A longtime peacemaker on the advantages of unofficial diplomacy.
Randa Slim (Chet Susslin)Many Americans, even in official Washington, feel a certain sense of helplessness as they watch Syria and Iraq descend further and further into chaos. Not so Randa Slim, who has made a career of conflict resolution since growing up in war-torn Lebanon in the 1970s. Slim, 54, was recently named director of a new Initiative for Track II Dialogues at the Middle East Institute, and her principal focus these days is maintaining unofficial talks among the myriad parties with a stake in the future of the two most fractured nations in the region.
The emphasis has been on Syria in the process so far, but with Islamic militants taking control of large parts of Syria and Iraq in recent weeks, participants are discussing how the crisis in Iraq should be addressed as well, Slim says.
There are, of course, a variety of diplomatic efforts, both official and unofficial, taking place among different constituencies in the region. “But ours,” Slim explains, “is the only approach that focuses on the regional dimension of the Syria conflict,” with representatives from Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and other Middle Eastern powers involved as well as people from the various factions inside Syria. “The assumption is there will eventually be a political process to settle this conflict, and for this to take place, the regional powers that are fueling the different sides need to get to the table,” she says. Also participating in the dialogue, at semiannual meetings and through phone calls and online chatter in between, are current or former government officials from world powers such as the United States, Russia, and China.
Slim sees several advantages to informal talks, including the ability of participants to deny they are involved at all. “People who engage in these dialogues take personal risks,” she says, “because sometimes you’ll be the first person in your respective community to say, “˜I need to sit and talk with the enemy.’ And that can have serious repercussions. I’ve seen people thrown in jail because they have done that. I’ve seen people losing their lives because they have participated in a Track II dialogue.”
“It’s a dialogue space, it’s a brainstorming space, it’s trust-building space, it’s relationship-building space, and it’s a network-formation space.”
Unofficial talks can also be more productive precisely because nothing is binding. “It’s not a negotiation space,” Slim says. “It’s a dialogue space, it’s a brainstorming space, it’s trust-building space, it’s relationship-building space, and it’s a network-formation space. In negotiations you are not as free to brainstorm, because you don’t want to reveal your hand. “¦ But in unofficial talks you can, because you are not bound. It’s not an official commitment. You can float trial balloons.”
Slim’s work in diplomacy draws on her experience in the Lebanese civil war, which included a traumatic episode in April 1983, when she was 23. “I was sitting one day studying in the library of the American University of Beirut, and this big bomb happened,” she says. “This was the bombing of the American Embassy behind me.” Slim decided then and there to devote her life to finding peaceful solutions to violent conflicts. “I’m not a crusader or anything,” she says, “but I felt like this is the kind of work I need to do.”
She moved to the United States to earn a doctorate at the University of North Carolina and was hired soon afterward by the Kettering Foundation, which asked her to work on the famous Dartmouth Conference — an initiative that had launched in the 1960s to start a dialogue between the United States and the Soviet Union. That led to her first Track II talks in 1993, an effort to resolve a civil war in Tajikistan. The process took seven years, but eventually the unofficial dialogue morphed into an official negotiation that resulted in a peace accord, Slim says.
More recently, Slim has been a fellow at the New America Foundation, an adviser to both the International Institute for Sustained Dialogue and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund Peacebuilding program, and a scholar at the Middle East Institute
Association of Flight Attendants-CWA
Sara Nelson (Chet Susslin)A week before 9/11, Sara Nelson worked United Airlines Flight 175 from Boston to Los Angeles as a flight attendant. When the same flight was hijacked and flown into the World Trade Center, she lost friends in the crew. In her new role as president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, Nelson says the experience reminds her of all the skills needed by the 60,000 men and women who serve about 360 million airline passengers every year: They must be first responders to medical emergencies, experts on safety and environmental standards, and guardians against terrorist threats. At 41, Nelson is the youngest-ever AFA-CWA president, but she has 18 years of experience at United, including time spent in communications for the union and working on negotiations in the 38-month United bankruptcy that started in 2002. Her job as president is full time, but every now and then she likes to “strap into the seat and push the cart” on a flight to keep in touch.
National Association of Black Journalists
Darryl Matthews (Chet Susslin)Darryl Matthews is not an accountant, but he did a stint as executive director of the National Association of Black Accountants. He’s not a doctor, but he has run the National Medical Association, which represents black physicians. Nor is he a journalist, but he is now executive director of the National Association of Black Journalists, headquartered in College Park, Maryland. Many associations of professionals lack the skills needed for public relations, organizational matters, and fundraising, Matthews explains, and he has those in abundance. Born in Joplin, Missouri, Matthews, now 60, started as an executive for a college fraternity association and then honed his business skills at an Internet firm based in Atlanta. He subsequently worked for the associations and also was vice president of the foundation that developed the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington. Matthews says he is trying to “transform” the NABJ, which had financial difficulties during the recession but has a “very optimistic outlook” now.
Governors Highway Safety Association
Erik Strickland (Chet Susslin)While he was a student at the University of Montana in Missoula, Erik Strickland worked as a volunteer for Mothers Against Drunk Driving and came to Washington for a youth summit at the same time the federal government acted to tighten the definition of impaired driving to a blood-alcohol content of 0.08 percent. That was in 2000, and following an internship with MADD, he was tapped to work at the organization’s new policy shop in the nation’s capital in 2002. Strickland, now 35, spent four years at MADD and then nine with the Foundation for Advancing Alcohol Responsibility (formerly the Century Council). At the foundation, Strickland frequently worked with Jonathan Adkins at the Governors Highway Safety Association, and when Adkins became the GHSA’s executive director this year, he asked Strickland to come on board in a new position of government-relations manager. “This is about more than drunk driving,” Strickland says. “It is texting, distracted driving, and trying to make sure all our [state] safety offices are represented” on Capitol Hill and in federal agencies.