Dealing with Differences: Dramas of Mediating Public Disputes

Dealing with Differences: Dramas of Mediating Public Disputes

Dealing with Differences: Dramas of Mediating Public Disputes

Dealing with Differences: Dramas of Mediating Public Disputes


Conflict and dispute pervade political and policy discussions. Moreover, unequal power relations tend to heighten levels of conflict. In this context of contention, figuring out ways to accommodate others and reach solutions that are agreeable to all is a perennial challenge for activists, politicians, planners, and policymakers. John Forester is one of America's eminent scholars of progressive planning and dispute resolution in the policy arena, and in Dealing with Differences he focuses on a series of 'hard cases' - conflicts that appeared to be insoluble yet which were resolved in the end. Forester ranges across the country - from Hawaii to Maryland to Washington State - and across issues - the environment, ethnic conflict, and HIV. Throughout, he focuses on how innovative mediators settled seemingly intractable disputes. Between pessimism masquerading as 'realism' and the unrealistic idealism that 'we can all get along,' Forester identifies the middle terrain where disputes do actually get resolved in ways that offer something for all sides. Dealing with Differences serves as an authoritative and fundamentally pragmatic pathway for anyone who has to engage in the highly contentious worlds of planning and policymaking.


How can we keep today’s and tomorrow’s possibilities in sight, when so many seem only to see what happened yesterday? Especially in settings of conflict, we find those who say, “We can…” heavily outnumbered by those who proclaim instead, “They’ll never …” and “We can’t….” How can we really do better?

I have written two books with these questions lurking in the background, Planning in the Face of Power (1989) and The Deliberative Practitioner (1999), but this book addresses them head-on and in still greater detail. These earlier books argued that in practice, in a political world, those interested in change or in popular “empowerment” have to learn first, and provide answers and organizing strategies second. More than the first two, and working even more closely with practitioners’ accounts of their work, this book shows how to do that, and it shows how we can often do far more, and far better, than we typically think.

It bears repeating that in too many community and policy settings alike, analysis after analysis ends breathlessly with the not-quite-stunning rediscovery, “It’s all politics” or “It’s all power” instead of beginning there, doing fresh and probing analysis, and asking practically in the settings at hand, “So what? So what can we do now (rather than wring our hands)?” This book addresses this challenge squarely, in diverse settings in which dealing with differences, dealing with challenges of inclusive participation and practical multistakeholder negotiations, matters.

I have had the wonderful good fortune not only to work with bright and engaged students, not only to serve as a community mediator intermittently for many years, not only to have had the opportunity to learn from deeply thoughtful practitioners committed to community empowerment, peacemaking, dispute resolution, participatory research, and more, but to have luckily come upon a way to explore “practice stories” drawn from real cases to begin, at least, to do justice to the wisdom, insight, and political vision of those working creatively in the midst of community and ethnic conflicts all the time. In large part this book . . .

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