Talking Race and Democracy with Grande Lum



Newsletter #209 — February 15, 2024


I (Heidi Burgess) talked with Grande Lum, Director of the Gould Center for Conflict Resolution at Stanford Law School on January 29, 2024.  Grande's specialties and interest are conflict resolution, race relations and democracy. In the past he has served as the Director of the Community Relations Service (within the U.S. Department of Justice),  was the Founding Director of the Ohio State University Divided Community Project, was a Provost at Menlo College in California and was a senior partner at the Rebuild Congress Initiative (among other roles).  We talked about the current state and history of race relations in this country, and what might be done to improve it, and discussed the same questions about threats to democracy more broadly.  You can watch the full video (or read the full transcript) here.  This blog post contains some highlights from that interview, as well as a few further ideas that Grande and I talked about a week earlier, when we had a wonderful two-hour conversation that I failed to record!!



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Highlights of My Two Discussions with Grande Lum

by Heidi Burgess

February 7, 2024

We started our conversation with a focus on race, and the work of the Community Relations Service (CRS). CRS was created as part of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and was intended to be a federal office (part of the Department of Justice for most of its history.) that helped communities deal with racial conflicts emanating from that act, and going forward. In 2009,  its jurisdiction was expanded (with the James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act) to cover gender, sexual orientation, religion, and disability conflicts, as well as race.  Grande admitted that while he knew what CRS did, he didn't know much of CRS’ rich history before he was being considered as Director.  He then looked at the CRS Oral History Project interviews that Guy and I did 25 years ago, and read Bert Levine's book, America's Peacemakers (a second edition of which Grande has now co-authored).  After looking at those histories, he reported:

I was just stunned! I mean, these are people who have operated in confidentiality, without much publicity, who've been just doing really important work to help people figure out their differences, to help people understand each other better, to help calm down communities and to make progress in these difficult issues, many of them which involve race. . . .

So I think the work of CRS in dealing with race issues, which have been difficult throughout our history, is exemplary.  But I also think it's important to acknowledge that we've made progress over time on those issues. And what we've learned from dealing with them, and what CRS has learned, I think, will be helpful going forward in the challenges that we're facing today and we'll be facing for a number of years, of course.

One of the biggest challenges we are facing now, he says, is our toxic polarization, which leads us to simplify, rather than "complexify" what is, actually, a very complex situation. It's not conflict that's bad—conflict and advocacy are the way we bring about needed change, he stressed. But over-simplified us-versus-them conflict is not helpful—it makes it harder to produce necessary change.  In order to deal effectively with race in this country, he said, " we need to see the complexity of it." 

He also thinks third parties can be particularly helpful in getting people to see beyond the "us-versus-them" frame.

There is a power to having a third party who comes in with the intention of just trying to help the parties succeed and helping them find a resolution to their problems. And I think that's been the beauty of CRS in terms of bringing to the table, mediating between the parties, or just facilitating a conversation.

(The difference between mediation and facilitation, he explained, is that mediation is about a particular dispute, while facilitation is helping a broader conversation take place.) Other organizations, beyond CRS, do that too, of course. Grande talked about Ohio State's Divided Community Project (where he was the founding director), and state agencies that do similar things.  That's important, we agreed, because being able to scale up these small-scale processes is very important.  "We have to think about the larger infrastructure," he said.  

That includes community mediation centers, the Trust Network, human relations commissions, all those. There are good things going on in US attorney's offices, other agencies, city managers, police chiefs. There are folks within all those organizations or committees that think about the community relations issues in ways that they might not have decades ago. And that's going to continue to be important.

Briefly in this conversation and more in our earlier (not recorded) conversation we talked about using media and even social media to scale up the "table-oriented" work of facilitators and mediators. For instance, we both greatly admire the work done by Search for Common Ground, which has created soap operas for deeply-divided societies, to teach conflict resolution skills. Grande revisited this idea at the end of our recorded conversation, pointing out that the same kind of thing could be done in the United States, and could help significantly to get people to "complexify" their image of the other.

One of the particularly interesting aspects of CRS's work is the fine line that it walks between neutrality and advocacy.  Early in its history, Roger Wilkins, the second director of CRS, was very focused on civil rights and economic empowerment of Blacks, and saw CRS as an effort to bring the civil rights movement into the federal government. But, at the same time, he, and later CRS directors (and conciliators) as well, understood the importance of treating everyone with respect, making sure everyone (including white authority figures) felt comfortable in the mediation/facilitation room. 

I think fundamentally, it is doing what any good mediator does. All the people that you interact with, are you respecting them?  Are you making them feel safe in that room with you? Because if you don't have their trust, you're not going to get anything done.... It is also recognizing that everybody wants to be seen in their identity, whatever they are,  whether they're Asian or they're white or they're black and whatever.

We also talked about the interplay between advocacy and negotiation. Gandhi and King both protested and negotiated, Grande explained.  They tried to negotiate as much as they could, and when they couldn't get their interests or needs adequately met, they used nonviolent action to try to push the authorities a little bit harder.  But Gandhi, King, and CRS all focused on and believed in nonviolent protest, not violence. So, in addition to providing facilitation and mediation, CRS also has helped protestors keep their protests nonviolent.  They have trained protest marshals, they have mediated between the establishment and the protestors to plan marches that would make the point that the protestors wanted to make, but without encouraging violence. 

Part of what makes it possible for CRS to work for minority empowerment, but also work successfully with the white establishment, is that they have a long history of doing that effectively and are trusted by people on all sides of racial (and other) divides.  Many of the people they work with know about them  from past encounters, and new people can hear from other "old-timers" that CRS is trustworthy.  We talked a bit in the recorded discussion, and much more in the first discussion, about the importance of relationships.  CRS works very hard to establish relationships with people on all sides of the conflicts they work on, ideally, before problems arise. 

Grande also talked about the importance of building relationships between people in the United States.  Robert Putnam, in his book Bowling Alone, says we don't have relationships anymore, we don't have bowling leagues and neighborhood groups that tie us together.  Grande observed that we don't know our neighbors.  If we want to diminish polarization and improve our democracy, we need to change that. 

Discussing democracy, though, Grande acknowledged we are in a very difficult time. 

For sure, it's difficult today when you see what's happening in Congress, in the presidency, with this upcoming election, with a presidential candidate who has 91 felony allegations against him. It is a very troubling time, I'm not going to deny it. It is incredibly difficult. [But] I am a person who believes — and this is something I I really have thought about throughout my career in conflict resolution— is that conflict can be helpful and useful if it leads to change.

So, he implied, we should see this situation as challenging, but also as an opportunity to make our democracy better. 

CRS's mandate does not cover political conflicts, so they can't get involved in political disputes, even if they turn violent. But many other organizations can, and are, indeed, doing so. One example is the Rebuild Congress Initiative (RCI) that Grande worked with before going to Stanford. RCI is a joint project of the Harvard Negotiation Project and Issue One, that is intended to help Congress use dispute resolution strategies to improve their relationships and their functioning. RCI consulted with and facilitated retreats for the similarly-tasked House Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress.  That committee, which was empaneled four four years 2019-2022, had a Democratic Chairman (Derek Kilmer) and a Republican Vice-Chairman (William Timmons) who worked side by side to "just approach their work very differently." They sat at round tables, alternating seats by party, so that if you wanted to lean over to say "that's an interesting idea" to your neighbor, your neighbor was from the other party.  Kilmer pointed out that "its hard to have a conversation when you're looking at the back of each other's heads." So they actually faced each other and had conversations without time limits.  They just talked. And talked. And talked.  The result is that they passed over 200 recommendations, many unanimously, and over half have been adopted. Grande helped create a video that explains more about the Select Committee. 

We also talked about the National Governor's Association Disagree Better Campaign, started with Utah Governor Spencer Cox, and now being continued by Colorado Governor Jared Polis. Grande explained:

I think we need to see our political leaders model disagreement well, that they're not making personal insults when they are criticizing someone who holds the position on the other side. In Utah, in the governor's race, both candidates agreed that they would uphold the election results. So I think that sort of modeling of what to do in the political arena is one thing that brings us closer to cultural norms about how we should disagree.

It's one of those fundamental things that we, as a society, are going to need to do better. We need to actively listen better to each other. In moments of othering and in this us-and-them world, nobody is thinking about listening to the other side. We're all preparing our argument in response to the other side, right? We're simplifying, rather than complexifying. That's why any work of mediation and facilitation that helps people be in an environment where people feel emotionally safe, not operating out of fear, not operating out of anger, but operating even from a place I would call "curiosity" would be helpful.

To encourage more of this, he suggested the value of scaling up community mediation centers, so that they could help more people work together effectively at the local level. This is another idea we explored at length in the first (non-recorded) discussion. People at the local level, he said then, know more about their local situation. It affects them more, so it's more relevant to them than national issues might be. So, quite often they're more willing to work with people on the other side to solve mutual problems—and they also are more likely to see their problems as mutual.  So local level consensus building maybe more possible and more effective than national level consensus building efforts. 

Grande also talked in the earlier conversation about the importance of story-telling, of narratives. It's much easier to understand the concerns, the legitimacy, and the dignity of the other side if you learn about them through stories coming directly from them. It's easier to understand pain when you hear the story of what that pain feels like from the person who is feeling it. It makes the problems real and relatable. It makes empathy easier. That is why dialogue groups are so powerful, but technology can be used to do this too.  It can make "the other" more human.  It can help us understand where they are coming from, that they are legitimate people too.  Social media, he observed in both conversations, is here to stay.  So far, it has caused more damage and division than benefits.  But we've got to figure out how to harness it, and use it for good, rather than harm.

We also talked about the importance of having a "bonding vision" — a vision of a future that everyone would want to live in.  "That's one of the things that dispute resolution does well," Grande observed.  It helps us find our common ground, our shared vision.  

What's our shared vision for the future that we can all buy into? I think that's a hugely important piece of what we as mediators, negotiators, facilitators can help a group identify. And it is also the answer out of this polarization issue. How is this going to be? It's much harder to find common ground if we don't trust each other. And trust is the currency that we desperately need in order to get to a more harmonious society. Because if we don't have trust, it's going to take a long, long time.

As bad as things look like now, Grande observed, they've been bad before. And MAGA-like attitudes have always been part of America. We just didn't see it. But still, he urges, we need to be careful not to demonize the other side, because if we do, they'll just get angry with us, they will distrust us, and we won't ever be able to work with them.

We all have to constantly work to understand how the other side feels. ... And I think that's an important thing that we in conflict resolution bring, is that it's never "us versus them," really. There are multiple factions within each side. At the very least, there are all these other things going on. We believe the process of complexifying will help lead to a better answer at some level, that going deeper and truly understanding something will help.

In the conversation that I didn't record, I remember Grande saying "our [conflict resolution professionals] time has come and we need to step up to the plate!" 

We ended our recorded conversation by talking about Grande's work at Stanford, where he directs their conflict resolution program, which is training students— lawyers to be—in conflict resolution.  He's trying to figure out how Stanford can train lawyers to make a difference in reducing polarization, and helping the country move forward constructively.  Lawyers play an important role, he said, upholding the rule of law.  We need to figure out how to help them do that effectively in a way that gains the trust of the community. 

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