Working Paper 94-17 February 1994(1)

By Edelle Corrine

Rocky Mountain Peace Center

(1) This paper is an edited transcript of a talk given by Edelle Corrine for the Intractable Conflict/Constructive Confrontation Project on November 6, 1993. Funding for this Project was provided by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and the University of Colorado. All ideas presented are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Consortium, the University, or Hewlett Foundation. For more information, contact the Conflict Resolution Consortium, Campus Box 327, University of Colorado, Boulder, Colorado 80309-0327. Phone: (303) 492- 1635, e-mail:

© 1994. Conflict Resolution Consortium. Do not reprint without permission.

Let me start with a caveat. I have been a political activist for about 25 years. I work with communities and I work in coalitions throughout Colorado. I have learned a lot, and I'm excited to be able to share what I've learned with others. But, I must be clear-- my knowledge comes from intuition and personal experience; it does not come from formal research or knowledge of published conflict resolution theories.

Right now I am working on prison issues, especially as they relate to human rights' questions. Currently, the State of Colorado is planning to build a "control-unit prison" in Florence, CO. In this prison people are going to be locked in solitary confinement 23 to 23 1/2 hours a day. That is abuse of human rights according to the United Nations, and according to just about anybody that thinks about people in a human way.

In my work, I have worked with people from many different communities, which has taught me a lot. The people who are most impacted by the prison issue are mostly people of color. I work with them; but I work with people from many other communities as well.

I always start my work by identifying who I am and what I have in common with the whole situation. I have been aligned with the left, politically, for a long time. Within this context, I have worked in the Gandhian nonviolent tradition. In the Rocky Mountain Peace Center, we have people who do what we call the "ploughsares action." They get put in prison, but usually for pretty short periods of time, because they are usually white middle-class people who have some power.

Coming from this point of view, I see the U.S. government as one that oppresses people. We have political prisoners in this country. As a citizen of this country, I feel that I need to fight against that, because, I too, could end up in prison as a political prisoner.

One of the most interesting aspects of this work is the alliances that one develops in the course of these efforts. Some of the people I work with are involved in liberation movements--these are mostly people of color, but now, also gays, lesbians, and bisexuals--people who have a real stake in human rights. But not all of these people espouse nonviolence. So, I need to decide what role I want to play in this coalition of people who have a common goal, but different rhetoric, positions, and strategies.

Other people are in this work for spiritual reasons. There are millions of people within the religious community who are concerned about human rights, but who do not share my leftist perspective that the source of the problem is the oppression perpetrated by the U.S. government and the powerful elite of this country. Yet, they are willing to work for justice in the prison system, just as the leftists are.

Other allies are the prisoners and their families. There are 1.1 million men in prison in the United States right now, and the number of people who are in their families and hence are impacted by their imprisonment is just tremendous. These people, too, maybe 3 million of them, are our allies. But that creates some ethical problems.

One of the prisoners in Marion Prison, who spent time setting up a connection with the group that I work with, is intelligent, is a resistor against the prison system, and is also a member of the Aryan Brotherhood, which philosophically is strongly opposed to many of the views I hold, as I am opposed to theirs. Yet, he is really good at writing us, giving us information we need to know. He writes such things as "someone died tonight in the cell next to me and he was yelling for help for two hours, but no one responded. I need you to get this information out." How do I respond? I no longer can make easy distinctions between what is right and what is wrong.

Another layer of potential allies are those people who are being oppressed by working within the system: the guards, social workers, and nurses who have to be dehumanized in order to themselves dehumanize another human being.

What does this tell us about conflict? I find myself trying to develop a new vision about what conflict resolution is all about. My old vision said that there are two sides, and that they come at each other, and eventually they find some middle ground that they can hammer out together. The new vision is much more dynamic; an interplay is happening all the time between many diverse groups of people who share some philosophies and concerns and differ on others. I cannot any longer identify "the enemy." Lots of people come together or are brought together, working out whatever we need to work out to be able to look at each other as human beings, rather than allies or enemies. Now it doesn't happen easily or smoothly all the time. But we have had some events where extremely diverse people have worked together on the same situation, in an effort to produce change. I see this as a new way activists can approach their work.

One of the biggest fears that I have in this work is that I might be co-opted. How far can I stretch myself to work with people with other beliefs without losing perspective on who I am or what I believe? I answer this by looking at others. One of the role models that I use is Tiek Nyuan Han (spelling?) in Vietnam who was able to work with people from both the North and the South, without aligning on either side. Those people came from a really principled culture--they think about their beliefs daily, to maintain their sense of center, of self. I don't think you have to be "New Age," but I do feel that the spiritual part of activism is very important for maintaining that center, that sense of self. When I think about the spiritual element, I loose some of my fear of being co-opted.

The other fear that I see in activists is the fear of losing power. This is a real fear, especially for those people of color, where they have very little power in mainstream society anyway. So anyone with power is targeted.

The intensity in these conflicts is really difficult to handle. One way I motivate myself to keep going is to never consider a conflict intractable. If it is, you tend to give up. We need to keep the faith that these problems can be resolved, if we work together with others and overcome our fears. All this came together for me at a rally a couple of weeks ago. A large group of people chanted, "The people united shall never be defeated," and then we said it again in Spanish. Having both the English and Spanish together in one rally was really powerful--it represents what we need to do with our activism and in our conflict resolution processes.