Harriet Wasserstrum on Primacy of Relationships

by Harriet Wasserstrum, ALF Houston

HWI tell people all the time that ALF is in the business of building relationships among people who think differently.  Within a Core Fellows class, that might be a corporate executive and a nonprofit leader; in a Criminal Justice Sector class, it might be a district attorney and someone who has spent time in prison.  We don’t try to change values (although sometimes they do shift), but we expect that once you actually get to know someone whose perspective is very different from your own, it will change the way you think about certain issues.  My favorite image comes from a judge who said that after his ALF experience, before he rendered a decision in certain complex cases, he would think about each of his classmates and how they would react.  Even when strong differences remain, the hope is that you will think the person with an opposing view is just wrong, not evil.  We certainly could use more of that in government today.

For a Criminal Justice Sector class, we recruit people with very different roles in the criminal justice system — judge, defense attorney, prosecutor, probation, law enforcement, court services, ex-con, etc.  In a recent class, one of the judges was upset by how young offenders — who at 17 are treated as adults — often choose the easiest way out even if it has bad long-term consequences.  Because of the relationships they had built, class members were willing to stay in a difficult conversation over a long period of time, talking through why they do what they do and the implications of how the system handles young offenders.  For some, it was just useful to hear how these young adults make schools and law enforcement mad.  For others, it was important to learn about brain development and therefore scale back their expectations for rational thinking from 17 year old offenders.  They are still in that conversation, pushing for alternate diversion options for young offenders.  ALF has become a place where players from different parts of the system can really listen to each other and work together on solutions.