Reconciliation through Dialogue: Dialogue Circles and Reconciling Racism on the Eastern Shore of Maryland


Cameron Ronayne



Racism is no stranger to the state of Maryland. Racial tensions have been escalating throughout Maryland in recent years, from Baltimore City to the Eastern Shore. In order to understand the modern-day racism and conflict in Maryland, one must understand the historical context that has bred this hatred and racial tension. From the segregated school systems (years after Brown v. Board of Education) to its history of lynchings, racism has thrived in Maryland for decades. According to The Baltimore Sun, “lynchings have been recorded in eighteen of the state’s twenty-four counties,” with the most recent recorded lynching taking place in 1933 in Princess Anne (Pitts, 2018). While this happened over eighty years ago, the unrecorded history may be much darker. Also, throughout the twentieth century, black families were disenfranchised at every turn; even though “black families paid taxes and black soldiers fought for democracy in Europe and the Pacific…they were barred from the benefits of the G.I. Bill” (Bouie, 2014) The history of racism in the United States, as well as specifically in Maryland, has continually been a festering source of conflict and the implications of this history are horrifyingly evident today.

In recent months, two of the most prevalent colleges on the Eastern Shore have both had racist incidents occur on and near their campuses. In February of 2020, “Salisbury University officials canceled classes Thursday following the discovery of racist graffiti that threatened black students with lynching” (Heim & Hedgpeth, 2020). This was not the first instance in which racist graffiti and threats have been found on campus; “in November, Salisbury University police launched an investigation into messages scrawled on the walls… that warned, ‘Sandy Hook comes to SU kill [racial slur]’” (Heim & Hedgpeth, 2020). Also occurring in November of 2019 and February of 2020, Kent County had multiple reported incidents in which racial slurs were yelled out of a moving vehicle, directed at black students from Washington College (Griep, 2020). At a town hall meeting, the former president of the Black Student Union “cited five ‘hate crimes’ on [Washington College’s] campus since October [2019]” (Griep, 2020).

Hate is not only being preached on college campuses. On March 31st, 2019, there were Ku Klux Klan flyers distributed to residential doorsteps throughout the Eastern Shore of Maryland. The Maryland State Police reported that:

“The printed material indicates it is produced by the Ku Klux Klan.  It espouses racist views toward African Americans, Jewish people, American Indians, and others.  The material also solicits people to join the KKK” (2019).

This was not an isolated incident. Similar materials were distributed in the same week throughout Virginia and other regions in Maryland (Cicoira, 2019). With all of these incidents, and many others, there are a myriad of groups working to address this conflict. The interventions being used by these groups will be analyzed alongside theoretical considerations for designing an intervention aimed towards reconciliation.

Current Intervention

While there are many groups and leaders who have asserted their devotion to addressing this matter (the Black Student Union of Washington College, the Social Action Committee for Racial Justice in Kent County), there is little discussion around peace processes and conflict theory surrounding this conflict. The predominant exception to this is the work of Community Mediation Maryland (CMM).

Community Mediation Centers throughout the state of Maryland have been working with CMM to offer conflict resolution services. In planning an intervention to address racism in Maryland, one cannot overlook the relationship between law enforcement and the black community. “In January 2016, Community Mediation in Baltimore began offering Police Complaint Mediation services. Residents and officers are now able to have face to face dialogue about difficult interactions through this program” (CMM). Community Mediation Centers, with the help of CMM, also offer dialogue circles to a variety of participants, most notably in a school setting or for police-youth dialogues. A dialogue circle process is said to:

 “Foster community building, problem-solving, and authentic dialogue. The Circles provide a safe and secure space where participants… [can] feel heard and understood. Participants gather in a circle facing each other to discover solutions through collaboration and understanding, removing barriers such as set assumptions and groupthink. Circles give a sense of empowerment and creativity while promoting habits of respect, responsibility, and accountability” (CMM).

CMM explains that “young people only engage with officers when there is something wrong” and this is cause for relationship tension, which is only exacerbated every time a new name appears in the news as a victim of police brutality. In Kent County in Maryland, these dialogues are offered by Community Mediation Upper Shore, Community Mediation Maryland, and the Social Action Committee for Racial Justice. These dialogue circles are offered to all of law enforcement (not only police officers) and community members of any age as a way of engaging more levels of the community; the State’s Attorney, judges, police officers, correctional officers, and other individuals involved in law enforcement are invited to attend.  These sessions, in an attempt to improve relationships, are held regularly, usually once a month, with both recurring and new participants.

The use of such practices must be considered as an option for the reconciliation process in both Salisbury, Maryland (Wicomico County) and Chestertown, Maryland (Kent County) as events like those described above continue to cycle in and out of the news. This approach could then be mirrored beyond the state of Maryland alone as a means of seeking a more complete reconciliation for the conflict around racial tension in the United States at large. Conflict theory around transformation and reconciliation inform us as to the benefits of the dialogue circle process, as well as the good practices thereof.

Other interventions include ‘Undoing Racism’ workshops in Kent County, MD that are conducted by the People’s Institute of Survival and Beyond, supported by the Social Action Committee for Racial Justice (SACRJ) (Heck & Sherbondy, 2019). It is said that “through dialogue, reflection, role-playing, strategic planning and presentations, this intensive process [of the Undoing Racism workshop] challenges participants to analyze the structures of power and privilege that hinder social equity and prepares them to be effective organizers for justice” (People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond, 2018). At a recent meeting with the Chestertown Mayor and Councilmembers, Arlene Lee, co-chair of SACRJ expressed that SACRJ “calls upon all elected officials to engage with them and join them in their training on ‘Undoing Racism’ to resolve those issues. Ms. Lee stated that students in Kent County are reporting incidents that occur in school and they are not taken seriously or addressed. Some children are saying that they don’t feel safe at the Kent County High School campus” (Mulligan, 2020). At the same event, Lee “left handouts on the table about anonymous ways to report acts of hate, violence, and other problems as well as information on the Rapid Response Team that is in place to help” as additional means to address the racism in Kent County (Mulligan, 2020).

Theoretical Considerations  

In the case of such a deep-rooted, seemingly intractable conflict, resolution alone is not enough. “Conflict resolution leads only to the formal termination of the conflict. The establishment of peaceful relations between the opposing parties depends on a successful reconciliation process” (Bar-Tal, 2000, p. 352). While community dialogue circles may be beneficial in repairing relationships, which is essential for true resolution, reconciliation, and conflict transformation, those involved must first be able to create a common ground understanding of whether or not the conflict is truly resolved, as much of the narrative from the white population can tend to suggest that this is an ‘old’ or ‘irrelevant’ conflict, with no bearings on the current state of the county, state, or even country at large. Building this understanding as to how the conflict is in many ways not resolved is challenging in itself, as the conflict is so vast. In looking at the history of racism in the United States, some may be tempted to say that the original conflict was first ‘resolved’ through the abolition of slavery (which could be one turning point that could be perceived to be Bar-Tal’s “formal termination” of the conflict). One may say that the conflict was ‘resolved’ with the desegregation of schools. But we must understand that conflict consists of “long-term, deep-rooted problems that involve seemingly non-negotiable issues and are resistant to resolution” (Sprangler & Burgess, 2003). We must be able to acknowledge that the conflict is still very much present and affecting the world today, while also being mindful of the past behind these conflicts and acknowledge their belonging to the same core: racism. With this conflict specifically, the most apparent indicators of the conflict are the numerous disputes that share this core.

Having established that racism is a contemporary conflict, it is important to note that “many contemporary conflicts are protracted, crossing repeatedly into and out of violence and thus defying cyclical or bell-shaped models of conflict phases” (Miall, 2004, p. 2). While racism, race-relations, or other large-picture terms can be used to name this conflict, the individual episodes thereof are both a part of the conflict and individual disputes—they are all interconnected. “Disputes involve interests that are negotiable. That means it is possible to find a solution that at least partially meets the interests and needs of both sides” (Sprangler & Burgess, 2003). Each individual incident or episode is a dispute in its own right, and that dispute can be ‘resolved’ without addressing the conflict at large. For instance, police body cameras are a commonly mentioned solution whenever there is an incident of police brutality. While this may placate some people involved in the dispute, it fails to address the larger context of the conflict. Therefore, in trying to move through the individual resolutions into eventual reconciliation, we must be mindful of the entire context and not continue to settle for merely resolving the most immediate, most visible components of the conflict—the disputes. The current conflict is  a result of the failure to strive beyond the original ‘resolution’ of the past ‘disputes’ (abolishing slavery, desegregating schools) and work on true reconciliation (repairing relationships, working to acknowledge and heal harm, seek accountability and justice for those who have acted out of hate and who fail to embrace the reconciliation efforts, etc.). If we had done these thigs to truly reconcile our past, there would not be modern-day threats of lynchings and the continued disenfranchisement of African Americans.  

Looking at Kent County specifically, perhaps an example of the immediate resolution to a current dispute would involve changes in policies from Washington College’s security, which delayed in reporting the harassment and racial slur incidents mentioned above, sometimes taking up to a week to report to police as a result of the campus being “private property” and in turn being allowed to handle their own security (Griep, 2020). Immediate reactions to the symptoms of racism, not the entity itself, may provide enough sense of resolution for this dispute (and others like it). Once the immediate dispute is resolved, the reconciliation efforts must utilize the energy that has been forged from the publicity of the dispute. Delay in doing so could result in a loss of engagement from community members, without whom reconciliation efforts cannot go on.

Therefore, working towards reconciliation and conflict transformation needs to be inclusive of the immediate actors (the involved students, concerned community members who may share similar experiences) and the context in which this is happening (racism at large in the United States). Those who have been attending the private meetings and the public town halls regarding this incident have gone in circles deciding whether or not the most recent incident is about a group of teenagers in a truck, if it is about the education system, or if it is about racism at large; the simple answer is that it is all of those things and more.

In order to understand conflict transformation, and how the use of dialogue circles and mediation are able to help work towards conflict transformation in the Eastern Shore of Maryland, we must understand the types of transformation that are being sought after. One type of conflict transformation, the “personal changes of heart or mind within individual leaders or small groups with decision-making power at critical moments” (Miall, 2004, p. 10), is the one most being sought after through dialogue circles. By cultivating relationships between local leaders and community members who are being affected by racism (be that in the form of de facto segregation, police brutality, mass incarceration, etc.), the local leaders will be more compelled to use their power to make structural change.

In this sense, dialogue circles are working towards reconciliation by first targeting individual and community relationships. Their main objectives focus on forging personal relationships, reconciling personal and local level disputes and conflicts, and inciting individuals to work towards making structural change. In any conflict, especially an identity-based conflict, the ignorance of the groups and the stereotypes they may hold of each other play a role in how they interact and engage in conflict. “Reconciliation is much concerned with reducing intergroup conflict by changing the nature of adversarial relations between them. Social groups generate negative perceptions of outsiders (‘enemy images’) and shape the sense of identity and allegiances of individual members” (Keyes, 2019, p. 11). By reconciling the relationships at this level first, the barriers imposed by decades of division can be worn down. At this level, the grassroots activists, local leaders, and other community members must all come together with the help of peace makers.

As Lederach explains, this reconciliation occurs in the “meeting place” of truth, mercy, justice, and peace (Lederach, 1997, p. 30). Dialogue circles can be used as a platform for individuals to share their experiences and ultimately challenge any misinformation, stereotypes, or other non-truths. They also provide a space in which people can feel comfortable enough and respected enough for there to be a newfound sense of unity. Through this, as relationships are forged over the duration of the dialogues, there is the potential for mercy through supporting one another, expressing compassion, and ultimately working towards healing. What cannot necessarily be addressed immediately at the time of the dialogue process, in this conflict, is justice. As “justice represents the search for individual and group rights, for social restructuring, and for restitution” (Lederach, 1997, p. 29), restitution at large and restructuring cannot be achieved in this isolated group. What can be achieved, however, is restitution between individuals who have been in conflict directly as a part of the larger whole, as well as the formation of inter-group allyship in working towards larger-scale forms of justice. For instance, a police officer may apologize for a wrongdoing or a community member may apologize for the way they have gone about advocating for change (blaming all law enforcement or otherwise harming that relationship). The restitution of this relationship, between the individual and the local groups, can then contribute to the improvement of the relationships between law enforcement and youth at large (or white students and black students, if applying this model to that aspect of the conflict). These community dialogues occur regularly, often with returning participants, so that this change can happen over time and so that all components of reconciliation (peace, justice, mercy, and truth) are able to be fostered concurrently.

Conflict transformation requires there to be a mindfully planned intervention that is able to be proactive in creating a “positive orientation toward conflict… [and] a willingness to engage in the conflict in an effort to produce constructive change or growth” (Lederach, 2003). The dialogue circles of Kent County (and throughout the state) have been going on for years, regardless of whether or not there is a lull or surge in the most outwardly apparent dimensions of the conflict. This is largely what distinguishes this model of dialogue circle from other practices, such as victim-offender mediation, police-complaint mediation, or other restorative justice programs. The use of dialogue circles is a proactive, preventative approach that also can serve as a restorative outlet for past grievances when they are brought to the discussion by a participant. This is important, as the dialogue circles operate within the “ebb and flow” of the conflict and are not disillusioned as if the conflict only exists when it is outwardly obvious, most recognized by the news or the public after an incident, or otherwise peaking. By holding dialogue circles even when the community may feel at peace, the process acknowledges the role of these visible conflicts as part of a larger, societal conflict. It also serves to break the cycles in which grievances and tensions lead to violence and attacks lead to vengeance (Ricigliano, 2012, p. 129). Hypothetically speaking, the very scheduling of dialogue circles creates a sense of security in which peace can be maintained; knowing that there are upcoming dialogue circles can serve to give parties the assurance that they will be able to have their needs met and their voice heard without having to lash out.

Dialogue circles most immediately seek to forge horizontal reconciliation, in which there is “repairing relationships between individuals, community and societies, including mechanisms for apology, forgiveness, reparation and re-integration of offenders” (Keyes, 2019, p. 5). Most notably, dialogue circles focus on individuals and the immediate community. The more ambiguous step is how to have this change spread throughout other dimensions of the conflict and ultimately lead to the structural change and influence reconciliation beyond the town or county it serves. As the dialogue circles being held in Kent County are also being offered throughout the state, this change is made more accessible. With the intention of fostering the individuals’ commitment to pursing structural change through means outside of the circle process, the dialogue circles have the potential to rally community members throughout the state. However, this conflict is not isolated to Maryland alone. So, if a more vertical form of reconciliation is to be achieved, what else needs to be done?

Constructive, “Good” Practices

Despite their limitations in scope and reachable audience, dialogue circles are an effective way to achieve the “meeting place” that Lederach describes. If anything, the best way to maximize the effectiveness of a dialogue circle is to promote the formations of inter-group coalitions that are advocates for change at a higher level. Whether that be a group focused on reforming the justice system, rallying for reparations, or otherwise seeking the additional levels of justice that cannot be achieved through dialogue alone. On account of this, it is important to have local leaders, law enforcement, politicians, or otherwise influential participants who have the power to make (or advocate for) these changes. It is also essential that the dialogue circles continue even after the formation and action of these coalitions so that any new grievances may be addressed and that there is a continued inclusion of the general population in the reconciliation process.

Also of importance in dialogue circles is “the role of narratives in reconciliation, both the role of group meta-narratives in differentiating the identities of warring parties and the potency of story-telling as a means of truth recovery and potentially catharsis and healing” (Keyes, 2019, p. 11). Experienced facilitators who are committed to making the participants feel heard and understood are essential in creating the environment of peace and building the understanding that can promote truth, and in turn promote both mercy and justice. Without this, the dialogue could quickly dissolve, cause the conflict to regress back into the cycle of vengeance, and ultimately cause the groups to cling to their polarization as the conflict escalates.

While dialogue circles are important for conflicts in which the community is affected or involved in some way, the role of individual-to-individual processes must not be forgotten altogether. While the conflict itself is a structural and inter-group conflict, individuals may have a need to discuss a grievance directly with the other individual(s) involved. For instance, the use of the Police Complaint Mediations (CMM) are essential in allowing community members to feel heard and forge relationships with the very same law enforcement officer with whom they had a negative experience with. This opportunity for truth, mercy, justice, and peace, while interpersonal on the surface, will contribute to the reconciliation at-large. It is a good practice to be mindful of all opportunities to foster reconciliation and utilize as many of these opportunities as possible, especially when facing such a deep-rooted, widespread, multi-level conflict.  



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