Community Peace-maker: An Interview with John B. Stephens

Originally published as Vol 2, No. 4 of Gini Nelson’s Engaging Conflicts Today. A free subscription to the newsletter is available at

John is co-author of Reaching for Higher Ground in Conflict Resolution and an associate professor at the School of Government, UNC-Chapel Hill. He has worked on education, land use, and environmental issues, and designed and facilitated dialogues on homosexuality and denominational policies in the United Methodist Church. He can be reached at


A Personal Career Path

Gini: Good morning, John. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and ideas with us. What attracted you to the field of conflict management in the first place?

John: I had an introduction through a college course; a standard “Introduction to International Relations” that focused more on multinational institutions and non-government organizations’ influence. This led to more questions on development, structural violence and peacemaking. I was at a small school, so six of us approached the instructor about more on “conflict resolution” and ended up getting a full semester course. We heard from Dick Salem, who was the CRS mediator when the Neo-Nazis petitioned to march through Skokie, Illinois (home to many Jews, including Holocaust survivors), and read an early draft of an international peacemaking guide authored by Roger Fisher.

G: If you knew earlier what you know now, would you still have pursued the same career path?

J: Yes. I am very fortunate to be very fulfilled in my career and field. I have had many fine opportunities and some very good luck.

G: What is the best advice that you have been given? And what advice would you give a budding conflict specialist?

J : Law school is not essential for a good job in the field. Probably some kind of advanced degree is wise: planning, social work/counseling, community development, sociology, public health, nonprofit management, etc. – but I have a bias being a university professor. Still, you can get lots of skills and you should combine it with one or more areas of substantive expertise.

Conflict Resolution Heroes

G: Do you have a “conflict resolution hero,” and if so, who and why?

J: There are many. The easiest one is Jim Laue. He was a leader to many, from being involved in the civil rights movement, to the formation of that National Conference on Peacemaking and Conflict Resolution, to leading the charge for the National Peace Academy Campaign. He was a mentor to me as I was a graduate student at George Mason University.

Thrills and Spills

G: What has been your biggest thrill in being a conflict specialist?

J: Getting to know great people in my “immediate CR community” – public policy and environment section of ACR, and the wider conflict resolution/peacemaking community.

G: What was your biggest mistake?

J: Hard to find one. I probably missed some opportunities here are there, but do not see one step that was a misstep/serious setback.

The Biggest Questions

G: What do you think are the big questions to be answered next in the conflict management field?

J: How seriously do we try to push the skills and abilities to be a good conflict conflict resolver so people do it more “professionally” as part of their regular work, rather than needing interventions?

Can there continue to be fruitful exchanges across sub-areas of conflict management so the concept of an Association of Conflict Resolution holds water and the inter-disciplinary field of conflict studies flourishes?

How to move from the idea of “neutrals” to process helpers/peacemakers that carry clear values and do not try to cover over their values.

G: What is the major ethical issue facing the conflict management field?

J: Too many! Any time we try to help more than one person, there are issues of equity, fairness and the degree of “neutrality” related to our work versus the tyranny of power (economic, military, white privilege, etc.) that we should not just “grease the wheels of oppression.” I am working on the ethics of collaboration – the dicey questions of inter-dependence. Where there is not a formal contract, but there is also not complete independence (i.e., one negotiates voluntarily).

G: Any regrets?

J: Not taking the time – so far – to think and write-up more thoughts about my work on homosexuality and faith conflicts. I have a fair amount of experience with various entities of the United Methodist Church, one of the mainline denominations in the US where this is a contentious issue.

G: Thank you, John.


Gini Nelson

Gini Nelson is a sole practitioner in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Her practice emphasizes private dispute resolution, including distance dispute resolution, and domestic, bankruptcy and bankruptcy avoidance law. MORE >

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