Bill Froehlich Talks about the Ohio State Divided Community Project



Newsletter #216 — March 5, 2024


On February 1, 2024, I (Heidi Burgess) talked with William (Bill) Froehlich, who is Director of the Divided Community Project at Ohio State University. We talked about the work of DCP and how that relates to the work of the U.S. Community Relations Service.  (Bill is also leading an effort with Grande Lum, Guy Burgess, and me to do a second round of oral histories with recently retired Community Relations Service conciliators, a follow on to the project Guy and I did with Dick Salem about 25 years ago.)  The full video and transcript of our discussion is available here.



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Highlights of My Discussion with Bill Froehlich

by Heidi Burgess

February 26, 2024

We started our discussion talking about the history of the Divided Community Project (DCP).  I was surprised to learn that it started with a dispute systems design class that Nancy Rogers, a former Ohio attorney general, taught at the Ohio State University College of Law in 2015.  She asked students to think about "what could dispute systems design and mediation principles do for communities in the face of unrest? How could principles in mediation and dispute systems theory support communities in crisis?" (This question came out of her experience working with communities in crisis when she was Attorney General, and her thinking at the time that perhaps dispute resolution and dispute systems design principles could be useful in such situations.)

The capstone of that class was to host a convening, a multi-day convening of leaders from across the country to bring [them] together and to think about how dispute resolution principles could support communities in the face of crisis. So in April 2015, Nancy and Josh [Stulberg] and the students brought together leaders from Sanford, Florida, where Trevon Martin was killed by a neighborhood watch volunteer, but where there were no arrests and no significant violence, even though there were massive protests. (Remember, the city of Sanford doubled in population [from outside protestors coming in].)  So [they wanted to learn] what did they do there? It was different from what we saw in other communities. There were also folks from Missouri in that convening.  Michael Brown was just killed in Ferguson a short while earlier. We had advocacy experts, law enforcement leaders, and many of the stakeholders you might bring together when you do a stakeholder assessment who all came together here in April of 2015. ...

And that convening was so successful that the folks who were there said, "Look, communities really need guidance. They're desperate for guidance — two modes of it. One, an off-the-shelf guide on what to do in the face of unrest, when unrest comes to your community. It could be connected to the unjust killing of a black male, as we've seen, or a black female, as we've seen in so many cases across the country. Or it could be connected to an immigration issue, religious tension, LGBTQ issues. So our initial guidance was written really broadly to support communities in the face of crisis. That's guide number one.


And guide number two was how can dispute resolution principles, mediation principles, support communities to plan in advance of community unrest? Why plan in advance? Well, I think Norton Bonaparte, the city manager in Sanford, Florida, would say, "Hey, look, we plan for tornadoes. We plan for hurricanes. We plan for earthquakes. We plan for other natural disasters. We don't plan for community unrest. We should be planning for that."

Bill went on to describe the relationship between DCP and the U.S. Department of Justice's Community Relations Service (CRS), as they  do similar things, and indeed, involve some of the same people.

Bill explained that DCP had been trying to build a relationship with CRS for quite some time.  Grande Lum, who was the Director of CRS from 2012-2016,  was invited to give the high profile "Lawrence Lecture on Dispute Resolution" for the Moritz College of Law in 2014. He then came on board to be the first director of DCP after leaving CRS, so that "brought an enormous amount of institutional memory" and connections between DCP and CRS. 

In 2018, DCP launched the Bridge Initiative, which offered dispute resolution assistance to communities in crisis across the country, providing services similar to those provided by CRS, but sometimes related to issues that were outside of CRS's jurisdiction. (CRS is limited to conflicts involving race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, and disability--the latter four being added in 2009.) DCP provides assistance in those areas as well, but also can provide assistance in political conflicts which are off-limits to CRS.) The first person to lead the Bridge Initiative was Becky Monroe, who was a former acting director of CRS, and two of the mediators now working on the project were former CRS regional directors: Ron Wakabayashi and Thomas Battles, (both of whom I had the pleasure of interviewing for the CRS Oral History Project that Guy and I are doing with Bill and Grande. You can watch my conversation with Thomas Battles here. Ron's interview, however, isn't ready yet.) 

A lot of their work now, Bill explained, involves technical assistance. For instance, 

we might get a call from someone, saying "I'm struggling to gain entry in this community. What strategies do you have? Who should I be reaching out to? Here's what I've done so far." And sometimes we get calls from folks at another nonprofit, at a community mediation center, or at a state or federal organization. And we workshop things.  Because Ron [Wakabayashi] and Thomas [Battles] and Andrew [Thomas] and Daphne [Felten Green--the current Bridge Initiative mediators] have this depth of decades of experience. They have more than 100 years of experience doing this work between them. And so we workshop issues. And sometimes we go into communities.

Similar to CRS, most of DCP's work is confidential. But they do have case studies available on their website that describe some of their efforts.  One is a case study of their work in Bloomington, Indiana on a racial conflict. Other available case studies are Winston-Salem, NCRochester NY, Orlando, FLColumbus, OH, and the Strengthening Communities Project.]

DCP also ran a Community Resiliency Initiative that aimed to help communities plan in advance of community unrest.  The Greater Columbus Community Trust was an example of one of these projects. That group met for years, about 10 times a year, to talk about planning in advance of community unrest. And it was a really interesting experience in building trust and building connections. They developed and ran simulations that helped leaders be ready for real events when they occurred, and they met with leaders from other cities which had to deal with real incidents.  For instance, they met with Tim Heaphy, who was, at the time, the U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Virginia, who dealt with the unrest in Charlottesville, Virginia and the murder of Heather Heyer that took place during that "Unite the Right" rally.

Connected to the Community Resilience Initiative is what DCP calls their "Academy Program."

That is designed to train community cohorts, about eight people from communities across the country, in DCP's concepts. So we train them in dispute systems design skills, and help them design a process to identify or address issues searing the social fabric of their community, okay, and then send them back. So we trained, I don't know, 16 communities and have five pilots. ...Now, we also hold office hours occasionally for [these cohorts].  So, for example, after there's a traumatic national event, we'll hold office hours and invite that group of people to participate and reflect and engage with us because we've trained them previously.

In late 2022, DCP held an event called "Building Infrastructure for Civil Rights Peacemakers and Conciliators" to bring together folks doing similarly situated work that are often siloed. Bill pointed out that there are many other organizations and agencies which are doing civil rights mediation in addition to CRS: the states of New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and California have programs, as do many local agencies, such as community mediation centers. "I know there are others out there that I don't know about, but I want to know about them.  So please, if you are with such a center or know of one, get in touch with me at" 

In the Building Infrastructure for Civil Rights Peacemakers and Conciliators event, they brought in some CRS people, and also people working at the state or community level on de-escalation, violence interruption, community training to learn from each other and figure out how they could support each other more effectively. In addition, DCP recently got a grant from the Department of Justice's Office of Community Oriented Policing Services to work with and support CRS on a number of projects. So bottom line, there are many interconnections between DCP and CRS and they maintain a supportive relationship to each other. 

DCP's American Community Spirit Initiative, which started in 2017 or 18 had the goal of bringing people together to identify their "community spirit" or the "American spirit"  — something that unites people, that most can agree defines them." He spoke of Ashland, Ohio, a community on the highway between Cleveland and Columbus that has a sign outside of town saying "Ashland, Ohio, world headquarters of nice people." That's their "spirit."  Many other communities, however, need help identifying their spirit. 

When I asked how they did this, Bill explained that they hosted conversations about what is unique about a particular organization, or community, or region.  But before that, they did an assessment to determine who should be involved in that conversation.

What are the business interests? What are the advocacy interests? What are the political interests that need to be at the table so that you can have conversations about developing a spirit? And if that group recommends something, it won't get blocked.

There are other micro ways to do community spirit. There was an art classroom in a local school that took us up on the community or American Spirit idea. The kiddos made a quilt of what the American spirit looks like to them. And it's cool. It's really cool. There's a  basketball thing happening in one part of the quilt.  There's a non-white scientist who invented something to address a disease. There's the spaceship in another part. The task was to decide what "the American spirit" means to those kiddos who are in sixth, seventh, and eighth grade.  ...

Those guides are still are up on our website, and we're happy to talk through them.  

DCP is now doing related work with its Guardrails of Democracy Project. That's an example of a project that DCP could do, but which CRS could not, as it is too political and doesn't fall within CRS's jurisdiction. 

Last year, we drafted some guidance for leaders and to encourage leaders to speak out about democracy issues because we thought that as dispute resolution practitioners and lawyers, because we're housed at a law school, that this is a lane for us, that talking about the law and protecting the guardrails of the law and democracy was a lane that we should be operating in.

BI's Newsletter 120, which came out June 1, 2023 had a summary of that publication, which lays out seven "markers of danger," together with potential responses, and stories of real organizations which have taken action to respond to each of these dangers. But most importantly, the report asserts, we all need to speak out about threats to democracy.

This is a moment when speaking out could matter. When we speak out, we need not do so perfectly to arouse public sentiment to act in support of democracy—but we need to speak out! We offer this guide to encourage and embolden each of us to speak to preserve and strengthen this democracy.

We talked briefly about two other DCP initiatives.  One involves launching new classes on civil discourse to give students the capacity to engage across difference in effective ways.  Related to that, they have a #CampusBridge Initiative which seeks to "support campus leaders with resources grounded in dispute resolution theory and practice.  They also have a "Campus Leader" part of their "Virtual Toolkit" which has even more resources to help campus leaders manage potentially destructive conflicts on campus.

And the other initiative that Bill talked about is studying the potential for U.S. Truth and Reconciliation Commissions and other ways to address "attitudinal and situation barriers to advancing race equity [in the United States] though an interdisciplinary lens."  

To learn more about these various initiatives, you can listen (or read the transcript) of our full conversation and/or follow the links to the many materials provided on the DCP website.

Read/watch the video


Go to DCP Website


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