Avis Ridley-Thomas admits she could raise hell with the best of the hell raisers in the fractious extended family where she grew up. She laughs now at the memory, but it’s a laugh tinged with sheer relief. “Oh, we could keep the battles going and going,” she muses. “And I was as good as anyone else at causing conflict and sowing confusion.”
Having a family of her own changed everything. “I decided that the conflict would stop with me,” she said. “I was humbled by just how small a sphere of influence my own family really was, but still I was deeply committed.” In the years that followed, that initial personal commitment has transformed into a life’s work; her sphere of influence, too, has expanded markedly.
In 1995, Avis stepped out onto the badly shaken and highly visible community stage left in the wake of both the Rodney King uprising that left scores of citizens dead and extensive property damage and the highly divisive OJ Simpson murder trial. She was running the Dispute Resolution Service at the Los Angeles City Attorney’s office and had seen first-hand the power of mediation to settle conflict peacefully. Along with her husband (she is married to long-time Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas) and contributions from many sources, Avis developed Days of Dialogue. She trained hundreds of community facilitators and periodically gathered citizens, leaders and police for face-to-face conversations either before community relations threatened to spiral out of control or after unpredictable events blew up. (Days of Dialogue is now a program of the Institute for Nonviolence in Los Angeles, a project Avis brought under fiscal sponsorship with Community Partners in 2009.)
“Citizens, especially from poorer communities of color, “ Avis says, “come to the gatherings and work in small groups often never having met, let alone talked to a police officer outside of an emergency or an edgy street setting. Same for police.
“It’s not part of an officer’s typical training to sit down for an extended time and have a human to human talk with the people they’re sworn to protect and serve. The result often opens everyone’s eyes. Conversations certainly get heated. People sometimes yell. But, with the help of a skilled facilitator trained in the skills of mediation, people agree to ground rules for the dialogue. Over the course of a gathering I nearly always hear the tone shift from tension to civility.”
As police-citizen relations nationwide have splintered to a more perilous degree than perhaps any time in the last 50 years, Avis and her legion of trained volunteer facilitators have doubled down on keeping even a fragile peace in Los Angeles by organizing 40 gatherings since August 2015, with new ones planned in the months ahead.
“Frankly,” Avis says, “our communities need many more gatherings than we’ve been able to arrange. The requests keep coming. We’re doing our best to both initiate and respond. We need safe spaces and safe places where it’s okay for people to vent and reach understanding that might not otherwise have been available.”
For someone who grew up an accomplished hell-raiser, Avis Ridley-Thomas has put what she knew in her heart was simply unsustainable for a peaceful family into practice by mending communities one small group at a time, one dynamic dialogue at a time.
“Through Days of Dialogue,” Avis notes, “we are listening and responding constructively to each other’s needs. After people participate in a session, often their sense of frustration has been diffused; they feel respected and energized, ready to go to work to make their community, and society, the best that it can be."