Portrait of Miriam Attias

What do you do when violent crimes arise between locals of a small Finnish town and recent migrants, residents of a reception centre, when the criminal investigations do not defuse the polarisation? How do you restore a sense of security, defuse the polarised situation and prevent further clashes? How do you address the inhabitants and at the same time deal with the out-of-town agitators who are stirring up the conflict?

We are talking to Miriam Attias, who is a trained restorative workplace community mediator and has worked on applying this approach to neighbourhood conflicts in Finland. She used her experiences to address these issues in Forssa, a small town about one hour from Helsinki. She and her colleague, Hanna Vuorinen, contributed to easing the tensions in the town, ending a series of crimes committed by the juveniles who participated in violent clashes and eliminating the influence of out-of town agitators who incited violence. They learned some important lessons in that process and their model,  The Forssa approach, has been subsequently applied to similar conflicts in other towns. By following the hyperlink, you can find more about the model and its outcomes in the material on 2018 European Crime Prevention Award which Miriam and her colleagues won.

The town of Forssa on the map

What was the problem in Forssa in 2018 that led to your involvement? Whose idea was your intervention, and who were the important stakeholders in the process? 

How did this intervention in a polarised context differ from your previous work — your traditional victim-offender mediation experience?

I had been a mediator, working in workplace disputes and neighbourhood and community conflicts for eight years, as an independent practitioner and with a non-formal, NGO status. Before Forssa, I had only been involved with conflicts that affected communities at the scale of one workplace, one house or one neighbourhood. The Forssa approach is the name we gave to our practice for the mediation of inter-group conflicts and polarisation. Since then, we have conducted several processes that are designed through three steps. 

First, gather a network of stakeholders, people and officials that are aware of the conflict, who are affected, for them to be the ‘initiator’ and the process owner. 

Second, find out who are the key persons to meet, who is directly involved and who is concerned, listen to them and find out what interests, motives and needs they have. 

Third, react accordingly. This means, build connections that build peace. Who should discuss with whom? Who needs support?

The initial process in Forssa was initiated by a municipal social worker who had heard about our work. She called us to participate in a meeting that the mayor had called. They had gathered a group of stakeholders who represented educational institutions, the refugee centre, social workers, the city security and communication officials and the police. My colleague, Ms Hanna Vuorinen, and I listened to the meeting. The inter-group conflict had spread and affected the sense of security largely in the town; it had polarised the population and there were several police cases, and seemingly a circle of revenge. There were not many relationships between the refugees and the locals and those that existed seemed to have frozen, as aggression was targeted not only towards the refugees but also the people working with them. The officials did not know what to do; so we said, ‘We don’t know either, but I know what we could try.’

Contrary to the beliefs that problems should be solved by the experts who know it all and radiate confidence, your approach to the problem that relevant stakeholders did not how to deal with was rather humble: ‘I might not know either, but I know what we could try.’

But really, when you explain the idea of restorative mediation, it’s quite simple, and it makes sense, no?

How did the people react to that? 

I think they were not prepared for the conflict and they didn’t know much about mediation, or that it can also be viewed as something other than victim-offender mediation. But really, when you explain the idea of restorative mediation, it’s quite simple, and it makes sense, no? So I think, as they didn’t also have another approach that made sense, they were genuinely open to try. They immediately trusted us and, as we gave them our process steps, they started calling the people involved and told them to contact us. We also used Snapchat to find a few people. 

It took you three months of the preparation before the first meeting occurred. What did that preparation include?

Trust cannot be cheated. You have to be worth the trust.

Lots of listening … as always. Usually, when there is an escalated conflict with a hate motive, we prepare for several months before we bring people together. This week I had one case which was in preparation for nine months. We talk over the phone, we meet, we listen to the story and we ask restorative questions and we try to start finding out how the parties define ‘peace’ and what that peace in their terms would require. The most important thing is to earn the trust. Trust cannot be cheated. You have to be worth the trust. And patient. And radically listen, meaning, you don’t reply, you don’t explain, you don’t defend or teach anything. Sometimes, when it feels hard, you need to deal with your own emotions and judgements afterwards.

How did the process go on after that first meeting?

The interaction changed. Before there was no communication channel, only violent clashes. With that communication channel the ‘main characters’ could now deal with the conflicts by talking. They didn’t loose their position, but they had a slightly different role. The stressful moment for me is that, with not only this case, often after the mediation of violent acts, there will still be a trial. A few times I’ve been panicking, when someone has called me just before they have to face the legal charges, really angry, saying, ‘I thought we had solved this already!’ (even if I always say that I don’t have a say in what the court will decide). But, also, I’ve seen many times that, in practice, when people felt that the process had been conducted in a fair way and they had been heard, they were more eager to take responsibility. 

If I understood correctly, there was a group of professionals representing various stakeholders, and that group had an important role first in identifying relevant issues and the individuals with whom you should discuss them while pointing to the right direction and then continuing the activities necessary for diffusing tensions and decreasing polarisation. Can you explain in more detail what was, or still is, their role? 

First, as I said, we contacted people and called them and asked to meet. We just said: ‘We are mediators, impartial outsiders, and the city officials have asked us to talk with any people who have been affected by the conflict, so the violence would stop. All talking will be strictly confidential. There have been a lot of things going on and we’d like to hear your point of views.’ 

Then we met tens of people and asked all of them, ‘What has happened, how do you feel, how did this affect your life, and what do you need and wish for?’ regardless of the origin or the status of the person. Then we also asked whom else we should meet, and very quickly we started to have a picture of who were the central persons. We met everyone once or more; the central persons, the direct conflict parties, we met scores of times during three months and intensively worked together to find alternative solutions to the violence. As there were racist groups trying to come and push the locals for demonstrations, it was delicate. 

You stress the function and the potential of listening, even when there are no formal meetings with different parties present, and you consider listening very radical.

Sometimes we spend too much energy trying to convince others to learn something …

Please, tell us more about that radicality of listening.

I strongly believe that we all need to own our own stories to live in peace. Sometimes we spend too much energy trying to convince others to learn something, or to do something that we value. The risk is, by doing so, we take away the other’s sense responsibility and accountability. To own our own story, we need to have the space and the opportunity to make many drafts of it. Writers don’t publish the first draft of their books; so why should we also judge people by the first versions of the stories that they tell? The problem is, usually the first version of the story is never heard properly, because others are too busy or too eager to moralise or teach or have a say on it. Until it comes out entirely, until the end, nothing can be built on it. 

Your intervention had a tangible impact on different actors, for example, on the activist who did not change his opinion, but did change his ways of fighting for his cause. 

Two years have gone by since your intervention, how is the Forssa community doing now?

I actually don’t exactly know! The weakness of the mediation process is still the lack of resources for proper follow-up and the phase of reconciliation. I still have contact with a few people who are doing OK.

At the end, Miriam asked me to include in the interview my own reflection, a few words on listening as radical action which I wrote while reflecting on her work, so here they are:

As it regards the radical politics of listening, I was thinking about Ivan Ilich and his warnings about experts who ‘know it all’ and take the power away from the people; about Nils Christie (1977) who stressed the same danger in regard to conflicts and criminal justice; and about those pointing out the futility of efforts to ‘build cultural competencies’ as ‘the right way’ in dealing with all the members of ethnic/religious groups and advocating relationship building instead. Briefly, if you listen, you can deconstruct many of the ‘truths’ usually explained by the experts in a specific field or by the public figures in positions who have the power to define a discourse. And, by that, you are challenging the status quo and the current relationships of dominance and subordination. In my opinion, that is radical.

Miriam Attias
Independent mediator, researcher, trainer and consultant in community and neighbourhood conflicts and workplace disputes

was interviewed by

Branka Peurača
Mediator, trainer and adjunct lecturer
University of Zagreb

Christie, N. (1977). Conflicts as property. British Journal of Criminology 17(1):1–15.