We have lost an ADR visionary who will be remembered as a father of community mediation centers in the United States and an agent of change for how citizens resolve conflict in emerging democracies. Ray Shonholtz truly made a difference in moving collaborative decision-making into neighborhoods, school playgrounds, and countries where bottom-up decision-making was new. He changed lives and improved civic society locally, nationally, and internationally.
Ray retired recently as president of Partners for Democratic Change (Partners), which he founded in 1989. He and his wife, Anne Devero, moved from Washington, D.C., back to the San Francisco area, where he began San Francisco Community Boards in 1976 and served as president of that pioneering neighborhood mediation program for twelve years. As Anne and he were just starting to enjoy a new chapter in their life, Ray died early this year from a massive heart attack.
Born in 1943, Ray graduated from UCLA and then University of California Berkeley School of Law. The picture of Ray in our 1968 law school yearbook is the only one in which he is wearing a jaunty tam with a ball on top accompanied by a mischievous grin and his then trademark bottlebrush mustache—in contrast to his white shirt, tie and jacket. It characterized Ray's approach to fit in without losing his iconoclastic spirit and avant-garde nature. After graduation, Ray departed for Monterey, California to become a public defender. While there, he worked from within the legal system to extend individual rights, while tweaking the system to help it fulfill its ideals, which was one of Ray's lifelong themes. He also helped start the clinical programs at the University of San Francisco (USF) School of Law and was an early proponent of involving law students in representing the legally underserved, both to teach skills and to instill a commitment to social justice.
Throughout his career, Ray believed in the ability of people to make decisions that best serve their needs individually and collectively. Starting Partners as the countries of Central and Eastern Europe began to emerge from totalitarian regimes, Ray traveled extensively to help build indigenous democratic capacity. He was resolute in honoring local differences and supporting people in creating civic decision-making institutions and mediation centers that were not dependent on foreign aid to sustain them. Partners eventually established centers in eighteen countries throughout Central and Eastern Europe, the Balkans, and more recently in the Middle East and Latin America, which are now self-sustaining. Although immensely successful in implementing community mediation in the United States and teaching mediation techniques, he knew that we could not export U.S. dispute resolution. We could only share our experience and plant seeds that would grow to fit the local environment.
Ray, even though a peacemaker, never shied away from conflict or considered it the antithesis of collaboration. He wrote that “change is about engaging the ‘other’ in a manner that provokes something new.” He also believed that in conflict resolution and fundraising, “no is just the beginning of the relationship.” He had the charm, good humor, and determination to convert resistance to openness and then collaboration. I had the opportunity to travel with Ray to Albania in 1999 as part of a World Bank ADR Project and to Indonesia in 2001 for a mediation initiative focused on labor–management conflicts in the hospitality industry. Watching Ray introduce concepts of mediation and network with dissident groups, as well as with government leaders at the highest levels, was a demonstration in charisma and diplomacy. He knew how to give change a chance by showing disputants a path to overcoming what seemed to be unresolvable differences and impenetrable barriers.
Ray’s retirement from Partners was, in part, to provide him the opportunity (and us the benefit) of applying his experience and consensus-driven, power-to-the-people philosophy to contemporary issues that required his brand of creative engagement. Ray’s last writing, which was on display at the ABA Section of Dispute Resolution’s Spring Conference in April and published in the most recent issue of the Cardozo Journal of Conflict Resolution, zeroed in on the Occupy Wall Street movement and how we might think about the courageous conversations for change that need to happen in this country. Julia Roig, Ray’s successor as president of Partners for Democratic Change, said of Ray’s final article, “It is like he came full circle—from community mediation to international dispute resolution to conflict in the U.S. He believed that democratic change is not a destination but a process.”
Ray Shonholtz was a friend, mentor, and inspiration to many of us. He will be deeply missed.