Peacemaking and Violence in America: A Strategic Plan

Jul 06, 2015

My presidential platform combines fixing our broken government and building peace here at home and around the world. The two elements are connected: building peace requires fixing government. I also believe we have to reduce and prevent violence here at home before we can make much progress building peace around the world.

In this article, I will start with a story about peacebuilding and then present a strategic plan to reduce and prevent violence in America.

A Story about Peacebuilding

In the summer of 2013, the New York City Department of Probation expanded its Weekend Recovery Assistance Program (WRAP) by enrolling nearly 450 young people on probation in summer jobs to help city neighborhoods damaged by Hurricane Sandy. This was a very organized effort. The Department reached out to neighborhood groups and many non-profits to better understand what exactly was needed and in what locations. The Department had already transformed to a new model: a continuum of services were available to people on probation through partnerships with local providers creating Neighborhood Opportunity Networks (NeONs); probation officers were moving out of headquarters and into communities where the most people on probation lived; and these officers and their supervisors were newly trained in mentoring, adolescent development and even building partnerships.  Each young person had already been through a risk assessment so the truly dangerous were not part of the program. Private foundations contributed funds to cover costs for coaches and stipends for the young workers.

The 450 were divided into small teams of 8-10 youth, 2 coaches and one probation officer. The teams were assigned to specific locations. They met every morning and every afternoon to talk about the day’s work and challenges encountered. Looking back, so much was learned on so many levels by so many people that lessons for reducing and preventing violence could easily inform a national strategy.

The teams mostly worked on tearing out water-damaged parts of homes and organizing materials for renovations or were assigned to one of many disaster relief kitchens. The grinding impact of poverty becomes very clear very quickly when so few of the 450 had ever used a tape measure or opened a bag of raw carrots for peeling and chopping. Real skills are learned in short order: measure twice and cut once; make a plan for where soaked insulation goes before unloading and stacking new insulation; make sure everyone on the team knows the plan especially who will do what; always divide the large tasks into small steps and make sure everyone knows which job is theirs. The kitchen crews learned how to make healthy soups and salads from scratch. Everyone learned that when there is a problem, talk it out or take it to the team meeting. The larger lessons that come from learning to work on a team contributing to a community rather than in a gang that is destructive in a community take time even beyond the summer program.

The learning was not just for the 450. Homeowners were impressed and genuinely grateful – to the point of tears and hugs – when strong, young help made progress where so little seemed possible. Within a few weeks, neighbors and communities valued and appreciated youth who had once been pushed away and isolated. And the youth could hear a different tone from police officers newly impressed with the hard work of young people they once called juvenile delinquents and now call by name.

The Commissioner’s observations looked at changes from the broader perspective. The community as a whole changed their view of government in general and probation in particular; they now trusted a government agency to support local community needs.

The summer program was just one snapshot, one set of circumstances in which 450 young people had the opportunity to change behavior, to choose peacemaking. Nationwide, re-arrest rates hover around 66%; in Probation’s 2013 summer program, re-arrests were around 11%.

The New York City Department of Probation shows all of us how justice reform can turn to neighborhood peacebuilding. For me, the program highlighted the many layers of continuous learning in a coordinated program that intended to turn lives around. More than that, the program cemented in place my convictions about the importance of partnerships, the lifelong value of mentors, and the power of face-to-face dialog.


Violence in America: A Strategic Plan

A good strategic plan for any complex issue divides that issue into manageable “chunks” and then defines a range of solutions for each chunk. Communication and coordination across solutions are the “secret sauce” for getting results. In my last book, Performance Networks: Transforming Governance for the 21st Century (2009), I described the strategic planning process and the coordination mechanisms of the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) Next Generation Air Transportation System (NEXTGEN) as the best in all of the federal government. I also described the cross-agency and neighborhood-based partnerships of New York City’s (NYC) Model of Probation as the best current example of coordinated justice reform. My plan to reduce and prevent violence in America borrows from aviation’s overall approach and the specifics of NYC Probation.

I thought about organizing this strategic plan around categories of violence: domestic violence, child abuse, school bullying, sexual assaults, gang violence, over-aggressive law enforcement, communities in conflict, home-grown terrorism, cyber attacks, political parties attacking each other rather than solving shared problems and our national decisions about how and when we go to war. Instead, I decided to organize this plan around categories of solutions: Dialog, Training and Education, Policies, Programs and Best Practices, Economic Development and Partnerships.

1)    DIALOG

Peacemaking is the new awareness or insights that occur when people on opposite sides of a conflict sit down and talk face-to-face about shared problems and agree on shared actions for improving the situation. Of course, this is no easy task and simply getting to the table where talks occur often requires long and difficult pre-meetings, negotiations and even ceasefires. And I do believe some people have crossed a dark and violent line and are lost to us forever; I would not invite psychopaths, sociopaths, serial murderers and rapists to discussions related to community peacebuilding. I do believe communities do not want to live in conflict and I believe We the People are wiser than warfare.

Dialog is the foundation of any model to reduce and prevent violence. Dialog across agencies to share information or agree on common procedures; dialog between agencies and non-government partners to establish new relationships or support for neighborhood-based services and training; dialog between clients and mentors to open minds to new possibilities; dialog within teams of mentors or agency staff to cement in place new learning; and dialog in teams or groups of anyone caught up in bad decisions to learn how others deal with similar issues. I believe in the power of face-to-face dialog.

I want to share one example about the design of such dialogs – and the lesson is “keep it simple.” In 1994, I designed a citywide Summit on Violence for Mayor Michael R. White and the 6 town hall meetings he held around the city leading up to the Summit. The town hall meetings asked 3 questions about how to stop violence in Cleveland: What’s Working, What’s Not Working and What Else Do You Want Us to Know? The questions themselves told everyone we were serious and ready to listen. The responses we heard were crucial to the design of the Summit.

On the day of the Summit (August 6, 1994), about 1,000 residents came to the Convention Center where they divided themselves into groups of 10 to focus on one of 20 discussion topics such as the Role of Police in Neighborhoods, Gangs, Drugs, Guns, Juvenile Justice and Parental Responsibilities. Each group filled out a one-page form with immediate, short-term, mid-term and long-term actions to reduce and prevent violence. The work of the Summit went directly into a citywide strategic plan to reduce and prevent violence – many items word for word from 50 sets of one-page forms The plan was widely distributed to all participants and guided agency decision-making during the White administration.

The design lesson is “keep it simple” such as 3 questions or 20 topics with a one-page form. The strength of a clear and intentional design flows from engaging the community in solving their own problems, recognizing the bonding and emotional support of face-to-face dialog, and genuinely demonstrating how government and the community can work together to deliver plans and results.

Design for Police-Community Dialog: In diplomatic circles, peace talks often begin with each “side” meeting separately to vent emotions and to clarify issues and positions. Then, with a trained facilitator or experienced diplomat, the different sides join together to share perceptions and agree on shared actions – sometimes just the ONE most important action to move toward.

Cities and towns struggling with the anger and broken trust between communities and law enforcement can begin such dialog tomorrow. I suggest the diplomatic approach:  start separately, talk in small groups and focus on a few key questions. Three questions may be enough for a solid beginning: (1) How are each of you doing (or feeling) right now? (2) What is your perception of recent events? (3) What is the ONE action we can take to re-build trust in our community? When ready, law enforcement and community groups can join together to share perceptions and next steps.

Whatever the format, peacemaking and healing the broken trust between communities and law enforcement will only occur through face-to-face dialog.


Training and education will plays a crucial role reducing and preventing all social conflict be it domestic violence, child abuse, school bullying, sexual assaults on campus, gang violence, communities in conflict with law enforcement, or perhaps even the warfare between political parties and their strongly-held partisan views.

Much has been written recently about the types of training needed to re-build trust between law enforcement and the communities they serve. This discussion will serve as an example of the range of training needed for any type of social conflict and as the next section shows new training is deeply connected to new policies and new programs.

To choose or develop education and training modules, we always begin by defining the problem. One view is that overly-aggressive policing and the mass incarceration of people of color -- in some cities 10 times as great as white citizens – are symptoms of law enforcement systems that have lost their way. The Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission has eloquently described the current situation: The change required is from police as warriors invading a community to police as guardians and problem solvers within a community. My view is that such a transformation begins with honest dialog and includes new training, new policies and new programs.

Many police departments and community leaders have outlined lists of new training and education courses needed: how to de-escalate tensions; how to understand the implicit bias we have when looking at someone unlike us; how to recognize and work with the mentally ill; how to provide crisis intervention; how to understand addiction; how to understand adolescent and young adult development and then how to talk with troubled youth and young adults; or even how to stop blood loss when someone has been injured. These are all good ideas that will take time to implement – even though some are needed urgently -- as each agency decides what are realistic priorities.

The role of the federal government must include “fast tracking” case studies of successful training and educational models that are written in plain language and can lead to easy adoption in multiple jurisdictions. And of course the federal government – which has ignored the spread of social conflict and solutions for reducing and preventing violence – has a moral imperative to provide easy to access funding for all training related to a core curriculum to reduce and prevent violence.

3)    POLICY

Every specific issue related to violence in America will call for a unique set of policies. The federal government must play a central role helping communities learn from each other regarding the effectiveness of local policies and bring stakeholders and citizens together for discussion of national policies. Many of these policies will relate to training: do we train and educate new parents on ways to deal with difficult babies and young children; during or after jail sentences, do we require anger management or group therapy for spousal abusers; do we set a zero tolerance goal for school bullying; do we require peer mediation in all public schools; what are the best policies and training models for reducing sexual assaults on campus or reducing gang violence in neighborhoods.

For example, some policies related to over aggressive policing have already been drafted by the current White house Task Force on 21st Century Policing. Some policy recommendations are likely to result in drawn-out congressional battles such as separating federal immigration enforcement from state and local police activity. Some were very focused such as the need for improved data collection or hiring and promoting a more diverse police force. There were calls for research on a variety of topics including the use of body cameras or riot gear. 

Many big policy issues were not addressed: is it time to stop the war on drugs; how do we make sure juveniles are never put in jails and prisons with adult offenders; how do we move all non-violent and low-risk offenders out of jails and prisons; how do communities work with judicial systems and attorneys general to divert all non-violent and low-risk offenders away from entering the justice system at all; can we create a young adult justice system that specifically recognizes that our brains do not fully develop until the mid-twenties; how do we make sure everyone who leaves prison has job skills to survive on the outside; what will we do about the state and local bias towards militarization of law enforcement; how do we eliminate private prisons and counter the corrosive influence of big money; what will we do about the judicial bias against women who angrily attack violent spouses or child abusers; can we agree on a national policy that favors community-based policing models so officers know the people on their beat; how precisely do we use federal funds to shape a stronger community policing ethic; how do we stop schools from using police officers to expel difficult students when school programs fail meet student needs; how do we put conflict resolution training in all our schools; how do we address the high rates of suicide and domestic abuse within law enforcement; what should be the role of community police to battle our epidemic of domestic violence and school bullying; how do we reach consensus on realistic expectations about surveillance, privacy and civil liberties; and how do we put in place realistic and commonly agreed-upon strategies to get guns off the streets.

In each area related to violence, new policies will only be successful if the American public and local neighborhoods are fully engaged in conversations about issues, root causes, current research and suggested solutions.


There are wonderful examples of great programs all across our country that show results or great promise for addressing violence in American in all its forms. Unfortunately, the burden is on community members and local officials to seek best practices since there is no national inventory or database of what works to reduce and prevent violence.

We know about comprehensive probation reform in New York City or community policing in Camden, New Jersey and Richmond, California. We know about many programs that divert low-risk youth and young adults away from the criminal justice system including those in Philadelphia, New York City and Portland, Oregon. We know about mentor training in New York City and crisis intervention training in Memphis. Yet few of us have heard about promising practices to reduce domestic abuse or train new parents in ways to prevent child abuse or models to stop school bullying or teach all college students that “No Means No.”

I would require our federal departments and agencies to “fast track” plain- language case studies and user-friendly on-line tools so anyone who seeks programs and best practices in any area related to violence in America. Access to information about what works is especially urgent as we all think through right now how to de-escalate long simmering tensions and engage our communities in dialog about ways to reduce and prevent violence.


Democracy is a living system – all the parts are truly connected in many different ways! We cannot separate crime and violence from unemployment and poverty; we cannot ignore the impact when entire neighborhoods lack of access to quality health care or high-quality schools or affordable training that leads to 21st century jobs. If we add in overt or unconscious racism of all sorts and institutional biases against women and minorities, maybe we can begin to look with more kindness and forgiveness when frustration and anger burst forth in ways that land people inside the justice system. If we do not invest in jobs and programs that repair these social realities – if we do not start making meaningful changes right now – I fear we will see more protests and much more violence in the streets.

The tipping point for moving us back on track and reducing at least the anger if not some of the violence we find in America is to jumpstart new jobs. I believe we need to set a goal of 25 million new jobs in infrastructure, healthcare, green energy and neighborhood-based programs that help our young people and those caught in a rigid and unforgiving justice system find the resources they need to turn their lives around and become contributing members of our communities.

I’ve already outlined how to take one trillion dollars of waste out of our federal bureaucracies by demanding accountability, eliminating duplication and fraud, stop funding “stupid” programs through incompetent acquisitions, and demand a wiser use of taxpayer monies especially at the Department of demanding wiser use of taxpayer monies including at the Department of Defense. That’s where the funding comes from to truly jumpstart our 21st century economy.

I say take a trillion dollars of waste out of our bureaucracies and use the savings to cut our taxes and invest in our communities.


Every program and policy aimed at reducing and preventing violence in America will require us to create new and strengthen existing partnerships. These partnerships include agreements among community members, community leaders, multiple agencies at all levels of government including native tribal governments, community-based organizations and the support of faith-based, charitable, business and non-profit organizations.

The biggest problem for establishing these crucial partnerships is that government departments and agencies – especially at the federal level -- design and deliver programs in isolation from other agencies. Goals, plans, budgets and metrics are rarely coordinated by any set of agencies even when more than one agency is doing the same or related work. Oversight mechanism such as the Office of Management and Budget or all Congressional committees focus on individual programs and end up protecting turf rather than cooperate and coordinate to deliver meaningful results. That’s why we waste more than $95 billion dollars on programs that duplicate each other.

We actually have laws policies and laws that prevent cooperation across agencies! We have agencies that do not or refuse to share information and we even have legal barriers that prevent the cooperation needed to fight cyber-terrorism. Right now, when agencies try to work together, there is no place in all of the federal government that supports those partnerships -- no place responsible for establishing a unified mission or integrated funding or shared accountability. There are no permanent structures in place to coordinate across government agencies and with community partners.

To support the partnerships needed at the local level that will reduce and prevent violence, we need to reinvent the government agencies and committees that provide oversight so everyone can shift from working in isolation to creating the performance networks that deliver measurable results. The secret sauce for success is often structural – how exactly are goals, plans, teams, actions, budgets and metrics coordinated?

Final Thoughts:  Problems cross boundaries and so must solutions. Solving social issues such as violence in America or poverty or broken trust in government is possible only if we take lessons from the big picture. Our government is organized like the hierarchies of the 19th century and not the interconnected world of today. If we are to reduce and prevent violence, or address any other complex social problem, we must re-shape our federal government so that partnerships across agencies become the basic building block of democracy. As I’ve written:

Our current problems are so complex that new initiatives can be successful only through multi-agency plans that rely on cross-boundary teams, connect neighborhood organizations with policymaking leadership, and embrace citizen participation. This framework will in turn transition government hierarchies that build bureaucratic empires and measure paperwork to performance networks accountable for results that matter.

If we act wisely, we can create an American future where everyone has the opportunity to realize his or her dreams.