Richard Salem

Private Mediator, President of Conflict Management Initiatives

Topics: peacebuilding, mediation

Interviewed by Julian Portilla — 2003

Listen to Full Interview

 This rough transcript provides a text alternative to audio. We apologize for occasional errors and unintelligible sections (which are marked with ???).

Listen/Read Selected Interview Segments on the Following Topics

Q: Can you give me an overview of your work?

A: I'm Dick Salem and my work has been in mediation. In this country it's been largely with the Community Relation Service of the Justice Department for many years, as a mediator and regional director, dealing with racial and ethnic conflict. And following that, I'm working independently with my not-for-profit "Conflict Management Initiatives." It involves doing a lot of independent work as a trainer and as a mediator, and doing some research. A lot of my research has been in Africa: South Africa, East Africa, West Africa, primarily doing training for the State Department's US Information Service. I did that in South Africa, mediation and conflict management training and consulting and helping to set up some mediation programs. And I went to other parts of Africa to do training in conflict management, negotiation, and mediation skills. Most of that was between 1990-96. You asked me to talk about Rwanda. I've also worked in other parts of the world, including El Salvador. That's what you asked me to comment on.

Q: Yes.

A: In El Salvador I work with a group in this country called the Foundation for Self-Sufficiency in Central America. I'm on the board of that group. It's chief executive is a former Salvadoran priest named Jose Chencho ??? Alas. When he was a priest he was working with the compasino ???, so he was working with peasants. He was in exile during the civil war in El Salvador from 1980-92-twelve years-and then returned after that to work with community groups and set up this foundation, which I work with now on a pro bono basis. We had a request from the group we work with in El Salvador in the Usulaton ??? region. Usulaton ??? is a rural area, largely in poverty, and we're working in about 26 communities there. The group is called Coordinadata ??? , or the coordinating committee, of the El Bajo Lempa ??? , the base of the Lempa ??? River, the bay of Bajaia, or the Bay of Hasa Lisco. To support their work in building a self-sufficient, environmentally sound economy, through agricultural and fishing projects and other projects, they wanted to address the expense of post-war conflict in El Salvador by declaring their region a local zone of peace. They set up a series of peace committees, a major peace committee and then local groups in the communities to work on conflict issues.

Q: How did they come up with that idea?

A: Chencho ??? I think introduced someone who brought that idea to them, someone who's now in the Philippines, and it rang a true note because they're very conscious of the conflict, which is extensive in El Salvador. I went down to meet with and work with some of the leaders in Coordinadata ??? . They wanted to pursue this. I don't speak Spanish, so we recruited Mark Chupp, who is a Mennonite trainer, who has worked in El Salvador and other parts of Latin America extensively, and is fluent in the language and the culture. Mark and a few others came in to help us out, and he worked with the peace committee of Coordinadata ??? to help set up circles of dialogue and reflection, where local community folks would come together to talk about their conflicts and ways they might address them and in fact begin to deal with some of them.And they did this through their own local community structures and the peace committee had trained faciliators who helped meet with them once or twice a week and work with them.

Q: What does it mean to have a "zone of peace"?

A: They try to create a region or a zone, a geographic area, where they can live in peace and not be threatened, whether it be by overt violence, such as through weapons, or through denial of human rights or inability to live a just life, to do their farming and raise their crops or do their fishing, and without fear of harm.

Q: But those things sound like elements that anybody in El Salvador would want.

A: I'm sure people everywhere in the world want that.

Q: Yeah.

A: But this became an integral part of the structure of the work of Coordinadata Baja Lempa ??? , to actually publicly declare this a zone of peace and to create a culture of peace, getting people to address conflicts, many for the first time. Prior to the war, in 1980, the political climate was such that there was a veil of silence. You could not speak out and people didn't talk up. This has changed. Now the environment is such that they can work together in their small groups, and begin to address some of their interpersonal conflicts, community conflicts, business conflicts, there are a wide variety of them. Some are drug and poverty related, some are alcoholism related. So they're beginning to learn techniques of dialogue to respond to these.

As I said, we retain some trainers, including Mark Chupp and some of his colleagues to come in and work with the community groups, and he made several trips down there, which were very profitable, and the groups were very receptive. I go down from time to time to evaluate the project or meet with the peace committee and visit some of the circles of dialogue and reflection. On my last trip, which was in the early part of 2003, we went out to an area called ??? , In that region, working with another training group, Coordinadata's peace committee has set up a continuing program in the school system with the teachers. They close down the school one day a month on the third Friday of the month, and at that time the facilitators come in and work with the teachers.

Q: Every month.

A: Once a month. And the teachers work, and they've been doing this for a year. I met with the teachers who come together for this project, and they sit in a circle and talk about some of the problems that they're encountering and how to deal with them. And then they use some of these techniques in their work with the students and parents. In addition, they've set up student groups that meet at the same time, the same day, and the parents of those students also come together. These were children who they perceived to be at risk because they were overly aggressive or they were very quiet and hardly spoke up at all. From the students' perspective, they felt that the parents and in some cases the teachers didn't care about them at all, and they've helped the parents to address some of these problems, and the students as well, and the teachers have changed their own behavior to be more responsive, a little less harsh as disciplinarians, but still maintaining control and working with the young students more effectively than ever. These teachers, as you might imagine, are role models in the community. They live in the community of ??? , and are highly respected. Some have been in that school system for many years, and they have improved it as you might imagine, because the students now like their teachers, they care about them, and the parents are appreciative of the work these teachers are doing. The central school system isn't happy on the island, on El Salvador, because they think the teachers belong in the classroom with the children and don't want to let them break for this, so that's a hurdle that we're working on. Hopefully they'll be able to continue.

Q: When you hear zone of peace, it sounds like, okay, so we declare the zone of peace and all of a sudden no rebels, no army can come in here, everything's great. But really what it is is a commitment to develop the skills to deal with conflicts in such a way that will end in peace.

A: Yes, to deal with it. And to deal with violence in their own communities, not with outside military force. They're working with police on some projects, and trying to get the police to be more responsive. There was one case in that region where there was an awfully aggressive police officer, and they brought in police from outside the region, a commander, to look at the situation, and he came in and surveyed it and made some changes, and assured them that this won't continue. So the police patrolling and police protection has improved considerably. In another part of the Usulaton ??? region they work with some gangs, and this led to setting up some programs in many of the communities, including an art program where the youngsters come together with a trainer who gives them instruction in art. They'll soon be making T-shirts and printing logos on T-shirts to sell at a roadside stand that Coordinadata ??? has set up for its agricultural produce, or is in the process of setting up. So there are a lot of interesting things happening down there. There are a lot of projects in this region, mostly agricultural, that are sustaining the area, and they're striving for self-sufficiency and moving in that direction.

Q: You've mentioned a few different examples, but is there one particular experience in that work that you find inspiring?

A: Well I was quite inspired when they took me out to the ??? . I visited while I was down there last time with two or three circles of dialogue and reflection, and the one at the school was the most exciting because there I was with the teachers and the teachers were all very receptive, and they have financial problems of keeping these programs running, so the teachers were pleading with me to help them find resources to keep the program going. They wanted to continue doing it, so their enthusiasm for the project of course was quite inspiring, and you need that kind of motivation when you're working pro bono. It helps, certainly. And that's very fulfilling work when you see those things happening, and I'm very delighted to have the opportunity to do it.

Q: What lessons have you learned from that project and others in your experience?

A: To listen, not to make assumptions, if you don't have to, as to what people need or want. Let people decide for themselves and tell you what you can do for them. Not to try to impose an American or North American or American-European system of mediation or conflict resolution, but rather to work from where they are. I ask, what systems do you use and how do they work? I say, here's what we do back home and they're doing it some other places, and provide additional support as requested. It's important not to impose it, to make sure people want to do this, and also to work from the bottom up. Grassroots really. A bottom up project is important to me and I think it makes it work better. For example, mediation of interpersonal disputes that are in the community often are in the jurisdiction of the elected community officials in the local communities. So you can't just set up a mediation program and start addressing these without taking that into account. If you do, you could have some problems. If you choose to do it, you try to address those problems earlier. Perhaps the way to do it is to be teaching conflict resolution skills to some of those leaders, and I think that's on the table as well. That'll be coming along. So you have to know the culture, you have to know the territory, and try to be respectful of it.

Q: The notion of bottom-up is really interesting. Tell a little bit more about why that's important.

A: Well, because it comes from the communities themselves, it's what they want to do. You don't come in and say, I see you have this problem, here's how you solve it. You get the community group talking about their problem and expressing desire for assistance. That's how we got into the gang problem down there. They've got a lot of gang problems in El Salvador. In this particular region there were two gangs that were intimidating the community and terrifying people. At soccer games they would create disturbances and people were afraid to come out of their houses at night.

There was a meeting with these groups and some community leaders that was done through the community. And Mark Chupp led them through this exercise, some action research, working with Coordinadata ??? peace committee, working with people from that community. They went around to talk to the institutions, hospital, police, school officials, and they talked to families, knocked down doors to find out what the conflicts were that needed addressing, and they came away with a lot of concern about the gangs. So they decided to approach the gangs and they did.

They met with them in a church and they got a priest who had been giving Coordinadata a hard time in that community. Sierra Blanca ??? was the community. They'd been giving them a very hard time. The Catholic church wasn't as supportive of Coordinadata ??? as it could have been. Coordinidata ??? is open, it welcomes Evangelicals as well as Catholics, it doesn't put restrictions on who it helps, it takes a broad community view, and as I say, it's not authoritarian. The bottom's up, and it's totally democratic and they won't tolerate any other approaches, and for other groups that might want to help, that's not always the way assistance is rendered. And those other groups--relief agencies as well as the church--had not been supportive. But in this community once that problem was identified, they did support it wholly, and the local priest helped on this project and gave his church. Police tried to break it up, police from another jurisdiction came in and tried to arrest one of the gang leaders. They did arrest him and beat him up in the back of the pickup truck, back of the van, and that led to some problems because it looked like they were being set up, which was not the case.

Q: It looked like the police were being set up?

A: It looked like the gang leadership was being set up by our group.

Q: The police came in and got the gang, and then it looked like you were collaborating with the police to bring in the gang members?

A: Right, there was another police group from the local office who was in that meeting, and they were helping out, but this was police from another jurisdiction who came in. They had an outstanding warrant against this guy, this gang leader.

Q: That's a standard procedure for outstanding warrants?

A: Right, after a peace meeting in the church. The beating was not unusual. I'm not sure how that came down finally, but they were able to continue working with the gangs and that led to the setting up of this art program. The gang members said, give us some training. We don't like to be in this position. Get us some training so we can get jobs. Help us have these tattoos removed. They have heavy tattoos on their face and arms and exposed all over their bodies. So they said, give us an opportunity to have these tattoos removed so we can get jobs, and our people down there are helping them along that path. So that's one of the highlights of the work down there. This art program is quite exciting because they have all these kids coming in. They give them paints to work with, acrylics and materials and they sit around tables with this instructor helping them. They had a competition, a juried competition. They brought in some artists from outside the region who were cooperating and helped select the best paintings and some of them were sold for some good money. And they're hoping to have an exhibit in Miami at a later date, bring the paintings to this country, where the instructor has some good connections, and see if they can't raise some money for the project that way and by selling the T-shirts, and that'll help support the project and the kids.

Q: Is there a particular piece of theory that you find useful in this kind of work that you take with you usually, or refer back to in your practice?

A: The theory would be not to tell others what to do, but to take it from them. To be interested and respectful, and to be respectful of everybody I meet whenever I can and let them know I'm interested in what they're doing, and agree to continue our work when we're asked to. Yes. If that's theory. But that's what I do in practice. That's the practice of it and it's important because without that I'd be in trouble. Also trying not to yawn if I get bored.

Q: That's a really good piece of advice.

A: That's happened. Yeah, it happens here. So that's the work.

Q: You've touched on a few, but what sort of qualities do you think a person who would go down into El Salvador to do that sort of work need?

A: Well, if you have language skills it's helpful. I don't. I have a little high school Spanish that gets me through a little bit. Words such as "problema," "organization." I can fake my way through. People are respectful and appreciate that I try. I'd say you need a good translator if you don't have the language skills. You need patience, and I have that, fortunately, when I'm down there. It takes patience and some energy and trying to be creative and willing to support the local groups when they have to confront the people above them in some way. Back in the States we raise money for this project, and going in and working on the ground you take what you know and you've got to be sure of what that is. In my case it was mediating community conflicts. Then you take that skill and see how helpful you can be with the groups, with the local groups.

Q: Okay, is there anything else we should talk about that might be useful for people?

A: Oh, I'm sure, but I don't know how much time we have to do that.Ã?Â

Q: Okay, well, just give me anything off the top of your head that you think would be useful for someone who's trying to learn either more about conflict or how to deal with it.

A: Just talk to people who've done it or read about it, and get your feet wet. Get in there and be honest to yourself and to the people you're working with in this work, and be a straight shooter. I think that's the most important thing. That'll carry you a long way.

Q: What does it mean, be honest to yourself, in this context?

A: Well, know what you're doing and don't get involved with anything that you don't feel you can manage or stay with. I think that's important. We could talk about the skills people need in this work, in mediation, and they're formidable. None of us have all of those skills, but we move in that direction as best we can and keep developing our skills as we do our work. And if people see that we're there to help them and doing credible work, they're not going to throw you out if you make a mistake. You'll survive your mistakes in these things typically. I usually have, not always, but usually.

You should enjoy the work certainly, and be objective, as you're supposed to be in this work. You can't be neutral because you'll see some injustices and you'll take a position in your own mind, but you can't work with that, you have to try to get people to negotiate their own differences. You're an advocate for a system of settlement through settling differences and creating justice through negotiations, and not an advocate carrying a banner for one party or another. So you have to be able to accept yourself in that role, and I think you'll find that's a needed role and it will be accepted by the disputed parties. And then again, following their time tables in terms of when they're ready to move forward and do things differently. When they're ready to come to the table, listening to them, working with them, showing understanding and respect to all the parties is important. And those are the best tools needed to be a good communicator, an empathic listener and a good communicator. I've always found it does most of the job for me.

Q: Okay, well, thank you.