By Mari Fitzduff
Our coexistence programs are all geared towards managing groups of people with differing values or aspirations, and helping them to manage such differences in a productive, positive way. Unfortunately, from what we can observe from his presidency thus far, President Trump seems less interested in serving all of his people and their needs. Rather, he seems interested in delivering on campaign promises solely for the people who voted for him. This is, unfortunately, not atypical of leaders, and we see it worldwide.
In our field, this kind of leader is called transactional – i.e. a leader who takes pride in only delivering for their followers, and forgetting about, or debasing the needs of other groups. What we rarely see enough of are transformative leaders – i.e. those who, when elected, can embrace the needs of all of their people, not just one section of them. Nelson Mandela was rare in that while he originally fought, spoke and acted on behalf of the black South African community, when he was elected president, he pivoted to purposely serve, where possible, the needs of the white community as well as trying to foster reconciliation between the two communities.
Understanding how to develop and foster such leadership is critical for our students in the many conflicts in which they work around the world. Given the enormous amount of mistrust and misunderstanding that exists between various groups in the United States today, these skills, such as the capacity to mediate tough dialogues, have also come into sharp focus. In the U.S., political and value differences have widened over the past few years, accelerating with the divisive campaign of Donald Trump, and continuing into what looks likely to be a very contentious presidency.
The kinds of local and national dialogues that are needed in the U.S. are those that our students are trained to develop and facilitate in many of situations around the world where our graduates work, both internationally and locally. The foundation of any conflict resolution or coexistence program is the understanding that different people within societies and within nations often don’t understand each other’s values, and dislike or even hate each other. The lack of such understanding, often allied to structural exclusions, frequently leads to conflict, and sometimes to violence.
Our students recognize that people have values that are precious to them. In the U.S. there are people who see Christianity as intrinsically tied to being American, and therefore see Islam as a threat. We have seen such fear before – many now-settled communities in the U.S. have at one time been seen as a threat, e.g. the Irish Catholics, or the Japanese community. Learning to manage and mediate that fear is an essential skill of our present reality, and one that too few people possess. Hence, our students learn to do the important work of identifying who feels left out in a society, and why. We look at questions of inequalities and the tensions they create, and how easily differing identity groups – be they racial, religious, cultural or social in nature - can come to fear and hate each other, and train our students to both understand and ameliorate these social and value differences.
We also train our students on how sensitive people are to issues of change. They understand that if demographics or livelihoods change too quickly, many people will feel left out and resist such change. There is logic to conservatism that has been essential in ensuring the stability of many societies, and our students recognize this. Increasingly, however, the reality is that all societies around the world are becoming more diverse due to immigration, economic relocation, or increasingly, through refugees. How we manage these differences is critical everywhere. In many cases as we can easily see if we look around the world, it is the mismanagement of such plurality that leads to the majority of conflicts.
Brexit, and the increasing rise of the right wing in Europe, are a warning to us that globalizing economic and communication systems is not enough for the welfare of our world – we also need social processes that can manage such globalization. Otherwise, too many people feel left behind. Our students are therefore also trained in what we call “shared society” approaches through which they can help national and local governments and communities to better manage their identity differences so that all of their citizens can benefit from such diversity.
While these may seem like turbulent times, diversity, and our acceptance of it, will become increasingly appreciated as the norm. It is interesting to notice that in Britain for example, most of the people who voted in favor of Brexit out of a dislike for immigration actually lived in areas with the least amount of immigration. Those who lived in London, where immigration has been the norm for a long time and where there is a very high percentage of immigrants, primarily opposed Brexit and were much more in favor of keeping the borders open.
As our world continues to grow and change at an ever-faster rate, we need more professionals who can manage the kinds of difficult conversations we’re struggling with here in the U.S. Providing such professionals to work both here and in the many conflicted areas around issues of deep division is the purpose of our Conflict Resolution and Coexistence program.
Mari Fitzduff is a professor and founding director of the Master’s in Conflict Resolution and Coexistence program at the Heller School for Social Policy and Management.