Learning More about How the TRUST Network Does Massively Parallel Peacebuilding

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Newsletter 119 — May 30, 2023


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On May 11, 2023, Guy and I (Heidi) talked with Prabha Sankaranarayan, President and CEO of Mediators Beyond Borders International; D.G. Mawn, President of the National Association for Community Mediation; and Madhawa Palihapitiya who is is the founding Director of the Conflict Early Warning Analytics Program (CEWAP) at UMAss Boston’s Center for Peace, Democracy and Development (CPDD). Prabha, D.G. and Madhawa are the joint convenors of the TRUST Network, which is a very large network of organizations, all of which are concerned about threats to democracy in the United States. They have joined together to maximize their efforts to address this growing problem. As we explained in a February, 2023 newsletter/blog post, we consider the TRUST Network to be a wonderful example of massively parallel peacebuilding in the real world. So we wanted to learn more about how they formed the Network and what it does. 


D.G. shared that he and Prabha had been trying to interest funders in a project focused on peacebuilding in the United States for several years, without success.  Finally, in September 2020, Prabha decided that they couldn't wait for funders any longer, they had to move on their own. In Prabha's words:

We saw the continuing signs of politically motivated violence in this country escalating. And we clearly felt that the peacebuilding community, globally and in this country, had come of age enough to take this on. So, we started by putting out a call. It was inspiring that every one of those leaders, [that we called] said yes. From FCNL [Friends Committee on National Legislation] to AFP [Alliance for Peacebuilding] to Peace Direct to Search [for Common Ground], all of them, including community-based organizations, including folks like the Karuna Center for Peacebuilding, all of them [said “yes.] It was, I think, the right time and everyone felt the need. 

The first year and a half was a constant, ongoing, cycle of meetings, of gatherings, of learning from each other, of formulating what we needed to look like, of policy briefs and recommendations to the incoming administration. Advocacy recommendations and funding recommendations to the Alliance for Peacebuilding. Trainings of community organizations on early-warning, early-response [protocols], exchanges with international organizations. All of that happened in the first 18 months. And what I can come back to now is to talk about is how heartening it is to actually see the multiple networks now moving forward.

One of their first activities, and still a major focus, was setting up an "early warning, early response system."  This is commonly used by peacebuilders outside the United States, but the U.S. didn't really have such a system that was designed to collect data on threats and actual incidents of hate crimes or other acts that threatened social cohesion and/or democratic governance in this country.  The TRUST Network, through the leadership of Madhawa, set up the first citizen-run Early Warning-Early Response infrastructure designed specifically for the United States. Madhawa explained that they started with an event monitoring mechanism

which expanded to capacity building, and training a vast network of people, and turning this into an opportunity to collaborate and build what you [Guy and Heidi] are calling a "massively parallel peacebuilding" infrastructure. One of the realizations of that is the growing complexity of the problem -- we both talk about complex adaptive systems. That means we need methodological pluralism, so not just one type of organization, but multiple different organizations with multiple skills, groups who were doing democracy work, groups who had experience monitoring elections, the sort of pure peacebuilding organization, et cetera, all kind of woven together through the central nervous system of a community-based early warning system.

Guy asked Madhawa how the system works.  Ideally, he said, someone in their network would alert them to a problem. They'd then examine the data, collect more data if necessary, and if appropriate, issue an early warning bulletin, and then local people would act on it. He shared several examples.  One was a report of people trying to disrupt a school board meeting.  They discovered that this wasn't a one-time, one-place event.  Rather, they learned, it was a part of a larger pattern of hate groups who were operating around the country in an effort to disrupt education and social cohesion more widely. At times, however, they learned the opposite: that an event which was reported as serious and likely to cause an entire community to explode, actually didn't result in any sort of significant response.  The Early Warning system prevents people, as D.G. said, "from responding to  shadows." 

But it also allows them to mobilize to avoid problems. One example D.G. shared was about one city and state that had people trying to disrupt the 2020 election. 

Many of us vote by boxes. We don't vote on election day, we drop our ballots off early at election drop boxes. But in this one state, there were many individuals standing, coughing, and spitting at people who were trying to drop off their ballot. (This was during COVID, but pre-COVID shots and wellness.) So people weren't dropping their ballots off. We then, through the TRUST Network, through our media partners, were able to get the word out to the entire state saying “you have a nuisance ordinance. Why are you choosing not to use it?" Well, cities and law enforcement didn't want the media saying that they weren't enforcing their nuisance ordinance, and we were then told by centers throughout the state that "magically" these people who were spitting disappeared, and people were now able to access the voting drop boxes.  That would have blown up if people were not able to vote because of this. 

Another story he shared was about a city that was tense because there was a recount of ballots after the election.  

And our center there worked with law enforcement to make it [the recount] a party atmosphere. So, law enforcement was protecting those counting. Our center and volunteers showed up and they played loud music. They had hats on. They had candies to give out. And the protesters were there, saying the election is being stolen, while listening to dance music and eating candies. So everyone talked. It didn't change anyone's mind, but no one was smashing a window. No one was harassing the people who were trying to count the votes.  The negative energy level went so far down. That protest was something those people felt they needed to do. People felt the election had been stolen, let them protest. However, it wasn't threatening the ability to actually process the ballots.

All three agreed, however, that they still have a long way to go. The early warning part of the system is further developed than is the early response part. According to Prabha, it has taken the last couple of years just to build the very basics of the infrastructure of their organization, which they are calling a "national infrastructure for social cohesion."

This infrastructure seeks to connect four different sectors, each of which has been operating largely independently in the United States.  First is the "structural reform sector," which in the U.S. Prabha observed "is very robust."  It is also called by some the "democracy and governance sector." These are the people and organizations that are pursuing governance changes such as redistricting, rank-choice voting, and open primaries.  The second sector are the peacebuilders, "the mappers, the analysts, the designers and interventionists who are working for improved social cohesion and addressing divisiveness and toxic polarization."  The third sector are the social, environmental, and racial justice actors, of which there are hundreds, even thousands, across the country.  And the fourth group Prabha laid out are the legal organizations: those working on constitutional and legal reforms. Again, in Prabha's words: 

So, what we have found to be somewhat unique is all of these four sectors really getting interconnected and, to a moderate point, seeing the complexity of what we need to do. And so, there are people working together in lots of different ways. What is wonderful is that one of the changes we have started to observe is more shared language. We are beginning to see some cross pollination of terms that were used in one field beginning to enter others. People who might have seen themselves as bridge-builders are now working with structural reform actors, partnering with the Anti-defamation League, the ACLU, those who have been monitoring and making legal or constitutional changes, as well as leveraging of the social and  racial justice actors. And I think there's a lot to be said for the intersection of the strategic nonviolence, civil resistance groups, and the peacebuilding groups. . . .That was part of the reason why we wanted to see all these four sectors as intersecting here. We believed that if we can find network nodes, then we can connect those to have more leverage. 

So, our goal with the TRUST network is not so much to keep working at the individual level, but to keep identifying networks that are coming together. Networks of each of these sectors. And that's going to take a couple more years, even as we build the national infrastructure.

In addition to building the infrastructure, or perhaps to facilitate the building of the infrastructure, the TRUST Network has been doing a lot of trainings: training people on how to use the Early Warning/Early Response system, training people on how to work together more effectively, getting people to understand what each of the sectors is doing and how they might beneficially interact. In addition, TRUST Network members are doing hundreds of their own trainings.  A particular focus, Prabha said, is de-escalation.

There's a real understanding of the need for de-escalation. I know that Black Women for Positive Change, for example, had been trying to advocate for legislative change. And what they found now is that there are more people talking about de-escalation as something all of civil society might need to be aware of. So that kind of stuff is happening in lots of different places. There are hundreds of organizations now doing more trainings on collaborative processes, dialog processes, consensus building processes, how do we use those processes at the community level to engage people? How do we do what we might call mapping, community assessment processes, for identifying what are the strengths and needs, instead of going into communities [from the outside] and saying, “here's what you need, really.” I think of it so more as an inside out rather than a bottom up because I don't think there is any longer an acceptance of that hierarchy.

Toward the end of our discussion, we asked what people could do if they wanted to get involved in this effort. Prabha replied that first, people can help fund them.  Second, she said they should go to the TRUST Network website and sign up to be a community observers.  We also can use more community responders, she said.  "We can use social media watchers, and analysts.  So, there are lots of ways in which all of us can become a part of this civil society network." And a third way, she said is to "spread the word about this." Share examples that people have used in other countries or in other communities. We all can learn from each other.  D.G. encouraged people to get involved with one of the local TRUST centers in their own communities.  There isn't a need to create new centers, he stressed.  There are plenty around.  But they all can use more people. If you go on the TRUST Network website, he said, they are easy to find.

Clearly, the TRUST Network is a work in progress, but it is a shining example of people who understand that our problems are complex, not simple us-versus-them struggles (another topic we discussed at length) and solutions are going to need to be complex as well.  That means they need to involve many different people and organizations, doing different things, but all working roughly in parallel towards the same goal. We call that "massively parallel peacebuilding."  Prabha, D.G. and Madhawa call it the TRUST Network.

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