UBC Reports | Vol.
50 | No. 11 |
Dec. 2, 2004
Bridging Troubled Waters
UBC law professor examines how the creative arts can resolve
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”
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
“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,
“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
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.”