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Chapter 27. Cultural Competence in a Multicultural World >
Section 9. Transforming Conflicts in Diverse Communities >
Transforming Conflicts in Diverse Communities
Contributed by Kien Lee
Edited by Bill Berkowitz and Jerry Schultz
What is conflict transformation?
Why is transforming conflicts in diverse communities important?
How can conflicts be transformed?
What are some of the challenges in transforming conflicts?
What is conflict transformation?
Conflicts are natural parts of our lives. Some people tend to shy away from conflicts, while others tend to confront them. Some cultures encourage their members to conform, while others encourage their members to challenge.
Conflicts can occur between two or more individuals because of differences in personality, values, and opinions. When this type of conflict happens, conflict resolution techniques can be employed to help the parties find a peaceful solution to a disagreement. When the conflict is resolved, the two parties may walk away feeling somewhat or very satisfied. (See Chapter 20, Section 6: Training for Conflict Resolution.)
Conflicts can also occur between two or more organizations or community groups. These conflicts may no longer be about individual differences, but also about divisions perpetuated by ignorance and intolerance, discrimination, and a history of fear and animosity. In such cases, conflict resolution between individuals may not be enough. The groups affected not only have to reconcile their differences; they also have to strengthen their ability to value each other, build alliances, and find common ground in order to change the systems that support their division. They have to transform their conflicts.
Conflict transformation, therefore, is the process whereby conflict is both resolved and used to build the capacity of groups to develop alliances that value equitable relationships, promote harmony, and effect systems change.
Why is transforming conflicts in diverse communities important?
In a diverse community composed of two or more ethnic, or cultural groups, conflicts are more likely to occur because of:
- Differences in group identity, which is shaped by the group's cultural values, history, socioeconomic status, and perceived power.
- History of hostile interaction and discrimination.
- Misinformed stereotypes and perceptions caused by prejudiced attitudes and other external influences (e.g., the media).
Transforming conflicts that stem from these causes takes time, patience, humility, a long-term commitment, and a willingness to trust and to take the risk of making mistakes. But the effort is well worth it because diversity enriches our lives and our communities, and diversity is not something you can eliminate. Global changes and natural disasters (climate change, earthquakes, hurricanes), war, economic downturns, and other factors cause different groups of people to move in and out of countries, states, cities, and communities. Conflict is dynamic and always evolving. Therefore, it is important to be able to transform conflicts to create and sustain stronger alliances and communities.
How can conflicts be transformed?
There are four basic steps to transforming conflict. Within each step, different methods can be used move the process toward a positive outcome. Remember, transforming conflict is a process, not a single event or activity. In practice, it is not always clear as to which step you and your group may be in. You may spend a lot of time working on one step before moving to the next step. You and several others may be ready to move to the next step, but the rest of the group may not. When this happens, don't try and move ahead without everyone. Try and work together to figure out what is holding some of the groups back and what it would take to move forward together. The most important function of these steps is to provide you with a general framework and direction for your effort and to remind you of certain components that have to be considered during the process.
1. All groups that are affected by the conflict should acknowledge that there is a problem and commit to working together to deal with the conflict.
2. The root causes of the conflict should be identified, made explicit, and reconciled collectively by the groups.
3. The groups involved should develop a common vision for what they can do together and how they can do it.
4. The groups should determine what they need in order to sustain their ability to continue to work together to manage or eliminate the causes of the conflict, and to promote peace.
Summary of steps:
Acknowledgment: Acknowledging the conflict is the first step toward resolving it. It’s not an easy step, especially when history and bad relationships have led to painful experiences such as insults or death. Some react by distancing themselves from the conflict, or actively oppose the other group as their solution to it. Some deny their participation in continuing to keep the conflict alive. Acknowledging that there is a problem and that there are other, perhaps better, ways to handle the problem are tough but vital first steps. Without acknowledgement no one will commit to working to solve the problem. Acknowledgment is thus important in being able to move to the next step of reconciling differences.
What are some of the techniques for helping groups acknowledge the problem and commit to working together?
- Facilitate a dialog between groups clarifying the conflict
- Present information to the groups to show them how they are all affected by a particular issue and how it serves their purpose to work together, or create a safe place where that dialog can be held.
- Bring leaders together who will publicly declare that it'’s time to deal with the issues rather than let a bad situation get worse.
- Hold sessions with group leaders to discuss the importance of reconciliation.
- Help draft a public commitment statement where groups promise to try to work out their differences.
Keep in mind:
Acknowledge and include the cultural traditions and resources that can contribute to or obstruct conflict transformation. For example, language differences can obstruct the process. At the same time, the social networks in a group that allows information to be spread quickly by word of mouth can be a resource for sharing knowledge
Can you think of any other ways to help the different groups in your community acknowledge the problem, commit to working together, and identify the root causes of their conflict?
Illustrative Hypothetical Example:
Latino and African American parents are each blaming the other's group for their children's poor performance in school. At recent public events, tempers have flared and accusations have been exchanged. Some parents are afraid that worse things might happen at the school. The African American parents feel that the non-English speaking students are taking the teachers' time away from their children, as a result of which their children are not learning. The Latino parents feel that the teachers are too busy offering risk prevention activities to the African American children, depriving their children of adequate attention. A community organization was asked by the Latino parents to do something about the problem. The community builder collected information about all the students' performance. The community builder recognized that being Latino himself may not help the African American parents to trust him. So, he worked closely with an African American colleague and used their partnership as an example for cross-cultural collaboration. The two of them held separate meetings with both groups of parents. During each meeting they presented the achievement information and asked the participants to share their views about their goals and dreams for their children and their perceptions of the conflict and each other. They gathered together representatives from each of the groups and facilitated a dialogue between the groups to help them clarify and share their perceptions of the conflict. The groups discussed the consequences of continuing conflict and how it would hurt their communities and children. The groups also imagined a variety of possible solutions that didn't entail conflict. The groups issued a joint statement that they would hold a series of meetings to try resolve the conflict and sought community participation. They declared a personal and spiritual commitment to reaching that end.
Reconciliation: Reconciliation is an important part of the conflict transformation process. Reconciliation is difficult to define, but common themes include making amends and offering restoration in order to bring groups back together. The process may include offerings of reparation and redistribution as part of healing and admission that there may have been victims and perpetrators. There is often a need to forgive. With community reconciliation there may be a sense of community brokenness that needs to be repaired. Those who have committed some wrongs may seek some form of repentance and forgiveness. Reconciliation also suggests an atmosphere that allows participants to move past their differences.
Reconciliation requires that two or more groups develop trusting friendships, identify underlying causes of their conflict, work together to develop a common mission, and promote equity and justice. Reconciliation helps members of the conflicting groups to:
- See each other as individuals and not just as representatives of their group.
- Admit that injustice exists based on group differences.
- Make a personal and collective commitment to social change.
- Envision the future by coming together on common ground, while respecting people's rights to maintain their cultural traditions and values.
- Develop strategies to address structural racism (for a more detailed explanation of structural racism, see Chapter 27 Section 4: Strategies for Reducing Racism).
There are various ways to do this, including:
- Create an intimate atmosphere for members of the groups to "eat, sleep, and play" together. Religious congregations that have diverse membership have played a key role in creating such an environment.
- Ask members of all the groups to share stories about their experiences with injustice. Sharing stories is an effective method to help dispel stereotypes and to personalize the positive and negative experiences that grow from each group’s identity. You can use a speak-out technique (see chapter 27 section 2, Building Relationships with People from Different Cultures) or a fish-bowl method where one group meets in the center and talks about their views on the conflict while the other groups sit in an outer circle to watch and listen, and then all the groups come together to discuss their observations and experiences.
- Convene the groups that are involved in the conflict to discuss their perceptions of the cause of their conflict and to identify what they can do together to address the problem.
- Launch a public education campaign that raises awareness about the root causes of the conflict (e.g., disparities between African Americans and European Americans due to institutionalized racism that perpetuates unequal treatment of the groups) and invite people to step forward to help eliminate the causes.
- Conduct an analysis of the structural relationships that contribute to the conflict (e.g., relationship between the lack of culturally competent mental healthcare and increased mental disorders among the Vietnamese refugee community).
- Invite the groups to participate in a cross-group perceptions exercise (e.g., ask each group to meet and pool ideas about how they view themselves, how they view another group, and how they think another group perceives them; use the information gathered to identify questions and lessons learned). (See chapter 27 section 3 on Healing From the Effects of Internalized Oppression and Section 5 on Learning to be An Ally to People From Diverse Groups and Backgrounds).
J. Perkins gives a great example in the book Restoring At-Risk Communities:
In a neighborhood where African and European Americans live side by side, the Voice of Calvary (VOC) church had an interracial congregation where a European American pastor shouted out sermons like an African American preacher. In a series of meetings among congregation members one year, the African American members accused some of the European American members of being racist and argued that VOC's goal was to develop African American leadership and not otherwise. Consequently, they wanted the European American leaders to step aside. This exchange caused many European and African Americans to leave the church. A handful of members from both races decided to stay and work out their differences when they realized that racial hurt and injustice was not any one group's problem, but everyone's problem. Through a small Bible study group, these members got to know one another, create a trusting environment for honest exchange, and share their commonalities. They learned to unload their ethnic and cultural baggage. For example, a European American member came to understand that when the African Americans said, "Step to the side," he heard "step back." Consequently, the European Americans who were used to being in charge felt threatened because they thought that they were being dominated, when in fact, a true partnership between the two groups was the goal. People from both groups had to "own" their feelings and be uncomfortable expressing them. The discomfort was inevitable and was not regarded as negative by either party. This exchange led to a realization that most of their church elders were seminary-educated European Americans and even though an African American minister had played a leadership role in the church, he was never made an elder because he had no formal education. The group had to consider carefully how the church supported the leadership of the African American community.
Envision and Strategize: It is important, as part of the conflict transformation process, to think ahead about the future. Remember, it is not just about resolving the conflict, but transforming the conflict in a way that results in an infrastructure to promote harmony and support equity in the community. You could conduct a "visioning" event or conference to provide the groups with a safe space for them to imagine, share, and articulate what they think is possible by working together across groups. This visioning process helps people to see how they share a common and connected future, and it gives people a chance to develop strategies for individual and collective action. It links their image of the future to concrete steps that they could take to make that image come alive.
You could ask participants to develop individual action plans for themselves and collective plans for two or more groups. It is critical that highly-skilled facilitators are engaged to conduct the visioning process in order to manage conflict and ensure that the participants move from dialogue to action. See Chapter 8, Developing a Strategic Plan to learn about community visioning and action planning. Future search is also a popular technique for community visioning. It brings together large numbers of people to plan and transform the plans into action and specific tasks.
During the visioning process, the following questions are essentially asked:
- Where are we now?
- Where are we going?
- Where do we want to be?
- How do we get there?
- What can we do individually and collectively?
Sustain: The effort will face many barriers that challenge its success. What are some ways for ensuring that the transformed conflicts and strengthened alliances can be sustained?
- Leadership support – Engage all levels of leadership (top, middle, and grassroots) in the process.
- Change agents – Establish and train a committee, task force, or special commission of change agents representing all the groups that are in conflict to call out and transform potential conflicts. (See Resource list for training resources.)
- Information dissemination – Use all the forms of media that appeal to the different groups (e.g., street theater, radio, television, music, ethnic newspapers) to continuously distribute images that show people from the conflicting groups working together.
- Evaluation – Evaluate, on a regular basis, the results of the alliances that have been strengthened through the conflict transformation process (e.g., new activities, projects, or resources that came about because of people working together across racial, ethnic, and cultural groups) (see Chapter 38, Some Methods for Evaluating Comprehensive Community initiatives)
- Reflection and revisioning – Use the evaluation results to revisit the community's vision and to identify any necessary adjustments for future planning and actions.
Develop multicultural teams throughout the conflict transformation process. These teams should include at least one person who is an "insider" to a group and one person who is considered an "outsider." This composition helps to neutralize any misperceptions of favoritism or bias, and models the behavior desired in the community. In some communities, an "outsider" sometimes brings credibility to an effort, especially if it is someone affiliated with a mainstream institution. An "insider" on the other hand, ensures that the group's cultural traditions and value are respected.
The conflict transformation process can be summarized as one that moves people from reality to their desired future through a series of well-planned and intentional steps that began with an acknowledgement of injustice. The following table lays out the process with specific questions that can be used to guide the process strategies for each stage (adapted from Lederach, 1997).
What is happening today? Where is the conflict?
Who and what institutions need to be included in order to transform the conflict?
What does the future look like?
- Which racial, ethnic, or cultural groups are immediately affected?
- If the conflict is not addressed, what are the consequences for each group?
- What are the most urgent needs?
- How is the conflict affected by the local political, social, and economic systems?
- What existing resources can be used at the top, middle, and grassroots leadership?
- What existing cultural traditions and resources can help or obstruct the conflict transformation process?
- Who are or has the greatest potential to be bridge builders and change agents?
- Who has respect, linkages, and knowledge within each racial, ethnic, or cultural group?
- What additional knowledge and skills do the bridge builders, change agents, and leaders need to work across groups and to prepare for reconciliation?
- What key social networks (see Chapter 28, Section 1) and organizations are or have the greatest potential for sustaining the alliances across groups and the infrastructure for transforming conflicts and promoting peace in the future?
- What is the long-term vision for a diverse and harmonious community?
- Who are the keepers of this vision (e.g., the media, elected leaders)?
- What systemic changes are needed to achieve and support the vision?
- What mechanisms exist or need to be developed to ensure that all the groups are included in decision- and policymaking?
Tools for Understanding
- Listening sessions
- Applied research
- Power analysis
- Public education campaign
Tools for Building Community
- Community organizing
- Leadership developmen
Tools for Supporting the effort
- Community visioning
- Coalition building
- Community advisory board
- Anti-racism workshops
For those of you who work in diverse communities, you know that transforming conflicts is not an easy task. There are many challenges that can delay or obstruct the process. It is important for you and others to know what they are before you even embark on the journey. If you are not prepared to deal with challenges, your effort could end up creating expectations that cannot be met and consequently discourage community leaders and residents for further collaboration in the future.
What are some of the challenges in transforming conflicts?
It takes a lot of time and resources.
Don't underestimate the number of people who are committed and willing to volunteer for small tasks. As an example, the Akron Beacon Journal in Akron, Ohio, published a year-long series of articles related to racial disparities in response to the tensions felt by the cities' residents after the 1992 civil unrest in Los Angeles. As part of the articles, a mail-in coupon was included asking people and corporations who wanted to build a harmonious community to step forward. The response from the community was overwhelming; hence the Coming Together Project was conceived.
The forces that work against reconciliation, coalition building, and systems change are so overwhelming that it is easy to give up after an unsuccessful attempt to transform a conflict.
Break the strategies into smaller and more manageable tasks. Develop collective and individual action plans for each member and each group. Build in time to celebrate small successes.
Language is a major barrier when bringing together English-only speakers and people who have limited or no proficiency in English .
You, as the community builder, have to help the groups that are involved in the conflict recognize that language plays a role in maintaining power differences. Not understanding the dominant language decreases access to information, and information is power. There are at least two ways for handling this challenge. First, hire and ask translators to translate out loud after each person speaks. This method gets to be a little cumbersome if there are more than two languages involved. Second, purchase simultaneous translation equipment. You still have to hire translators, but the time is decreased because of the simultaneous translation. It is more efficient to use this equipment when you have more than two languages because some of the transmitters allow up to six channels for different languages.
Another option, and a possible objective for your effort, might be to establish ESOL – English as a Second or Other Language – classes to help the population in question gain access to the power that comes with language facility.
Conflict transformation is important in diverse communities to resolve conflicts and to promote peace among groups of different race, ethnicity, and culture. It is a process that takes time, patience, humility, a long-term commitment, and a willingness to trust and to take risks. The key components of the process are: the parties acknowledging the problem and committing to working together, identifing the root causes of the conflict and reconciling group differences, developing a common and connected future, and developing sustainable strategies and actions.
We encourage the reproduction of this material, but ask that you credit the
Community Tool Box: http://ctb.ku.edu
Chang, H., Louie, N., Murdock, B., Pell, E., & Femenella, T. (2000). Walking the walk. Oakland, CA: California Tomorrow.
Gutlove, P. (1998). Health bridges for peace: integrating health care with community reconciliation. Medicine, Conflict, and Survival, 14, 6-23.
Lederach, J.P. (1997). Building peace. Washington, DC: United States Institute of Peace Press.
Loderach, J.P, (1996). Preparing for peace: conflict transformation across cultures. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press.
Perkins, J. & Rice, C. (1995). Reconciliation: Loving God and loving people. In Perkins, J. (Ed.). Restoring at-risk communities (pp. 107-138). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.
Rothman, J. (1997). Resolving identity-based conflict in nations, organizations, and communities. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Brown University Training Materials: Power and Privilege Issues with Culturally-Diverse Communities in Research: New Challenges of Partnership and Collaborative Research. The Northeast Education Partnership provides online access to PowerPoint training slides on topics in research ethics and cultural competence in environmental research. These have been created for professionals/students in environmental sciences, health, and policy; and community-based research. If you are interested in receiving an electronic copy of one the presentations, just download their Materials Request Form (found on the main Training Presentations page under "related files"), complete the form, and email it to NEEPethics@yahoo.com.
The Sustainable Communities Network is for those who want to help make their communities more livable. It covers a wide range of topics related to building healthy communities.
This site explains the theories behind Future Search and the steps for conducting a community visioning process.
Alliance for Conflict Transformation
P. O. Box 3203
Fairfax, VA 22038
Institute for the Study of Conflict Transformation, Inc.
37 West 65th
New York, NY 10023
School for International Training
Kipling Road, P.O. Box 676
Brattleboro, VT 05302-02678
The People's Institute for Survival and Beyond
1444 North Johnson Street
New Orleans, LA 70116
(For information on structural racism and power analysis)
22218 Chaparral Lane
Rogers, MN 55374
(For assets-based community transformation)
315 W 9th St.
Los Angeles, CA 90015
Coming Together Project
1301 Firestone Parkway
Akron, OH 44309-1543
P.O. Box 506
Charleston, SC 20402