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UBC Reports | Vol. 50 | No. 11 | Dec. 2, 2004

Bridging Troubled Waters

UBC law professor examines how the creative arts can resolve cross-cultural conflicts

By Erica Smishek

Music may soothe the savage beast. But can it help warring ethnic youth gangs avoid violence?

UBC law professor Michelle LeBaron thinks so and will spend the next three years exploring ways in which creative arts-based practices can be used to bridge differences and resolve cross-cultural conflicts in Vancouver.

LeBaron anticipates the study could build connections among community agencies, arts organizations, educators and conflict resolution practitioners and go a long way to address local intercultural conflicts. This could include assisting relations between Quebecois Canadian street youth and the police and business communities; the established Chinese-Canadian community and more recent Chinese-Canadian immigrants; First Nations youth and police; Muslim-Canadians and other communities post-9/11; or street youth culture, club culture and the more affluent businesses and residents of “new neighbourhoods” like Yaletown.

Supported by a $145,000 research grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC), it’s the first Canadian study of its kind and LeBaron says “just the beginning of the wave” of research on creativity and conflict resolution.

“So much of law and dispute resolution puts tremendous faith in the ability of adversaries to talk together in reasonable, calm ways,” says LeBaron, director of the UBC program on dispute resolution. “But when the problem stems from part of our identity, our world view, our meaning-making systems, you can have all the ‘rational’ discussions in the world but you won’t reach common ground because people have different systems of rationality. We need ways to move through conflicts that recognize and work with our cultural differences.

“Different people have different ways of conceptualizing what conflict is and how it should be addressed.”

LeBaron has spent more than 20 years researching, teaching and consulting around the world in dispute resolution. A graduate of the UBC Faculty of Law in 1980, she joined the faculty in 2003 after 12 years at the Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution and the Women’s Studies program at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia.

In the early 1990s, she directed the Multiculturalism and Dispute Resolution Project at the University of Victoria, and has practised as a family law and commercial mediator. She continues to consult on organizational and intergroup conflict, and to help people design dispute resolution systems to address difficult conflicts.

A poet and creative non-fiction writer who began her undergraduate studies as a music major, LeBaron believes the arts can help people get beyond just the analytic and intellectual to use more of themselves in addressing conflict.

“[The arts] loosen us up from ruts we get into. They invoke our imagination, our emotional intelligence, our spirituality, even our physical selves. We have to get out of our heads and recognize we need our entire bodies to resolve conflict.”

LeBaron explains that turning points in conflict resolution, those moments that relax the stalemate, often come from people experiencing each other’s humanity.

LeBaron points to “Peace it Together,” a project organized by Vancouver activist Reena Lazar that brought 10 Jewish and Palestinian teenagers to Vancouver for a 17-day camp this past summer. The teens participated in workshops using art, music and theatre as conflict resolution and also spent five days at a wilderness retreat on Indian Arm. LeBaron helped design the project and led some of the workshops.

“Through drawing, sculpting, mime and other activities, we helped them relax and talk about their vision for the process. Later, we used art to help them reflect on what they’d learned, on how they intended to integrate these new relationships in their lives when they got back home to the Middle East. One of the sculptures had people with hands blocking them, resisting them.

“For many of these youths, there were internal dilemmas -- grappling with how to integrate the friendships they developed here amidst family, religious and social pressures back home.”

Though not an official part of her study, LeBaron says the project was an opportunity to put creativity to work with youth from two diverse communities mired in a long history of conflict.

Her research will include two pilot projects -- one involving photography and videography, the other participatory theatre -- to map community issues, help people learn more about these issues and recognize common ground. Following each pilot, reflection sessions will identify outcomes, strengths and weaknesses of the selected arts-based approaches.

An eventual published project manual and pilot project reports will highlight achievements and help identify future initiatives and funding needs to support ongoing arts-based initiatives in Vancouver communities.

“It would be great if the project could help bring artistic, community development, intercultural relations and mediation practitioners closer together and spark some creative synergies and partnerships,” says Steven Dang, a PhD student at UBC’s School of Community and Regional Planning and member of the research team.

Dang believes such collaborations could help create “stronger, healthier and more inclusive communities.”

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Last reviewed 22-Sep-2006

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