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Jun 29, 20

Rebel Steps: Talk It Out (Conflict Resolution)

Anytime people are working together on something they are passionate about, there is bound to be some disagreement. These disagreements can be intense and emotional, especially if people are invested in the project. In this episode, we’ll be exploring some ways to handle conflict.

Listen and Download HERE

Bexa notes that many thoughts shared on this episode were formed in conversation with others who do similar conflict support work, particularly with friends and comrades in the EarthFirst! Conflict Support Team, a group of people all over the continent who meet up regularly by phone and in person to support the EarthFirst! movement and events, skillshare their knowledge and experience, and aid each other in doing this work together and separately. You can get in touch with them by email at [email protected]

Bexa is also involved with the New York City Transformative Justice Hub, and did a workshop with them back in November 2019. For upcoming events, see nyctjhub.com

Bexa gives workshops on conflict support. If you’re interested in joining one, email her at [email protected]

Bexa’s ideas about a “conflict repressive culture” came from conversations with Mars Z. Goetia, and are discussed in this article from Fifth Estate.

To learn a little more about abolition and prisoner solidarity, check out the 3rd episode of our first season, “Write A Letter.”

Listen to The Final Straw’s episodes “Free Kara Wild Plus Conflict in the Movement” (the discussion of conflict begins around 43minutes) and “Walidah Imarisha on Angels With Dirty Faces.”

Read Dean Spade’s piece “Practicing New Social Relations, Even in Conflict” via Medium or in Toward an Ethics of Activism.

Learn more about Anna Mae Aquash, the woman from the Mi’kmaq tribe who was murdered in 1975 after the FBI spread rumors that she was an informant.

Read Julie Henry’s story of how the FBI tried to use her experience to turn her into an informant in this article from the Intercept.

Listen to the Irresistible podcast episode on Facilitating Conflict & Leading from the Feminine with Celia Kutz and the corresponding practice: mapping group conflict.

Check out Conflict is Not Abuse by Sarah Schulman.

For training in mediation and to get assistance from a mediator in New York, check out the New York Peace Institute.

Kay Pranis, a circle keeper and restorative justice practitioner an trainer, is someone whose work we admire and inspires some of our thinking about conflict resolution. Read more about her here.

Transcript

Hi this is Amy, today is another of our planned season 2 episodes. When we started season 2, we had no idea we’d be living through a pandemic and uprising as we released it. So, as with our other episodes this season, this episode is not specific to this moment. However, we still feel that today’s topic of conflict resolution is super important. A lot of people are being radicalized right now and coming into movement spaces and new groups. New organizations are forming and old ones are evolving quickly. All of that means that conflicts will definitely arise.

On top of all that shifting, between both the police violence and the pandemic, we’re collectively living through very traumatic times. And that means we’ll be entering our activism from a challenging place. This heightens the conditions for conflict.

So, whether you’re new to organizing or a longtime participant, now’s a great time to think through conflict in our groups.

And while this uprising is exciting and inspiring, it’s also crucial to remember that this is really just the beginning. We’ll need consistent actions for weeks and months. We’ll need to protect our movements from cooptation by engaging in political education, media work, and organizing. Conflict resolution is one way to keep our movements safe from attrition, exhaustion and infiltration.

To everyone helping out through attending actions, providing jail support, delivering supplies to protesters and others, administering first aid, helping with political education, talking to your family members, and other roles, keep up the good work! We have to continue this struggle toward justice for George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and all victims of state violence and white supremacy. Black Lives Matter.

Here’s the episode!

Welcome to Rebel Steps. I’m your host, Liz.

Anytime people are working together on something they are passionate about, there is bound to be some disagreement. These disagreements can be intense and emotional, especially if people are invested in the project. In this episode, we’ll be exploring some ways to handle conflict.

The producer of this podcast, also my sister, Amy, is a volunteer conflict mediator and has attended some mediation trainings around New York. She also helped run a working group centered on learning about conflict as part of MACC, the Metropolitan Anarchist Coordinating Council. I’m going to pass this episode off to her.

Amy: Conflicts and disagreements naturally arise in every group, especially when people are trying to tackle really tough issues together. When groups don’t handle conflict well, people leave movements or organizations they are passionate about. As a prison abolitionist, I’m also interested in restorative justice, which focuses on repairing harm over punishment. We talked about prison abolition in episode 3 of our first season, check out that episode if you’d like to learn more about that topic. These interests are what brought me to conflict resolution and mediation.

Today I’m going to focus on understanding how to navigate a conflict and what resources are available to help. Unfortunately, I can’t train you to be a mediator in one episode. But hopefully this will give you ideas on how to move forward if you find yourself in a conflict.

Bexa: I am a mediator with the New York Peace Institute which is an organization that provides free mediations to whoever wants it in Brooklyn and Manhattan. I also do teaching conflict support skills through that organization and in activist communities. I take part in conflict support teams for national gatherings of organizations and I just want to completely change conflict culture to help people build their capacity to engage in conflict.

Amy: That’s my friend Bexa. She’s someone who has worked on conflicts and conflict culture in activist communities. She and I also worked together on a MACC working group focused on conflict education. You’ll hear from her throughout the episode.

Before I get to the heart of this episode, I want to talk about a few myths that keep us from working through conflict. The first myth is that conflict is avoidable.

Bexa: We come from a very conflict repressive culture and people aren’t practiced arguing with each other in any sort of productive way. And so people can feel super uncomfortable just thinking something different than somebody that they are really close to. And that can feel super threatening when you’re in a subculture that’s fighting against something so much bigger than ourselves. And that threatening feeling can just sort of magnify a conflict into something that becomes really really big.

This isn’t an episode about avoiding conflict. Conflict is inevitable and just acknowledging that is a step in the right direction. So instead of trying to prevent or avoid conflict, you can build skills to help you handle conflict in a healthy way.

The second myth is that conflict is always negative. Conflict naturally comes up when people care about things, it’s not something to shy away from.

Bexa: Conflict can be seen in many different ways and it can be a really huge destructive force in people’s lives that can tear things apart and remove them or separate them from communities they feel like they need. It can also be something that’s really constructive and brings people closer together to be able to open up to that vulnerability and to really like ask for what you need and try to figure out how everybody can get their needs met. That can be a transformative experience, but most people don’t have experience with that side of conflict. When we’re growing up in the dominant culture around us, we’re taught to respect authority and that if we feel different than the authority that that’s wrong. And that can cause huge problems if we speak up about those differences. And that plays out even in relationships where we’re on equal terms. People just don’t know how to deal with the all of a sudden our friends and comrades don’t feel the same way as us, we’re not on the same page. It can just be a destabilizing feeling. Even experiencing one time getting through that and being able to engage and come out the other side stronger can be a huge force in changing that culture.

A third myth is that conflict is somehow unique to political spaces. In reality, conflict happens all the time, all around us. In addition to her work in activist spaces, Bexa mediates all different types of conflicts.

Bexa: As a mediator in sort of a more professional sense, I do a lot of general public mediations. And so I get a lot of noise complaints between neighbors. I get a lot of interpersonal conflicts between people in the workplace or between activists and volunteer programs etc. I do criminal mediation, so I deal with a lot of assault cases. I deal with conflicts within groups.

Activists sometimes like to think conflicts they deal with is different than in other communities, but Bexa says that a lot of the same kinds of issues play out in many conflicts.

Bexa: Lot of either structural or perceived power dynamics stuff come up. Discomfort with how experience plays out in the power that people have to make changes within an organization or to influence others within that organization. A lot of cultural differences. If people feel like a conflict or our behavior is important enough that a certain person shouldn’t be in a public or semi public space and how to deal with that, either inter personally or on an organizational level. You know just differences of opinion, differences in values. If there’s a group that comes together to do a certain project and they haven’t talked about values and all the sudden it becomes clear that people are coming from such different perspectives that all of a sudden they’re unclear if they really want to continue working together, that’s something that causes a lot of conflict.

All in all, conflict is a normal part of working together, so we need to be prepared.

I’m going to talk through the some steps you can take when you find yourself in a conflict, starting with your own response. The first step to working through a conflict is checking in with yourself.

Bexa: I always encourage people to start whenever they feel like they’re in some kind of conflict or they’re feeling some kind of complex feelings and they don’t know how to deal with them, to check in with themselves first and just to think what is this about. Is this something where I need to go like sit by myself and deal with my feelings and thoughts? Do I need to go and journal about this or take a walk in the woods or something like that to clear my mind enough to think about this before doing anything else?

Part of checking with yourself is noticing your own reaction to conflict. There are 5 conflict styles that are commonly used: competing, avoiding, accommodating, collaborating, and compromising.

As Bexa mentioned, in our conflict repressive culture, avoiding is a very common conflict style. Addressing a conflict directly, even just to yourself, doesn’t come naturally for many people. We avoid or minimize disagreements, often because we’ve been told throughout our lives that conflict is inherently bad. These categories are just to get you started reflecting. You’ll likely have different conflict styles in different situations. Taking some time to reflect can help guide your next steps. For more on conflict styles, see the show notes.

Another part of checking in with yourself is examining how your own privilege is playing out in the conflict. When our privilege is challenged, it can make us feel uncomfortable or even attacked. Recognizing when this is happening is an important part of handling conflict.

After checking in with yourself, now might be a good time to chat with the person you’re in conflict with. Through an honest conversation, you may find that some things can be resolved or misunderstandings can be cleared up.

If that isn’t possible, the next step is seeking support. Your friends can be a great place to start.

Bexa: After checking in with yourself, another thing to do is just go check in with a friend. Bounce ideas off of them, talk through like what’s going on.

When asking a friend or comrade for help, keep in mind that doing this conflict support work is just that, it’s work. Honor that is a valuable contribution to an organization or community. Be ready to accept a no, if someone’s not able to offer you support.

Bexa: Unfortunately, especially within activist circles, we’re all usually struggling with something. And it doesn’t necessarily mean that your friends don’t have time for you, but it can be that they don’t have the skills or capacity to do it. And to not necessarily just expect that conflict support is something that someone can do just because they’re your friend. It definitely requires a lot of skills that take practice. So if you’re asking for support, just remember to allow the answer to be no, I can’t support you, which can be super disappointing when you’re experiencing that need. Especially if it feels really vulnerable for you to ask for help, which you know it’s really hard for a lot of us.

If you’re the person offering support, Bexa has some tips for you, too.

Bexa: If you are that friend that someone’s checking in with, it’s really useful to have a few skills to listen better and to help provide the best sort of sounding board for your friends.

If direct conversations and support from friends hasn’t been able to resolve the conflict, there’s the option of getting help through a mediation process. There’s sometimes fear and anxiety around taking this step. It can feel like a big deal. I’m going to walk you through what this might look like.

Bexa: Another step towards a more formal process is have someone there to make the conversation go a little bit more easily, to be able to support you saying the things that you want to say, being able to support the other person saying the things that they need to say, reminding you if you’re going down a path of all things that you said you didn’t want to get into, checking in with you to see if you need a different things. Those are some of the roles that a mediator can play in a conflict. Often mediation is really helpful when you’re dealing with just two parties. That could be two people or it could be two groups, but when there’s sort of two disparate perspectives mediation can be really helpful.

Different mediators will have their own ways of structuring their processes. Bexa walked me through how her process usually works.

Bexa: What I usually do is I meet with every person that’s experiencing the conflict first hand and talk them through, what’s going on, what do you feel like, what is the effect on your life, what do you want to get out of engaging with this conflict. What are the benefits and drawbacks of engaging with this conflict. Just helping them figure out do I even want to have a conversation with this person. If so do I need a third party in the room to help me and support me and having that conversation, and what are the things that I want to talk about in that conversation.

After having a conversation with each person involved, everyone comes together for a group conversation.

Bexa: Once I have those meetings with the individuals and they’ve decided that, yes, they want to go forward with the conversation and they want my support and having that conversation then we’ll all get in the same room together. And talk about whatever needs to be talked about. I will use the information that I’ve gotten from our individual meetings to help support them saying the things that they want to say. I’ll help look out for things that they want me specifically to look out for. And I sort of know a little bit of how much they can handle before break needs to happen or something like that. But I try to support them being able to talk about the things that they want to talk about.

Conversations supported by a mediator can create the conditions for greater understanding in a conflict.

Bexa: At some point in the conversation, usually there is a shift, where people start to feel understood and start to feel more open to hearing what the other person has to say as well. That is the sort of transformative shift that can shift a conflict from becoming a terrible experience to becoming something that’s actually helpful and constructive. When that happens often people can start talking about the future instead of the past. And start talking about how do we together come up with a way to, not necessarily fix things, but at least make things better, make things livable, make things a little bit more clear, start us on the path towards healing if that’s something that needs to happen.

Amy: Conflict doesn’t have scary. It doesn’t need to be avoided. When communities are able to handle conflicts, it helps us each stay grounded in our values.

Bexa: I got this idea from a book called Angels with Dirty Faces by Walidah Imarisha. In that book, she talks about how important it is when you’re dealing with a really hard time, in her instance it was an instance of abuse not necessarily just conflict, but it was a really intense emotional experience for her. And how important it was for her to have friends around her that we’re going to hold her to her own values. Because when you’re not experiencing conflict, you have all sorts of politics, you have all sorts of values that you know are important to you, it’s not just lip service. It is important to you. But those things are really hard to connect to when you’re experiencing conflict. Your friends know you and your friends can validate all of your experiences and all of your emotions. But they can also remind you of what you believe and what you feel are the most important things when you’re not going through that hard time and help you reconnect to those true values of yours. If you’re helping someone through conflict think to yourself about what your friend actually feels when they’re at their best rather than and they’re having a hard time. And try to help them reconnect to their best selves.

Amy: You can hear an interview with Walidah Imarisha about “Angels With Dirty Faces” on The Final Straw. Check out the show notes for a link. By being prepared for conflict, we can bring our best selves to organizing.

Liz: When we started working on this episode, it was clear that dealing with conflict is an important building block to any movement. But I was surprised at some of the ways conflict culture can hurt– or even help– movements.

Conflict resolution supports movement building by promoting better decision making practices. Decisions can become conflicts if the decision making process itself isn’t fully understood or if tensions are already high. On the other hand, being averse to conflict can create false consensus and that conflict avoidance can delay the resolution of issues. Being honest about disagreements and working through them creates an environment where issues can be discussed openly and decisions can be made with clarity.

For an example of some of the ways conflict and decision making can intersect, check out The Final Straw’s episode “Conflict in the Movement.” In this episode, a French anarchist explains some ongoing issues in their meetings. Check out the show notes for a link to that episode.

One thing I found surprising was the way conflict mediation can be community self-defense, which we covered in our last episode. It’s well known that the state has used conflicts to disrupt social movements. When we are divided, we are more vulnerable to infiltration. This was a tactic that was used by COINTELPRO to attack the Black Panthers and the government continues to use it today. Here’s Bexa again.

Bexa: It’s really important for activist groups to engage with conflict and get more comfortable engaging with conflict, because of many reasons we want to be able to create worlds that we want to be a part of and we want to be able to learn and grow through conflicts and conflict is at its heart about change. And we want to change things as activists. And so one of the best ways to do that is to be able to constructively engage with how that change happens, which is through conflict. But also because, when we don’t know how to do that, we put ourselves at risk. There are a number of different times when the government has gotten involved in activist groups, exploiting conflicts that already exist or creating conflicts that don’t exist. And because our communities weren’t strong enough to handle those conflicts themselves, things got out of hand. This is true with the COINTELPRO program with the Black Panthers. This is true with Martin Luther King, right. A number of years ago there was, in the American Indian movement, a woman from the Miꞌkmaq tribe was murdered, because FBI information spread through the community about her being a possible informant, when she actually wasn’t. There is a more recent instance when some activists that we’re doing anti sort of wolf trapping work. Somebody experienced sexual abuse within that group and, because that group was not able to hold those experiences and support that person and started sort of taking sides, they left room, they left a vacuum. And the F. B. I. stepped in and contacted that person and said “Hey, your friends aren’t able to take care of you and I know how to do that and I’ll listen to you and I’ll be able to help you deal with this problem.” Luckily, nothing really came of that, because that person was like no I don’t want the FBI to help me. But, they were tempted to do that, because their community couldn’t hold hard things. It’s really, really important for us to take this seriously and build our capacity and skills to be able to support each other through conflict, small and large, so that we can be strong and threatening.

Lastly, the way we handle conflict can reflect our hopes for the future. We know that even in the most utopian society, conflicts will happen and people will make mistakes. If we want to move away from punitive reactions, we will need to build alternative methods of handling these conflicts. Conflict mediation is a step toward restorative justice and it’s a way to practice our values in our current movements.

For me, handling conflict is one of the more challenging aspects of working in groups. I ask myself questions like “Is this a personal issue or a truly political disagreement or a little bit of both? Is this something I need to work through or does this mean I’m not in the right place?” None of these moments of conflict have easy answers or quick solutions. I have to remind myself movement building is a marathon, not a sprint. When I find myself caught in difficult moments, I have to give myself time to rest, reflect, and refocus.

As you work within your community, remember that conflict is normal and conflict is expected. There are lots of ways through it, both on your own or with various types of support.

By normalizing conflict and mediation, we can make each conflict a chance to build stronger relationships and, with stronger relationships, we can build stronger movements.

You’ve been listening to Rebel Steps. I’m your host, Liz. Believe in yourself, trust one another, and get organized.

This episode was written, edited, and produced by Amy and myself. Music for this episode was kindly gifted to us by Sephy and also includes some songs that I created. Special thanks to our interviewee, Bexa. For more resources, check out the show notes for this episode on rebelsteps.com.

If you enjoyed this podcast, please consider supporting us on Patreon or sharing this episode with your friends or via social media. This podcast is part of the Channel Zero Network, an anarchist podcast network run by radical media makers. Head over to ChannelZeroNetwork.com for more podcasts.

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Rebel Steps

Rebel Steps is a podcast about taking political action guided by the concepts of direct action, solidarity, autonomy and mutual aid. It’s made especially for those who are newer to anti-authoritarian or anti-fascist organizing and looking to get more involved.

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