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COMM-ORG Papers 2006


Worldview Skills: Transforming Conflict from the Inside Out

By Jessie Sutherland

Available from

Reviewed by Dave Beckwith

I really, really like this book. It came as quite a surprise.

I’m an unreconstructed conflict maker, a radical taught in the sixties by folks who learned in the forties and fifties, a product of my tutelage, influenced in some degree by Gandhi the unrelenting, Huey P. Newton and the Black Panther Party (you know who was there because of the way the accents come out, and we always use the “P”), Martin King (the one everybody hated then, not the one everybody loves now) and Franz Fanon and Jesus the Angry Carpenter, Che Guevara and Saul Alinsky and even a dose of the Berrigan brothers. I’ve survived in the Social Change biz by learning to listen, to respect the work that other people do, to attach myself to people who are speaking for themselves and shy away from experts. It’s been a great ride.

Here comes this tall Canadian with a rap about conflict and culture. Ok, I’ve seen plenty of both. I’ve seen the tools of conflict resolution used to blunt the anger of the oppressed, and the dreamy eyed middle class white kids hungry for meaning fawning all over anybody’s tradition but their own, trying to act Black or Brown or Yaqui or Eastern or African or whatever. Mostly it’s just embarrassing.

But I’ve known heroes and heroines who’ve had their culture stolen, for whom the sweat lodge or the Dreaming or the Hungarian word for that cookie or the Irish word for that hat or the smells of Italy or the right dance music is revolution, at least a part of it.

And I’ve seen those who speak up for themselves out of their pain torn apart by the hatred it created, unable to accept the victory when it comes, unable to match policy triumphs with personal peace.

So I read it.


There were a lot of things I liked. First, Jessie Sutherland speaks from real experience. She works alongside people who’ve been harmed and are acting together to get redress, and to change policy, and are seeking peace and wholeness – so this is no idle speculation. She tells stories from the Australian, Canadian and US context and from European and African situations as well. Tough to pigeonhole.

Second, she takes on the negatives right away – how false reconciliation has “distort(ed) and falsif(ied) its true meanings…” I like that.

Next, she doesn’t tell me I have to become someone else to do the work. The line that stood me right up when I read it is this: “…worldview flexibility is … the capacity to be loyal to one’s worldview and engage across worldview difference.”  So the fake self-deprecation and insistent ‘see the other side’ rhetoric is dropped early in this book, and that’s part of its genius.

Ms. Sutherland explains things simply, and in a variety of ways. There are concepts, illustrations, stories and lists of techniques, so even hide-bound non-feeling older intellectual white guys like me have something to grab onto here. There are practical steps, and a conceptual framework they fit into – the Four Touchstones for Reconciliation is a favorite: drawing on the fundamental worldviews of the parties themselves; transcending the victim-offender cycle; large scale social change; and timing and tactics. She expands on each, and has practical ideas for bringing these touchstones into our work.

There’s a catch, of course. Although the ‘loyal to my own worldview’ idea drew me in, there’s plenty of challenge here, to truly understand my own worldview, to build my world-viewing skills, to bring my life into line with my worldview, and to reach across, listening, into another’s. I have to say she really got me when she quoted Robert Service, the grizzled poet of the Gold Rush. “It isn’t the mountain ahead that wears you out,

But it’s the grain of sand in your shoe.” The challenge to ‘do our own personal work’ will be a stumbler for many who, like me, have years of practice in critiquing others… She’s persuasive, as she’s entertaining, intellectually engaging and moving. I’d read the book, if I was you.

“When we transform our pain into purpose, turn enemies into friends, develop an intimacy with nature, and share our gifts with the world, then we will know we are the spark for a new era rising out of the ashes.”

Not bad.

About the Reviewer: 

Dave Beckwith is the Executive Director of The Needmor Fund, a national foundation based in Toledo, Ohio. He was formerly a Field Consultant for the Washington, DC based Center for Community Change. He has worked as a community organizer, trainer and consultant to community groups since 1971. He was the founding Director of the New England Training Center for Community Organizers in Providence, RI; Field Coordinator for the Governance Task Force of President Carter's National Commission on Neighborhoods in 1978; a Training Specialist with the national Legal Services Corporation in Washington, DC; and moved to Toledo in 1981 as the Director of the East Toledo Community Organization. From January of 1988 until September of 1994, he worked part time as a Research Associate at the University of Toledo's Urban Affairs Center.