February 12, 2001
not be the best description for a discussion about an event thatintellectually,
at leastis still very much alive and ongoing. Labels aside, the
four co-chairs of the Reconciliation SymposiumRobert Agnew, Billy
Frye, Steve Kraftchick and John Stonesat down for a roundtable discussion
with Managing Editor Michael Terrazas to voice their thoughts on the centerpiece
of Emorys Year of Reconciliation.
What are your overall impressions
of how the symposium went?
Stone: I thought
the totality, the smorgasbord of intellectuals present during the symposium,
was unbelievable. Beginning with President [Jimmy] Carter and going through
Ambassador [James] Laney and John Lewis, Dan Carter, Johnnetta Cole. All
of these folks came together to discuss, in an interdisciplinary fashion,
the subject of reconciliation. It was very enlightening to me, and I thought
the speakers were world class. There was a rare opportunity to hear somebody
like an E. O. Wilson or a Bill Foege. When you talk about what Dr. Foege
has accomplished during his careerheading the committee that wiped
out smallpox from the face of the earthto hear him speak and shake
hands with him. Or to see E. O. Wilson, who came to us bringing facts
about biodiversity and how much it is slipping away from us, but also
who came to bring a message of hope that there are some things we can
do to save the rain forest and preserve biodiversity.
Agnew: I think
it went extraordinarily well. For the most part it was very well attended;
there were obviously a few sessions where we would have wanted better
attendance. I was especially impressed with the way the sessions fit together
and common themes emerged.
While I was very pleased with the symposium overall, I felt quite bad
that certain sessions were not better attended. For example, one of the
Saturday morning sessions focused on social justice. This session featured
the Rev. Joseph Lowery; Eva Davis, president of the East Lake Housing
Association; and Micheal Giles of political science. It was one of the
most moving and inspiring events I have witnessed in my 20-plus years
at Emory. I was almost moved to tears, and most of the other people in
the audience were, as well. I know people like to sleep late on Saturday
morning, but I wish more people could have been there.
most encouraging thing to me was the spirit of cooperation that was palpable
in these sessions. To some extent, I compare this to other types of symposiums
I have been to, and frequently the tone of those meetings is for one participant
to demonstrate that he or she is markedly better or brighter or more insightful
than another participant. So it is a competitive situation.
The whole idea of reconciliation in any facet is so complex. It takes
so much human effort to get there that the fact that people are willing
and wanting for it to happen is a good first step. In that sense, I think
it was a successful event. But, as Chopp said, I dont think you
can stop here because problems are strong and deep. Its going to
require more conversation and more effort. But, by definition, you cant
compel people to participate in reconciliation.
Agnew: Following up on what Steve said about the spirit of cooperation, I think thats all the more remarkable when you consider that, at pretty much every session, the people in the audience represented a range of disciplines and a range of backgrounds. In many of the sessions you had both academics and people from the larger community.
Frye: I also thought the quality of the presentations and discussions ranged from very good to excellent. And I was very pleased by the fact that most speakers understood reconciliation the way we intended itas the effort to genuinely communicate with one another and build on that in the search for understanding, truth and justice.
But, as I often am, I was somewhat disappointed by the attendance. I tend to be idealistic in my wish to see the University community unified in its participation in something like this. But despite our best efforts to inform everybody about the symposium over more than a year and in many different ways, apparently we still failed to reach and capture the imagination of a lot of people. I regret that very much.
Still, realistically, attendance was actually greater than we expected. Most of the plenary speakers drew a full or nearly full house, and at any one point during the symposium there were at least 400 participants spread among the four sessions running concurrently. So, in fact, a lot of people did drink from the cup of reconciliation! Overall, Im pleased with the results.
Youve mentioned receiving some criticism, mostly from students, that this symposium was all "just talk." How do you respond to that?
Stone: It seems to me thats where all reconciliation begins. James Salter in The New York Times recently said that the first great lesson, the one that supercedes all other lessons and human endeavors, is learning to speak. And if I had to say where human society falls down, its just at that juncture that we dont know how to speak to each other. We dont speak the same language. We speak a language that is modified out of our guts and through speech. Thats why we cant reconcile the troubles in Ireland or the Middle East problems. Just think, these people in the Middle East are of the same genetic background, and whatevers interfering with their sitting down and stopping the bloodshed must have something to do with the language. Thats how all great intellectual discourse startswith language.
Kraftchick: To have really good talk is a hard thing; its a practiced discipline. To seriously listen, to seriously evoke response, takes time, and so I resist the notion of just talk, because I dont think we did enough serious talk. This was an occasion to try to do serious talk. So I dont find any problem with that occurring, nor do I think we ever pretended that this symposium was contained, in a sense that it wasnt aware of practice.
I also think that what came out of this wasnt just talk when you talk to people who teach here. Oftentimes one of the most difficult things is how to connect your internal passion with your area of study. Either one or two imbalances frequently occurs: People fall off into passion and neglect the specifics of their study, or hone in on the specifics and become bloodless.
One of the things that was interesting to me was the number of people
who brought passion to their topicbut without sacrificing serious
engagement. When you think about the people who did the environmental
reconciliation workshop, there was deep passion there, but it wasnt
without a recognition of the realities in which they had to work.
needs to begin with talk, and this was a particularly important kind of
talk as it involved people throughout the Universityadministrators,
many of our most distinguished faculty, students and othersand we
were all focused on areas of central concern to Emory, with the goal of
laying the groundwork for our future agenda. But beyond that, the symposium
committee has taken steps to ensure this talk does turn into action. This
will occur through the workshops that will follow the symposium. It will
occur through the many additional events that will take place during the
larger Year of Reconciliation, including discussions and conferences with
an applied focus. And it will occur through the publications that will
flow from the symposium, particularly a Choices & Responsibility-type
publication that provides recommendations for action.
Kraftchick: I dont think anybody connected with this pretended that talking would gloss over real processes that exist in our university. There was never an attempt to pretend that they didnt exist, but one of the ways you go about solving them is to start talking about them instead of waiting for a flareup and then talking about them.
How many disasters have been perpetrated in human history because of insufficient critical talk? Take an example I saw on TV recently: the management of Yellowstone Park. For decades we deliberately prevented forest fires in the park, and we tried to control wildlife populations by eliminating predators, especially wolves. Well, the result was the disastrous fires in the park about 10 years ago, an explosion in the elk population and a near extinction of the wolfall in all, the creation of a very unnatural situation which could not sustain itself in the long run.
I suspect this happened because some well-intended person or persons
had some naive ideas about the management of natural resources, which
they decided to implement without enough talk with experts from all sides
of the issue.
Similarly, how many episodes in American foreign policy are now seen
as failures or even disasters because action was taken without understanding?
Sometimes doing nothing is preferable to such uninformed action, even
if it is well intended. So, talk is extremely important for
intelligent, lasting results. The capacity for reflection may be the highest
human capability, and I think we dont use it enoughespecially
when we face crises such as those discussed in this symposium.
There were members of panel
discussions who were openly skeptical about the possibility and even the
desirability of reconciliation. What did you think about that?
Kraftchick: I think we all expected it. In fact, we had lots of conversations
about how could we title it, so we didnt signal something else.
My argument would be that reconciliation never fully occurs within this
sphere, but at the same time, there are a lot of goals you pursue even
though you are not going to achieve them. These are hard problems, and
none of us have direct solutions at solving them.
Real advances come from finding the inconsistencies among us and searching
for a better explanation that will enable us to either reconcile or refute
them and come up with something better. So if the emphasis could be put
on the processes or attitudes implied by the notion of reconciliation,
without in any way relinquishing the determination to get at the truth,
perhaps even skeptics could agree that reconciliation is one of the most
creative processes that goes on in human society. Its universal.
Agnew: I too
was not surprised that this issue came up, and some very good discussions
emerged around this issue, discussions over issues like when reconciliation
should and should not be pursued, what it means to be reconciled, and
the conditions necessary for reconciliation to occur.
Take, for example, the session on the environment organized by Peggy
Barlett. I think Peggy and the people she works with provide a wonderful
example of what faculty and students can accomplish; they have already
taken action on a number of environmental issues and plan much more. Likewise,
many students on campus have come together to address issues of race,
ethnicity and reconciliation. One outcome of their work is the major conference
they organized for Feb. 7 (see story, page 1), and I understand that many
follow-up events are planned.
So I hope we inspired people to think about the ways in which they might
take some of this talk and translate it into action, instead of simply
waiting for others to take the initiative.
What sort of reactions did
you hear from people outside the University?
Kraftchick: I actually did [get reaction] from a number of folks. Alumni are happy, proud, pleased that their university is trying to have a conversation like this. I spent [some] time talking to a student from Georgia Tech who had come over for both days; he was here on Friday and then on Saturday brought friends of his because they dont have conversations like this at Tech, and he was impressed that Emory was doing it. The mother of one of my students came to townto visit her daughter, but also because this was going on at this time. There was a sort of pleasant surprise that other people found it engaging. Usually you hear that whatever the University does is not really connected with people outside the University, but apparently the people outside the University found this to be directly connected.
Agnew: I encountered a lot people from outside. Sometimes they were students from other schools and sometimes private citizens who may have heard about the symposium through our website or newspaper ads. They found it thoroughly stimulating. In fact I would see many of the same people in session after session on both days. Pretty much everyone I encountered who did attend had very positive things to say about the symposium.
Several faculty said that they hope that this becomes a regular occurrence
at Emorythat every couple of years or so we have an event of this
type. They felt the symposium provided a wonderful opportunity to hear
and interact with their colleagues from throughout the University.
Stone: I sat on the plaza level during the opening panel with Frans de Waal and James Laney, and there was a woman fastidiously taking notes at the table and focused completely on the [television] monitor. I dont know if she just liked the view from the monitor or the isolationno one else was up there. So I pushed the monitor close to her, and it turned out she was from Philadelphia. She was African American and had come down to hear people like Johnnetta Cole and John Lewis. But she was enraptured with what Frans de Waal was saying about extrapolation from primate data to how humans react to reconciliation.
The choice of topics was wonderful because reconciliation
carries with it a moral weight. In terms of having an interdisciplinary
bite to it, this topic asked people to participate and think about how
are we going to reconcile all of these myriad conflicts all over the world
that President Carter spoke of. There were a number of things that we
might have talked about, but it just so happens that the choice of topic
was very good.
This question relates to
one asked of the deans and administrators at the closing plenary. This
was a symposium dedicated to reconciliation, in all its forms, across
boundaries of race and gender and what have you. Yet, on the planning
committee: four white men. Thoughts?
been working on this for about two years. During the initial stages, Rebecca
Chopp was the prime mover. She asked Billy to take charge of it, and then
after speaking with Rebecca, I began to work with Billy. Steve and John
came on board shortly thereafter.
Looking back on it, I wish the co-chairs had been a more diverse group.
But we made every effort to broadly represent people from throughout the
University on the steering and advisory committees and among the session
organizerswho played perhaps the greatest role in shaping the content
of the symposium. The issue of inclusiveness was always on our minds.
Kraftchick: The irony did not escape us. There is an irony about it, but on the other hand, everybody I talked with was very conscious of how we make sure or how we get the best effort in making this an inclusive conversation.
The array of workshops and panels was an attempt to appeal to everyone.
The people we talked to about running their panels and who they would
choose for their sessionswe emphasized the desire to make this an
inclusive conversation. Who ended up participating, at some point, you
cant control that. All you can do is keep asking the questions that
are appropriate to ask, and Bob and Bill and John consistently did that.
Agnew: With the advice of a larger steering and advisory committee that I think was much more inclusive.
Kraftchick: On the other side of this, this school is about exercising ones imagination and finding ways to deal with the specifics of a reality and imagine it in a different way. So if it had been four women who were chairing it, I think we would have seen it in different directions. Theoretically, anyway, you are capable of transcending the specifics of your biology. The people I dealt with were also capable of doing that.
What is one particular moment
you will carry away with you from the symposium?
Agnew: For me
it was a session early Saturday morning. One of the speakers, Eva Davis,
was sitting by the stage waiting for the session to begin, and I was chatting
with her. She was talking about her early experience in the civil rights
movement. She was recruited for the movement when she was 17, and she
talked about some of her work with Martin Luther King, Hosea Williams,
Andrew Young, Jesse Jackson and others, and about some of the demonstrations
and other activities she participated in.
Also, about some of the threats and even attempts on her life she experienced.
Despite her many struggles and despite all the hate she encountered, she
showed no bitterness, no regret, but instead some pride, a determination
to keep working for what she felt was right, and even some amusement at
the things she had gone through.
This same attitude and spirit was evident in the session that followed
and in several of the other sessions I attended, and it will stay with
me for a long while. I think one of the nicest features of the symposium
is that it not only provided an opportunity to talk about reconciliation,
but also presented some wonderful models for reconciliation: people who
literally put their lives on the line in order to work for reconciliation;
people who have been through some very difficult times but are not embittered,
rather they are determined to continue in their work.
connection from some of the speakers with what they were doing was meaningful.
David Orrs way of talking about things was powerful in the environmental
session: how there was a connection of who he was with what he did. And
Lewis phrase that he had an executive session with himself
where he just decided that he was not going to hate. That struck me as
a powerful statement, that ultimately the matter of reconciliation comes
down to a decision you make. No symposium is going to create it, no amount
of talkit still is at a human leveland that was very evident
Frye: Three things
come to mind: First, the extraordinary quality of the student presentations
and discussions in the sessions on the environment and health care, [which
were] the two I heard in which students participated. Second, the way
Ed Wilson was able to paint a profile of pending global disaster in a
careful, scientific way, and yet come out in the end optimistic about
Stone: The one thats easiest and had the greatest impact to me is one that is very close to my heart, and that is the suggestion by Bill Foege. We have such a tremendous public health center herethink of the National Headquarters of the American Cancer Society, the CDC, the Carter Center, this unique School of Public Health that is ranked way up there nationally with experts like Jim Curran and Bill Foege interacting with all these other institutions. Dr. Foege now works with the Gates Foundation to help put their billions of dollars to work in the best possible way.
Along the way in his very wise remarks, Foege said, Why dont
we consider at Emory making a fifth year of education available to every
medical student, and during that year they could get a masters of
public health? The whole class, 110 masters of public healthat
no tuition charge.
Now that could have a dramatic effect, especially when combined with
similar opportunities for nurses and other health professionals. Such
a suggestion in no way would diminish, but would augment Emorys
continued commitment to research and patient care.
This is the right time; these are the right people; weve got the right leadership, and we could do something dramatic that would have a palpable effect other than just talk. This proposal strikes me as a visionary suggestion, worthy of Emorys serious consideration. I understand students impatience with just talk, how they wish for change and want to be there when it happens. I want to be there myself!