It’s the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Velvet Revolutions in Eastern Europe. Those events got me into this whole mediation thing. Here are some drawings and reflections for you.
In 1989, I graduated from college and hightailed it to Poland. It was still a Soviet puppet state and the Cold War was still on, so I endured some Kafkaesque shenanigans to get there (including an interrogation at the Polish consulate with chain-smoking, perplexed apparatchiks). I got a job pretending to be a university English instructor, and my students pretended to learn. I went there because 1) I had no idea what to do with my life and 2) I was fascinated with the Solidarity movement of the early ’80s — in which people from all walks of life united to promote democracy, through peaceful protest and creative civil disobedience. Alas, the movement was violently squashed by martial law. When I arrived, things had “normalized” — no outward oppression or tanks in the streets, but no public gatherings, and plenty of Soviet soldiers with big hats. And breadlines straight out of a Yakov Smirnoff bit.
And then — something amazing happened. Through round-table negotiations that included the Soviet-sponsored regime, the opposition, intellectuals, representatives of the church, and a whole bunch of others, the government agreed to elections, and in effect ceded its power. And this spilled over into other countries. Throughout the region, prisoners, factory workers, and avant-garde playwrights became presidents. Frank Zappa became an advisor to the Czech government. In Lithuania, a statue of Lenin came down, and one of Jimi Hendrix went up. The domino effect/zeitgeist/synchronicity made it all the way to South Africa, where Nelson Mandela was sprung after 27 years in the Gray Bar Hotel.
One night I was having dinner at a Polish friend’s home. (Note: when visiting friends in Poland, always bring flowers. And an uneven number of them. And never lilies, because they represent death. You’re welcome.) The TV was on and the dude from Knight Rider was astride the Berlin Wall singing in a bedazzled suit as happy Germans took sledgehammers to concrete and I assumed it was a vodka and borscht induced hallucination. But it was indeed Hasselhoff heralding the fall of the wall.
Anyway, the notion of societal change through a combo of civil disobedience and roundtable dialogue was as like getting a hairdryer stuck in my ear, in that it blew my mind.
I more or less figured out how to be a teacher. To showcase students’ writing, I started a little English-language ‘zine. (Here it is above — I found it after a quarter century!) This entailed all kinds of hijinks, because things like mass photocopying and buying paper in bulk were still kind of not exactly legal.
After 2 years in Poland and grad school in Italy and Washington, DC, I got hired by Partners for Democratic Change, founded by Ray Shonholtz, depicted above, doing one of his favorite things: negotiating room rates in hotels. Ray was a pioneer of community mediation, and I had the honor of working with him and other incredible folks to help set up the first community mediation centers in the former Soviet Bloc and the Balkans and other amazing places.
Much of what we do at New York Peace Institute is profoundly influenced by what I learned from the first generation of mediators in the new democracies.
My Slavic colleagues had some great ways of getting the word out on mediation — like telling hairdressers all about it, because they hear people complaining about their families, coworkers and neighbors all day long. We’re also a bit unconventional and quirky in our outreach approach at New York Peace Institute.
Community mediation’s been around for a while in the US, so we have all kinds of quality assurance mechanisms. Incredible Yoda-like mentors we have, Looking back, I’m astounded at how we managed to get mediation centers up and running in a flash in the former Soviet Bloc, and at how creative my colleagues were. (And are — most of them are still around, mediating the good fight.)
Those were some good times.
And some heart wrenching ones. The Balkan Wars felt like an equal and opposite reaction to the peaceful transitions in Central and Eastern Europe. And minority groups, like the Roma, were getting shafted right left and center as social safety nets eroded. I was honored to be a teensy part of some big acts of reconciliation and peacebuilding.
And this one time, I hung out in a hotel in Bulgaria with Led Zeppelin.
Happy Berlin Wall Fall Anniversary,