Master of Arts in Conflict Resolution and Coexistence

Leland Davidson, MA COEX'20 (United States)

Leland Davidson, MA COEX'20

Growing up in the Appalachian region of Eastern Tennessee, Confederate flags and other symbols associated with white supremacy were scattered throughout the communities that Leland Davidson, MA COEX’20 grew up in.

He didn’t think much of them until 2018, when the Highlander Center in Newmarket, Tennessee—a famous social justice center that trained Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks during the civil rights era—was burned to the ground. A white supremacist group left behind a white power symbol to claim the arson.

That’s when he decided to focus his master’s studies on conflict resolution and coexistence at Heller on white supremacist groups, which became increasingly visible and vocal after the 2016 election. 

“It’s not easy to do this work,” Davidson says, “but as the truth gets discombobulated through social media, I wanted to go find out the actual truth of what people believed by talking to them directly and writing it down.”

In lieu of the traditional internship that most COEX students complete over the summer after their first year, Davidson chose to complete an independent research project. The research, approved by the Institutional Review Board at Brandeis, took him nearly the full length of his 16-month degree and was at times deeply uncomfortable. But given his connections in the area, he felt he was the right person to undertake the work. He conducted in-depth interviews with seven people affiliated with white supremacist groups after contacting more than 30 people through online message boards, social media and personal introductions. 

His research highlighted the importance of symbols to the white supremacist movement, such as the Confederate flag and statues, the swastika and the Iron Guard symbol (similar to a hashtag but with three lines instead of two). It also delved into the idea of “chosen trauma,” iin which people strongly associate with an incident they didn’t personally participate in, such as embracing the cause of the Confederate army or the Nazi party as their own.  

Through his interviews, Davidson found that “though politically they were all Republican, they didn’t all believe the same things.” For example, one belonged to a group that was pro-union and pro-environment, at odds with the Republican platform today. Another wasn’t religious, even though white supremacists often use Christian imagery and symbolism. The only woman he interviewed supported some feminist beliefs. In a generational gap, the younger people interviewed expressed more tolerance for people of other religions and from other countries than the older people interviewed.

These nuances provide an opening for people who disagree with their core beliefs to engage, Davidson says. Now that he’s graduated, he’s back in Tennessee and hopes to continue conducting interviews and eventually publish his work, so that peacebuilding practitioners who work with hate groups can use it to better prevent or mitigate conflicts.

“I want people to know that you don’t have to agree with their beliefs to talk to them,” he says. “Find little things you can agree on and go from there. Don’t immediately jump to conclusions. That’s how conflict resolution works.”

Developing trust with his subjects wasn’t easy. Some asked to be paid, while others asked if he was with a newspaper. Others asked how they could trust him not to slander them. He credits classes by COEX Program Director Alain Lempereur, Professor Emeritus Mari Fitzduff and Professor Ted Johnson for giving him the critical tools and tactics he needed to make connections. He was empathetic and patient, and leaned on his local understanding to create a rapport with the people who ultimately agreed to be interviewed.

“I told them, ‘I’m not here to change your mind, and I’m not here to advance your cause,’” he says.

He also credits COEX Program Deputy Director Sandy Jones, who also has family in Appalachia, for mentoring him during the toughest parts of his research, and encourages other students to consider independent research as well.

“Don’t ever feel like you can’t do it,” he says. “Get ready for the grind, but keep going.”

Today, he's working in south central Virginia at LOC Family Services as a reentry coordinator, serving as assistant project director and hiring specialist. "I help ex-incarcerated individuals get introduced back into civilian life through peer group work, finding health care, homes, jobs, court dates and family unification," he says, though it's challenging in an area that is largely impoverished and where illegal drugs are rampant. "I've witnessed so much conflict in this part of the country and my job is trying hard to find any resolution."

Leland Davidson presenting his capstone