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Hal Saunders’ Closing Remarks at NCDD Austin

We asked Harold Saunders, President of the International Institute for Sustained Dialogue and long-time supporter of NCDD, to share some of his observations of the conference during the closing session on October 6th. It was our honor to have a respected and beloved elder in our field provide us with some closing comments that help us see the broader picture. Hal has graciously provided us a summary of his closing remarks.


Harold H. Saunders
President, International Institute for Sustained Dialogue

This has been a remarkable experience: imaginative, dedicated people committed at the core of who we are to change how human beings relate—one step at a time. One story of achievement after another. I stand in awe of what I have heard and learned.

Thanks to our leaders, we have worked within a broad framework that has enabled us to analyze and name the challenges before us. Having been named, they can be tackled with new energy and with new precision.

AND YET, many of us leave in the same state of agony that we brought with us. We have shared our doubts in so many ways: Do we make a difference? Can we make a difference? How can we make a difference? How can we know we’re making a difference?

Did a few American citizen soldiers at Valley Forge with George Washington make a difference? Yes, for two reasons: they knew they were part of something larger than themselves, and they persevered.

Did Rosa Parks make a difference? Yes, because she acted in the spirit of something larger than herself and because she and others like her persevered.

Can the course of history be changed?

Yes, one step at a time.

The American Revolution changed history, although that wasn’t evident to the citizen soldiers at Valley Forge.

The Civil Rights Movement changed America, although racism still runs deep.

The Women’s Movement changed America and reached out the world, although the fundamental dilemma of women is still there.

I was privileged to be part of the imaginative diplomatic effort of the 1970’s that we named the “peace process:” five Arab-Israeli agreements in six years. I learned two lessons:

  1. We learned the power of a continuous political process to change relationships. We persevered in the context of something larger than ourselves. The process was grueling. I remember asking myself one day whether I could keep standing. But we persevered.
  2. We learned the importance of the human dimension of conflict. Yes, we had to deal with concrete problems and solutions, but the task was to heal historically torn relationships.

The peace process was the idea larger than any one participant. And we persevered.

People say to me: “Nothing has changed, they’re still killing each other.” But put your mind back to 1967: Palestinians were still just refugees; a Palestinian state was just an idea in an almost forgotten U.N. resolution. The reason for the violence today is that the elements of a solution are at hand. Political leaders in recent years have not persevered with conviction and will. A minority who reject the necessary final compromises has been determined.

Our agony here today continues because, although we can be proud of numberless accomplishments, we cannot demonstrate so with the numeric precision that some evaluators demand. But in our hearts, we can know when we have made a difference and history gives us faith that we can change its course over time if we connect with something larger than ourselves and if we persevere.

We here in NCDD are a vehicle for connecting with a purpose larger than ourselves.

And we will persevere.

The challenge IS enormous.

BUT, in the words of forty years ago: “Deep in our hearts we do believe that we shall overcome someday.”

Go in peace!

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Sandy Heierbacher
Sandy Heierbacher co-founded the National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation (NCDD) with Andy Fluke in 2002, with the 60 volunteers and 50 organizations who worked together to plan NCDD’s first national conference. She served as NCDD's Executive Director between 2002 and 2018. Click here for a list of articles and resources authored by Sandy.

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