Resolving Conflicts and Restoring Communities

This interview with Donna Hicks and Saroem Phoung was conducted in conjunction with the Center's 2003 Restorative Justice Seminar Series. Donna Hicks is the Deputy Director of the Program on International Conflict Analysis and Resolution (PICAR) at the Center for International Affairs, Harvard University. Donna has been involved in numerous unofficial diplomatic conflict resolution efforts including projects in the Middle East, Sri Lanka, Colombia, and Cuba. Her research interests focus generally on issues of reconciliation and, specifically, on examining ways in which the conflict resolution, international development, and human rights communities can work together to develop an integrated approach to sustainable conflict transformation. Saroeum Phoung (r) is the Director of the Community Restorative Justice Initiative for Roca, Inc, a grassroots, multicultural human development and community building organization based in Chelsea and serving the communities of Chelsea, Revere, East Boston, and Lynn, Massachusetts. In connection with Suffolk University Center for Restorative Justice, Roca began holding peacemaking circles as a method of communication and problem solving. Patti Marxsen interviewed Hicks and Phoung.

: :

PM: In the foundational interview for this seminar series, Carolyn Boyes-Watson mentions a key principle of Dan Van Ness, which is that “we need to redefine the roles of government and community in order to shift toward restorative justice.” I am curious as to whether or not that process has been experienced in the realm of international conflict resolution. Donna, have you been in situations where roles of those in power, and those in conflict with power, had to change in order for people to become “empowered and aware witnesses,” to refer to Kaethe’s work, and if so, could you share some examples?

DH: In international conflict resolution, the problem is that healing is not even a word that I would use to describe what goes on in these processes. I want to start out with reality. That’s why I have few examples. I think something else has to dramatically shift before we can even think about using the word healing in these processes. What I mean is that I think that we have to shift our understanding of and our relationship to power. Right now, in the international community, power is used to disempower rather than to empower, and in order to really look at the effects of using this power to disempower, there has to be a certain level of consciousness. There has to be an awareness about what it means to use power to disempower.

In my experience, what that really means is that power is used to distance the enemy, to annihilate the enemy, to win at all costs. That strategy produces huge injury and huge suffering. Things will not change until those in leadership roles understand that using power in a way that is traumatizing to individuals is only going to make things worse. You might get a short-term result without that understanding, but there’s a huge shift that’s going to have to take place for long-term change. Frankly, when you look at official peace processes, it’s all about “power over” and power to get what you want. You’d be laughed out of the room if you even mentioned the concept of using power to empower.

PM: Saroeum, can we have your input on this redefinition of the roles of the government and the community? You have worked so much in Chelsea and you have seen the community and the government come together to redefine their roles there. Has that been a positive process for both government officials and people in that community?

SP: In my experience there are some government officials who are very willing to change, which is a very good thing. Then there are some officials who are not really willing and, again, it’s about power. Many people feel that the whole idea of restorative justice is that we are out to change the justice system or the government system. I don’t think that we are out there to change anybody. We are out there to share this process that is an invitation to people to come together so they can figure out the best solution to fit the needs that people have.

Some officials in my community are struggling with power. We have some judges who are very willing to engage in restorative justice, and we have some judges who don’t understand what we are trying to say. Sometimes they feel uncomfortable about having to listen to somebody else. The strategy of how we work with government officials and politics and criminal justice is that we want to take the time to build a trusting relationship to a point where we can have honest conversation. If we can’t get to that honest conversation, they are not going to accept that we have an issue or a problem that we have to deal with.

PM: How do you create conditions for the honest conversation? Donna says that she would be laughed out the room. You are saying that you have to build trust. When you have been successful, how have you accomplished that?

SP: The best way is to go where there’s an opening. We have twenty judges and maybe only one judge is willing to talk to us. That’s a good thing. Leveraging an opening like that is a good thing. It’s about comfort zones, relationship building, leverage, and creating an opening. At Roca, Inc., we are trying to be intentional in the relationships that we build. We get to know people who can be influential and impact the things that are happening in our community. That’s not to say that we need them to be on our side of every issue, but we need them to be part of the process.

PM: I can see how that would work in a local community where you frequently interact with the same people, but does relationship building and leveraging openings translates to what you do Donna? Is there an opportunity for relationship building in international conflict resolution?

DH: I wouldn’t be doing it if I didn’t think so, but it’s an interesting question. I ask myself, “If it’s really the case that at this point and time leaders are more out to use power to disempower, how can I shift the dynamics so that they will use power to empower?” The model that I often use is what happened with Nelson Mandela. He was one person who used his power to effect transformative change in many, many other people—not only in his own community in South Africa, but worldwide. He gave an empowering message to all of us. How did he do that? First and foremost, he examined his own humanness and was willing to look at the full spectrum of his humanity, which involves the best of him and the worst of him, the dark side and the light side as well. We must be willing—and this is something we can all do—to fully integrate all the pieces of ourselves that are capable of violence and destructive behavior with those parts of us that are capable of the most loving and creative acts. If we can take all of that in, I think that is the place where we start empowering not only ourselves, but also others. I believe it’s the “split off” parts in us, the parts that we don't want to look at and that we project on other people, that lead to separation and conflict. We say it’s all about them, whether it’s the Israelis talking about the Palestinians or the Palestinians talking about the Israelis.

We need to promote a process of what I call developing integrity in the sense that we have to our whole selves with us all the time. I have seen people like Nelson Mandela do it. And, if you think about others who have done it, there is Martin Luther King, Jr., and all of the great leaders who have had the capacity to look at what they are capable of, the good and the bad. You can’t be compassionate towards another person unless you can say, “There but for the grace of God go I.” I think that this is what it is going to take at the international level to shift these dynamics.

PM: Saroeum, does any of that resonate with your work? This idea of developing integrity, of recognizing the whole spectrum of humanity within one person? It reminds me of something Robin said in our first seminar on the healing paradigm. In our interview she quoted William Elliott who, after traveling around the world and meeting with unconditionally loving people, said, “I could look at the worst in myself, knowing the best.” In your circle work at Roca, Inc., is it important for people to bring their whole selves—good, bad, or ugly—to the process?

SP: It’s crucial. In fact, it’s the most important thing. We are talking about conflict. We talk about harm and we are trying to get people to that good place of trust and openness. That doesn’t happen if the people who lead it aren’t doing it themselves, or if they aren’t taking care of themselves. Sometimes it means looking at personal issues. We have to do the work for our selves first. How can you tell people not to be in conflict or not to be so hurtful or harmful while you are hurtful and harmful and not dealing with your own issues?

PM: Are you talking about keepers in the circle or everyone in the circle?

SP: I’m talking about the people who are trying to bring other people together…whether it’s a circle process or whatever the process may be. People need to be a good place to see the wholeness in themselves in order to understand that the people they are working with need wholeness too. It’s about leading. That’s the big model that we use at Roca, Inc., and the hardest thing about working at Roca is dealing with your self. I tell people that anyone can get a job at Roca and be great at it, but they have to ask themselves if they are willing to look within. Whether it’s local, national, or international, that’s the most important thing. There are people who are not doing well themselves and yet they are trying to lead a process of healing. If you look at a country or a nation, it’s the same thing.

PM: We know you have had a lot of experience with circles and community building. I did want to give you a chance to talk about that and tell us how the experience of coming to the circle helps to build community.

SP: We have so many people from different backgrounds and ethnicities in the four cities that Roca works in. Chelsea, Massachusetts is like the UN! America is a country that welcomes so many people, and sometimes that means people are put together very quickly without knowing each other; a lot of times people have a lot of assumptions based on ignorance and the next thing you know, there are clashes.

In the work that we do, before we do any circle work, we work on relationship building. The only way that we can deal with community is through relationships. People always say, “Twenty or thirty years ago everyone knew everyone else in my community. You couldn’t get away with anything!” So much of the richness of Chelsea is untapped and that creates conflict. When we sit with people in circle, people begin to share some of the stories and everyone realizes that others have gone through similar things that they have gone through. They find common ground and connections. As much as it is relationship building, it is a healing process for a community. We are not waiting for the government or the courts or the justice department or anyone. We have the community and so we work on building trusting relationships with people in the community.

PM: It’s interesting that you are not waiting for the powers-that-be to empower. Does that work in the international arena in a similar way?

DH: Oh yes. Mostly in the unofficial community, people associated with NGOs, academics, and other people who are working in conflict resolution at the level of civil society make important contributions through relationship building. These are not necessarily the people who are making agreements or doing the negotiating, but their efforts certainly do matter.

There are people experimenting with a lot of things, myself included. For example, there is now a community of people interested in trauma and healing and what it means to endure something way beyond your capacity to endure. What does that do to a human being? We have a limited amount that we can take in and process. If you are bombarded all the time with trauma and with fear and frightful situations, something is going to happen to you and you are going to need a healing process to get over that. There is a movement of people who are insisting that this trauma piece be looked at in the international community. I don’t know how long it’s going to take to actually make the connections with official levels so that they understand that the use of force and violence is actually more traumatizing than it is restorative. But there are lots of people doing very interesting things like that.

PM: Would you say that the circle addresses trauma? Is that part of what you do at Roca?

SP: We are not focused on trauma, but we understand that people are coming from a hard place. To directly look at trauma right away is a little bit dangerous, on a personal level and on an organizational level. The approach that we take is to say, “We need to be in relationships.” We naturally find that people are willing to share their stories. There are so many stories to be told. The question is whether or not people are willing to listen. The opportunity of the circle process is that connection and healing happen when people start to tell their stories.

I can give you one example. On New Year’s, the mayor got up in front of around 7,000 Cambodian people in Chelsea. He said that he would like to welcome them to our community. We felt that that was a big problem; we should have welcomed him as a new mayor because the Cambodian people have lived there for 20 or 25 years and he was the one who was new as a leader in the community. We understood instantly that there was no relationship, so we told the mayor that our elders and adults and youth would like to get a chance to talk to him, but in a different way. He said that he had fifteen minutes and we quickly let him know that we needed much more than 15 minutes. We asked him for three hours. We sat in circle with him four or five times with Carolyn Boyes-Watson as keeper of the circle. He asked to have some information about Cambodia so he wouldn’t sound like he didn’t know what he was talking about. You could see some of the Cambodian Elders start to share their stories: how they grew up, where they came from, what happened to them before they came here. It was amazing because they would never talk about those things. At the end of the circle, the mayor said that no one ever yelled at him in the Cambodian community. Nobody screamed or made demands. Everyone called him by his name instead of the mayor. That was an important opportunity that helped him understand who the 7,000 Cambodians are.

PM: You have spoken about the importance of preparing people for the circle. How did you prepare the mayor for this circle?

SP: When he was becoming a mayor and running for office, he came to Roca and he met with our director Molly Baldwin, with me, and a few other people. We spent a lot of time with him trying to get him to understand what was going on because no one ever paid attention to the Cambodian community. We spent a lot of time before we even got to the circle process. Sometimes it takes about three years of relationship building before someone like that will come to the circle. There is no quick fix. We worked two years with the judge, and with some people it took four years. We take time and we don’t pressure people. We invite them, even the police department who we used to be in constant conflict with because of the type of work we do and the passion we have for young people. We used to fight each other all the time and now we realize that we can’t fight with them anymore because if worse comes to worst, we have to call them. If they don’t like us they sure aren’t going to protect us.

PM: Donna, Roca has had great success with the circle process in this diverse community and you have talked about some of the civil society initiatives that take place on a global scale. Have you seen circles on the global scale and if not, what methods, structures, and formats do you work with to build trust and insure accountability?

DH: I don’t know of any circle processes at the level at which I work. I am sure there are people in the NGO world who are doing this, but I typically work with elites and most of the time we deal with the leadership. But I’d like to share one experience I recently had when I went to Columbia. I was asked to work with all the generals in the military and with the minister of defense because there was a big rift between the civilian ministry and the military. This is an age-old split. But, added to that traditional split was the fact that the minister of defense was a woman and I happen to know the woman because she worked with me at Harvard. To make a long story short, I decided that I was going to try to develop a process where they could restore the broken relationship. Now that I am listening to Saroeum, it was very similar to what he experienced with that mayor.

I was going on my gut alone, and what I ended up doing was talking about what it takes to be in relationship with one another and what happens when relationships break down. I started by saying, “We are all human beings here.” I took care to include myself, to make it clear that I wasn’t just coming in to fix them. I explained to them that what had happened between the ministry of defense and the military is nothing particularly unique to Columbia. I said that because they are human beings, we are all united. The conflict they were having unites us because I believe that we all yearn for dignity and need to be treated in a dignified manner. If we can all come together with the understanding that we want to be treated with dignity and understand what that really means, we can offer that to the other person. The real key to this was that I took the shame out of the way that they had been treating each other in the past, which was really hateful. You can’t imagine. I walked into the worst-case scenario.

I meditated on this on the plane and asked myself what I was going to do to turn the situation around and I found a way to take the shame out of it. The relationship broke down but it’s nothing unique. All human beings in all kinds of relationships experience this. But if you want to right the wrong, we all have to take responsibility. I injected this piece about taking responsibility for what we have done, not because we are bad people but because we are all human beings vulnerable to acting destructively when we are under a big enough threat. This was the key insight that I wanted to pass on. I told them that we really have to look at what we have done and understand why we did it and then try to work out a better way to treat each other with dignity.

PM: Did that change the dynamic?

DH: It completely shifted. In looking at this closely, what happened was that because I took the shame out of it, they were not afraid to say that they had excluded each other from the decision-making. I had listed seven ways to violate someone else’s dignity and one of them was to exclude someone from an important process. Another was to insult our identity. Another was to treat someone unfairly or not give someone a chance to be understood, or not respond to someone when they are in distress.

PM: It sounds a little like circle guidelines, in reverse.

DH: In 20 years of doing this work, I have learned about the power of shame and how it creates the most violent impulses in us. Maybe some of you have read James Gilligan’s book Violence: Our Deadly Epidemic and its Causes (Putnam, 1996). In it he describes this process so beautifully. He interviewed a number of hard-core criminals and he found that underneath it all, the reason why people acted violently is because they felt it was a buffer against the shame that they were feeling. If we can develop processes that are nonjudgmental, processes that allow people to be held accountable in a way that can make us feel that we can talk about what we’ve done, we can heal and we can learn something new. I think that is a huge challenge before us but I don’t see any other way out.

PM: You sound so energized and hopeful that I hesitate to ask the next question, but I will. Is there a reason to hope for healing and social transformation on the global scale?

DH: In my work I have seen the worst of what human beings can do to one another. I have been with people who have made the choice to kill each other rather than work it out. Because I feel that we have perfected the worst of us, I feel that we need to shift to thinking about how to bring out the best in us. That is what our future is going to be about if we make that choice and that commitment. There are ways of doing it. What Saroeum is doing in the circle process is one great way of managing that process of bringing out the best in people. But I don’t think we have truly learned how to bring out the best in one another, though I see us right on the cusp. If we can have a little bit of help from people who have great insight into human relationships, this is where we could go. That’s what I’m going to do with the rest of my life.

PM: Judith’s definition of compassion, which is “the capacity to suffer with, coupled with the desire to relieve suffering,” seems fundamental to conflict resolution and community building. Could you both share some examples of your work where both aspects of this definition were present and help us understand how compassion opened up new opportunities for people in conflict?

SP: It’s really important to be compassionate. I can’t tell between the English language what’s compassion and passionate. Sometimes we are so passionate that everyone else has to be wrong and they have to be right. Compassion, on the other hand, is about holistically looking at things as one. In the work that we are doing at Roca, compassion is about standing in the fire. If we don’t have compassion we can’t stand in our fire because we have so much healing and brokenness to deal with. If we are telling a shameful story, it’s going to hurt. We have to be compassionate with ourselves first and then with each other. Together we can help each other to stand in the fire. Sometimes it’s like being a Buddhist monk. You need to be compassionate because everything has spirit and everything has life so everything is living. Whether it’s a little worm or an insect, you need to be compassionate.

PM: So there’s a spiritual dimension to that?

SP: Definitely.

DH: I completely agree with what Saroeum said about compassion and how it has to start from within. There was a Buddhist master who said that “Compassion creates relationships of equals.” You first have to know compassion in yourself. If you do, you can’t be judgmental or put another person down because you know that “There before the grace of God go I.” So it has to start within. The more traditional Western notion of compassion is that you have to be compassionate towards others, but that can be a false compassion because you don’t really know it in a deep way. You don’t know what it means to want to react violently to someone. You don’t know what it means to have so much anger inside you that you want to annihilate the other person. You have to know that before you can genuinely and honestly understand it in another person. That’s what connects us.

When people talk about accepting the humanity in one another, we tend to think of that in the positive sense. I think it’s more important for us to accept our mutual destructive qualities. Again, that’s the part we are having trouble with right now. I think compassion is everything. It is where everything begins because it takes so much courage to admit that you have the same impulses as the person you hate on the other side. Until that awareness is deeply engraved within us, we are not going to bring out the best in each other. That’s why I say that compassion is everything.

SP: We don’t have to be 100% compassionate. In the Roca model we say that as long as you are 51% compassionate, you are on the right path. Sometimes people expect perfection and that there is no room for mistakes. You can make mistakes.

Print Friendly and PDF