Stepping Into Conflict

By Claire Doran, Program Director

Most days, I speak about peace. Today, I want to speak about conflict.  Peace is not an escape from conflict, but the willingness to move into conflict.  John Paul Lederach gives a simple definition for conflict transformation: (1) a positive orientation toward conflict and (2) a willingness to engage in the conflict in an effort to produce constructive change or growth.  To be honest, it’s that second half that has always proven to be a challenge for me. It may also be a challenge for you.

Just after graduating from UC Berkeley, and casting out wide nets twisted together with the paper fibers of cover letters and resumes, I landed my first job working as a residential counselor. I would work with youth ages 14-18 who through whatever number of life circumstances needed additional supervision and attention. We had magnetic badges which opened doors that clicked locked automatically behind us. We used plastic forks and spoons and had non-toxic soap in the bathrooms. We counted pens and pencils, and wore non-restrictive clothing that would see sweat, blood, and spit during the regular course of a week. And one of the first lessons that I learned there was about “proximity.” 

Providing “proximity” was a nice, clinical term for approaching one of our clients. We would provide “proximity” for a number of reasons, but it basically meant that when they were about to act out, throw down, or somehow disrupt the program, we got close. Three staff members would stand next to the youth – the number that it would take to safely restrain them if they chose to go off on us. And we would wait. And this meant re-training every cell in my body that screamed with adrenaline urging me to back off, and stand nearer to the heat of conflict. During this time, I saw anger, despair, boredom, anxiety, hopelessness, and delight from a distance of three feet or less. And I stood nearby, awaiting a direction from the staff, feeling these emotions dance along my skin.

For a full year, I spent time with these young people and grew to know their families, their hopes, insecurities, and set-backs. And several times a week, I would stand with them at the simmering brink of explosion or collapse. And several times a week, I would follow them into it and hold them through the struggle.  This March I’ve had more time and opportunity to consider this responsibility and willingness to step into conflict as we hosted an anti-bullying poster contest at the middle school and high school level.

Our students face tremendous obstacles.  While juggling full course loads taught by overstretched teachers, they also have extracurricular activities and hobbies, while still trying to develop healthy self-image, friendships and relationships with their peers.  And then, there is social pressure and bullying.  While our students are struggling to pit themselves against our standardized tests, we also ask them to look out for each other and make their schools bully-free.  We ask them to take a risk and step into conflicts to protect each other, when there are no supervising adults around to monitor them.  Even with years of practice I still break a sweat when I think about brushing up against the heat of conflict.  I wonder if as adults, we minimize their concerns about stepping into bullying.  It’s really hard – and our students who do take that leap should be truly recognized for their courage and their hard work.

Conflict – it’s the other face of peace.  And so as a peacemaker, each day, I take another step closer to conflict so that I might know it better.  What’s your next step into conflict?.

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