Once my ten-year old son and I were in the grocery store, and we witnessed a crime. A man stood over the mounds of grapes, plucking and tasting one after another from different bunches. “What right,” I hissed to my son, “does he have to eat grapes? What if everynone did that!” I ranted all the way home, so much so that “the man who ate the grapes” became one of those family phrases that can bring a chuckle decades later.
Where did that outrage come from? Like many passions it came from childhood. When I was in grade school, my mother was a graduate student in philosophy, and I learned from her about the categorical imperative. What I grasped at that impressionable age was that if you are thinking about doing something, you should imagine that everyone around you, even everyone on earth, will do the same thing. Because if you have the right to do it, then, of course, so does everyone else. I immediately saw that I should not throw my gum wrapper out the car window. If everyone did that the air would be thick, the ground covered, with foil and paper. And, if everyone acted like the man who ate the grapes, we would be left with a pile of stems, right?
Another passion that has guided my choices as an adult came from my father. From him I gained a deep appreciation for the democratic process. He was an enthusiastic, if not always successful, politician in my early years. He loved the race and was passionate about his underdog causes. I learned from him the joys of participating in the system, imperfect as it may be. The concept of democracy, where ideally each person has an equal voice, moves me deeply; I confess to even tearing up in the voting booth when I think about it. If we all took each vote that seriously, thinking about our needs, the needs of others, the greater good — and the categorical imperative — wow, it could be an amazing world!
Now I find myself all grown up, a professional mediator, and I see that these values instilled by my parents are core to what I do and why. My cases are complex conflicts over the use of natural resources and protection of the environment. My first and most important job is to get the right people at the table to find a solution. I am insistent that every interest with a stake in the outcome be represented. Each of those voices has a right to participate, to have a say in that ultimate solution. Of course it would be easier in many cases if the troublemakers, the obstructionists or the little guys were left out. Then the powerful players could cut a deal “on behalf of everyone.” But that strategy offends me deeply. To resolve the most difficult conflicts we face requires us all to take part, get educated, speak up and above all to listen to other voices. To approach these problems like the self-absorbed man who ate the grapes will not do.
I welcome your thoughts and stories about the origins of your passions and values. And by the way, you can still be my friend if you have sampled grapes at the grocery store. I am working on my tolerance.
He was a well-dressed utility company executive in his early forties and he was walking in my direction. I had hoped for a little peace and quiet during my lunch break in the cafeteria, before the negotiation resumed and I would have to take up my mediator role again. But he was heading toward me, and he looked concerned.
“Lucy? May I have a word with you, just briefly?” he asked.
“Sure, have a seat,” and I motioned to the chair across from me. (more…)
“Prom Night in Mississippi” is a documentary about the first integrated prom at a small town Southern high school. The filmmaker Paul Saltzman showed it here in Santa Fe to a packed house and led a discussion afterward. Because how people change their minds was on my mind, I wanted to add it to our discussion.
In Charleston, Mississippi in 2008, a number of seniors moved to integrate the two proms, one Black and one White, that had been the rule for generations. Parents and many school staff were opposed, holding onto old, fear-based racist beliefs — beliefs that they hoped they had passed on to their children. You will see in the film that many students “changed their minds” and abandoned their parents teachings and the region’s history. Their determination to create a better, more just and loving society, starting with their high school, is so inspiring. I hope you will find a way to see the film. Here is the link.
When I am listening to talk radio sometimes I wonder what it would take to get through to someone, to actually change a mind, or at least open it. What could I say or do, to him or her? How do we change our deeply held beliefs? What is it that makes the difference, so that the old, misguided way doesn’t suit us anymore? This question is especially intriguing for me as a mediator, working with those who are deeply committed to the positions they have staked out.
And so I think about myself. Have I ever changed my mind about a deeply held belief, shed a prejudice for good? The answer is yes.
Many years ago I was on a flight from DC to Albuquerque. The flight was completely full. Seating is first come first served on Southwest and by the time I started down the aisle, there wasn’t a lot left. I wanted to be as far forward as possible. I am not a happy flier, and the bumps are less violent in the front than in the back so I grabbed the first aisle seat available. (more…)
There are moments that stick with me and seem to gain significance as time goes by, as my life and work evolve. My conversation with Miguel over 25 years ago is one of those moments.
As a Chicano organizer, Miguel represented Albuquerque’s South Valley in negotiations with Kirtland Air Force Base, the New Mexico Environment Department and the EPA. The base had been contaminating groundwater — the community’s drinking water — for decades. There had been serious health impacts; outraged, residents commanded enough attention to bring the responsible parties and the enforcers to the table. The process was slow and painful for everyone. A friend at the Environment Department told me how angry and difficult the community was. Community people told me how insensitive the state was, and how evil the Air Force base was. I even heard from someone at the base how difficult the process was. (more…)
I recently posted on the Island Press blog (Field Notes) a rant about Cliven Bundy and the Nevada dust-up over the federal government trying to do its duty. (http://ipfieldnotes.org/ranching-and-the-categorical-imperative/)
As a mediator I am deeply committed to treating all interests fairly, showing no bias or favoritism. And so as an equal opportunity ranter, let me share another thought with you. The righteousness of some environmentalists drives me crazy. There. I said it, the kind of confession that we mediators admit only to ourselves or in the company of other mediators when we have had too many margaritas. (more…)