Engaging for Positive Peace

The leadership of Martin Luther King Jr. has been confabulated into sound bites etching his “I Have A Dream Speech” into history textbooks as if that persuaded a more just society (Theoharis 2018, 9). But in this day, like previous generations, it would be a mistake to think rhetoric builds inclusive coalitions. During that iconic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, King and his fellow organizers refused to let women leaders march in front with their male contemporaries. Even Rosa Parks, who along with King won the dignity to sit at the front of the bus, was told to walk in back of the men (Scanlon 2016; Theoharis 2018). Anna Arnold Hedgeman, who recruited tens of thousands of White people for the March, intentionally reaching across embittered racial divides, recalls crying when King addressed the crowd. Hedgeman wished “he had said ‘We Have A Dream’ acknowledging the collective labor, the collective joy, and the collective sadness, the multitude of women and men whose dreams had drawn, led, and summoned so many to the nation’s capital that day” (as cited by Scanlon 2016, 169). How leaders share their power and make connections is part of the fundamental inquiry of Restorative Practices. Anna Arnold Hedgeman, Ella Baker, and Dorothy Cotton — all Black women leaders modeling engagement — inculcate a more participatory social movement.

Scholarship around leadership has evolved from personal charisma to more inclusive and relational paradigms (Carsten and Uhl-Bien 2016; McManus and Perruci 2015; Pearce and Conger 2003). Margaret Wheatley reflects, “I have learned that in this exquisitely connected world, it’s never a question of ‘critical mass.’ It’s always about critical connections” (2006, 45). Our neurology primes humans to live in relation to others from dependent babies to empathetic adults; it is from social relationships we find our motivations (Lieberman 2013, 20). This paper relays stories of women whose herstories are often not included in King’s legacy. Their skills of engagement were effective in creating a wider civil rights coalition engendering a sense of belonging. Engagement can activate participation. When one does it well, it folds invisibly into authentic communication and goes unnoticed. When not done well, it creates alienation or resentment and fails to create an inclusive society.

Restorative Practices: Envisioning Positive Peace

Locked up in jail, King beseeches White moderates to join in a coalition creating a “positive peace which is the presence of justice” and not to settle for a “negative peace which is the absence of tension” (1992a, 91). Similarly, Restorative Practices sets a trajectory toward a positive peace using relationships to repair harm, build social capital, foster social connections, and achieve greater social discipline (Wachtel 2013, 1). John Braithwaite, a seminal scholar in Restorative Practices, frames “constructive conflict” (1989, 185) as an opportunity to re-establish relationships when people are harmed. Ella Baker, like King and Braithwaite, saw conflict as an opportunity to transform society. Referencing her work with the students’ nonviolent sit-ins at lunch counters, she reflects that she was:

Concerned with something much bigger than a hamburger… not limited to a drive for personal freedom, or even freedom for the Negro in the South… [but] the moral implications of racial discrimination for the “whole world.” (Theoharis 2018, 125)

Nonviolent action makes tensions visible for the purpose of shining light on a path toward justice.

Restorative Practices relies on widening circles of participation to form a more cohesive sense of belonging (Bhandari 2018; DeWolf and Geddess 2019; Fellegi 2016). Leaders convene people in circle dialogues. Instead of defining conflict against stated policy – which King points out might be fundamentally unjust – they invite people to share their stories, welcoming both reason and emotion to express harm and impact. According to Jürgen Habermas’s theory of communicative action, we need both reason and emotion to create shared understandings and achieve social order (Finlayson 2005, 40). This becomes possible when people voluntarily participate in dialogue circles and listen to one another.

Importantly, King insists we separate the deed from the doer and proposes nonviolence — instead of retaliation — proposes nonviolence to develop new understandings:

The nonviolent approach does not immediately change the heart of the oppressor. It first does something to the hearts and souls of those committed to it. It gives them self-respect; it calls up resources of strength and courage they did not know they had. Finally, it reaches the opponent and so stirs his conscience that reconciliation becomes a reality. (King, Jr. 1958, 215)

Likewise, Restorative Practices is not built on punishment, but instead values each person’s potential and strives for reintegration through discourse (Braithwaite 1989; Zehr 2015; Wenzel, Okimoto, and Cameron 2012). Restorative Practices honors the fundamental human need for belonging, voice, and agency to respect human dignity (Bailie 2019, 5). Though King, Hedgeman, Baker, and Cotton shared some values and coordinated their efforts, the women modeled an alternative approach in how they invited engagement. This framework of dignity provides an analysis of leaders and can buttress a positive peace by nurturing an inclusive sense of belonging, encouraging all voices to be heard, and empowering others to discover their agency.

Anna Arnold Hedgeman: Creating A Sense of Belonging

Anna Arnold Hedgeman’s life’s work reflects a commitment to economic justice and a belief in nonviolent direct action. Having lived through the Great Depression and the New Deal spawned Social Security Act of 1935, she was familiar with the impact of government initiatives that served to disadvantage workers on the basis of race and gender (Scanlon 2016, 71). Hedgeman engaged diverse constituencies in support of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Scanlon 2016, 183). Her empathetic approach to organizing engendered a sense of belonging that proved effective when nonviolent protests failed to gain traction.

While working at the Brooklyn YWCA in the 1930s, Hedgeman was distraught seeing young Black women walking picket lines, demanding access to jobs in New York’s five-and-ten cent stores (Scanlon 2016, 79). While visible protests were common, Hedgeman focused not on the demonstrators but on who was missing. Noticing the absence of men and White women, she recognized her own sense of womanhood could spur empathy with other women, even if they were not Black like herself. In a country founded on generations of racism, she recognized the benefit of an intersectional approach to organizing decades before the term was popularized. Hedgeman had overheard White women criticizing the protestors for being too militant, so she adopted a new tactic. Rather than suggest these women protest in public, Hedgeman invited them to a gathering in a church so she should could build upon their comfort and self-expressed interests. She also invited the protestors to attend. In the church, the Black women shared stories of how store management policies kept them from earning a living wage. As Hedgeman recalls, everyone was in tears. The older White women found themselves “thinking of my own children who are about their ages” (Scanlon 2016, 79). Because White women were able to empathize, their participation did not end at the meeting. They were no longer bystanders who distanced themselves from the direct actors in the conflict. They joined the employees meeting face-to-face with the store managers and weaponized their charge accounts by writing notes on their bills, demanding managers halt their racist practices. This pressure eventually gave way to change.

King was certainly aware of the power of picket lines and boycotts as tactics that could create a positive peace. Reflecting on the Montgomery Bus Boycott, he wrote:

The word “boycott” was really a misnomer for our proposed action. A boycott suggests an economic squeeze, leaving one bogged down in a negative. But we were concerned with the positive. Our concern would not be to put the bus company out of business but to put justice in business. (King, Jr. 1968, 39)

The year-long boycott may have had created less hardship in the community if King had embraced some of the tactics employed twenty years prior by Hedgeman. While King’s nonviolent actions were orchestrated for the public eye, Hedgeman, perhaps because she was a woman unseen by the public, understood the power of the unseen spaces for power in politics and economics. Hedgeman did not chastise moderates or bystanders; she met people where they were comfortable and invited dialogue. Rather than defining success as the number of people at a protest, she allowed women to define their own nonviolent action. She understood how men might have dominating power in marriages and created safe spaces where women could act.

While the relationship of a clerk to an employer was alien to some of these older White women, storytelling appealed to their compassion for the mother/child relationship. Braithwaite asserts most people choose to do the right thing when they have a sense of belonging in a society that is “both strong on duties and strong on rights” (1989, 185). Moreover, Peter Block argues against mass appeals to stir emotion and posits the critical first step engendering a feeling of community is creating personal invitations prizing “the importance of choice, the necessary condition for accountability” (2008, 117). Hedgeman disaggregates the masses so that individuals were able to make personal connections and voluntarily identify their own recourse to injustice. The result exposed a new creative economic tactic that proved more effective than the public optics. As a leader, Hedgeman unifies women in the safety of the church by telling stories. Telling stories allows people to share what is important to them, author their own insights, and ultimately revise preconceived notions (Fluker, Ethical Leadership: The Quest for Character, Civility, and Community).

Ella Baker: Ensuring All Voices Are Heard

Ella Baker was a committed activist and community leader who devoted decades of her life to creating a more participatory democracy (Ransby 2003; Polletta 2002). She advocated for group-centered leadership allowing communities to chart their own path forward. Baker favored strategies that empowered those who were customarily disadvantaged by having less education, status, or money. To focus on engagement tactics, we can look at Baker’s role in the origin of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).

In 1960, King and Baker recognized the courage and potential power of young people propagating localized nonviolent action (Ransby 2003, 240). Wishing to build on the success of spontaneous student sit-ins happening across the country, Baker conceived a five-day gathering — the Southwide Student Leadership Conference on Nonviolent Resistance — and immersed herself in learning about the different experiences of more than 200 students attending. Significantly, being inclusive did not mean people should be treated identically. Baker was keenly sensitive to power differentials and constructed her invitation to students in a way that would allow people with less prestige, political experience, and formal authority to have a voice in designing their organization. She was wary of well-meaning people from the North inadvertently usurping Southern students’ voices. Nor did she want King’s leadership to thwart the creativity, independence, and more rebellious spirit of the youth. Baker staged the event so that Black students would arrive first, meet separately, and have time to frame their need for a student coalition.

The fundamental premise of Restorative Practices is, “human beings are happier, more cooperative and productive, and more likely to make positive changes in their behavior when those in positions of authority do things with them, rather than to them or for them” (Wachtel 2013, 3). Leaders need restraint and humility to check their authority and not dominate others. After the conference began, Baker invited herself to an informal gathering where she reprimanded King for being territorial and for dominating the proceedings. (Ransby 2003, 243). She was also critical of King’s charismatic style, warning that “when ordinary people elevate their leaders above the crowd, they devalue the power within themselves” (Ransby 2003, 191). This inclusivity can also abate future harm:

Treating others well and recognizing their humanity (both their worth and their vulnerability) have incalculable benefits everywhere that human beings cluster… Honoring people’s dignity is the easiest and fastest way to bring out the best in them. The opposite is equally true. Treating people as if they don’t matter creates destructive emotional upheavals. (Hicks 2011, 67)

Throughout the conference, participants struggled with identifying a purpose and agenda. As an experienced facilitator, Baker balanced “putting forward her own very strongly held views and values and being careful not to intimidate, overwhelm, or alienate her prospective allies” (Ransby 2003, 241). Akin to restorative dialogue circles, Baker used techniques taught by Myles Horton at the Highlander Center (Horton 1998, 186). His pedagogy relied on facilitating discourse with people sitting in circles to elevate the importance of listening to one another and showing the value of learning from one another (Horton 1998, 150). Colleagues noted Baker’s patience and ability to listen to others (Clark 1990; Burns 2018; Cotton 2012; Ransby 2003). When they struggled to come up with a singular mission statement, Baker suggested a two-pronged approach that was more inclusive of the needs and aspirations of all participants. SNCC emerged as a participatory organization. SNCC structured its actions and meetings around group projects encouraging group problem solving, collective planning, and reflection (Polletta, 2002). They rejected parliamentary procedures. With a diverse membership, they prized listening to one another’s voices, appreciating different perspectives, and making decisions based on group consensus.

Dorothy Cotton: Unharnessing People’s Agency

In her autobiography, If Your Back’s Not Bent: The Role of the Citizenship Education Program in the Civil Rights Movement (2012), Dorothy Cotton shares her experiences as the only woman in the inner circle of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. She details how she navigated as a confidante for King despite his chauvinism (2012, 194). As the education director, she led the Citizenship Education Project (CEP), laying the foundation for nonviolent action. Cotton used Highlander’s model of group learning to create pop-up schools in barbershops, around kitchen tables, and under shade trees in family yards. She understood when people recognize their power to learn, they find personal relevance and agency in the world.

Cotton’s engagement skills made her an adept teacher who unharnessed people’s potential, courage, and confidence. Cotton adopted a Socratic style. A CEP lesson would be begin with her asking adults, “Tell me, what does habeas corpus mean?” and when no one answered, she would define the Latin term (Cotton 2012, 138). Next, she posed, “What’s a citizen?” Initially, adults would hesitate to venture an incorrect answer, whereupon she would encourage them to articulate their own experiences with complex concepts. People would throw out answers ranging from abiding by the law to voting. Like Hedgeman and Baker, Cotton would extract stories so people could listen to one another express what it meant to be a citizen. At the end of class, Cotton would reintroduce the habeas corpus question and no one could recall the Latin term. However, when she asked them to definition citizenship, she received profound answers, spoken with confidence. She then explained her pedagogy:

I emphasize now a teaching method that may serve you well. You see, I quickly told you the answer to the first question I asked – about habeas corpus; I didn’t expect or want you to remember the answer in order to show you what happens if you throw out your answer to a question compared to what can happen when and if you want people to come to a new realization. To really internalize a new awareness, you should set up a “dialogue situation” in which they are forced to struggle with a concept until they truly get it. Real learning comes from inside a person. (Cotton 2012, 139)

These schools proved influential beyond learning literacy and numeracy. They fostered participants’ sense of agency through intentional, structured group learning. For people dismissed due to lack of formal education, participatory learning is affirming. Donna Hicks notes when, “people suffer an injury to their sense of worth, the antidote is time with people who know how to treat them in a dignified way” (2011, 197). Group learning supports a collective sense of self-worth.

Cotton and King both recognized common people had tremendous influence. King preached about the reliance of a pilot on his ground crew and suggested that “CEP graduates were key members of the ground crew of the civil rights movement”(Cotton 2012, 115). As an analogy, a pilot has far more advantages than his ground crew; earning more, traveling more, and sitting in coveted seats. The pilot has the singular privilege to steer — an option not available to those laboring on the tarmac. King’s flawed analogy brings us to one of the final challenges of his legacy: he refused to recognize the importance of developing a multitude of leaders.

When King delivered, “The Drum Major Instinct,” from the pulpit at Ebenezer Baptist Church, he acknowledged innate yearning to lead and warned us of exclusivism and arrogance. He explains the “drum major instinct – a desire to be out front, a desire to lead the parade” (King, Jr. 1992b, 182) can be mediated with love and generosity. But then he substitutes the human instinct to lead with service: “everyone can be great. Because everyone can serve” (King, Jr. 1992b, 189). Because King’s strategies were focused on critical mass, he appreciated the ground crew but saw them only in service — not leadership — to his vision. By contrast, Cotton — like Wheatley — focused on critical connections, making it safe for people to take risks, admit what they did not know, and find their agency to lead.

Engagement: Marrying Principles and Practices to Leadership

King’s legacy and the study of Restorative Practices can both be minimized to a simplistic understanding of a response to conflict, something reactive. That would be incorrect. Hedgeman, Baker, and Cotton honed competencies that proactively built people’s skills and social networks. While each story is singular, creating inclusive and participatory coalitions is critical for the achievement of positive peace. All three women favored personal expression, people speaking directly for themselves, and creating empathetic connections. They teach us how to mitigate the power that divides us while forging dialogue to unite us.

King cites Bayard Rustin’s influence to adopt tenants of nonviolence. Yet he also assumed some of Rustin’s bias toward a more bifurcated understanding of leadership. Rustin explained to King:

The greatest masses of Indians who were followers of Gandhi did not believe in nonviolence. They believed in nonviolence as a tactic…leadership must be dedicated to it in principle, to keep those who believe in it as a tactic operating correctly. (Burns 2018, 92)

King seems to accept this lesson from Rustin. He delegated the teaching of nonviolent tactics to Cotton. Cotton, however, engaged people in group learning and proved uneducated people were able to grasp principles even when dressed up in Latin jargon. King believed all people shared a spiritual or divine love but he underestimated their capacity to appreciate principles. This is a deficit view of humanity. The corollary to underestimating people is prizing the few. The few who are deemed capable of comprehending the congruence of principles and tactics can still fail to realize just how difficult it is to employ tactics well. Tactics are even harder if one’s self-bias leads one to think they are smarter, more insightful, more eloquent, and more suited to lead. King’s experience led him to rely too heavily on elitism, metaphor, and his own moral imperative.

Engagement trumps elitism by creating opportunities for people to learn together. Rather than dispute facts, we engage directly with each other to leverage different perspectives and to explore the diversity of people’s experiences, the social and emotional impacts of our past, and harness the group brain to spark creativity. Participatory learning bolsters human dignity by creating a sense of belonging. Horton explains this in a conversation with Paulo Freire:

It was so enriching, you see, to have a person learn that they knew something. Secondly, to learn that their peers knew something, and learn that they didn’t have to come to me, the expert, to tell them what the answers were. (Bell, Gaventa, and Peters 1990, 168)

Just as Baker warned: rather than devaluing our own power, we need to trust in ourselves as well as our peers.

Engagement also serves to overcome the limits of metaphor by encouraging people to share their lived stories. Metaphors, which provide conceptual shorthand when talking to a crowd, create rhetorical limits. If one were to ask a child if they would rather grow up and fly planes or scan bags for TSA, which would they choose? These are false choices. It presupposes a bifurcated response and a scarcity mindset. By contrast, everyone has stories. Engaging in storytelling can ignite new ideas. Storytelling, unlike metaphor, allows for moments of emotional intersections and creates empathetic connections. Honoring voice supports one’s dignity and allows new understanding to emerge.

Broadcasting what is right to others is not as effective as assuming an invitational approach. Braithwaite’s work shows punishment and fear of punishment have failed as deterrents (1989, 81). Coercive forces are just as demeaning when done for a righteous purpose. Leaders must balance authority with influence. Rather than acting as gatekeepers proclaiming what is right and wrong, practicing engagement allows leaders to clear a broader path. Declaring what is right does not change behaviors; if it did King’s dream would have been realized. In order to successfully develop coalitions, we cannot afford to punish or alienate people who disagree with our religion, pronouns, or hashtags. Inviting people to voluntarily join together affirms their agency within a larger identity. Engagement must marry principle and practice, or we end up with inauthentic structures governed by a few charismatic leaders. Hedgeman, Baker, and Cotton’s leadership resides in their reciprocal appreciation of dignity. They emphasize the restorative foundation of working with others to achieve positive benefit.

Critically, leadership — like dignity — is not a limited commodity. Walter Fluker cites an African American spiritual and argues that to see ourselves intimately connected requires us to recognize there is “plenty good room” for others (2019, 145). Fostering leaders — and developing new generations of leadership — is an easy way to share authority. Our inherent potential is what King calls a “rugged sense of somebodyness…to overcome this terrible feeling of being less than human” (King, Jr. 1992a, 130); what John Bailie refers to in Restorative Practices as the human need to have dignity comprised of voice, agency, and a sense of belonging. Fluker insists on the mutuality of dignity:

Civility, however, does not refer simply to etiquette, manners, and social graces but it is inclusive of social capital and the inherent benefits accrued by these networks of reciprocity. Civility has to do with the individuals’ social dignity with that system. (2009, 86)

Participatory leadership counters the scarcity mindset. Hedgeman, Baker, and Cotton are beacons catalyzing participation in the dream. By sharing their stories, we learn how to create a sense of belonging and solidarity. We can empower people to speak up, listen to one another, and energize our agency to herald in a more inclusive and positive peace.


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