Injustice, Conflict and the Ecotone

Posted: June 1, 2020 in Uncategorized
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When we chose our daughter’s name, Savannah, I was just slightly aware of its biological overtones; it was a place where the forest met the plains. In later years I discovered another term that was more specific – the ecotone.

An ecotone is a region of transition between two distinct biological communities. The interesting thing about an ecotone is that it is defined by its overlaps, much like some of the crossover spaces in a Venn diagram. The space where they overlap is qualitatively different because it includes divergent elements simultaneously. So does an ecotone.

As a space at the margins, an ecotone contains elements of all the biological communities that overlap. As such, it often hosts unique interconnecting species and multiple varieties of plant life. It is rich with possibility.

The same kind of space may be created at the borders, margins and edges of human communities, especially when those communities are in constant or critical conflict. We call it a third space, a designated space where two may come together under new meditated terms. And as a result the two communities are able to create something new.

In the recent social unrest, the result of repeating and long-term violence on the part of white people in roles of authority killing or oppressing people of color, immediate polarization formed. Though the thing opposed was oppression, battle lines were formed. This often include actual and metaphorical lines between police and protesters.

Extremist groups always exploit social unrest by throwing gasoline on the fire; they want to ratchet up conflict for their own purposes. So, outside elements agitated and set actual and emotional fires to make it more than peaceful protest.

When extreme polarization takes place between social groups and competing narratives, what is often most needed is an ecotone, a third space where, as Rumi has said, “When your notions of wrongdoing and rightdoing are over, go to a field and I will meet you there.” In other words, I’ll meet you in the Savannah.

We saw evidence of this on the part of many people in the protests throughout the country. Most conspicuous where police who created an ecotone through their own behavior – walking with protesters, taking a knee with protesters, having a meal and conversation with protesters. They created a third space and said, directly or indirectly, “We are with you in your grief and concerns; we think it’s wrong and want it changed, too.”

Other people created third spaces of social conversation where the many voices could be heard and hearts healed. Courageous mayors stood before their people, named the unmistakable evil, and pledged to change. That changed the landscape.

When ecotones are fostered new life may grow in unexpected ways. Most of our great transformations are created at the edges, in the margins and in the places where forest meets the plains.

May we find them. May we search them out. May we create them. May we invite others to join us in that field.

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