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Trump budget would end agency that resolves differences in a time of deep division

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When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers.You will always find people who are helping.’” — Fred Rogers

After Trayvon Martin was killed by George Zimmerman, and as anger in the African-American community and media coverage increased, large protests organized by Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson were impending in Sanford, Florida, and Mayor Jeff Triplett acknowledges he was unprepared: “The world was watching and one of the fears that I had was that you never know what someone’s going to do when the camera’s rolling on them,” Mayor Triplett said, adding, “Once a rock is thrown you never know what’s going to happen.”

{mosads}At the mayor’s invitation, mediators from the Community Relations Service (CRS), an agency within the Department of Justice, convened meetings with Sanford officials and the protest groups to insure everyone’s safety. “I think they got us all to the board table … probably a couple of weeks faster than we would have done,” said Triplett, as he explained how CRS helped keep Sanford from “exploding.” Even so, the mayor was wary of CRS’s suggestion that Triplett  address a rally of demonstrators and share the stage with Sharpton and Jackson.


However, “that really subsided the animosities out there,” Triplett later shared, noting it became “absolutely a key moment” in helping Sanford to begin its healing. “I’d hate to say that we couldn’t have done it without (CRS), but I’d much rather learn from someone else’s experience rather than my own misfortune,” Triplett said. During the dozens of protests in Sanford, involving thousands of people, there was neither a single arrest nor a single rock thrown.

Conflict resolution professionals help individuals and groups resolve their differences without resorting to violence. Mediators find common ground, rather than treating conflict solely as a zero-sum game. That is why it is particularly disturbing that President Trump’s 2019 budget would end the Community Relations Service, an agency created by the 1964 Civil Rights Act and dedicated to addressing disputes involving racial discrimination.

The Community Relations Service provides mediation and conciliation services throughout the country. CRS also responds to and works to prevent hate crimes based on race, color, national origin, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, religion or disability. I served as its Senate-confirmed director from 2012-2016.

Closing CRS would be an absolute tragedy — at a time when the FBI and others have reported an increase in hate incidents, particularly anti-Muslim hate crimes, and at a time of a resurgence of clashes involving white supremacists, including the Charlottesville tragedy.

The proposed elimination of CRS is a harbinger of the devaluation of bridge-builders, those who would bring people together rather than tear them apart. People whose job it is to facilitate dialogue, build consensus and promote compromise are, regrettably, being pushed aside in this hyper-partisan world. We have seen moderate politicians and other leaders, who typically work with the other side, defeated or marginalized.

Historically, CRS has played a significant role in facilitating dialogue, developing constructive relationships, and reducing the possibility of violence. Its mediators and conciliators played a key role in mediating in Selma by keeping people safe as they crossed the Pettus Bridge after Bloody Sunday; in Boston by preventing violence against students in the wake of desegregation orders; and at Wounded Knee by helping to end peacefully the American Indian Movement occupation.

I have witnessed staff working tirelessly with communities throughout the country to provide training, facilitate dialogue, mediate conflict, and promote cooperation and security. In Sanford, CRS staff additionally convened and facilitated a group of black and white pastors to reduce rumors and build bridges across racial and cultural divides.

The president’s budget plans to transfer CRS’s services to the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. This would effectively end CRS’s mediation and conciliation function. The Civil Rights Division is an investigative and prosecutorial agency. Law enforcement officials and community members who engage CRS understand the voluntariness and impartiality of mediation interactions. Especially critical is the Civil Rights Act confidentiality requirement, which precludes CRS mediators from relaying information gained in doing their work to other Justice Department agencies or components. People would understandably fear prosecution if Civil Rights Division attorneys presented themselves as mediators.

Fred Rogers’s mother implored him to look for the helpers. When CRS mediators show up to help a community, it sends a message that the federal government wants to bring people together to find common ground. Eliminating CRS would abandon a proven means of resolving painful conflict and risk further escalation at a time of deep polarization in this country.

Grande Lum is director of the Divided Community Project at The Ohio State University Moritz School of Law and was director of the Community Relations Service in the Obama administration.  

Tags Community Relations Service Conciliation CRS Dispute resolution Donald Trump Mediation

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