Peacemaker conference tackles a dispute of its own -- head on

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

It seemed a bit unusual at first. More than 800 people from around the world -- mediators in everything from trifling neighborhood disputes to stifling international conflicts -- had trekked to Denver last week for the Third National Conference on Peace Making and Conflict Resolution (NCPCR). And yet, during the smorgasbord of meetings and workshops on mediating conflict, the conference was shaken by a dispute of its own.

The rift, which centered around the movement's push for professionalism and institutionalization vs. the push toward independent community-based programs, was hardly a surprise to conference organizers. They had designed the program to provoke discussion about the future of peacemaking and conflict resolution as a social movement. As it happened, the dispute turned the conference into ``a play within a play,'' a sort of litmus test for the efficacy of conflict resolution.

Nearly all the conference participants attended the meetings for the same purpose: to explore alternative ways of resolving disputes, ways that avoided both violence and litigation.

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But few were engaged in the same type of mediation activity. While hostage negotiators told tales of calming rifle-toting terrorists, university professors discussed the ethics of conflict resolution. While Denver's Mayor Federico Pena showed how a collaborative process led to a lauded downtown development plan, keynote speaker Alex Smith -- son of former Rhodesian Prime Minister Ian Smith -- described his role in easing the transition from white to black rule in Zimbabwe. And while a New York police officer shared ideas to reconciling victims to violent offenders, a Mohawk Indian from New Mexico explained how the process of conflict resolution had to be sensitive to different cultures' perspectives on conflict.

Within the conference, people had vastly different visions of the future of conflict resolution. Some participants, like Michael Lewis of the National Institute for Dispute Resolution in Washington, D.C., hoped the methods of conflict resolution will be further institutionalized within the United States' current legal structures. ``My personal goal,'' he says ``has been to harness the power of institutions in this society to the softness and sensitivity of the various dispute-resolution mechanisms.''

That push has already gone too far, according to Raymond Shonholtz, director of the country's largest community-base mediation project, Community Board Inc. in San Francisco. He says he feels that the resources for teaching mediation skills must be funneled directly to the underprivileged.

``If you institutionalize the skills -- and essentially restrict them to people with graduate degrees -- you'll get predominantly middle-class people doing mediation for lower-class disputes,'' Mr. Shonholtz says. ``That doesn't encourage people to express their conflict as early as possible.''

Like any conflict discussed at the conference, this internal rift was tackled head on. ``The question is, can the physician heal him or herself?'' says James H. Laue, executive director of the Conflict Clinic Inc. at the University of Missouri, in St. Louis. ``Can we use the techniques of conflict resolution as we develop the field itself? What is peacemaking if it's not about dealing with our differences?'' He abruptly stops his series of questions and exclaims, ``We have to do what we want to be.''

That demand is precisely why program chairwoman Janet Rifkin struggled so hard to bring diversity to the conference -- both in participation and in content. ``Up until this point,'' she says, ``our obsession has been with the development of new processes. Now we need to more deeply understand the connection between the processes and the outcome.'' For that purpose, she introduced a number of case studies this year.

Dr. Laue says he thinks Ms. Rifkin's dogged pursuit may have pushed the movement toward a resolution of its own internal conflict. ``This conference more than the previous two established a direction toward a concern for social justice and inequities.''

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