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The "ism" schism: building community in a diverse world.

When Greensboro, N.C. former Mayor John Forbis recognized that the city was facing the probable defeat of yet another bond referendum, the third in as many tries, he took a new approach. The earlier referendum had been for single projects, supported by single interest groups. This time, a comprehensive package to fund a number of needed projects - including those previously rejected - was proposed. The community leadership saw such a package as being critical to revitalizing the city's attractiveness to new industry needed for continued growth. Success depended upon achieving support of each of several segments of the community, including a large group of minorities committed to obtaining a number of human services improvements.

With the support of the city council, Forbis convened the broadly representative Greensboro One Task Force, and charged it to develop a consensus on an affordable bond issue to meet the critical needs of the community. Conducting its business in public, the task force first determined that the city could support $40 million in bonds and then set about to determine the needs and priorities. The objective was to arrive at a ballot initiative that a majority of voters would support.

The Greensboro One Task Force included 37 community leaders representative of the community and the city council. The Mayor obtained the facilitation services of the Center for Creative Leadership, which provided intergroup leadership training, managed meetings, processed discussions, kept records, and assisted in communications. The Task Force completed its assignment on schedule, and all but one of the eighteen projects totalling $39.9 million were supported by the citizens in the referendum.

"I'd give them an A-plus," said one former councilman, who was quoted in the Center's 1990 report on the project entitled, "Forging Consensus: Building a Dialogue Among Diverse Leaders." According to the councilman, "[t]hey took a clean slate, looked at everything you could think of, and came out with a balanced package. It is not to be said that was a process that was accomplished without difficulty and emotion."

The situation in Greensboro was hardly unique in either the nature of the problem or the solution, and yet it stands out as a shining example of a community's ability to bridge the schisms of race, age and economics. Community leaders across the nation are faced with conflicts between racial and ethnic groups. And, inter-group conflict is certainly not limited to issues of race or ethnicity. It shows up in the form of disputes over sexual preference, religion, physical ability, native language, and many other cultural and social identifiers.

Dealing with this diversity and the associated conflict is perhaps the major challenge of this decade for the elected and appointed leaders of our nation's communities -and for all of us, community members. While the challenges may at times seem overwhelming, there are success stories offering a foundation upon which to construct strategies for addressing such conflicts and rebuilding our communities.

The Program for Community Problem Solving will soon release a "mini-manual" on tools available to community leaders wishing to deal constructively with conflicts among "identity groups." This article offers a preview of that guide. The guide focuses on collaborative problem solving approaches, but also describes related leadership and skills development activities that support a community-wide strategy for dealing constructively with inter-racial and cross-cultural conflict.

Recognizing the Problem

Communities sometimes are reluctant to acknowledge that they do, in fact, have some tensions over cross-cultural differences and/or the "isms" - whether or not there has been a full-fledged "incident." This may be because community leaders are uncertain how to deal with such tensions, they are afraid that the existence of a problem will make them "look bad," or the idea is just plain too uncomfortable. However, in order to remedy a problem, one must first recognize that it exists.

Setting the Tone

Every public statement and action reflects the attitude of elected and appointed leadership. Following the acquittals of four police officers in Simi Valley, Mayor Dinkins of New York took to the airwaves and to the streets for three days and nights, appealing for calm and cautioning those who might start violence that it would not be tolerated. He made it a point to thank the youth for their restraint and to praise the news directors of the city's television stations for their responsible reporting. New York City got through the weekend without the violent outbreaks that rocked Los Angeles and other cities.

Officials' efforts to communicate a vision of cooperation among diverse groups - while not sufficient by themselves - can have a significant impact. Conversely, the absence of such leadership is very noticeable when the going gets rough.

Defining and Analyzing the Problem

As with any community issue, the way in which a cross-cultural problem is defined influences who is motivated to participate in problem-solving efforts. Often, the most effective way to define a problem is to ask a broadly representative group of "stakeholders" to do so, giving them whatever institutional support they may need (e.g., meeting space, a facilitator, etc.). However, even to get as far as convening such a group, a community leader must develop an initial problem definition. In doing so, it is important to frame the problem broadly enough to allow all stakeholders to "buy into" the definition and to avoid inflammatory language in the process.

The Greater Cleveland Roundtable recognized the need for action after racial tensions increased sharply following a series of shootings in 1986. A racially mixed, ad hoc group of fourteen community members was formed to assess the problems. After four months of bi-weekly meetings, the ad hoc group initiated the Race Relations Forum - consisting of representatives of forty community groups - which developed Cleveland's action plan for resolving the conflicts. (See PCPS Publications: 1990 Community Problem Solving Case Summaries, Volume II for a complete description.)

Ideally, problem analysis should be done early in the development of the conflict, before the situation becomes tense. However, it is never too late. The key is to get beyond symptoms to the essence of the problem. There are many techniques available for collecting and analyzing data on a problem of this sort, including surveys, interviews, focus groups, dialogues, and professional research teams.

For example, in a medium-sized state university on the Atlantic seaboard, with an ethnically diverse but predominately white student body and faculty, an incident generally interpreted as a racial and gender slur exposed significant conflict within the university. A multi-cultural task force was formed to analyze the nature and extent of tensions between identity groups in the university community. With input and review by this task force, a team of professionals in conflict analysis and management determined what information was needed to understand the problem and how it should be collected.

Trained volunteers then conducted interviews and focus groups to gather that information. Again with input from the task force, the professional team analyzed this information and drafted a document identifying aspects of the problem that might be amenable to consensus-building efforts. The university administration then held a series of meetings with several standing bodies to get feedback on the report, most of which accepted the findings as accurate. The Affirmative Action Office has been assigned responsibility for follow-up with the stakeholders and implementation planning for next steps.

Solving Problems Together

It is easy for officials to feel that the responsibilities of their offices require them to have a solution to every problem. However, complex problems involving cross-cultural misunderstandings or inequities among groups can often be best solved by representatives of all those with stakes in the matter working in concert. The "stakeholders" typically include those with decision-making responsibility and authority, and also those significantly affected by the decision and those who could either block or ensure implementation of the solution decided upon. Each stakeholder has a piece of the picture; all the pieces are needed to understand and resolve the problem effectively.

Not every cross-cultural conflict will be amenable to a negotiated resolution. Where there is a principle or legal precedent at stake, negotiations are probably inappropriate. However, if no one entity can effectively make a decision that will resolve the dispute and if traditional legislative and judicial forums seem unworkable for a particular problem, it may be worth considering a negotiated approach. However, all stakeholders must be willing to participate in good faith. Where these conditions are appropriate, a solution developed jointly by all stakeholders tends to be the most implementable.

When a negotiated approach is used, it can be very helpful to use a facilitator. A trained community leader may serve as a facilitator if seen by

all stakeholders as being impartial. Often, however, community decision-makers are perceived to be stakeholders in the conflict. Typically, stakeholders should not be asked to facilitate because it is unreasonable to expect them to set aside their own agendas. In such cases, an outside facilitator should be used.

Facilitation and mediation services are available in many permutations for community problem-solving efforts taking place under different circumstances. These range from conciliation and mediation of two-person conflicts to facilitation of community- wide task forces to solve complex policy problems. The following example illustrates just one point on this spectrum.

The Community Boards Program (CBP), which originated in San Francisco in 1976, uses panels of three to five trained volunteers to mediate in a wide range of interpersonal and small group community disputes. CBP has a long history of success and has been replicated in several other cities.

In the fall of 1991, following a series of threatening incidents, a fight at a high school between two Filipino and three African-American students threatened to escalate, with "revenge" being taken by gangs to which the students did not belong. The three African-Americans were arrested and transferred to another school.

The probation officers and the District Attorney then referred the case to Community Boards. CBP normally does not accept cases where charges have been filed, but accepted this one because none of the youths wanted to see the others involved go to jail over this dispute and because all of their parents agreed to the mediation. A team of four mediated the dispute, involving all five students in the problem-solving process. The result was a "Peace Treaty," in which the five students agreed that future contacts would be friendly and that they would discourage their friends from taking any action that would exacerbate the problem.

Supporting Constructive

Grassroots Initiatives

Promising initiatives from the grassroots sector of the community can also have a major beneficial impact when a community is struggling with identity group conflict. To have maximum value, such initiatives often need the recognition and support of community leaders. This can come in the form of public acknowledgement in speeches, technical staff assistance organizational and leadership guidance, facilities, grants, or recommendations to potentials sponsoring organizations in the private sector. The case of Mothers Against Violence is illustrative.

During the demonstrations in Bensonhurst (N.Y.) in 1990, Edie Bonavita, a local mother, became convinced that there must be a better way to build a peaceful community. She began to organize the mothers of Bensonhurst in a coalition to work against violence by and against children. What she started has spread across the city with the formation of chapters in neighborhoods representing many ethnic groups and regular meetings of a multi- cultural steering committee of mothers and youth.

On Tuesday, July 7,1992, the residents of Washington Heights, a community comprised predominantly of Dominican immigrants, were marching to protest the shooting death of a Dominican suspect by police during a recent arrest. The Washington Heights Chapter of Mothers Against Violence were in the streets in their identifying T-shirts. When the marchers turned to violence, the mothers moved in, removing bottles and other objects from the hands of youths.

Because they were members of the community, and because they had already coalesced as a group with a purpose, this small band of women was able to prevent what might otherwise have been a more violent confrontation between the community youth and the police. This was possible only because two years earlier, Edie Bonavita acted on her convictions, and the Mayor's Office and the private sector provided encouragement and support.

Communicating with the Citizenry

Many vehicles have been developed in both the public and private sectors that can be used to convey to the public messages celebrating the values of diversity and discouraging discrimination. The media is a vehicle that is clearly essential to the effort. Under the pressure of deadlines and the need to attract consumers, the media may be inclined to highlight the conflicts, animosity and violence.

Leaders can encourage constructive coverage by, offering interviews in which they involve members of different groups, discuss successes, suggest activities and events that might make good stories, providing accurate, succinct and timely information, and engaging the media as participants in community-wide problem-solving activities. A positive media response to such suggestions and overtures is likely to depend to some degree on generally positive relationships built by leader's with the media.

To address identity group conflict, it is essential that all lines of communication be open-not just a one-way flow of information from community leaders to the public. Various forms of public meetings are available which support incoming as well as outgoing messages. Formats of such meetings may vary, with the appropriate selection dependent upon the function of the meeting.

Finally, an increasing number of cities are finding ways to celebrate the history and traditions of the cultures of the community. Festivals dearly fall into this category, but so does the use of museum, park, and adult evening education programs to teach a community about the cultures of which it is composed. Leaders can support these by giving budgetary importance to them and establishing liaison points within relevant departments to coordinate services required by sponsoring groups. They can use their good offices to encourage private sector financial support, and they can be a visible presence in attendance at festivals and street fairs.

Dealing constructively with conflict between identity groups is a growing and vital challenge for our nation's communities. Bringing people together to resolve problems of mutual concern, especially when these problems are overlaid with issues of race and culture, seems to work in a wide variety of situations - both proactively and reactively. Moreover, bringing people together to grapple with such issues, focused on a common goal of more liveable communities, offers real hope for rekindling Americans' involvement in local decision-making.

Fortunately, there are both many collaborative processes available for involving the community at large in this work and an abundance of resource people available to assist as consultants, trainers and facilitators. As noted in this report, the critical role of the leader in this environment is to provide and support forums for problem solving and to empower the stakeholders in the community to resolve their problems.

The success stories reported here are only a fraction of those that need to be told. Our forthcoming manual-facing Racial and Cultural Conflict: Tools for Rebuilding Community - will be available in mid-October and offer more success stories. If you have a success story to share, contact the Program for Community Problem Solving so that we can help get the word out to others.

About this report

In the wake of the Los Angeles verdict in the case of Rodney King the Program on Community Problem Solving is increasing our efforts to provide assistance to communities around the country in dealing with inter-racial and cross-cultural tensions. In early October, we will release a new "mini-manual" describing tools available to community leaders trying to face conflicts between such identity groups" as constructively as possible.

This four-page report, prepared by the the Program's new Senior Associate Marcelle E. DuPraw, provides a preview of what that guide, "Facing Racial and Cultural Conflict - tools for Rebuilding Community," will contain. It also highlights the role that volunteer community mediation centers can play.

We welcome any feedback you may have.

About The

Program

for Community

Problem Solving

The Program for Community Problem Solving (PCPS) was created by five community-based national associations to promote the understanding and use of collaborative approaches for resolving community problems. Our sponsors include the National League of Cities (where the Program is housed), the International City Management Association, the International Downtown Association, the American Chamber of Commerce Executives, and the National Civic League.

With the support of these sponsoring organizations, Program staff are able to help local elected and, appointed officials, citizen and business leaders, public interest groups, and agency executives find ways to channel the conflict that is inevitable in a democrative system into constructive outcomes. We do this through a combination of technical assistance, training, publications, facilitation and mediation, and clearinghouse services.

For more information about the Program, please check the appropriate line on the publications order form in this insert.

When to consider using a process

for collaborative problem solving

The following are situations which may warrant the use of collaborative problem solving.

* The community faces a controversial or complex problem that cannot be solved effectively by one person or organization acting alone;

* Existing judicial and legislative forums seem inappropriate for resolving the problem;

* Those individuals and organizations that have decision-making authority applicable to the problem are willing to work with other affected parties to find a mutually acceptable solution; and

* All affected parties have some form of incentive to participate in good faith in such a problem-solving effort.
COPYRIGHT 1992 National League of Cities
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1992 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:includes related information about the report and about community problem solving; Special Report
Author:Schoene, Lester P., Jr.; DuPraw, Marcelle E.
Publication:Nation's Cities Weekly
Date:Aug 31, 1992
Words:2906
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