OUR CHALLENGE IS TO MAKE CITY A BETTER PLACE
How do you make a city more friendly, more peaceful, more safe? Is there any way to break the ‘ho hum you can’t change city hall’ attitude? Can new political leaders really make a difference?
A resounding ‘yes’ was the result of an imaginative workshop recently held at McMaster University’s Centre for Peace Studies which demonstrated how council members might transform unwanted conflicts into win/win opportunities.
In a simulated discussion of civic issues, a group of ‘citizens’ sat down with those who played ‘leaders’ from government, education, business, justice, the media and others.
Phase One began with the "mayor" outlining his objective: To examine how we can make Hamilton more welcoming, more friendly, a place where all our citizens feel safe. The person playing "chief of police" began with a familiar plea: he said he needed more officers and money for new equipment.
On behalf of seniors, an "elder" said she often felt afraid of violence on the streets. A "business leader" was concerned about security issues and attracting customers to the downtown area. He thought jail sentences needed to be longer. A contrary view was expressed by a "reformed gang member", presently working with a social service agency. He said jails breed violence, that drugs are readily available and prisons do little or nothing to help offenders deal with their problems.
A "school principal" thought the general behaviour of school children had deteriorated in the past 20 years, but that most are fine young people. She said the big difficulty is coping with the public disrespect, paperwork and legal issues caused by a very small number of disturbed pupils.
Participants were allowed to make a brief statement. However no one was permitted to contradict, criticize, argue with or interrupt while another was talking.
In Phase Two, the Mayor allowed each person a second statement that often exposed more conflict.
A female "victim of domestic violence" was highly critical of the justice system for not protecting women and children. A "divorced father" complained about the unfairness of custody laws. A "parent" focused criticism on the media for fostering violent images of society -- especially on TV and in Video Games. A "youth representative" said it was unfair for adults to blame their troubles on young people.
The "reformed gang member" quoted a study showing that 75% of people in jail have underlying psychiatric issues and are not given adequate treatment.
Speaker after speaker expressed their real or imaginary fears, but no arguments took place since no one was allowed to answer back or refute the statements with which they disagreed.
The "mayor" then asked them to move to Phase Three – conflict transformation -- the real goal of the exercise. He asked them to put on their thinking caps, to be creative, and suggest new ideas. He urged them to come up with ways they might contribute to greater harmony and win/win solutions.
A "scholar" praised the mayor’s initiative, saying that while local government is often seen as little more than a fight for money between opposing groups, the real problem is not so much a lack of funds as lack of trust in the goodwill of others. He said reducing violence is not merely a question of hiring more police, but of promoting a less violent society.
It would be a win/win situation for the city if everyone -- including business, education, the media and the law -- all tried a little harder to understand and address the problem collectively.
A "public school teacher" said that teachers know what is needed to reduce bullying and bad manners, but they lack the resources to be effective. She appealed to business to help schools to promote better inter-personal relationships. She said she hoped that such businesses might be given a tax credit for their efforts. A "shopkeeper" said it would be a win/win situation if children and parents showed more respect for small business. He said merchants could lower prices if they didn’t have to compensate so much for theft, damage, and security.
The "elder" who had complained about violence on the streets said the city could save a lot of money if it remembered its large population of retired seniors. Some seniors would be glad to help out in volunteer or small-scale jobs – providing they felt useful and were given reasonable respect.
It became clear that no one group was to blame for the city’s problems, but all the participants were beginning to see how some of their actions caused problems for others. It was not a question of ‘good’ people versus ‘bad’ people, but of finding more cooperative solutions.
The McMaster workshop was facilitated by Hamilton-born businessman, Robert Stewart, who founded the Canadian Centres for Teaching Peace. He was using a form of the Transcend method for resolving conflict -- a method designed by internationally renowned humanist Dr. Johan Galtung.
Skeptics might say a city-wide conference like this would never work in the "real world," or cities are so controlled by finances and federal-provincial government policies that politicians are incapable of making significant changes.
But the workshop showed while city leaders may not be able to change the rules, they can soften hardened attitudes.
Ray Cunnington lives in Hamilton, is a member of Physicians for Global Survival and attends the Religious Society of Friends.
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