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 Peacebuilders’ Challenge

How do we build support for a more peaceful world in a country that is as divided as the United States is today? Given the events of the last months, including the violence in Charlottesville and the remarks made by President Trump in the days that followed that might seem like an impossible task.

However, in the days after the protests, two things happened that give me hope. If we combine them, we could make some progress because both of these initiatives are encouraging.

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Ideas from Robin Chase

chasezipI spent part of last week with Robin Chase, founder of Zipcar and author of Peers, Inc. Both in our one on one time together and in her keynote talk at the United States Institute of Peace’s Peace Tech Lab, she stressed two points, both of which we should all take to heart.

The first is the logic behind her book that outlines how a sharing or circular economy can be taken to scale and become a springboard for lasting social change. Her approach has three parts:

  • Identify excess or underused resources that can be brought to bear on a problem.
  • Use the private sector (the Inc.) and others to build open source platforms that can be used to address it.
  • Empower smaller groups (the Peers) to build applications that can take responses to the problem to scale.

Chase draws on dozens of examples, including Zipcar which she sold more than a decade ago and a new startup she works with, Veniam, that intends to create the “internet of moving things” and provide free Wi-Fi access in large urban areas. There are plenty of other examples that use technology as a base such as Etsy, Zappos, or Warby Parker. There are also examples of others that barely use technology at all, such as Delancey Street, which has built networks of success for ex-offenders and others who have been largely left out of the success of San Francisco and other large cities.

As Chase talked at the United States Institute of Peace, a lot of us were left asking how we could adapt her three steps to our field, peacebuilding. Without a doubt, it will be harder if for no other reason than we lack the (relatively) easy to apply metrics provided by profit and loss statements, growth rates in the short and long term, and so on.

Nonetheless, as the buzz in the room following her talk suggested, there is no shortage of possible ways we
could at least begin adapting her three insights. In fact, I will be basing the presentations I’m making around them starting with two dealing with redefining security in the next two weeks.

Second, I was just as taken by another point she made in this talk but only hinted at in the one I’ve linked to here. We live in a world that has more than its share of troubles and an increasingly large number of anger people. Chase worries about the possibility of a political, environmental, and economic revolution unless we find a way to speed human social evolution first.

I’m not as worried as she is about the chances of a revolution. Nonetheless, we do agree that the “trend lines” are driving Americans and others farther apart at a time when we need to find ways to overcome global challenges the only way we can possibly do so—through cooperative problem solving.

In short, we have decided that the “system” can be changed from within and that mainstream institutions—including the innovative  parts of the private sector—can become part of the solution and not remain part of the problem. That said, we also know that neither of us has anything like “the” answer.russellr

So, fire away. Questions. Comments. Criticisms.

I’d love to hear them.

So would Robin.

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.


Implementing the SDGs

This month’s Conflict Prevention and Resolution Forum dealt with ways the new Sustainable Development Goals could and should be implemented, especially “Goal 16” which deals with peacebuilding.

IMG_0364Each month, a group of DC-based NGOs and academic institutions organizes a forum on some aspect of peacebuilding. This month, it explored these goals that were recently adopted by the United Nations and included peacebuilding for the first time. The document has been widely discussed, but this was one of the first times that a distinguished group of experts explored how (and if) its peacebuilding goals could be met. Panelists Andrew Tomlinson, Cynthia Clapp-Wincek, and Lynn Wagner cast a broad net that honed in a number of conclusions about the agreements and their implementation, four of which struck me as fundamental for us all.

First, the very fact that they were accepted is a remarkable accomplishment. For the first time, the UN’s member states committed themselves to “The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) aim to significantly reduce all forms of violence, and work with governments and communities to find lasting solutions to conflict and insecurity. Strengthening the rule of law and promoting human rights is key to this process, as is reducing the flow of illicit arms and strengthening the participation of developing countries in the institutions of global governance.”

Second, the goals were adopted as the result of an unusual and promising political practice for the international community. Unlike earlier UN policy documents, there was considerable grass roots involvement in the negotiations that led up to their adopting earlier this year, including the participation of all three panelists.sustainable

Third, as is the case with just about every UN declaration, it is one thing to announce a policy. It is quite another to see that it is implemented. Here, too, the panelists agreed that it is up to civil society, including NGOs, the corporate world, and the media, to hold the UN and its member states accountable.

Finally, the SDGs are not just about development “out there.” Unlike the Millennium Challenge Goals they replace, the SDGs are global in scope, which means that all countries are expected to make progress toward them. As moderator Liz Hume asked the panelists, “what does this mean for us here in Washington?” Although the panel could not deal with Liz’s question in any depth, it was clear that we in the United States fall far short of having a “just, peaceful, and inclusive society.”

In other words, the panel reminded us all that we have plenty of work to do.

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.

Domestic Peacebuilding

The Alliance for Peacebuliding (AfP) is about to add domestic conflict to the list of issues it works on. Until now, AfP members have done almost all of their work outside the US. At long last, we have realized that we also have to pay attention to the raging disputes that trouble our own country. Even though we were created to work abroad, events of the last few years have made it impossible for us to ignore the fact that the entire world needs peacebuilders. Violent conflict is as common in Baltimore as it is in Baghdad and in Ferguson as in FallujahAfP Logo

So, my colleagues and I are spending the summer exploring how we could build on our experiences addressing wicked problems abroad so that we can better cope with the political conflicts disrupting our own country.

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Build Peace 2015

Look just below the surface of any wicked problem these days and you are likely to find that there is a technological issue among its causes and that they will also figure in whatever ways we try to deal with it.

With that in mind, the Alliance for Peacebulding was delighted to co-sponsor the recent Build Peace conference which I attended at the end of April in Nicosia, Cyprus. Build Peace

It was the second such event organized by four remarkable young social entrepreneurs who call themselves as Build Up^. The first drew some 200 people to the iconic MIT Media Lab in 2014. They decided to hold the second one in Cyprus so that it could include events on both sides of the divided island of Cyprus’s “green line.”

This time, about 250 people from over 60 countries attended. The first day’s sessions were held at Bedestan–a restored church and open air market–in the Turkish half of the city. The second day’s session were  held at a number of locations on the Greek side of the border.


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