Finding Common Ground

Carol A. Hand

I want to thank two of my blogging family, Nicci Attfield and Skywalker Payne, for raising important issues about the current Israeli/Palestinian situation. Their comments about a recent post made me ask myself how the world might be different if oppressed peoples realized what they share in common. As a thinker who needs to operationalize complex dynamics in terms of my own real-life experiences, I was reminded of the divide and conquer strategies I encountered during the years I worked with tribes in Wisconsin.

wisconsin tribes uwec dot edu

Photo Credit: Map of Wisconsin Tribes 

When I walked into the office of an inter-tribal agency on the first morning of my new job as deputy director of health and human services, it was clear how easy it was for people to be divided. Staff for the five programs at the time only felt ownership for their programs. They resented any expectations of collective responsibility for the welfare of the agency or tribes. They fought over which program paid for stationary and who could use the one computer. They didn’t question the appropriateness of imposing state and federal requirements on tribal communities. And in situations where staff struggled to meet program requirements, there was only censure and no help. The eleven-member Board of Directors comprised of the Chairpersons of member tribes was also easily divided, concerned only about meeting the interests of their respective tribal community. Why would it be otherwise if they expected to be reelected? There was little recognition of the needs of urban Native American populations in the state, and strong resistance to any cross-ethic collaboration.

The first step was to clarify our mission as a department. Instead of seeing ourselves as each fulfilling only the requirements of our funding sources, our job was redefined to focus on serving tribal communities and educating our funders about tribal sovereignty and cultures. We could only do that effectively if we worked together. In the course of the first four months, we added four new projects and were able to leverage a computer for every project. Most staff eagerly embraced the clarified mission and began volunteering to help each other succeed.

The second step, clarifying our mission as an agency, was more challenging. That took more time. Bringing in more grants helped raise the importance of health and human service issues for tribal chairpersons. One of the new initiatives, studying the feasibility of having the inter-tribal agency take over some of the administrative functions for tribal health programs from the federal government, raised awareness about the importance of possibilities to collectively build greater tribal self-determination.

The third step was to increase the credibility of the agency in the eyes of state, federal, and non-profit funders. Although I got to know key staff and administrators at all levels as people with common interests and shared humanity, I was not afraid to challenge them when they used “divide and conquer” tactics with tribal leaders. The memory that surfaced this morning as I was reflecting on the insights Skywalker and Nicci shared was of a specific meeting between tribal chairpersons and state administrators. Eleven tribal representatives were seated around the table as state staff presented several budget options for health and social service allocations. The state staff explained what each tribe would lose and gain at the expense of other tribes. Tribal representatives began arguing amongst themselves, each trying to maximize resources for their community. As I witnessed the growing conflict, I was forced to stand and speak loudly. “Don’t you realize what the state is doing here? It’s the oldest trick in the book, divide and conquer. They have you arguing with each other about chump change for your programs instead of standing together to demand adequate resources to meet the compelling needs of your communities.” The room grew silent, and state staff apologized. They agreed to come up with a more respectful negotiation approach and explore additional funding. Of course, it would be foolish to assume the state would change how it dealt with tribes, but at least in this instance, they were forced to be more inclusive in their decision-making process.

Looking back, I realize that at each step, I tried to find common ground among my department staff, my agency colleagues, other oppressed communities, and with funders and administrators as well. It is so easy for people who are oppressed to see others who are oppressed as the enemy. Who loses and who benefits from divisions among oppressed people? Clearly, those in power benefit from deflecting attention away from the role they play as our puppet masters. We keep each other oppressed and all too often, kill each other off while those in power profit financially and enjoy the illusion that they are smarter, more developed morally and culturally, and better fit to impose their hegemony.


Photo Credit: Serenity in the Garden

Who benefits from the continuing conflict between Israel and Palestine? Only those who sell their souls and the hopes and dreams and lives of other people for the illusion of personal safety and status, those who wish to exploit oil and other resources with greater ease, and those who get rich by selling their weapons. Those who lose are ordinary people on both sides. Homes and lives are lost on both sides and children on both sides grow up in a war zone that teaches them to fear and hate their neighbors for generations yet to come. We all lose from a world at war, from a world where people are brutally murdered by governments for no other reason than securing the power and privilege of the ruling class. And we all lose when generations are denied the right to develop and contribute their gifts to the rest of the human community. As Jeff Nguyen writes, “We are all Palestinians.” We are also all Israelis. Let us dream of peaceful possibilities  … the consequences affect us all.


15 thoughts on “Finding Common Ground

    1. Thank you, Smilecalm. I appreciate your thoughtful comments. My bloging friends, Nicci and Skywalker, reminded me how easy it is for historically oppressed groups to be provoked to forget their shared humanity and marginalization and fight amongst themselves rather than join together to create a different, peaceful solution.


  1. Thank you, Carol. I think the danger is re-creating divides, both amongst people, and in the eyes of the world. Whenever an enemy is constructed, we have the belief that it is okay to ‘kill’ (even metaphorically) humanity. I think that’s the danger of war.


    1. Thank you for your comments, Nicci.

      I am still reflecting on the ease with which oppressed groups can be so easily manipulated to attack other oppressed groups for a slightly higher (illusory) status on the margins. Governments cannot fight wars without willing soldiers recruited from the margins who have been socialized to accept that their suffering is caused by “enemies” who are similarly marginalized rather than the elite who oppresses them and views them as expendable.

      And I wonder who would rush to protect Israel if Arab nations are provoked to come to Palestine’s defense? Clearly, war is not the answer but the question of how to stop the brutal attacks and maintain a ceasefire long enough to begin a healing process is a question for which I have no answers.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I think it may also be easier to find an enemy on the margins and feel as though there could be a sense of victory. I think it might be about displacement, as well as the need for safety and survival being so strong (and fear of this not happening being so great) that the idea that ‘others’ could come and take the crumbs is just to unbearable to manage.

        I’m thinking of some of the xenophobia attacks in South Africa here, where the combination of media prejudice and the need to survive under terrible conditions lead to attacks against very, very vulnerable people, very often refugees.

        I think that if there could be a sense of empathy from the international media, a sense that the loss of the teenage lives, loss of Palestinian lives, and historical loss of life has been very, very tragic, and more loss would increase the pain, the message would change from ”pick a side.’ and it may be a start.


        1. I think the capacity for empathy is the key, Nicci. Last weekend, I started an essay to try to clarify my thoughts about the consequences of colonialism and returned to a book I found profoundly disturbing 40 years ago when I first read it, “The Mountain People” by Colin Turnbull (1972). It’s an ethnographic account about his years with the Ik people in the mountains of Ethiopia. At the time of his visit, the Ik people were located on a reservation where they had lived for generations. Once a proud and self-sufficient people, they were no longer able to hunt and gather and were literally starving when Turnbull conducted his study. One of the passages that was the most troubling for me follows:

          “I think it was the laughter that disturbed me the most, and an indefinable absence of something that should have been there, perhaps in its place. Sitting at a di [sitting place], for instance, men would watch a child with eager anticipation as it crawled toward the fire, then burst into gay and happy laughter as it plunged a skinny hand into the coals. Such times were few when parental affection showed itself; a mother would glow with pleasure to hear such joy occasioned by her offspring, and pull it tenderly out of the fire. Anyone falling down was good for a laugh too, particularly if he was old or weak, or blind like Logwara, but I never saw anyone actually trip anyone else” (pp. 112-113).

          For me, Turnbull’s observations symbolized what people can become when oppression is too much to bear for too long a time — devoid of empathy. People like the Ik aren’t capable of starting wars or refusing to fight if it’s the only way they have to keep from starving. I truly wonder if the very privileged who dream and scheme and foment wars to expand their dominion over ever-more lands and peoples are capable of empathy or compassion.

          Liked by 1 person

        2. It’s a good point, Carol. I am beginning to think that it’s when people are treated inhumanely, however that be, it can break/wound something within, which makes it possible to pass on the wounding or pain.

          That said, the studies on obedience, where normal, gentle people would shock strangers, sometimes until they passed out, and the Stanford Prison studies, shows the power of the situation, anonymity, uniform and weapons at the same time.

          Sometimes I don’t understand why people do what they do. I think we can only grieve.

          Liked by 1 person

        3. Good point about the studies about authority, Nicci. When I read about Milgrim’s and Zimbardo’s studies, I was always troubled by the deceptiveness of the researchers and their willingness to place people in situations that were likely to cause serious psychological harm. I don’t remember ever reading anything about the differences between those who complied (Milgrim) or lost themselves in their roles (Zimbardo), and those who were able to maintain the presence of mind to follow their own ethics. It would be interesting to know if these differences were ever identified.


        4. Hi Carol, Zimbardo did actually reflect a lot on his own going along with the process, and the fact that his girlfriend/future wife had been the one to stop it, and force him to stop. He wrote a book called The Lucifer Effect, which explored the mistreatment of political prisoners, and the systemic injustices which often remained unquestioned. He called for people to question authority and power in every way, and to take blame of individuals, looking at systemic structures as the roots of abuse.

          He said that those who didn’t comply/go along with the abuse were people who held onto their own discomfort/pain long enough to understand what was going on, and tell others to stop it.

          Migrim found that people complied less when the experimenter had left. So I guess the same point is questioning authorities instead of complying with them.
          Nikolas Rose points out that these authorities are not only government, but the hidden authorities of psychology/education/the media, and that we have to analyze and question, looking for the missing pieces in a story and taking it back to the historical roots, so that we understand the routes available or cut off.

          I think in a world where there is so much bloodshed, and so much abuse, rape, gender related violence, disregard for old people and cultural upset, we have to challenge. It’s all we can do.

          Liked by 1 person

  2. Carola, I really enjoyed reading this post…I work in the non profit sectorand become really upset about how different agencies fight for the funds and grants…how so many times they seem to forget why they exist in the first place and numbers and stats become more important that the people they are supposed to help…I too feel pain for both sides in the Gaza conflict and the people trapped in the middle. I don’t know the answers, I don’t know who threw the first stone or bomb, and truly, I dont care either…I do care for what seems an interminable flaw and trait in the human species. There is so much love and beauty living side by side with so much misery, greed, power thirst and stupidity. And I talk about empowerment, but many many times I suspect it is a lost cause…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for your thoughtful response, Sylvia. You have shared important insights about the competition and turf wars that go on between agencies and the consequences for the people who depend on their services. It is puzzling to me that people don’t understand that collaboration really can make everyone’s job easier. I remember how transformed the intertribal staff members were as a result of teamwork. So much more was accomplished, and they had fun in the process. On the other hand, power that needs to be continually enforced through coercion never brings peace, joy, or laughter into the lives of those who are the oppressors. I see hope that things will change because of the work that you and many others are doing.


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