The State of American Democracy

Last week, I had the privilege of participating in the first of five working conferences on the State of American Democracy held at my beloved alma mater, Oberlin College. It was organized by the college’s rock star level professor, David Orr, a long-time climate change expert who has realized that the problems we face run far deeper than the environment and extend to the ways we govern ourselves at all.

So, David assembled an amazing team of analysts and activists from the left and right to begin figuring out what we could and should do to address a set of issues that long antedated last November’s election and only have been exacerbated since.

We heard from well-known experts from the left (e.g. Reverend William Barber and Jane Mayer) and the right (JD Vance and Peter Wehner) as well as activists and analysts who specialize in political science, law, environmental studies, and social media.

More importantly, the 150 or so participants took advantage of the time together to network and develop strategies that we could take forward in our home communities and on the issues we particularly worry about.

My own takeaway was simple and added to urgency I have been feeling for the last few years. We live in a world of wicked problems whose causes and consequences are so inextricably intertwined that we cannot solve them separately, easily, or quickly–if we can solve them at all.

At the very least, they require creative policy responses that are not likely to emerge from the American policy making system–whoever is in charge–given the dominant value systems in place today. We need to dig deeper and seek what Albert Einstein used to refer to as a “new way of thinking” that will spawn new social and political movements that, in time, will produce qualitatively new public policies.

We tried out a number of ideas, ranging from the kind of poor people’s movement that Reverend Barber and his colleagues are organizing to the kind of deep discussions within the Evangelical community that Peter Wehner is leading.

Some of those will take place in policy “silos” like the peacebuilding one I work in, David’s beloved environmental movement, and even the investments JD Vance’s Mithril Capital Management firm will be making in Appalachia. Some of those will take place as we create new movements and institutions that cross those silos’ borders.

Indeed, we will be continuing this effort by holding other events like the one in Oberlin. Plans are underway for workshops in Denver, Los Angeles, Atlanta, and Montgomery.

If you are interested, please let me know by sending me an email at

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Alliance for Peacebuilding or its members.


The Best Kept Secret in American Peacebuilding–At Least For Me

I had a long call the other day with D. G. Mawn, Executive Director of NAFCM, the National Association for Community Mediation. We had actually just met a few weeks ago when we helped organize a meeting of American peacebuilders I discussed here a few weeks ago

As we talked, D. G. referred to NAFCM at the best kept secret in American peacebuilding. Although I had known of the organization for years, I didn’t know much about it. On the assumption that he was bound to be right, I checked it out. Continue reading “The Best Kept Secret in American Peacebuilding–At Least For Me”

Technology, Innovation, and Peace

In the last few weeks, I’ve had three opportunities to see the progress we’ve made in see how information technology can be used to spark innovation in peacebuilding and just how much more progress we still have to make.

First, we at the Alliance for Peacebuilding attended the second annual CalCon conference at the University of San Diego’s Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice. I helped organize the event, and my colleague Stone Conroy made two pitches. Most of our time was spent hearing critiquing, and building momentum behind a humber of pitches on such topics as mapping peacebuilding activities, developing games in conflict zone, and using the Internet to foster reconciliation. Following up on the keynote address by Shamil Idriss of Search for Common Ground, we spent the three days exploring how IT could revolutionize our work. There was one problem, however. We did not have enough people in the room with the financial resources to turn those ideas into reality. That said, I did get to meet Eva Dimitriadis of C5Capital who invited AfP to the second event in my three weeks of intellectual exploration. Continue reading “Technology, Innovation, and Peace”

Reconciliation for the Holidays

This will be a quick post as we all get ready for the Holidays.

I just listened to the TED Radio Hour on NPR about reconciliation. It was filled with hopeful and inspiring ideas about what we can do to deal with our divided country from Bill Ury, JD Vance, Suzanne Barakat, Eli Pariser, and Elizabeth Lasser.

I’ve worked on reconciliation for a long time, yet some of these speakers were new to me.

Here’s the link.


These views are my own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Alliance for Peacebuilding.

Wicked Problems in West Virginia

I spent two days this week at Shepherd University in West Virginia. My colleagues  Lin Wells and Mike Hieb of George Mason University had been asked by Mary Hendrix, Shepherd’s new president to help her state deal with its well known cluster of wicked problems, including poverty, the dying coal industry, the opiate epidemic, widespread frustration, environmental decay, and more. We were asked because Lin is developing a global ;project he calls BROCADE (Building Resilient Opportunities in Culturally Aware, Diverse Environments). He had assumed it would start with pilot projects in the Global South, but President Hendrix convinced us to start with West Virginia. Even though my own expertise lies in peacebuilding and international politics, I tagged along.imgres
Continue reading “Wicked Problems in West Virginia”

An Evening with George Mitchell

I had the pleasure of spending last night with former Senator and permanent peacemaker George Mitchell, when he was honored by the Sustained Dialogue Institute (

220px-George_Mitchell_in_Tel_Aviv_July_26,_2009I first met George Mitchell when he was the Senator for Maine where I was teaching at the time (I actually knew his brother far better). Even the, he struck me as one the most decent and humblest people I know.

Later, Mitchell went on to even greater accomplishments, most notably serving as the driving force behind the Good Friday Agreements that ended The Troubles in Northern Ireland in 1998. Throughout his career, Mitchell has been the consummate negotiator, which he recounts in his new book of the same name.

Sustained Dialogue gave him its second annual award precisely because everything George has done in his long career (he is still practicing law at 82) reflects its values. As Mitchell said in his remarks, one of the most important lessons he learned in Northern Ireland is that “there is no such thing as a conflict that can’t be ended.”

Like Sustained Dialogue, Mitchell stressed the importance of active listening especially to people you disagree with. Sustained Dialogue works on the assumption that a good, extended discussion never leaves any participant unchanged. Or, as they put it on a listening stone they gave each of us, “listen deeply enough to be changed by what you hear.”logo

Both, too, stressed the importance of building strong interpersonal relationships, especially with people you disagree with, which is something Mitchell has done throughout his career and also inspired former Ambassador Hal Saunders to create Sustained Dialogue in 1999.

Mitchell wasn’t the only honoree. Sustained Dialogue also recognized the work of three leaders in its campus dialogue program and that of a start up that is trying to build common ground around aspects of health care policy.

My wife and I knew a lot about both Senator Mitchell’s and Sustained Dialogue’s work. That was not true, however, for the six people we brought with us or most of the 200 or so people who filled the National Press Club banquet room.

Everyone I spoke with afterward was amazed by the first glimpse they had gotten of the power of dialogue.

My real hope is that they find ways to act on what they heard, which is also at the heart of what I do for a living.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Alliance for Peacebuilding or its members.