Rosa Parks and Art of Conflict Generation

Rosa Parks and Art of Conflict Generation"Only by refusing to tolerate the intolerable do we begin to create the world we want."

“We sure need more of you!” I thought to myself, as I looked out this fall into an audience of nearly a thousand gathered for the 5th annual convention of the Association for Conflict Resolution. In a world where eighty armed battles rage, no profession seems a higher calling. Yet, preparing for the talk it dawned on me – though it might sound nuts at first – that what the world needs are not just skilled conflict resolvers but also skilled conflict generators.

Today, reading tributes to civil rights hero Rosa Parks, I think maybe Rosa was whispering in my ear that day.

When musing about the human condition, I told the group, it’s easy to focus on our failings – among which many count our rigidity, our resistance to change, our stuckness, whether it’s clinging to gas guzzling cars or a disastrous military strategy in the Middle East. But peering through another lens, the opposite may be true. Maybe we’re too malleable! Maybe we tolerate too much, changing and adapting to that which is, literally, killing us.

We adapt to the dominant frame, our culture’s mental map I call thin democracy – the notion that the simple combo of elected government and a “free market” is all we need. But this “free market’ of ours is actually tethered to one single rule: highest return to existing wealth. And where does that take us?

We can now see that a one-rule market kills itself: From pharmaceuticals to textbooks to the grain trade a handful of corporations control so much there is no open, competitive market left. The only place the free market exists is “in the speeches of politicians,” said the CEO of Archer Daniels Midlands, the world’s fifth largest agribusiness firm.

Economic concentration then inevitably infects the political process so that today in Washington there are 56 registered lobbyists for every official we citizens elect. The interests of concentrated wealth are heard, not the voices of citizens.

No wonder, to take just one example, that even though the vast majority of Americans want everyone to have access to health care 46 million Americans lack health insurance. This despite the horrifying fact that one’s chance of dying in infancy is 50 percent higher if you are born in a family lacking it; and on average each year 18,000 premature deaths are tied to lack of insurance.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt warned us back in 1938: “[T]he liberty of a democracy is not safe,” he said, “if the people tolerate the growth of private power to a point where it becomes stronger than their democratic state itself. That, in its essence, is Fascism…,” he said to Congress.

So in this historical epoch I believe we must take our cue from Rosa Parks: Our survival depends on not going along, not cooperating with assumptions that violate our deepest sensibilities. And not going along means generating conflict, or at least surfacing it.

The how-to’s of generating and surfacing conflict creatively, I realized, must become just as exalted a skill-set as is creatively resolving conflict. Rosa Parks didn’t on impulse decide one day to say “no.” She’d been training in this art for some time.

Take poverty right now in America: What does it mean to say “no,” to be a conflict generator?

While no American wants people trapped in poverty, under George W. Bush the number of poor Americans has swollen 17 percent and relative to the average wage, the minimum wage has hit a 56 year low.

To say no to poverty many Americans are learning the art of generating conflict and winning “living wage” ordinances, for example, now in over 100 cities. Let me paint a scene from my hometown Fort Worth, Texas, that is all about this art. There today is an effective affiliate of the country’s largest faith-based community organizing network, the Industrial Areas Foundation. It’s called Allied Communities of Tarrant or ACT.

In the early nineties in my very poor neighborhood, Texas Wesleyan University was threatening to pull out. (At the time I discovered the house I grew up in on sale for $7,000). ACT, said, in effect: We can’t let this happen, because if the university moves out it will make this neighborhood’s recovery so much harder.

And so ACT asked for a meeting with the [resident. Its members walked into the office, and the [president was expecting 15 people, and so the chairs were all lined up in rows before his desk. Well, ACT had role-played for two hours on all of the eventualities. And one of the things they imagined was just this kind of seating. So, they arrived in the office and what did they do? Immediately, they started rearranging the chairs in a circle in which the president would be one seated among them, not the big shot officiating from the front.

As Perry Perkins, an ACT organizer at the time, told me, “Immediately, that sent a message: we are not the powerless. We are co-problem-solvers with you.” When he described the conflict, he said, “Sometimes we have to polarize in order to de-polarize.” In other words, sometimes tension has to be made visible, in order to be dealt with creatively. And, by the way, the university chose not to move.

I often quote the first federal African-American judge William Hastie who said, “Democracy is not being, it is becoming. It is easily lost, but never fully won. Its essence is eternal struggle.’” While I’ve loved these words, I have to admit I’ve also often mumbled the last line. I think I’ve been afraid it’s going to frighten people. Struggle, who wants that?

But I’m changing. I’m realizing that the struggle to give birth to a living, life-enhancing democracy—tapping the best in us, not the worst in us—is the struggle. It is not a dull duty. It is an exhilarating walk. It’s the good fight. It requires, as psychologist Jean Baker Miller calls it, “waging good conflict.”

That’s what Rosa was whispering to me as I spoke to the gathering of conflict resolvers. Creating a real, living democracy is a fight, not so much against each other as against our own fears, our own self-doubt. It is a fight against our tendency to bury our distress and go along, a fight to surface conflict – whether by refusing to budge as Rosa did or by rearranging the chairs in the president’s office.

Only by refusing to tolerate the intolerable do we begin to create the world we want.