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.
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.