On-Island Conflict Resolution
Conflict is a natural part of life. We are not the same, and that is fine — until those differences cause us to question things about ourselves or each other, which is when things can get difficult. Our awareness of the depth of a conflict that may arise grows with our discomfort. Our pain also grows when we don’t know how to engage with those differences we encounter in a healthy way, or we don’t see a way to move through it – and instead, we walk away.
The pain we experience in conflict comes when we don’t understand that relationships and processes can be built to help us navigate them. In practical terms what does that mean? Before we offer some suggestions, we want to distinguish the difference between conflict and inappropriate, even actionable, conduct. If conference members, visitors, or staff encounter what feels like threatening behavior, or behavior that makes one feel unsafe, the appropriate response is to approach a conference leader. For adults, this might be a member of the conference steering committee or other designated leader with a portfolio of “healthy relationships” — and share the concerns they hold.
For children, this might be the leader of the children’s program. Star Island requires that all staff working with children and youth have a CORI (Criminal Offense Record Inquiry) completed prior to serving in such roles on island. Children’s leaders and those working with elder or youth populations are considered “Mandated Reporters” and are best equipped to receive concerns of this nature and escalate them if necessary. Leaders of the Star Island staff hold similar roles and can assist in helping conference leaders address these concerns in a proactive and sensitive way.
Navigating Conflict and Power in White Supremacist Culture
The white-dominant culture in which we all live tends to make assumptions about shared and equitable power. This culture assumes that people are able to step into a relatively equal playing field. This is a myth. Some people have vulnerable identities and have been marginalized (people of color, those with disabilities, LGBTQIA+), and it is not fair or appropriate to ask these people to step into a conflicted situation when they may need to be protected from parts of the dominant culture. Culture imbalances place pressure on the vulnerable, and in a majority-white society we tend to make assumptions that are based on that white culture. If power is imbalanced, harm can occur to others.
Harassment can be considered a threat to an individual’s safety and is usually a sign of conflict. Individuals experiencing harassment will frequently note that there is a power imbalance present between the individual exercising such behavior and the individual on the receiving end. In such situations, we advocate for approaching conference leadership (if the behavior is coming from within the conference) or island leadership (if staff are involved or if other resolutions cannot be found) for support and assistance.
What about intra-conference conflict? Children do not always get along, and neither do adults. Although Star Island is an idyllic place for us – and there is a strong sense, within most of our conferences of the joy of an “intentional community” – we should not delude ourselves into believing that we are all friends and that we all think alike. We are independent and unique beings, and opinions and behaviors will vary. It is important to recognize that frequently disagreements come because there are assumptions being made rather than conversation being had.
So let’s say that a conflict occurs. It could be about political opinions. It could be about an assumption an individual has made about another person without knowing the “whole story.” It could also result from hearing gossip from someone else. We tend to make decisions based on the information that we have on-hand. From that pool of information, we select data that seems to relate. That information guides our assumptions as well as our conclusions and actions. That data may, or may not, be accurate. Without direct conversation, it is pretty difficult to be able to move to conclusions and informed beliefs and actions. It’s hard to talk directly to a person about conflict.
Frequently, we try to advocate for our position by explaining why we think what we do or did – defending our position – rather than beginning with a simpler approach: Let’s talk about what you hold as a concern. A clergy colleague once articulated this opening statement as: “Please tell me what I just did.” Showing up ready to listen (not defend) and ready to engage with a desire for mutually acceptable outcomes will ultimately help to create lasting resolution and understanding among those experiencing a conflict.
…And it might not work out
One final note: At the end of such a process – of intentional listening, of civil conversation, of careful exploration of concerns on both sides – all may not be well. Reasonable people, as we know, may and will still disagree. But the hope – the intention – is for there to be conversation directly with those experiencing the conflict, with a goal of finding resolution that addresses some of the concerns articulated. May it be so for you and your leaders and beloved conferees.