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Bridging the gaps in Minnesota

Bridging the gaps in Minnesota

Published: February 1, 2013
Sharon Goens is AFSC's Twin Cities Healing Justice Program Director.

Sharon Goens is AFSC's Twin Cities Healing Justice Program Director.

Photo: AFSC

AFSC's Twin Cities Healing Justice program got off to a great start recently, serving as the host for an innovative legislative convening.

Sharon Goens, AFSC Program Director, was asked to host the convening because of AFSC’s neutral stance and because the healing justice framework—with its goal of supporting the process of bringing together long-sparing disparate voices to work toward a shared understanding—resonated strongly with those involved. 

On January 18, 2013, legislators, lobbyists, and advocacy group members who have been engaged in a custody law debate came together in hopes of finding new ways to communicate.  Child custody legislation has long been a contentious issue in Minnesota; opponents and supporters of a bill that would change custody guidelines had become fairly entrenched in their respective positions.

Last year Minnesota’s governor refused to sign the bill, stating there was too much uncertainty about its ramifications and too much opposition to it. He recommended that legislators and stakeholders on both sides of the issue engage in dialogue and collaborate on legislation that he could then sign into law.

A small group of dedicated individuals worked tirelessly to get all relevant stakeholders in the same room and make the governor’s suggestion a reality. The goal of the initial meeting was for supporters and opponents to identify shared principles and criteria for solutions that would be workable for all involved.

The AFSC received a small grant from The Bush Foundation and InCommons to help fund the event, and Dr. Miki Kashtan was hired to facilitate the process. Miki is a co-founder of BayNVC, an organization that offers training and technical assistance in nonviolent communication and whose mission is “to create a world where everyone's needs matter and people have the skills to make peace.”

The meeting began with the setting of clear expectations and ground rules designed to maximize feelings of safety and belonging. Key among them were Miki’s determination to hear every voice, and her insistence that everyone agree to stay engaged.

Participants were asked not to leave the room and to speak up and express themselves if they felt uncomfortable or upset. "There is wisdom in being upset,” Miki explained, “and if you leave the room, your wisdom goes with you." She continually affirmed her belief that there is always something noncontroversial under every polarized position.

To exemplify this, those who expressed a lack of trust, anger or discomfort were thanked for exhibiting honesty and vulnerability and for providing the group with the invitation to "do the same." Instead of polarizing the group, participants’ pronouncements served as teachable moments that raised the bar on honest expression and permission giving.   

After some exercises and a great deal of focused conversation, the group identified 25 principles that would need to be adhered to before more work could be accomplished.  One principle, for example, was about reducing conflict—the need to set up systems and processes that minimize and de-escalate conflict between all parties.

The group seemed engaged and hopeful. Miki outlined that next steps would include committee work and another group meeting before attempting the final goal: writing legislation that everyone could agree to.

People were grateful for AFSC’s role. “I met a person who was very excited that the AFSC was back in Minnesota,” Sharon Goens said. “This person’s mother had had past work experience with AFSC and was a Friend.”

After the convening, three people—two legislators who were on "opposite sides" of the issue and one special interest group attendee—commented on how happy they were that the meeting had occurred and that it seemed to have a successful outcome. 

Plans are underway to continue this effort. All in all, it was a very promising start.