If You’re Not Part of the Solution . . .

Just shy of a year ago, many of us gathered at Pepperdine to appreciate the legacy of our movement and engage the future.

How time flies.

Since then, our world has been overtaken by a pandemic that is fundamentally altering all of our lives as well as an outpouring of rage about the history of our country’s “original sin” going back centuries.  White supremacist ideology animated brutal slavery, the Civil War, sabotage of Reconstruction by the vigilante KKK and Jim Crow power structure, lack of enforcement of the Civil War Constitutional amendments and civil rights laws, systemic racism, and implicit bias.  This has spawned intense, sometimes violent, conflict over the years mostly initiated by people holding white supremacist beliefs, which has boiled over in the past few weeks.  All this takes place in the context of – and further inflames – the most intensely partisan election campaign in our lifetimes.

There’s a saying that if you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem.  Another way to think about this is if you are not part of the solution, you are not part of the solution.

Even that isn’t sufficiently nuanced as it suggests a false dichotomy of either contributing to solutions or not.  There is no single, clear problem or solution – and we can be part of many different solutions in many ways.  We do this in our work as teachers, scholars, researchers, practitioners, program designers and administrators, and many other roles.  We do this in our relationships with people at work, in our families, and in our communities.

Everyone in our field aspires to being part of a solution.  This is based on our shared conviction that there has to be a “better way” to manage conflicts in our society.  People in our movement focus on different problems and have different ideas about what the “better way” should be, but we share a deep commitment to making conflicts more constructive and managing them as well as possible.

To develop ideas after the “Past-and-Future” Conference, I invited people to contribute to a “Theory-of-Change” Symposium on this blog.  I was pleasantly surprised that so many people wanted to contribute.  From September through January, I posted the symposium in five parts.  In February, I compiled them into the “Theory-of-Change” book, which presents actionable ideas to revitalize our movement.  It includes 63 short think pieces written by 59 contributors organized in the following sections, with introductions summarizing and synthesizing the pieces in each section:

  • Reflections on the Past-and-Future Conference
  • The Big Picture
  • Impact and Use of Technology
  • Legal Education
  • Professional Training and Practice
  • Research and Scholarship

The book has lots of ideas, but no plans or commitments to take any actions.  To be most effective, we would need to undertake some collaborative actions.  The suggestions in the book were synthesized into the following recommendations:

  • Develop clearer common language of dispute resolution
  • Redefine what we do and who we are
  • Integrate technology into all our work
  • Develop best practice standards
  • Redesign teaching and training curricula
  • Develop and implement a research agenda
  • Develop a searchable dispute resolution bibliographic database
  • Engage the major issues of our times with realistic plans and expectations
  • Attract “all hands on deck”
  • Unbundle and prioritize our lives

One of the recommendations – to realistically engage major issues – is outward-facing and would be relevant to dealing with problems arising from the pandemic and the evil history of racism.  Some of the ways that we could contribute our wisdom and skills to address these problems include but are not limited to the approaches of the Divided Community Project and other projects promoting reconciliation.  People may want to use elements from this collection of anti-racism resources distributed by the University of Missouri’s Black Students Association.  Peter Coleman just published this insightful analysis of what realistically can and cannot promote effective solutions to these problems.

The other recommendations focus on how we can improve our field.  Soon we will mark the fiftieth anniversary of the 1976 Pound Conference.  People at the Past-and-Future Conference and contributors to the Theory-of-Change book appreciated the legacy of our field – and also the need to move forward in improved ways.

This moment in June 2020 provides an important opportunity for reflection.  What problems do we want to solve?  How do we want to contribute to solutions?

It’s not easy.  Many of us have huge commitments of work, family, and community obligations – which may be particularly challenging in the current environment.

On the other hand, this may be an especially good time for reflection.  We are getting the hang of the “crisis new normal” and preparing to shift toward some “normal new normals.”  Most faculty are finished with the academic year.  Many travel plans have been cancelled.

So this may be a good time to consider what more you might want to do to be more part of the solutions.


I hope you all are coping well.

Take care.


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