Editors’ note: On April 4, Grande Lum, Director of the US Department of Justice’s Community Relations Service, accepted the ABA’s Lawyer as Problem Solver Award on behalf of CRS. The editors of Dispute Resolution Magazine took this opportunity to interview Lum about CRS and the people who work in it.
Q: Given the nature of the work of the Community Relations Service and as a matter of professionalism, CRS must maintain a low public profile. Can you tell us about the Service’s work?
A: Sure. I am especially happy to talk about the work. CRS staff members take very seriously our confidentiality mandate, and they often work in high-tension situations. The Community Relations Service, known as “America’s Peacemaker,” assists communities in resolving community disagreements, disputes, and difficulties relating to discriminatory practices based on race, color, and national origin. CRS was created 50 years ago by the Civil Rights Act of 1964. We are the only federal agency dedicated to assisting state and local government, private and public organizations, and community leaders with resolving racial and ethnic disputes and restoring community stability. In the 1960s, CRS worked high-profile situations like the marches from Selma to Montgomery and the subsequent riots following the Martin Luther King assassination. In the 1970s, CRS staff mediated the siege at Wounded Knee and provided services to the Boston Public Schools busing crisis. In the 1980s and 1990s, CRS provided services in the Vincent Chin murder case, the Rodney King riot, and the arson and desecration of African American churches. In 2009, with the passage of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, CRS’s mandate expanded to include working with communities to prevent and respond to violent hate crimes committed on the basis of race, color, national origin, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, religion, or disability. CRS was then able to work on the 2010 to 2012 murders of over 18 lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender individuals in Puerto Rico. Beyond these well-known situations, CRS staff members have worked numerous lower-profile cases in all 50 states and the territories.
Q: How did the concept for CRS come to be included in the Civil Rights Act?
A: CRS would not exist but for President Lyndon Baines Johnson. LBJ first advocated for the creation of a community problem-solving agency in 1957 and directed future Supreme Court Justice Arthur Goldberg to draft legislation creating such an organization. When President Johnson introduced the bill to Congress, he said, “In any protracted controversy there is the stage of a stalemate, a stalemate so bad that people cannot talk to each other. At this point…a conciliator would be worth his weight in gold. A man who could be trusted and who could come into the community and go back and forth between the leaders could break the logjam in communications … And the people themselves would settle the controversy.” Johnson believed the people affected by a conflict needed to have a voice in resolving the problem. According to Bertram Levine’s book on CRS, Resolving Racial Conflict: The Community Relations Service, 1964-1989, two other factors led to the inclusion of CRS in the 1964 Act. One was the largely held belief that there would be a tsunami of resistance to the desegregation of public accommodations. A second major factor was the successful mediation of the Birmingham situation, where Martin Luther King and 6,000 others had been jailed, by Civil Rights Division Assistant Attorney General Burke Marshall. The protest became notorious worldwide when television cameras captured Public Safety Commissioner Bull Connor ordering dogs to attack and fire hoses to pummel the protesters. Marshall worked tirelessly and eventually crafted an agreement between more conservative African American leaders and key businessmen in the white community. Marshall was in favor of institutionalizing the mediation service, he said, “because it was a burden on my own time in addition to all the litigation work.”
Q: The mission of CRS is different from that of other offices within the Department of Justice. How does CRS function within the larger agency?
A: The unique mandate of CRS is to resolve disputes through mediation, facilitation, and other forms of conciliation. CRS does not have investigatory or enforcement authority but rather works with parties that may include local law enforcement, local government officials, community leaders, and other stakeholders, such as school districts, in crafting collaborative solutions that meet the underlying needs of the parties. What is also unique about CRS is that communities can be assured when working with us that any information that we learn during the process will be held in confidence. This is particularly important in helping communities understand the difference between our role with the Department of Justice and those of other DOJ agencies that may have enforcement responsibilities. In fact, our ability to be effective is directly related to the degree of trust that we can establish with local leaders. At the same time, it is important that different DOJ components are aware of the work (without sharing confidential information) each is doing, to prevent misunderstanding and surprises to any of the stakeholders. As Director, I also meet regularly with Joanna Jacobs at DOJ’s Office of Dispute Resolution for coordination of activities as well as for the Interagency Alternative Dispute Resolution Working Group, which is led by the Attorney General and is the central forum and resource for information about the federal government’s use of ADR.
Q: Are CRS conciliators ever in danger?
A: Our conciliators sometimes do face actual physical danger, often with little acknowledgment. Former Florida Governor LeRoy Collins, CRS’s first director, mediated between Martin Luther King and Alabama state troopers to prevent further bloodshed in the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery. Roger Wilkins, later a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist, faced the barrel of a gun at a Los Angeles hotel during the Watts riots. Dick Salem risked being shot to bring peace to the 1973 takeover at Wounded Knee. Silke Hanson, one of the first female CRS conciliators, faced violent threats, as did Judge Arthur Garrity, when the two worked together on the Boston Public Schools desegregation. Garrity later wrote a letter to President Jimmy Carter praising CRS and noting that the annual CRS budget at the time was $6 million, while the cost of police overtime at a single Boston city high school during the first two years of school desegregation was $10 million.
Q: CRS has been working with community members and officials in Sanford, Florida, following George Zimmerman’s acquittal. Can you tell us generally about that work?
A: In the aftermath of the shooting of Trayvon Martin, CRS dispatched a team of conciliators to Sanford to work with community members, law enforcement, local and national civil rights leadership, the US Attorney, and the FBI to reduce violence and reduce tensions to address the underlying sentiments. CRS then worked with many of the same stakeholders to coordinate response to three large demonstrations and mediated a peaceful end to a student-led sit-in in front of Sanford police headquarters. In addition, CRS facilitated discussions between city officials and demonstrators, established an alliance of clergy leaders to help bring the city’s communities together, and implemented rumor control measures. In coordination with the Department of Justice’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, CRS provided training to Sanford police. After Zimmerman’s acquittal, a student-led group initiated a sit-in at the governor’s office in Tallahassee. CRS helped the stakeholders understand underlying interests behind the demands, communicate respectfully, and end the 25-day sit-in peacefully.
Q: How does CRS enter a conflict?
A: Often we are invited to help resolve a conflict by one or more of the parties involved in the conflict. Naturally, we are able to have the greatest possible impact when there is a collective willingness to resolve a dispute. However, in instances when there is a high level of tension or the threat of violence, CRS has the authority to enter without invitation. In these instances, it becomes critically important to quickly identify the influential parties, gain their confidence, begin engaging them constructively, and bring them together to resolve matters.
Q: CRS deals with many explosive situations. Does CRS have strategies to prevent future conflict?
A: Yes. I mentioned the murders of LGBT individuals in Puerto Rico. Many of those murdered were transgender individuals. According to the 2011 National Transgender Discrimination Survey, 26% of transgender adults report having been physically assaulted due to what they believe was transgender bias. In meetings with law enforcement officials from around the country, CRS learned that there was significant misunderstanding and lack of cultural knowledge about the transgender community. In March 2014, CRS launched a new transgender law enforcement training resource. We worked with over 60 transgender advocacy and law enforcement leaders to gain insight into the content needed by law enforcement to assist them to work more effectively with transgender individuals. The transgender law enforcement training will be provided by local experts and facilitated by CRS conciliation professionals around the country.
One more example: In the almost 13 years following the September 11th terrorist attacks, CRS has worked to help communities prevent and respond to hate crimes committed against Arab, Muslim, and Sikh Americans, who often have been targeted in “backlash” incidents.
Q: Is there a traditional career path for CRS conciliators?
A: The career path each staff member traveled before arriving at the agency is as diverse as the fabric of the communities they serve. CRS staff hail from all walks of life: civil rights, advocacy, community organizing, education, law enforcement, conflict resolution, law, social work, psychology, journalism and communications, labor, government, and even astrophysics. No matter what discipline CRS staff have come from, they joined the agency because of their heartfelt desire to help people resolve disputes.
Q: What about your own career path?
A: I took the Harvard Law School Negotiation Workshop from Getting To Yes co-author Roger Fisher in my first year of law school, which dramatically altered my career trajectory, as I went into law school thinking I would become a civil rights litigator. It was so unlike all my other law classes in its emphasis on joint problem solving and collaboration. I received an offer to join Conflict Management, Inc., CMI, which was basically a spinoff of the Harvard Negotiation Project. From there I have been blessed with 20 years in dispute resolution that have been fulfilling and adventurous. I became a partner at CMI, co-founded ThoughtBridge, a mediation firm, then started Accordence, a training company, and wrote two books. I landed a dream job as clinical professor at the University of California Hastings School of the Law, where I directed its Center for Negotiation and Dispute Resolution. It was joyful working with students and great colleagues, and we grew the program to one of the top law school dispute resolution programs in the country. I would still be there but for the fact that I had the unexpected opportunity to join the Obama administration. I first worked at the Small Business Administration, running a program to increase government contracting and jobs in poor areas of the country. I was then nominated by the President and confirmed by the Senate as CRS Director, which for me was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to lead an organization I had long admired.
Q: Any last words for our readers?
A: First of all, thanks again to the Section for honoring CRS with the Lawyer as Problem Solver Award. I say this as a long-time member of the Dispute Resolution Section. I am so impressed by the rapid growth of the Section. It’s a good sign for the law, and yet there is still a long way to go. It’s still hard for mediators to make a living. It’s still hard to get community members and litigants to discuss their true interests underlying their angry positional demands. The DR Section is in a unique position to advance the use of mediation in this country and around the world. Those of us in this field have a debt of gratitude to the first generation of ADR pioneers, and we need to pay it forward by growing the field for the next generation.
President Lyndon Baines Johnson said, “There are no problems we cannot solve together, and very few we can solve by ourselves.” I think it’s important to remember the supermajority of conflicts do not end in litigation or violence, but it’s only because in some small or large way we are able to set aside our differences. If we reason together, as Johnson also liked to say, we can live more harmoniously in an ever-changing society.