Former CRS Director Paul Monteiro with the Divided Community Project - Picture from https://news.osu.edu/department-of-justice-official-speaks-to-divided-co...
Newsletter 115 — May 17, 2023
by Heidi Burgess and Guy Burgess
May 18, 2023
The Community Relations Service is a small arm of the U.S. Department of Justice, established under Title X [Ten] of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, "to provide assistance to communities...in resolving (the) disputes, disagreements or difficulties relating to discriminatory practices based on race, color or national origin...."1 After the passage of the 2009 Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act (HCPA), CRS’s jurisdiction expanded to include hate crimes based on gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, religion or disability in addition to the race, color, and national origin jurisdiction. CRS mediators and conciliators have responded to thousands of volatile civil rights disputes over their 58 years, including most every major racial and ethnic conflict in the USA during that time. "With its unique mission, CRS is the only federal agency dedicated to assisting state and local governments, private and public organizations, law enforcement agencies, tribal communities, and community groups to resolve conflicts based on these aspects of identity."2
About 25 years ago, a former Community Relations Service (CRS) Regional Director, Dick Salem, came to us asking if we could help him "save some of the history" of CRS. Why he asked that, and why he asked us, is a long story. But the end result was that we partnered with Dick to create the Civil Rights Oral History Project through which we did extensive oral interviews with about twenty current and former CRS mediators. We were particularly fascinated with their stories because we had long been saying that "intractable conflicts couldn't be mediated." Yet racial conflicts tend to be intractable, and CRS was successfully mediating them all the time! Hence, my chosen title for this piece: "...How CRS Works its Magic."
A few years ago Grande Lum, a former director of CRS and co-author of America's Peacemakers: The Community Relations Service and Civil Rights, contacted us, asking if we'd be interested in updating the project with new interviews of recently retired CRS conciliators. We were eager to do so, and partnered with Grande and Bill Froehlich who is the Deputy Director of the Divided Community Project at the Ohio State University, to do so.
In December of last year, the then-current director of CRS, Paul Monteiro, gave a short talk to the OSU Divided Community Project about CRS's current work and then engaged in a lengthy question-and-answer session with the audience and particularly with Nancy Rogers, who is emeritus Dean of the OSU Moritz College of Law and former Ohio Attorney General. (Monteiro resigned to take another position in April of this year.) We were struck by the importance of Director Monteiro's message and his answers to Nancy's and the audience's questions, and so we were pleased when Bill suggested we post a summary of the talk in our newsletter, along with a link to a video of the whole talk and Q and A that followed. We apologize that it took this long!
Director Monteiro first explained that CRS is currently "coming out of the wilderness." Since its funding comes from Congress, its fortunes are very much dependent on the level of support it gets from the party in power at the time. They are just starting now to recover from the challenges it faced during the Trump administration, which not only reduced funding, but also demoralized many peacemakers. Those years, he said, were marked by many retirements, resignations, and diminished office numbers, at the same time that the caseload was burgeoning.
So while CRS is now starting to rebuild its staffing and its expertise, even at its highest-ever staffing levels, it could not possibly provide close to the amount of services that are needed to address the many conflicts that are roiling communities in the U.S. everyday. A major focus of Director Monteiro's talk was, therefore, focused on the importance of local and state-level people working towards the same ends, and the importance of everyone who is doing this kind of work to establish trusting relationships with each other and with the main actors in their communities before a crisis occurs.
It is really hard, Director Monteiro explained, for CRS to come into a community cold, without having previously established relationships there (and the same is true, of course, for other would be peacebuilders coming into any community from the outside.) For a start, few people will trust CRS if they don't know them. ("I'm from the federal government and I'm here to help you" is a line that often falls flat, he observed, echoing a sentiment we heard from many of the CRS conciliators we talked to in our interviews.)
Second, they (the CRS conciliators) won't know what's going on, what the background is, or who to talk to. "There's no substitute for your [local people's] perspective on who are the players. What's the texture of the conflict? Even if it's new to us, it's not new to you all." Plus locals can provide expertise where CRS has jurisdiction, but not that much experience yet—for example, with disability issues, with particular tribal nations, with Afghan refugees. "That cultural competency or lived experience with these communities may not be reflected in our current footprint. That's incredibly helpful to us."
It is also important to have local peacebuilders to hand the baton to when CRS leaves. Given staffing limitations, CRS cannot possibly stay in localities long term. They need to help cool down the immediate crisis, and, ideally, help establish a process and/or a structure that will, over the longer term, work to address structural problems and build relationships between disputing factions in the community. But CRS cannot maintain that process or structure; they need to the local people to do that. So partnering with the local people from the very beginning is very important, and this talk was intended to start establishing such relationships with local people, and explaining why such efforts should continue, and even accelerate, in the future.
Director Monteiro stressed several times that relationships need to be established before a crisis hits. "Trying to make a friend when you need one is not a recipe for success." You need to make that friend before you need them, have the trusting relationship in place before you need to call on it.
When you are establishing a new organization or process in a state or city to respond to civic conflicts, he said it is useful to think through various scenarios before they occur. Get the people together who might be involved in responding to a major incident to brainstorm how they might respond and how they can effectively work together. "Have the conversation before you're in it. You can't think of every scenario, but there's a lot of common fact patterns you can think through. And you want to have a conversation with your colleagues, so you're not unintentionally creating friction with folks that you share a government home with."
Another topic that Director Monteiro discussed that is relevant to some of our discussions here on BI is how to deal with anger about past injustice. He argues that one shouldn't "ignore history or minimize it," but stress that
whatever brought you together [now] is an urgent and pressing issue. History is history, but the current matter is what we're talking about now and that has the ability to destroy your community, or hurt other people. People may lose their lives if we don't get our arms around this conflict. Even if it's coming from a place of righteous anger, if we go down the road of violence, there's certainly going to be a loss in real time that adds to the historical lists that you're keeping. [You need say that] in a respectful way to make it clear that, again, in no way are we trying to minimize or erase or sanitize history, but we might be on the cusp of writing a really sad chapter in that history if we let people believe they're going to find a solution by picking up a brick or hurting someone else or lighting something up.
A bit later he added "history is always with us, but we need to show people that there's a self interest in maintaining their community and the people that live in it. And the history is going to be what it is."
When he was asked what they do when a group is not interested in resolving a conflict, but rather wants to bring awareness to an injustice, he explained that CRS will work with such people and support them as long as they commit to a nonviolent approach. If they give any sense that they might utilize or espouse violence, that is a red line CRS will not cross. But CRS helps plan, facilitate, and monitor nonviolent demonstrations often. They work with the protestors and with the establishment—the city, the police, etc., to plan march routes, demonstration locations, events that will get the word out, but which will not ignite violence.
He also talked about how activists need to understand that they need to behave differently when they are on the streets and when they are sitting at a negotiation table. When they are on the streets, they are playing to an audience, to the cameras. If they do that at the negotiation table, the negotiation will fail. There they need to focus on their underlying interests, what changes they really want to see happen, and how those things might be established by cooperating with others, not by throwing flames at the others or on the table.
But, he said, often people aren't interested in negotiating. "They see talking as failure, talking as a sellout, as surrender." There is where having "actionable relationships, some reservoir of trust with folks" is important.
[You can say,] "yes, I saw what you saw. I have questions too. But can I have some benefit of the doubt? We can obviously look into this, as we need to do on the investigation side. Here's a menu of things one could do to channel that righteous anger because this community we're all sharing is now threatened. And aren't we all invested in keeping that small business owner from having their shop go up in smoke? Aren't we all invested in not continuing to hurt or take lives to avenge the one we're all mad about now?
Director Monteiro was asked whether police were legitimate parties to such conversations. He pointed out that there are 20,000 police departments in this country, the vast majority of which have fewer than 20 officers. The assumption that all police departments are alike, and that all are racist or violent, and hence shouldn't be allowed to sit at the table is very unfair and counterproductive.
A lot of times police departments are part of the solution to the matters we work. We don't box them out because history is history. We want to be specific about the record of a particular department before just saying, "well, law enforcement is not a legitimate stakeholder to a piece of casework we're doing."
If its a police department that's trying to get it right, that may have a history of actually participating in trainings or retraining or accountability measures or bringing in new leadership to address ugly things that happened in the past, [then CRS will work with them.]
If a police department has a specific history of ugly things that have not been addressed, then CRS may decide not to work with that department, but perhaps allow another [investigative] arm of the Justice Department to look into that police department instead. BUT Director Monteiro stressed, all communication with CRS is confidential. They never turn over information to the investigative arms of the Department of Justice (such as the FBI or the Civil Rights Division), to the press, or to anyone else. That sometimes causes tension within DOJ, but it is essential if CRS is to maintain its credibility and its trust with its clients.
This is just a cherry picked selection of the topics that were discussed in Director Monteiro's talk. We urge any of our readers who are interested in civil rights conflicts and want to learn how they "mediate the impossible" to watch/listen to the full discussion and, if you are interested in more information about CRS, visit the Civil Rights Mediation Oral History Project and/or get a copy of Bertam Levine and Grande Lum's book America's Peacemakers: The Community Relations Service and Civil Rights,
1Greta Salem and Richard Salem "Civil Rights Mediation in the United States" in the Civil Rights Mediation Oral History Project website: https://civilrightsmediation.org/us_med.shtml
2 "About CRS on the CRS Webpage: https://www.justice.gov/crs/about
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