosophy and practice of satyagraha which means “insistence on truth.” Satyagraha sees the goal of conflict as persuasion, not coercion.  This shifts the conflict from a win-lose orientation to a possible win-win outcome.  Wehr explained “the escalating commitment is not to winning, but to the discovery of the truth of social justice, a commitment that admitted the possibility of the opponent’s truth.”

Slide 20:   All of these strategies are valuable for leveling the playing field, and together with the other four small-scale approaches on this list, can contribute significantly toward reaching reconciliation.


Slide 3: CRS home page:

Slide 4: Civil Rights Mediation Oral Histories home page: and and and power disparties responses:

Slide 6:  Annie Linskey "Many of Biden’s nominees of color run into turbulence in the Senate" Washington Post. Feb. 24, 2021

Slide 7: Maire Dugan "Empowerment" Beyond Intractability.

Slide 8:  Paulo Frieire Pedagogy of the Oppressed.

Slide 9: Saul Alinsky Rules for Radicals.

Slide 11: from the Columbia Luncheon Club’s website:

Slide 12: Heidi Burgess and Guy Burgess "Business As Usual-4: Power and the Power Strategy Mix'

Slide 13: Kenneth Boulding, Three Faces of Power

Slide 14: Gene Sharp. The Politics of Nonviolent Action and From Dictatorship to Democracy.

Slide 16: Michelle Nicholasen “Nonviolent resistance proves potent weapon” The Harvard Gazette. Feb. 14, 2019.

Slide 18: Taylor Branch. Parting the Waters.

Slide 19: Tanya Glaser.  "Summary of "Self-Limiting Conflict: The Gandhian Style" by Paul Wehr.

Photo Credits:

Slides 2 and 20: Slides 2 and 12: Unsplash:  open source.

Slide 5:

Slide 10: :  Unsplash, open source

Slide 11: from the Columbia Luncheon Club’s website:

Slide 16: Picture:  unsplash open source:

Slide 17: Minnesota Historical Society, CC BY-SA 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Slide 18: Rosa Parks: : https://cre... English:Rmhermen at en.wikipediaItaliano: L'autore del caricamento è stato Rmhermen su en.wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons.

Slide 19: Pixabay, open source.