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February 12, 2001

Co-chairs 'just talk' about
Reconciliation Symposium

"Postmortem" may not be the best description for a discussion about an event that—intellectually, at least—is still very much alive and ongoing. Labels aside, the four co-chairs of the Reconciliation Symposium—Robert Agnew, Billy Frye, Steve Kraftchick and John Stone—sat down for a roundtable discussion with Managing Editor Michael Terrazas to voice their thoughts on the centerpiece of Emory’s 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 career—heading the committee that wiped out smallpox from the face of the earth—to 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.
I was also impressed with the commitment of the audience members and speakers to move beyond mere talk and apply the ideas that were being discussed to Emory and the larger community. This is easily done in certain areas: for example, the sessions focusing on the environment. In other cases, the discussions were more abstract, and it will take further dialogue before concrete recommendations will emerge.

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.

Kraftchick: The 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.
That could have happened here, but I didn’t experience it. In fact, from Carter’s opening address to [Provost] Rebecca [Chopp’s] concluding comments, there was, both by participants and attendees, this desire to cooperate, which was remarkable. You could feel it in the interchanges, which is pretty encouraging.

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 don’t think you can stop here because problems are strong and deep. It’s going to require more conversation and more effort. But, by definition, you can’t compel people to participate in reconciliation.

Agnew: Following up on what Steve said about the spirit of cooperation, I think that’s 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 it—as 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, I’m pleased with the results.

You’ve 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 that’s 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, it’s just at that juncture that we don’t know how to speak to each other. We don’t speak the same language. We speak a language that is modified out of our guts and through speech. That’s why we can’t 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 whatever’s interfering with their sitting down and stopping the bloodshed must have something to do with the language. That’s how all great intellectual discourse starts—with language.

Kraftchick: To have really good talk is a hard thing; it’s a practiced discipline. To seriously listen, to seriously evoke response, takes time, and so I resist the notion of “just talk,” because I don’t think we did enough serious talk. This was an occasion to try to do serious talk. So I don’t find any problem with that occurring, nor do I think we ever pretended that this symposium was “contained,” in a sense that it wasn’t aware of practice.

I also think that what came out of this wasn’t 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 topic—but without sacrificing serious engagement. When you think about the people who did the environmental reconciliation workshop, there was deep passion there, but it wasn’t without a recognition of the realities in which they had to work.

Agnew: Action needs to begin with talk, and this was a particularly important kind of talk as it involved people throughout the University—administrators, many of our most distinguished faculty, students and others—and 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 don’t 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 didn’t 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.

I think that characterization is unduly cynical, and I don’t know where it comes from. To characterize something like this as “just talk” is to seriously underestimate the importance of talk in arriving at an intelligent understanding of an issue and a plan of action. Informed talk is not only the way you build consensus and understanding, it’s also how you evaluate the probable consequences of what you do.

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 wolf—all 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 don’t use it enough—especially 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 didn’t 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.
Frye: I would respond that I am skeptical too. A part of me is very skeptical that reconciliation as a state of harmony can ever be permanently achieved. And I understand the implication that conflict is an essential element in scholarship. That is why, for me, the more interesting and useful view of reconciliation is not as a state of harmonious relationships attained, but as a process. It’s the attitude that you have to come together with your opponents to understand the differences between yourselves in order to make progress. Merely arguing over your differences or, worse, simply isolating yourselves from one another is not scholarship—it’s dogma.

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. It’s 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.
To get back to the previous question about the “just talk” comment, many people may well view the symposium as “just talk” or they may come away wondering how the “administrators” or others are going to act on all the talk. That’s unfortunate, because one of the goals of the symposium and the follow-up workshops is to inspire people throughout the University to take action themselves on many of the issues that were discussed.

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 don’t have conversations like this at Tech, and he was impressed that Emory was doing it. The mother of one of my students came to town—to 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 Emory—that 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 don’t know if she just liked the view from the monitor or the isolation—no 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?

Agnew: We’ve 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 organizers—who 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 sessions—we emphasized the desire to make this an inclusive conversation. Who ended up participating, at some point, you can’t 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.

I don’t see that it was a very big issue in this case, though I agree that the need to engage women and people of color is something we should be sensitive to. The fact is the real meat of a program like this lies in the various sessions. We were very serious about trying to include women and people of color among the panel organizers and speakers. We made lots of effort to consult all kinds of people as we went along. And we should remember that it was a woman—Provost Chopp—who conceived of the idea in the first place! She was regularly consulted as the program was developed.

Kraftchick: On the other side of this, this school is about exercising one’s 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.

Kraftchick: The connection from some of the speakers with what they were doing was meaningful. David Orr’s 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 talk—it still is at a human level—and that was very evident in him.
Another thing that was important was the opportunity to meet and talk to people [that otherwise] I never would meet or talk with, through the planning sessions and in the symposium. This created a situation where biologists and theologians talked, and people in violence studies spoke with people in psychoanalysis. It was just a pleasure to see and remember again that there is an extraordinary amount of talented people of good will at this university. Provost Chopp’s concluding remarks were important because she displayed what you wanted in an administrator—someone with vision and commitment to the cause.

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 the future.
Third was a simple and insightful statement made by Dean Marla Salmon in the final plenary. She said something to the effect that “reconciliation is nothing more nor less than an honest search for understanding and truth, and it’s something we should be doing all the time.” That’s the essence of what this conference was all about. I see a lot of hope in the fact that the president, deans and other officers of the University agreed on that.

Stone: The one that’s 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 here—think 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 don’t we consider at Emory making a fifth year of education available to every medical student, and during that year they could get a master’s of public health?” The whole class, 110 masters of public health—at 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 Emory’s continued commitment to research and patient care.

This is the right time; these are the right people; we’ve 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 Emory’s 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!


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