From Bystanders to Third Siders.

LAPD vehicle at a crime scene in Hollywood.
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William L. Ury, co-author of Getting to Yes and long-time conflict resolution expert, has developed an idea and a movement called, The Third Side. Ury’s belief is that in every conflict there are three, not two, sides. The first two sides are obviously those in conflict but Ury says that we – the uninvolved onlookers – the ultimate Bystanders – form the Third Side.

Third Sidedness and Conflict Resolution

In Ury’s opinion the power to resolve most conflict lies in the Third Side rather than in the two sides actively engaged in the fight. He tells many stories of how this works – from African villagers who hide the poisoned spears of the warriors whenever arguments break out between them, to ordinary people of all sorts simply standing up for peace and hope and ordinary human happiness.

Mothers Unite.

One such story, as related on Ury’s web-site – www.thirdside.org – is very representative of how this process works. In the early 1990s in East Los Angeles, a group of concerned mothers who were members of the same church came together to pray for a solution to the gang violence in their neighbourhood. Eight gangs were active in their parish and gang killings and injuries happened almost daily. After much prayer and reflection, the group came to the conclusion that if they wanted to solve the ‘war’ in their neighbourhood they had to step outside their own comfort zone and be willing to go into the battlefield themselves.

Full of fear and trepidation, seventy women, and a handful of men, began a peregrinacion – a pilgrimage or procession – from one gang area to the next. When they met gang members, the mothers invited them to pray with them and offered them food. Then they produced a guitar and began singing ancient folk songs to and with the gang members. As the first night wore on, the gang members were more and more baffled and thus, the conflict was interrupted.

Buoyed by the obvious effect of this new approach, the mothers formed the Comite Pro Paz En El Barrio — Committee for Peace in the Neighborhood and  continued their walks each night and, within a week there was a dramatic drop in gang-related violence. As time passed each side came to know those on the other side and the cycles of violence were interrupted and replaced with more constructive action.

By provoking a confrontation with their humanness, they unleashed a process of communication and transformation. Their activity changed the gang-members and themselves. The women listened to the deep anguish of the gang-members about the lack of jobs and about police brutality. This led them, in turn, to develop a tortilla factory, bakery, and child-care center, creating some jobs and giving the gang members an opportunity to acquire job skills. It was also a space where conflict resolution techniques were learned, because people from different gangs worked together in these projects. The women then opened a school. And they shifted from a “Neighborhood Watch” mode — where they were the eyes and ears of the police — to a group trained to monitor and report abusive police behavior, a development that has redefined the relationship between the Los Angeles Police Department and the barrio.(1)

This is a great example of individuals, acting as individuals in union with others (like heart cells working together to pump blood around the body) not only for their own collective well-being but also the well-being of even those creating the dysfunction. It had to have been scary to do that, to believe in ‘humanness’ when none was really in evidence – but that’s what they did and in spite of the fact that these women didn’t belong to either side of the conflict raging all around them, they became the ones to effect a solution.

 It is time to try peace a little while. If it fails, we can always go back to war. (2)

The idea of the Third Side transfers the power away from those directly involved and opens it up to those not causing but affected by the problem. It empowers the victims and bystanders and turns the idea of responsibility on it’s head. Instead of focusing on those who are responsible for a given situationit reminds all of us of our responsibility to everything and everyone else with whom we share this planet.  

Who knows if it can work in every situation but it’s certainly well worth trying. After all what do we have to lose?

  1. http://www.thirdside.org/stories_01.cfm
  2. ‘Abdul Bahá, Star of the West, v. 10, p. 196-197


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