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When being ‘even-handed’ inflames: The refugee crisis and ‘black lives matter’

Arlene : July 28, 2016 5:22 pm : Blog

The Refugee Crisis

Some months ago, I shared a post on Facebook. It was a simple image of refugees walking, bags on shoulders – made out of pebbles – by a Syrian artist, Nizar Ali Badr.


The caption said ‘please share this image as a sign of solidarity among all the people of the planet whose lives are destroyed by war.’

Someone wrote in the comments: ‘And in solidarity with women who are raped.’

Incidents of sexual assault and rape, committed by refugees, had recently been reported in Europe. These incidents had been used to rouse racism and sentiment against refugees. And in turn, people were being accused of playing down these incidents in order to protect refugees.

I bet that comment on my post was meant to be ‘even-handed’. I think it was highly inflammatory.

Juxtaposing the statement of solidarity with people suffering violent conflict with a statement of solidarity to rape victims, in effect accuses people who are suffering violent conflict of being rapists. And it implies that a statement of solidarity with victims of war somehow could mean that you are not in solidarity with rape victims. 

But, I think what was especially frustrating was the tone of innocence, while diminishing the whole-hearted support for those who are suffering war – and worse, making them rapists.

There’s nothing that matters more to me than for all of us to grow in our awareness and compassion, so that we can truly support our wholeness. So, that we are not split apart into polarised conflicts, whether internally, or inside of our organisations, communities and societies.

As a facilitator, there’s nothing more important to me than feeling in touch with a deepest sense of welcome to everyone, every issue, and any interaction needed.

But, what masks as ‘even-handedness’ or ‘neutrality’ is often a smokescreen that blurs awareness, rather than enhancing it. This sort of ‘even-handedness’ is a lack of discernment and compassion. And this is inflammatory, rather than contributing to whole-hearted support, facilitation and resolution.

Black Lives Matter

Lately, this kind of quasi even-handedness has been inflammatory towards the Black Lives Matter movement.
It comes out of a tendency to be unaware of where we have privilege and so we blur things that need differentiation.

So, we’ve all seen that when someone says ‘Black Lives Matter’, there’s the retort ‘All Lives matter’. Inflammatory, no matter how it was meant.

Of course all lives matter. As so many have patiently said over these weeks and months, the point is that it is black people who are getting killed by police, and that this outrage has been normalized in our society.

Around the world, there’s nothing more dangerous than when a government, military or police force does not protect the rights of its citizens, and instead threatens and turns against them.

If your life is in danger – and if your life is in danger because police might stop you for no reason other than that you are black, and this might end up in you getting killed, even when you are unarmed and pose no threat – you are in a position in which you are without state protection. You are under threat of your life, but cannot call the police for protection.

In the United States, (and the problem is not only in the US), black people are being killed by systemic, institutionalised racism and violence. And all of us are needed to call for accountability from our police force and work together for systemic change. We must do this.

Sadly, as we all know, institutionalised racism and violence against black people in the United States (and elsewhere) isn’t new. It’s been with us since the days of slavery. After hard won struggles in human rights and civil rights, it hits hard to look at again and again.

What’s maybe new is looking at it so clearly and so often on video, thanks to the smartphone. It makes it harder to say in that quasi ‘even-handed’ way, “Well maybe it was an overreaction during a threatening incident, and the cop was just pushed too far” or “We don’t know exactly what happened.”

The bottom line for any democratic society is to protect human rights, civil rights and safety of one’s citizens and residents. If we don’t believe in the responsibility and capacity of police to serve our communities, if we don’t hold our selves and our public servants accountable as a society, then we normalise and legitimize this violence.

For god’s sake – let’s not be half-hearted or blasé, while appearing innocent and ‘even-handed’. Let’s stand together wholeheartedly and with full resources against systemic racism
and violence, and for accountability. That would give the ground from which to then focus on education, training, and facilitated interaction and dialogue, to grow in our awareness, within the police force, throughout society and inside each of us.

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Europe’s Debts: Accountability and Solidarity

Arlene : July 30, 2015 9:22 pm : Blog

During the crisis in Greece and Europe, I’ve been thinking about my part – as a person and as a resident of an EU country … and tried to write a few thoughts.

I salute my colleagues in Greece for their personal and political work, all they do for their communities and to contribute to forging new directions for us in Europe and internationally.

I heard the accusations that Greece simply didn’t hold itself accountable for its debts. I heard moral judgments that Greeks are lazy. I see the poorest people in Greece and elsewhere suffering from austerity measures and those fighting on their behalf feeling humiliated.

What does it mean to hold oneself accountable to one’s debts? I think of my financial privileges, living in a relatively thriving economy in this world with so much poverty. And I look at my personal life, age 60, and think of those whom I’m indebted to (for their belief in me, their kindness, their hand) and whom I can never repay.

At a political level, when Germany demands accountability from Greece with a moral tone, I wonder if Germany’s leaders think about their privileges and how they got them? My first question was… Hey wait a moment…don’t they remember how the ‘Marshall Plan’ infused Germany’s devastated society after World War II when Germany didn’t have a grain of moral ground to stand on? Does Germany consider itself accountable for its role in helping to forge a safer and more humane future for Europe? And globally? Yes, especially after its deplorable history in relation to all of Europe, Greece, and humanity.

I don’t say this to rake Germany over the coals of its past. Germany has tried to hold itself accountable for its history more than most countries. I’m trying to orient, find a sense of history and context, and some sense of responsibility for our shared future.

Recently because of our research at CFOR concerning EU’s role in exacerbating or preventing international conflict, I took time to read about the extraordinary history of the European Union. The original vision and purpose of the EU was to shape a future in which we could prevent the repeat of the unspeakable horrors of World War I and World War II. This included keeping any single nation’s dominance in check. A shared economy was conceived of as one pathway to support peace, relationships among us, and a shared future.

But a debt is a debt. And economic dynamics can’t be confused with pie in the sky notions of peace and relationship? Or can they? If we enter into a Union as independent countries, and if we enter an economic union, in which some countries are richer and some are poorer, don’t we all carry responsibility to face the inherent problems.

In the interaction between Germany and Greece, who is accountable to whom? And in the relationship between Europe and Greece, who is accountable to whom?

What strategies will facilitate solutions rather than exacerbate inequities and conflict within Europe, and in our international relations? In honour of the contributions of Jacques Delors on his 90th birthday, President Hollande spoke of the dream behind the European Union, and described Delor’s call for “solidarity and responsibility”.

When the topic of accountability comes up, while it is sometimes straight forward, it is often complex with entangled, overlapping perspectives and layers of history. And we are usually each limited inside our own angle, and feel convinced. So, it is risky to even go into the topic, but how can we not?

It is inflammatory when Germany points a moralistic finger just as Greece is immersed in trying to find solutions to its pressing problems. And it’s especially inflammatory because of Germany’s financial position in Europe, and because of Germany’s history in Greece and the rest of Europe.

A call for Greece to assume responsibility would have had a different meaning if accompanied with a feeling of solidarity and a dash of humility – While Germany may have identified as seeking solutions in support of Greece and Europe, their style of demand did not give any respect for the political momentum in Greece, nor did it come with a sense of working together on our shared problems and shared future within Europe and globally.

If we look at how we are building our future together, we share many issues. One example is migration. While some European countries have an influx of immigrants, others close their borders. Where’s our solidarity in Europe? And with those fleeing the violence in their home countries? What is our part in taking accountability for the causes of the violence they flee? How and when must we draw a line? Who takes responsibility for saying yes or no at our doors? While lots of discussion and work is going on around these issues, so much is needed to begin to assume responsibility together.

It’s in the nature of privilege that it can feel next to impossible to grapple with your own responsibility, even while demanding responsibility from others. Most will recognise this dynamic in your own personal relationships – at least you notice how your partner does it to you! And as whole societies, it is in our nature to blot out the parts of history that are too difficult to look at, in order to conceive of ourselves as the good guys. While we are talking about debts in Europe – it might be a moment to not lose our memory about exploitation, slavery, the history of colonialism, and how this story is perpetuated.

In Greece, its been painful that the calls for responsibility were not matched with solidarity, yet it’s been moving to witness the solidarity that emerged in social movements and among government and organisational leaders – within Greece and among those around Europe – who came out to say, “We are all Greek!”

For that matter, “We are also all German” calling for responsibility from others, and hopefully also from ourselves.

mural at rizazi park close to syntagma square in athens.
photo via

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The Dream: Community as a Protective Force

Arlene : August 31, 2014 3:39 pm : Blog

I’ve been recalling the beginning of our own organisation, CFOR. 
You might try it with your own projects or organisations. Because sometimes right at the beginning, the idea or seed that landed inside of you, and got you going, reminds you of who you are, or who you might become. 

It started like this:  
One afternoon I was in Kosovo sitting at a cafe with my colleagues Lane Arye and Tanja Radocaj. That was in 2001. 

We’d been working since 1996 in Croatia, since just after the war, facilitating large 4-day forums, with people who had been on opposing sides of the violent conflict. Our focus was on conflict resolution, violence prevention and community development. The participants were able to do what first seemed impossible to them – talk among themselves about the real issues that divided and connected them, including processing heated conflict, so that they could work with the blocks to recovery in their communities. The groups represented all kinds of people, from mayors of small villages, to young people in youth organisations. Tanja had headed up that programme in its earlier days, and she was now at UNMIK UN Mission in Kosovo. We were asked to facilitate a day of forums in Pristina and Mitrovice.  

One of the things that moves me still when I recall our time in Kosovo was how those so terribly traumatised by war held a deep wish to reach out and help others. And people who had never imagined having a vocation working with humanitarian needs or in social services were now terribly needed to help with post-war recovery. That afternoon in Kosovo, one person described trying to make contact with a man who was so traumatised, he was sitting vigilant by the door, without sleep, weapon in hand, and did not know the war was over. One man described spending the whole day trying to reach an old couple who were awaiting a stove. They lived on a farm that was very difficult to access. He had to go and tell them bad news – there was no stove.  (There were repeated problems with the coordination of supplies for basic needs.) He had tears in his eyes as he told how he had spent the whole day travelling to their remote farm, and how the couple had fallen to their knees, kissing his hands, and thanking him for coming all the way to tell them the bad news. The story struck a chord in everyone at that forum. The need for a stove as the winter was coming is nothing to be sentimental about, nor the botched best efforts on the part of so many organisations trying to help in  Kosovo – Still, what counted most was this human contact, that someone gave a damn ‘to go the mile’.    

It was just after the war. We often saw vehicles that said SFOR Security Force,  IFOR, and now KFOR Kosovo Force – these were UN forces with the role of protecting the peace. I remember the espresso, the barbed wire, the air, a KFOR vehicle and this idea landed…What about ‘CFOR’ Community Force. 

Might communities become a protective force? We had seen the most extraordinary transformations in our large forums of 60-80 people in Croatia. I remember the charge in the atmosphere, the goose bumps and sober faces, when a man asked. “Can we dare to imagine what might have happened had we met like this BEFORE the war? And when a woman looked around the room and spoke…”If the events leading to war were to come again, God forbid, would the experiences that we have gone through together, the depth of our dialogue as Serbs, Croats and Muslims, the strength and depth of friendships that we have formed…would they sustain us, such that we could not be pulled apart like that ever again?” Could communities become a protective force?  By way of facilitated interactions about how we are entangled in history. By way of processing the trauma and conflicts we have together and learning how our emotions are worked up and polarised in relation to one another. So that we cannot be so easily pulled apart in dramatic polarisations and violent conflict. 

These underlying ideas have been working in me for many years and formed the basis of several articles and my book, The War Hotel: Psychological Dynamics in Violent Conflict, Whurr 2004/Wiley.  

Jean-Claude and I had been facilitating community dialogue and forums since 1989, working together and with our colleagues. The programme in Croatia had begun in 1996. CFOR was founded in 2002. CFOR stood for Community Force, and later Force for Change. While the word ‘force’ often refers to power, might or even military, we liked to think of it more as a ‘life force’ that moves us in relation to each other, and ultimately links us. Our work is to facilitate and pass on facilitation skills, to support individuals, organisations, communities, and governments to access this potential within us to resolve conflict, prevent violence, and develop exciting and creative ways forward.

 Our work puts us face to face with some of the most painful and difficult parts of human experience, but it also brings us in touch with an extraordinary potential in people that brings hope – not pie in the sky hope – but real hope in what could be possible. 

We worked in Croatia from 1996-2002, and from 2006-2012, in programmes that were supported by the UNHCR, in tandem with our partner Udruga Mi, and supported by Dutch, Norwegian, Belgian, Danish , Spanish governments and EU funding. The later stages of our work particularly focused on the ‘Areas of Special State concern’ that had been devastated by war, in a programme that linked forums and economic recovery projects.

In addition to our work in Croatia, we’ve witnessed the potential of facilitated dialogue in many places and contexts – within small NGOs, international organisations and neighbourhood associations; within meetings among management, staff and board dealing with crisis in the National Health Services NHS; within our ‘Europe Matters’ conferences, gathering people from many countries and cultures to have a deeper dialogue about our history and future as multicultural societies; within ‘world work’ seminars in India, Slovakia, Greece, UK and  USA;  in a forum among the Diaspora community from Burundi; in forums to address violence in our communities, and mental health; in a forum on issues of migration, asylum and refuge; in forums on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; in forums on issues facing Roma communities and the relationship between majority and minority communities in Slovakia and Europe; with groups working on the history of tyranny during the communist era and attitudes in Europe between the ‘west’ and eastern and central Europe; i in forums on the environment; in a London forum focused on Islamophobia and the experience of Muslims in Europe; in a forum on anti-semitism; and in forums focusing on issues of nation and ethnicity, race and racism, gender, sexual orientation, health and ability / disability, and more.

With a background in facilitation, psychology, systems thinking, and Processwork, which uniquely links psychological, spiritual and political frameworks, our work is about facilitating dialogue, relationship and awareness, and bringing awareness to its potential for conflict resolution, social action and for building capacity and cooperation within and across organisations and sectors. We have the pleasure to work with people in conflict resolution, human rights, education and health, farming and sports, with civil society, local authorities and government, grassroots and large organisations.

With such extensive and serious problems in so many places, it’s easy to sometimes wonder if your dream is just falling into a big sea of dreams… I know many people feel like this. It can help to recall the beginning when the dream landed – we need each other more than ever… As I get to the end of this entry, I can’t quite find a closure, so will just head back to work… thanks!

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What are we waiting for?

Arlene : August 19, 2014 2:24 pm : Blog

Charlie Rose had a conversation/ interview, August 6, 2014, regarding the Palestinian perspective during the current outbreak of violence in Gaza. His guests were Nadia Blibassy-Charters, senior correspondent with Al-Arabija television; Khaled Elgindy, Fellow at Brooklyn Institution and former advisor to the Palestinian leadership; Rula Jebreal, television host and foreign policy analyst for Newsweek; Yousef Munayyer, Executive Director for the Jerusalem Fund and the Palestine Center.

Recently, I also saw a short interview with Ari Shavit, the author of My Promised Land, The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel. Shavit is known for his position that Israel must acknowledge its responsibility and understand and empathize with the Palestinian position and their tragic situation, in order to find a way to work together to forge a two state solution, rather than seeing Palestinians as the enemy. During this recent round of violence in Israel and Gaza, however, he describes Hamas adamantly as fascist and gives full support for Israel’s position and actions.

In the Charlie Rose interviews about the Palestinian perspective, a particular point was emphasized. And I recognized this as a point also made by Ari Shavit.

The point is this: At times that we have had relative calm, when there’s been no violence, the peace process has lost its oomph. And so the status quo continued.

This may be self-evident, but it is a fundamentally important point, not only for Israel-Palestine, but for conflict resolution everywhere.

Khaled Elgindy said, ‘When there is calm and quiet, the Israelis tend to be complacent and America, as well – and so the Palestinians get ignored and the status quo continues. It’s only when violence occurs, unfortunately, that people stand up and say ‘yes, there is a blockade, yes there is an occupation’ “.
Arit Shavit said in his interview that he was upset and embarrassed that during the recent periods of relative calm, Israel and also the United States have not been more persistent in continuing negotiations, and the dialogue necessary to achieve a two state and lasting solution.

Various disagreements are bound to pop up here about the exact reasons for breakdowns in negotiations, including whether Palestinians want Israel to exist, or whether Israel wants Palestinians to have a state.

But the point is vital. If during the times that violence subsides, we relax the peace process, then we support the status quo. And supporting the status quo is a prescription for violence.

In the Charlie Rose interview, Nadia Blibassy spoke of how a whole generation born in Gaza cannot visit their relatives in Ramallah or Jerusalem, only 20 minutes away. She described Gaza as an open-air prison ‘Without exaggeration Gaza is a big jail’. In Israel, during the relative calm, during this status quo, people can (almost) forget about it, and go about life with relative ease and privilege. For Palestinians the situation is not the same – the status quo is unbearable. When the status quo is not so bad for some and unbearable for others, trying to tighten down, and hold onto the status quo will bring violence, not security.

The violence also activates across the media, within the international community, and around our dining room tables all the issues, emotions, history and entanglement – the stuff that needs to come forward to be worked on. The urgency is back. But, at no small cost, each life lost in this violent conflict is an unspeakable tragedy.
So what might we do, when (God willing) there is a lull in the violence? At least one answer is that during times of relative calm, we need the urgency and passion that we have during war, applied to the peace process. We need to urgently work towards a solution that will make life better for all, before the next round comes. This is the moment to not step back and rest.

The guests with Charlie Rose said that ending the occupation was the bottom line. Israel needs to ‘de-occupy’, and all parties need to negotiate a two state solution. From the Israeli perspective, missiles and tunnels, however, are not experienced as an invitation to open up borders, or ‘de-occupy’. Not to mention Hamas hasn’t accepted Israel’s existence?

The guest speakers on Charlie Rose said they believed Hamas’s position regarding Israel’s right to exist is a bargaining chip. They looked congruent in their certainty that Hamas will acknowledge Israel, because they have to. The Palestinian people want a two state solution, and this clearly includes Israel’s right to exist. Nadia Blibassy brought out the viewpoint that whatever your feeling about this, it is useful to consider that Hamas is making a strategic use of violence and extreme positioning for political aims, much like the ANC used in South Africa, or Sin Fein in Ireland.

With respect for the wide range of views and disagreement about this, we need all voices at the table, working together as partners to find a pathway forward.

Then comes the question of what can any of us do? If the peace process loses oomph when the violence stops, this concerns all of us – because it creates the next round of violence. It is all of us that influence the dialogue, media, and political process.

It would help if we were more aware of these dynamics, whether politicians, peace negotiators, the media, or any of us close up and at a distance. It would help to reflect on what makes us complacent, supporting the status quo, and subsequent violence? And what sets us off? What activates us, and what makes us susceptible to being drawn into opposing camps? And what makes us reflect, learn, think, feel into all sides, and take part in finding sustainable solutions, whether it is in political large-scale situations or in our community and private life?

The point is: our awareness matters. By awareness I mean how we inform ourselves. But also how we know ourselves, emotionally and spiritually – our reactions, how we take part, our personal and collective history, and recognizing that we make a difference by showing up at the table, ready to facilitate ourselves and others, towards finding a way forward.

Whether you think of this in relation to our part in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or any other hotspot on our globe, or whether you think of issues in your community, organisation, or in your home, one message is that when there’s relative calm, take a breath and consider it a time of great import to stay involved. The cost of waiting is too high.

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Remembering Glenn Smiley – Spirituality and Politics

Arlene : August 4, 2014 11:10 pm : Blog

I was thinking this morning about Glenn Smiley. 
We arrived in Los Angeles around 1988 from Zurich, where we’d been immersed in the study and practice of Processwork, daughter of Jungian Psychology. Jean-Claude Audergon (my partner) and I were dedicated to find out more about how these methods could be applied to community facilitation and violence prevention. 
This was during a time when violence was on the rise among gangs in LA.  In 1990, an organisation devoted to trying to prevent violence invited us to facilitate a forum, among a large group of young people age 6-18, from different gangs. We did this together with David Crittendon. (Those kids were just amazing, the process inspiring, but that’s a story for another time.) A woman who we met during this work became very interested in our work. She was assisting Glenn Smiley and thought he might want to meet us. She told Glenn about us, and he invited us to his office. 
We felt honoured to have this opportunity to meet Glenn. But, only now, do I look back and realise what a privilege this really was. Glenn Smiley was a leader in the civil rights movement. He worked with the Fellowship of Reconciliation, studied Gandhi’s principles and practice of Non-Violence, and visited Dr. Martin Luther King in Montgomery Alabama at the time of the Montgomery Bus boycott. Smiley stayed in Montgomery throughout 1956, trained King in methods of Non-Violence, and was one of the people who influenced King’s commitment to Non-Violent action. 
In case you are not familiar with the story of the Montgomery Bus boycott, this is an important story in American history, and indeed world history… One day in 1955, Rosa Parks refused to get up and give her seat to a white customer on the segregated bus. I recall her saying in an interview “I was tired”. It was clear she meant plain tired that day so she didn’t feel like getting up, and she was tired of segregation. She was arrested. Martin Luther King with others led the Montgomery Bus boycott that followed. Blacks stopped riding buses. Everyone walked. Those who had cars gave rides to others. Black taxi drivers gave rides for 10 cents. Police accosted boycotters. King’s house and four Black Baptist churches were firebombed. Martin Luther King gave a speech to the African American community… “We cannot solve this problem through retaliatory violence… we must meet violence with nonviolence.”  The leaders of the boycott (including King) and carpool drivers were indicted for conspiring to interfere with business. After a Supreme Court decision, the boycott that had started on Dec 1, 1955 officially ended on December 20, 1956. Buses were desegregated. Moreover, the civil rights movement was emboldened. In time, the US civil rights movement and its emphasis on non-violent civil action had in turn influenced movements around the world. (I’ve written only a summary here, but it is important to mention that the successful outcome of the Montgomery boycott did not come without vicious violent backlash, including death threats, assaults, and bombs against the black community.)
Here’s a photo of Glenn Smiley with Martin Luther King, on the day the Bus strike ended.  


Sitting together in his small office filled with papers, Glen was curious about the methods we were practicing.  We told him about the methods of Processwork and Arnold Mindell. He was particularly interested in our description of ‘inner work’, working internally on the polarisation’s you meet in the outer situation, and how this helps to facilitate in situations of conflict, without getting further polarised. Glenn’s eyes sparkled. He shared stories that were very personal and emotional about the self-discipline, learning and commitment involved in those early days of the civil rights movement – how he and black colleagues would use methods of non-violence, going into segregated tearooms in LA, and sit at the counter.  He described the inner discipline they had to use when asked to leave, in order to not enter the fight, nor to become passive. I recall Glenn emphasising as Gandhi did in his writings that Non-Violence has nothing whatsoever to do with passivity. One of the lessons I learned from his stories was the possibility of a seamless link between spirituality and politics, awareness and action.
He also told us that he had suffered from a number of strokes, and had been unable to speak for 15 years. One day he could speak again, so he used this ‘privilege’ of speech to now lecture frequently (!)
Glenn invited us to a celebration and lecture. I believe it was the opening of the Martin Luther King Centre in LA.  It was in a spacious hall.  We walked in – a lot of people were mingling about. I remember Glenn making me feel like a special and honoured guest and I believe he made every single person in that room feel the same way.  He was that kind of elder, working quietly in the background, inspiring and welcoming you to take an active part in this world, and know that you matter.  

Here’s an article by Glenn Smiley 

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