Remembering Ray Shonholtz

As if this weren’t enough, Ray was the Typhoid Mary of mediation in the new democracies in the post-Soviet world, building the first locally staffed and managed mediation centers in Central and Eastern Europe, the Balkans, Caucasus, former Soviet Union, and beyond. His organization, Partners for Democratic Change, is now truly global, promoting locally-driven conflict resolution capacity in more than 20 countries in 5 continents.

I had the honor of serving as Ray’s International Director for many years, and the saplings he planted worldwide are now like unto the mighty redwoods from Ray’s beloved Bay Area. (Coincidence that Shonholtz is German for “beautiful tree”?)

I wrote earlier about how Ray’s international vision is now influencing how we roll here in New York City — international development in reverse.  Ray’s last writings and public presentations included a call to action to the Occupy Movement to build upon their participatory creativity to bring about meaningful, sustained social change.

Here are a few random memories and Rayisms from over the years:

— Ray was a wordsmith with a penchant for zen koan-esque, oxymoronic turns of phrases.  He referred to Partners for Democratic Change as a “small giant” — i.e. an organization of immense reach, though (at the time) under the radar. OK, a small giant in reality is just a regular-sized guy, but the phrase works.

— Ray was a small giant: a highly influential figure in our field, but one who focused more on building others’ capacity and celebrating their triumphs than getting in his own name and mug in the media and literature.

— Ray’s wordsmithery was manifested in his famous BPBRs — bad poems by Ray — odes, limericks and haikus he wrote for friends and colleagues to honor accomplishments, birthdays, anniversaries, or for no reason at all. They were replete with slanted rhymes, groaner puns, and delightful non-sequiturs.  In a profession that can take itself a bit too seriously, Ray knew how to make the workplace fun.

— Classic Rayism: In fundraising and mediation, no is just the beginning of the relationship.

— Ray loved to negotiate.  In our very limited downtime on international junkets, he often dragged me into hotel after hotel, just to negotiate room rates (with no intention to ever stay in most of the rathole fleabags we dipped our beaks into). He showed me that pretty much everything is negotiable.

— If I were to cast Ray in a biopic of his life, I’d go with Richard Dreyfuss.  Helen Hunt would play his lovely wife, Anne.

— When I started working with Ray, the internets were in their toddlerhood, and Ray was not the most computer savvy person around. (My favorite series of unfortunate typos that passed spell-check muster:  Panthers for Democratic Change Proposal for Pubic Policy on Meditation.)  Ray was very open to feedback on such things, and was immensely forgiving of my and other colleagues’ screw ups.

— Ray conquered jet lag and exhaustion with a power nap technique he learned in Japan.  At meetings, he’d ask our hosts if there was a private room he could use for a few minutes, ostensibly for a quick phone call.  He’d then lie supine for about 5 minutes, and emerge refreshed and re-energized.  (It terrified more than a few colleagues the first time they walked in on Ray motionless on the floor).

— When I would obsess about trying to fix something or be persistent beyond the point of utility, Ray would tell me:  If you get mud on your trouser cuffs, the more you rub at it, the more it’ll stain your pants. It’s sometimes better to let the mud dry and let it easily flake off.

— Ray’s definition of a stakeholder: anyone who can block progress or communication. Dialogue groups tend to be self-selecting, consisting of fellow-travellers, with dissidents, problem children and challenging personalities screened out (or at least not recruited). To really bring about community consensus meant giving the potential spoilers a seat at the table…and giving them the skills they need to constructively engage with the other.

— Another Rayism:  Peeling away the layers of an onion just gets you more onion. When asking questions in mediation and you get the same info over and over and over, it’s probably time to move on.

–The Ray-ality check:  At the end of a successful negotiation or mediation, Ray would often unnerve me by saying: “You know, we’ve made great progress, but something tells me this is not going to work.”  I asked why on earth he’d want to plant seeds of doubt after an agreement’s been reached.  He told me that if folks responded by defending their agreement, we were good to go…but if they showed doubt, we weren’t done yet.  It was a great deal-sealing maneuver.

We lost Ray far too early, and his friends, family, and colleagues are all reeling. Let’s find solace in the incredible legacy this small giant left behind, in the thousands of people he touched, and in the brilliant institutions he built.

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One thought on “Remembering Ray Shonholtz

  1. Beautifully written with a number of LOL moments. I’m sorry that I did not get to meet Ray, but I feel like I just did thanks to you 🙂
    I hope all is well in Heckland!

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