Randa Slim, Sara Nelson, Darryl Matthews, Erik Strickland.

Randa Slim is the Director of the Initiative for Track II Dialogues at the Middle East Institute. 
National Journal
Mike Magner
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Mike Magner
July 11, 2014, 1 a.m.

Randa Slim

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


Sara Nel­son

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.


Darryl Mat­thews

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.


Erik Strick­land

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.

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