“Feminism taught me the difference
between a conviction in the head
and a change in the way you live.”
–Stuart Hall, speaking of things he learned
from Catherine Barrett
From 1996 to 2005 I worked at a summer camp in Western Massachusetts teaching kids social justice skills. In a beautiful mountain setting, we worked to help kids learn how to act in solidarity across race, class, ability, gender.
I am thinking back to a summer I was running the Farm & Nature program, a small hobby farm with a few chickens, some ducks, some sheep and a goat, where these city kids got to get into dirt and take responsibility for feeding, watering, and cleaning hutches and stalls.
From the small garden by the old weatherworn barn you could see out a long ways down the rolling pasture, nothing but long green rolling land down to the treeline. The sun was often hot on those slow summer days, the four or five horses off in the old lower riding ring stamping, flicking their tails, and making the slow lippy sounds horses make on a hot summer day when nothing needs a rush.
Our little patch of garden smelled like fresh earth baked in the sun. On this particular day I am thinking of, I am standing in the garden patch with a group of kids, bent over weeding the tomatoes by hand. The camp was based on free choice, which meant the kids in the garden that day had chosen to be there, and also meant any activity usually had a mix of ages. On this day our voluntary weeding crew consisted of one or two 8 year olds, a few more 11 and 12 year olds, and maybe one older camper who seemed terribly mature at 14. I distinctly remember this day because, as we weeded, a conflict arose.
A White girl from a working class background in New York, being raised by a single mother, said she was worried about the educational opportunities passing her by. She explained how acceptance at good high schools in New York’s competitive education system was dependent on grades and money, and her mother couldn’t afford things like tutoring or fancy tuition. We all listened, work humming along, backs pleasantly warm in the sun and the smell of fresh tomatoes on our palms.
Then she said it “felt unfair” to her that kids in her financial situation who were not White were “more likely to get scholarships and support” than she was, and she felt they were “passing her by.” A Black girl in the group who heard this replied “people always assume if you get a scholarship it is because you’re Black and not because you worked hard or are smart.”
The circle of kids all stopped weeding for a moment. Everyone looked at me, expectant. I moved to an open patch and sat down, and they all sat down, too. In a circle. This is what we did at this camp when a conflict arose – or when the contours of structural violence reveal themselves, which is often the same thing. We sat together, in a circle, and calmed ourselves so we could listen. Those not directly involved in the conflict sat in the circle and listened supportively, and the two used skills to hear each other and try to understand.
So now we were sitting in a circle weeding the basil. And the soil was coming clear under our hands as the weeds went into buckets, and the basil was showing up against the soil. The girls took turns speaking, and they said back things like, ‘am I hearing you right? Is this what you mean?’ before they expressed what their realities were like. I intervened gently with questions occasionally and kept a sense of the emotional tone of the conversation. Aware that the original comment had in fact been harmful to the Black girl – a microaggresion, likely one of hundreds she has to live – and that it was my job to hold a space of compassion that was also informed by an awareness of power.
The other kids in the circle listened, and sometimes said ‘wait, I think you missed what she meant there’ or helped the two girls clarify and understand each other, and sometimes added experiences or reflections – analysis – of their own, as their hands pulled up weeds big and small from the crumbly black soil. Tears were shed in emotion, and the afternoon sun warmed our backs and faces. I guided and listened. Did the Black girl feel safe to share her experiences of racism and know they would be taken seriously and heard? Did the White girl understand that while her class barriers were real, Black students were not to blame, and were often facing even more barriers than her? And that while we all continue to welcome her, and accept her, and like her, that she really needed to empathize, and we expected her to apologize? Because this is how we take the typically-minimized needs and feelings of the Black girl into account, and make sure not to go with the usual move, which is to erase them. On a deeply uneven playing field – cavernously uneven, in fact – compassion with accountability is how justice occurs.
We do approach conflict assuming everyone has the need to belong, be heard, and to feel emotionally accepted and valued in the group – to feel limbically secure. But to get there, to get where we need to be for those whose fears and lived experiences are most often not seen, we do not approach conflict assuming there are “two equal sides.” We openly and honestly name power, and act with compassion while refusing to silence or hide from reality.
By the time the rope bell on the camp’s main A-frame was pulled to set the bell pealing and call us in for dinner, by the time the sound rang across the wood and stone buildings and out over the pasture to our ears in the garden, the circle of girls had lapsed into pensive quiet.
I made a mental note to check in individually with each girl at the centre of the discussion later that day to see what they needed and if they were ok. We rounded up the buckets, dumped the weeds behind the barn, and headed in to a meal, the two girls both looking pensive and fairly peaceful. The kids who had formed the rest of the circle left with content, proud looks on their faces – they had helped.
That conversation didn’t resolve the immense structural violence that the Black girl must face every day, here and at home. It didn’t resolve the class barriers the White camper was facing. More to the point, it didn’t directly target the stacked school system within which they were both being forced to compete. They were kids at summer camp, and we weren’t organizing, at that moment, for direct change in those systems. What that conversation, and our willingness to have it, did do was give each kid a template: a template for building trust with someone they may otherwise have viewed as a threat.
By naming power, while loving one another, they got to undermine a divide and conquer strategy of our current social order: the one that teaches poor White kids to blame kids of colour instead of banding together to see the discrete pressures in a system affecting them both. By understanding together the specific kinds of erasure and silencing Black women and girls face, they became stronger and more able to perceive harm and hence, protect against it.
Both received empathy and recognition of their very real struggles with structural violence – racism, poverty – while helping them begin to see an alliance between them as the best way to go. Instead of competing, they were able to hear one another’s realities, face their relative power honestly, and turn their attention to the system affecting them both.
Those conversations were a completely normal part of the daily fabric of life at this camp.
Fierce revolutionary love: like everything, better with practice
When two kids got into a conflict, everyone nearby or involved with them would stop what they were doing and sit in a circle, and look to the adults or, often, initiate conflict resolution on their own.
It was recognized in this community that a conflict between two people affects everyone they are connected to. That conflict handled well is an opportunity to create trust, that conflict avoided just simmers under the surface until it erupts in unforeseen ways: gossip, damaged relationships, and weakened social bonds. Bonds we need if we are to do our work.
With countless such conversations under their belt, the children and the adults were more likely to learn from their mistakes, expand their capacity for empathy and nuance their understanding of human nature, and at the best of times, see and work to support each other in the face of the naturalized forms and systems of power that privilege some and harm some, every day.
The heart at the centre of the struggle
I’m not saying it always worked. The camp had its own underlying power dynamics. I can think of times when I failed to hear or see what was right in front of me until later and perpetuated violence in various ways, and there are likely just as many times that I still don’t recognize, even later. This was also done to me on various unspoken axes of privilege; silencing occurs everywhere power exists. The point isn’t that we created some magic idyll where we left power and violence at the road. The point was that we practiced, and worked at, becoming better, more connected, more accountable people, every day.
Sometimes we made it, sometimes we didn’t, but the skills were available and put into practice every chance we got. While painting popsicle sticks or doing macramé, while feeding the ducks, while taking out the pig slop and cleaning the kitchen, while sharing a meal, while helping the kids tidy up their shoes, while running around chasing a soccer ball, there was a willingness to learn and work at being human beings capable of having conflict, or recognizing harm, and turning into it rather than running away.
How did we create this culture?
The training during staff week varied every year but certain skills were rock solid values of the camp, grounded in years of conflict resolution knowledge.
Here are some of the skills we were trained in as staff, with a few additional kinds of awareness I’ve picked up since. These are some of the practices we were taught to use as adults, and the skills we modeled for the children in our care. Everyone who chose to work there was committing to uphold these values and practice these skills in order to be part of this community of care.
Before I list these, I want to say that are not the only ways that conflict can be understood. Also, it’s important to note that not everyone is responsible for this, all of the time: if you’re facing violence and harm, and you’ve had this reality erased for a long, long time, your very survival may mean you just need to speak truth and leave the gentling to the ones with more privilege to sort out.
These are not the whole picture. But they are core values that can help inform a conflict’s-not-scary approach, especially for those who become aware that they are in the position with more structural power.
- Talk to the person directly first. Don’t talk about the conflict with others because that escalates, reifies misunderstanding and difference, and is destructive to the two people involved and the strength of the entire community. If you don’t feel ready to talk to the person directly, or there is a power differential that means they may not hear you, ask one other person whose discretion you trust to give you advice about how to approach that person, and approach them, together if you wish, as soon as you are able. Resolve conflicts quickly before they grow.
- Where you can, name needs, values, and behavior – and yet do not fall into tone policing.When you speak to the person you’re upset with, try your best to speak of your emotions and needs, and describe their behaviour rather than their essence. Practice ‘when you do this behavior, I feel this emotion. This is my need.’ Tell the truth, directly, openly, and honestly, and listen to the full truths of others. Recognize that their entire world view may be different from yours, and you may be building a lexicon to even understand what words mean to each of you. Identify areas that were misunderstanding, identify core value differences that may be the cause of the conflict, identify power dynamics and do not sweep them under the rug. See if you can learn the other person’s logic and reasons, while expecting that they will stick around for repair if they have caused harm. And yet when someone becomes unable to speak in this ‘kind, careful’ way, ask yourself how much harm they may have been living with, and how much erasure they may be surviving. If you’re the one with more structural power, it is on you to hear their words and gain insight into power, not just get stuck on the tone of their voice.
- Get appropriate support. Instead of gossiping or talking destructively to others, those who are close to you can help. If talking directly to the person involved doesn’t work, ask a friend or supervisor to sit with the two of you, to keep you both on track and help you navigate.
- Make a plan for what to do when it comes up again, and then continually adjust the plan. Once you have a clearer understanding of the causes of the conflict, assume it will arise again, and make a concrete plan for what to do next time. Continually practice until you find common ground. Take seriously your commitment to improve your conflict skills the next time around. See each conflict as an opportunity to practice.
- The whole circle is affected by each of the relationships within it. Recognize others who have been affected by the conflict will also need reconnection and support. Once it is resolved between the two, sit with everyone all together to avoid broken telephone and gossip. Use talking circles and the same skills – identifying misunderstanding, recognizing needs and power dynamics, listening to and believing each other, acting accountable, and being honest and direct. Other people who felt pressured to take sides or felt scared or confused will also need their emotions honoured, and safety rebuilt.
- Know your own conflict style, strengths and weaknesses (more on that in ‘conflict styles,’ below).
Those skills and strategies were an expected part of our job performance. They were included in our evaluations and were a factor in rehiring decisions. The camp’s raison d’être was not to teach kids to make popsicle art or even to learn to horseback ride or swim, though skills development was certainly part of the program. The real reason we were there was to inculcate those community building skills that would foster the development of ethical, responsive, self-aware adults.
If we are committed to building a resilient left movement – or many movements that can work together without perpetually fragmenting each time conflict occurs – it is evident that we need skills for embracing conflict and harm, and learning how to hold one another when it occurs.
In other words, we need the mindset that views conflict as normal, as an opportunity for alliance building and learning, instead of as unusual or avoidable. That isn’t abstract. It is a daily practice, as essential to organizing as knowing how to make a leaflet or organize a panel.
So you can imagine my surprise when I found myself in radical left communities that had very little of this skill set, or took for granted that conflict could simply be avoided and that it would go away. That has, sadly, been my experience more often than I would wish, most notably in predominantly white organizing circles in Canada. We need to hold one another in these frightening times. We need to know how to roll with conflict and hold one another in safety, in this individualist culture, so we can take the risks that we are called upon to take.
I’m thinking of another day, in that same garden. This was just a week or so after that first, wonderful moment of kids seeing it work, seeing learning happen instead of fear. A group of kids are back at the garden, including some regulars who had been there the week before. Our hands are once again in the soil, our backs in the sun.
An older girl says something judging a younger girl’s clothes – I don’t remember what. Some comment that made everyone in the garden go still for a moment and brought a strained, unhappy look to the younger girl’s face.
And then the kids looked at me and all sat down in a circle.
Curious about what would happen, I joined them. And they all looked at the older girl who had done the hurtful thing.
Who didn’t seem to notice. She went on with what she’d been doing – we were staking beans – as though nothing had changed. Awkward silence.
One of the kids sitting in the circle looked at me with big eyes, looked at her, looked back at me, and said, ‘aren’t we going to talk?’
And I looked at the girl who had initiated the conflict. Who didn’t look at me or seem to notice everyone staring. With the rest of the campers looking at me expectantly, I asked the older girl, ‘do you want to talk about what just happened?’ and she said, ‘not really,’ and turned away, back to the beans, for all the world as if she was alone in the garden, chattering to herself.
After a few moments watching, I shrugged to the others. ‘We can’t force her.’ Everyone looked dejected. I felt dejected. The girl who had been the recipient of the harm looked like she was about to cry. The others put their arms around her. The bell rang.
In conflict resolution parlance, this is called stonewalling. The utter refusal to engage. It is the denial of relationship, and it has recognizeable and fairly predictable effects: open conflict is temporarily averted; social bonds are weakened as relationships stay superficial; understanding is avoided; the circle breaks down.
When the one doing the stonewalling is the person with more privilege or power, they can stonewall to protect this privilege. When you stonewall, existing power dynamics remain in place, which benefits those with more power, whose mere inaction is enough to keep the unearned privilege they experience, whether they notice this or not.
Among good people who aren’t intentionally trying to harm others, stonewalling usually arises because people feel overwhelmed. Either they fear they will not be able to maintain their own boundaries while choosing to engage with another, or they don’t know their own edges, don’t know how to say their own needs while hearing the needs of others.
For some, anger itself can feel overwhelming, and it can feel safer to say nothing. If most of what people know of conflict is the knee-jerk reactions, such as ‘avoid/attack’ or the barely better ‘negotiate and trade,’ then conflict appears a zero-sum game with winners and losers. It can appear that the only options are to lose, or to be invaded, or to literally put up a stone wall: nothing gets in or out. The safety of a barricade.
On the other hand, with practice in collaborative conflict resolution, conflict appears more like a rubix cube, a complex puzzle of interlocking parts, one you can solve together for everyone’s benefit.
The skill level of everyone involved – and how well supported they are by the circle around them – shapes how quickly and safely you can solve the puzzle.
Clearly, that older child had a responsibility. Had she hit another kid, had she stolen, I could have insisted she sit and talk. We have social lines about certain things. But when her violence was verbal, and was done in that quiet way that is so often how power operates – that older child could, by and large, go on unaccountable.
Everyone has reasons for their actions; I had known that older girl for years, and I liked her. She was a good kid who was behaving in a shut down way, for reasons she didn’t feel able to share. But her chance to see her mistake, to learn from it, and to rebuild trust before it formed a permanent rift, was lost. More importantly, the girl who was harmed had no recourse to rebuild her safety, the freedom from shame that kids loved the most about this camp.
The older girl wasn’t willing to see her power in that situation, and no one else could make her see it, not even a circle of her peers sitting staring at her with an open place in the circle for her, or a culture of constructive, skilled conflict resolution. That doesn’t mean her social power wasn’t operating. It meant she could use it to refuse to see the effects of her actions.
Conflict styles – each of our personal, familial, and cultural signatures, or our ‘fingerprint’ of strengths and weaknesses – affect how smoothly conflict unfolds. These personal styles improve with dedication and space to learn. Without anyone being ‘bad’ or having ill intent, unskilled behaviors of one or more of the people involved can make engaging more difficult, and these are where seeing conflict resolution as a set of skills we improve through practice is paramount. In the context of the many systems of oppression that affect us, learning to build trust through conflict is as necessary a skill as any other in an organizer’s repertoire. None of us start out ‘good’ at conflict, and we each can work on our own weak areas. We need one another, and recent events have made amply clear how vital it is to hold on to each other so we can take risks together.
Unskilled conflict habits include:
-stonewalling, the refusal to engage the conflict at all
–steamrolling, refusing to disengage in the moment when one person needs a break
-threatening to end the relationship entirely if one does not get their way or if conflict continues
-characterizing, targeting the person’s essence rather than their behaviour
-gaslighting, denial of unearned privilege or oppressive realities, refusal to empathize, ‘punching down,’
-gossip, talking about people rather than with them
These habits polarize and make conflict harder for everyone. We all use some of them sometimes. All of these are unskilled styles, and they improve with practice.
Stonewalling is always available, but it harms relationships every bit as much as the other destructive conflict styles. Conflict skill improves with a shared commitment to distinguish the behavior from the person, and with room to learn from our mistakes – together.
As long time organizer Mandy Hiscocks beautifully says:
“We tend to gravitate towards people who are like us, who enjoy the same things and have the same politics, who use similar tactics. It’s easier. It’s also more fun- I mean, if you’re going to organize in your spare time you’re giving up opportunities to hang out with friends. So if you organize with your friends, you’re feeding two birds with one hand so to speak. The downside of combining organizing with friends with the ability to move easily is that people’s personal shit, their arguments with and disappointments in each other, can often mean that they just walk away. They stay in town but leave the movement or stay in the movement and leave town. There’s no real impetus to do the hard work of staying where we are, sorting out our differences, and carrying on.”
Like learning how to facilitate a meeting, how to bake a cake, how to drive a car, sometimes we get it right, sometimes we get it wrong. If friends stopped speaking to each other every time one of them baked a bad cake, no one would ever get very good at cake because the risk would feel too high. An open-armed approach to conflict, in which no one is expendible, and we are not being evaluated merely for our social worth, but are seen for our inherent value as human beings, creates a ground of safety for everyone involved. As long as no one stonewalls for good, no mistake or unskilled action is the end of the game, and we can learn together and heal together over time. If people can’t always engage in the moment, they need to be able to say ‘I know this is important; I just can’t talk about it right now’ and then find a time when they can.
Some have cultural or family approaches that taught that ‘conflict is best not discussed,’ or ‘It’s best to just let it clear up on its own.’ That’s like saying ‘yeah there’s this sink full of dishes, but if I just wait they’ll probably be clean eventually.’ It just doesn’t work, most of the time, and hoping it will just leaves conflicts swept under the rug where everyone has to step around them, acting like they’re not there. Eventually every bond breaks using this approach. It lets the conflict appear smoothed over as long as the same situation doesn’t arise again, but it doesn’t actually solve the problem. Whatever caused the conflict in the first place will still be there later, waiting for the same situation – hardened by the memory each person has of how badly it went the last time.
So while sometimes ‘it’s just not a good time,’ is real and true, it’s important to recognize that sometimes – in the words of my smart friend Graham – saying ‘this isn’t a good time,’ is just an excuse. Sometimes it truly and legitimately does mean ‘I can hardly get out of bed today, and I’m holding on to my job by the skin of my teeth, so I have to tackle this on the sunday, not today,” and sometimes it means, “I could deal with this now, but I really don’t want to because it makes me uncomfortable, or it makes me have to face myself, and I don’t know how to be uncomfortable, or I don’t want to look inwards or see my relative power and privilege, so I’m going to say it’s not a good time, when what I really mean is go away.’ For some folks, raised in a style that asserts that conflict is best left unspoken, ‘this isn’t a good time’ appears as a permanent state.
If you expect zero discomfort, you may wait a long, long time. Conflict is uncomfortable, but it doesn’t have to grow and if handled directly and quickly it can in fact strengthen bonds and compassion and connection.
When conflict is left unhandled, it grows. You lose trust, you lose strength as a group or collective, and the social bonds that we rely on as a movement are weakened when they could be made stronger. What we are doing when we engage in working things out is learning how we can have each other’s backs even when it is hard. We are building the beautiful community, the community that can stay together and hold one another through all the vagaries and violence capitalism, racism, and the systems of violence throw at us.
Stonewalling leaves us vulnerable to the divide and conquer strategies of the systems that pit us against one another in competition for seemingly limited safety.
There are too many bigger struggles we face, too many reasons we need each other. We must resist individualist narratives that isolate, that teach us we have to fend for ourselves, that no one can be trusted.
It doesn’t have to be this way. As Ursula K. Leguin writes, “Love doesn’t just sit there, like a stone. It has to be made, like bread; remade all the time, made new.”
For those who have dedicated themselves to social change, building up comfort with conflict, starting with viewing conflict as an opportunity rather than a problem, is a necessary skill set. The next time you face conflict, even if it is you who has caused harm, sit in a circle. Still your heart. Calm your body. And give it the time that it needs until safety emerges. It is often closer, much closer than you think – and this is the work we need to create a good world.
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