Seeking the Peaceful Way Forward

Aug 31, 2008

Conflict in the world is nothing new. From the beginnings of human interaction, there are tales of brother pitted against brother and cultures, and whole civilizations at odds with each other.  Competing interests have led people to commit the most dastardly of deeds to gain the upper hand.  Over the millennia, it is almost a wonder that humankind has had the energy and inclination to cooperate in seeking beauty and harmony.  That we have, speaks to the deep-seated human desire for authentic peace and connectedness. Finding a mechanism to augment that desire and to transform it into actionable plans constitutes a large part of what collective leadership is all about.

“People have good intentions, believing strongly in their gut and soul that this is the right thing for them to do individuallly,” says Saroeum Phoung, an adult coach for KLCC Session Two host Roca, Inc., in Chelsea, Mass., who is currently the principal of Point One North of Cambridge, Mass.  As the owner and president of this nascent human relations consulting company, Phoung brings years of experience in community activism to bear in his work helping communities, corporate groups or any other collective of individuals “to create a space that promotes meaningful dialogue to provide the opportunity for people to experience the power of collective communication.”  This sums up the mission of Point One North.

The company name arises from an exercise Phoung does with client groups when they come together to begin the work of reaching a common goal. People stand with their arms outstretched to the limit, they then are asked to close their arms and eyes and to meditate and breathe.  As they focus on their own breathing, they try to ascertain true north and point in that direction.  As they open their eyes, their pointing fingers remain fixed on the point they have selected, individually, as true north.  Unsurprisingly, everyone is pointing in a different direction.  On the heels of this exercise, everyone is inspired to assess what it means for there to be so many different “true” north directions pointed out.  “We sit down and have feedback [as to] why there are so many ‘norths,’ all of them true to us, and how to find north together,” Phoung says.  The message seems to be that conflicting individual intentions, though they may all be good, can unintentionally contribute to tension in the collective.  The challenge is to find true north under these circumstances when an individual’s well-intentioned perspective, which they bring as their contribution or gift, may in fact impede finding the collective true north.

About six months ago, just as Phoung was considering leaving his position at Roca to start Point One North, he was contacted by Tami Chock, the project lead of the Bellingham, Washington, Lummi CEDAR Project, another KLCC host agency.  Chock was interested in bringing Phoung to Washington to train Lummi members in the use of peacemaking circles, a technique for making relationships whole and building healthier ones, based on mutual respect despite differences.

When Phoung traveled to Lummi in April (see story on pg.10, May 2008 issue of the KLCC Bridge), he was joined by Chelsea District Court Chief Justice, Tim Gailey, who has demonstrated a strong commitment to finding alternatives to jail. Phoung views Gailey’s actions as a manifestation of the desirable alignment of daily work with the hope to create better communities.  There are few arenas where the opportunity to affect community outcomes is more stark than in the administration of criminal justice.  Gailey is someone who Phoung identifies as being proactive in addition to being well intentioned around the issue of public safety.  Together, they see youth involvement with the criminal justice system as an opportunity to reconcile tensions within the community.

For Phoung, the criminal justice system’s goal of bringing safety and protection to the community should naturally be aligned with the desire of community residents to live in peace and safety.  The commitment exists with some members of the judiciary to help young people involved in the justice system accept accountability for their actions. Phoung says this is much harder than locking people up. Expanding upon this concept, he spreads the notion of responsibility around equally.  For him, the peacemaking circle process encourages people to ask themselves what the community is doing to be accountable for its own safety and security.  It helps people to understand their own power and capacity to do what is necessary to improve this dimension of life in every community.

In his experiences at Lummi, Phoung was reinforced in his belief that the conciliatory nature of the peacemaking process cannot be underestimated, another powerful aspect of this work. “CEDAR and Lummi know that healing is very important for them for the health of the community at large.  Healing is probably the most important work because life is so broken up; people have gone through so much trauma and pain.  This doesn’t help us feel balanced,” he says.  This is not to say that anything is wrong or broken, just that there are benefits to be had from the restorative power of achieving balance.

“The circle is about being in alignment with the medicine wheel, or state of harmony.  So our main goal for the circle is to restore the balance of the individual, family and community through relationships, support and trust,” says Shasta Cano-Martin, Lummi CEDAR Project manager.

She adds that Phoung’s humility and respect for Lummi’s traditional ways eased the learning process. Lummi plans to introduce circles in the schools, juvenile justice court, youth settings, and with other groups in support of collective leadership.

As Point One North increases its range, Phoung envisions embedding the peacemaking circle process in non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and corporations so that the work can be replicated.  With so much conflict in the world, there is much to change.

“At some point, we will all have to come together to do this, hopefully by choice,” he says. “We can do this now while we have a proactive choice, or wait until something dramatic happens to take away our choice.”  Phoung believes people can make an enlightened, informed decision.

Source: By Anneliese M. Bruner from the Kellogg Leadership for Community Change Online Newsletter, August 2008, Vol. V, Issue 7