My Dad’s Voice Returns for Fathers’ Day

This first Fathers’ Day after the pandemic will be one I remember for the rest of my life. While my dad died in 2006, I often say that he is with me every day. But this year, he became even more present — his words came back not just to me but to the rest of my family, to many of my friends and to a growing audience at a time of historic racial reckoning — and of hope.

Let me explain.

At 85, my dad published a book. It took longer than he had planned. He started thinking about it towards the end of his career with the federal government — holding on to annual reports, making notes in the margins of documents in his work files that he wanted to save, and having lots of conversations with family and friends about how he would approach the task.

His goal was to capture the history of the civil rights movement through the prism of a small federal agency called the Community Relations Service. The brainchild of then-Senator Lyndon Johnson, CRS was created by Title X of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 with a mandate to help communities resolve conflict related to discrimination based on race, color, or national origin. This mandate brought CRS mediators first to Selma and other communities in the South and later to work on school desegregation in Boston, Dayton, and Detroit. CRS staff were dispatched to Wounded Knee to defuse the stand-off between the American Indian Movement and the federal government. And they went to Skokie, when the American Nazi Party prepared to march through the largely Jewish community, home to many survivors of the Holocaust.

My dad joined CRS in 1965, just after its first year as something of a guerrilla operation scrambling for staff and budget. Its initial cases would lead to the first of its kind field-based application of the healing arts of mediation, conciliation, community skill building and resource provision– all applied to resolve community disputes based on racial conflict and injustice. His role evolved from “doing whatever needed doing” to a variety of associate director positions with various portfolios and broad policy responsibility. Dad played a major role in supporting CRS mediators through helping to design peer evaluation for field staff and developing such programs as an initiative to mitigate unnecessary police use of deadly force. He worked closely with the CRS directors appointed by presidents from both parties, laboring out of the limelight to defend the CRS budget, explain its methods, and protect its brand by introducing methods of evaluation and learning in a new and largely under-researched field.

Dad’s work on the book was put on hold when my mom fell ill with cancer in 1997. She passed away the following year during which he served as principal caregiver. Returning to his home office, among a mass of articles, yellow pad pages and an overly large computer terminal, he banged out the final chapters of his manuscript.

The book, “Resolving Racial Conflict: The Community Relations Service and Civil Rights, 1964–1989, came out in 2004. A host of CRS alums, former directors, mediators, and headquarters staff, many who appeared in the book, came to the book launch party at our home. Standing on a table in our family room, Dad read from Chapter Three — Selma Blow by Blow, a detailed and moving account of Bloody Sunday and its aftermath, written by a lay-historian with a B.A. in political science and journalism from Syracuse University.

Dad’s health soon declined and while the book ultimately sold all 700 copies of the original print run, it didn’t make much of a splash. At that time, the country was at war in Afghanistan and Iraq. Below the surface, problems of racial profiling, the impact of drug war on minority communities and the racist response to Hurricane Katrina pierced the public consciousness but never reached the level of protest we saw over the past year, accelerating and exploding with the murder of George Floyd.

My dad’s work and the CRS story might have remained on the shelf if not for the decision of career mediator and “pracademic” (practitioner-academic) Grande Lum who had been appointed director of CRS by President Obama in 2011. Grande relied on the book to help him through his confirmation hearing and supplied copies for the entire staff once he landed the job.

A year later, he approached my brother and I with a proposal: “How would you feel if I wrote about the second 25 years of the CRS story?”

Needless to say, we were thrilled by the proposal. We figured with the book out of print, it would linger in obscurity if not for this effort. And Grande seemed to be the perfect person for the job. Like Dad, he was committed to getting the story right, bringing to light the stories of the conciliators who were “in the room where it happened.”

Published last fall, Americas’ Peacemakers: The Community Relations Service and Civil Rights by Bertram Levine and Grande Lum features five new chapters and a revised ending to chronicle the work of CRS since 1989, when Dad’s account ended. Lum writes about the agency’s continuing efforts to resolve turmoil racial, as well as cases that came to CRS when its mandate was expanded by the 2009 Matthew Shepard James Boyd Hate Crimes Act to respond to and prevent hate crimes arising from differences related to gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, religion, and disability.

For the last six months we’ve witnessed the CRS story shared in a dozen virtual launch events and book club discussions where readers discovered CRS for the first time. They were fascinated that the federal government had this agency dedicated to easing tensions at the flashpoint of significant conflicts — from Elian Gonzalez to the more recent deadly force cases in Sanford and Ferguson. And they see the need for CRS now more than ever.

Attorney-General Merrick Garland recently testified about his effort to mobilize the Department’s response to tensions surrounding the recent verdict in the George Floyd murder case, when he found that CRS’s capacity had “withered” to about two dozen conciliators across the country. He promised additional resources and pledged to restore CRS staffing levels and capabilities. Put in historical context, CRS is a shell of what existed during the Nixon Administration when more than 300 employees staffed headquarters and ten regional offices.

Grande Lum and I have worked with the Alliance for Peacebuilding to advocate for doubling of the CRS budget, to restore its presence across the country. We look to the Biden-Harris team to name a dynamic leader to build up the CRS cadre of peacemakers who can bring keen analytical and mediation skills and broad networks of advocacy, law enforcement, media, and private sector organaizations to aid troubled communities. CRS expertise and access to resources can help communities work across differences to solve problems.

This work brings back to me and my brother the hundreds of conversations we had with my dad at the dinner table, on the beach, in the car and in that cluttered office — conversations that affirmed the capacity of government to be an agent of good within civic life. We weren’t really thrilled when Bill Clinton said, “the era of big government is over.” CRS exemplifies how government at its best can be the missing ingredient to help local people solve their problems together. The nation is in desperate need of the help CRS can provide. Its restoration and full deployment are needed now more than ever.

Neil Levine headed USAID’s Office of Conflict Management and Mitigation and the Center of Excellence for Democracy, Human Rights and Governance. He retired from federal service in 2017. He is now board chair of CDA Collaborative Learning (Cambridge, MA), a member of AfP.

Alliance for Peacebuilding is the leading global network working to end conflict and build sustainable peace worldwide. Our 145+ members work in 181 countries.