Caucuses

 

S.Y. Bowland

Director of The Practitioners Research and Scholarship Institute (PRASI) and mediator, based in Atlanta, Georgia

Interviewed by Julian Portilla, 2003


This rough transcript provides a text alternative to audio. We apologize for occasional errors and unintelligible sections (which are marked with ???).

A: I do like to use caucuses. In the caucus, I give assignments to both parties at the same time. So I might announce that we're about to go into a caucus, and summarize how I have observed or how I have seen race or culture play a part in the mediation up to that particular point. And then I'll ask them, "When you're not in the room with me during the caucus, would you just brainstorm about what I've said that's true, and what's not true, and whether there are any questions that you have for the other party on this particular topic?"

Q: Alone, separately.

A: Right, and also, "What do you need to move forward?" Again, even in the caucus, it's so amazing that people will want to reaffirm to me — I guess as part of the system structure — that they're not racist, and that they just can't imagine how someone could have gotten that impression.

I'll give you an example of that sort of situation.It was a mediation that involved a person of color and a white person. The person of color was actually the person in the leadership position here. So the white person had a complaint that she had requested something, and felt that the person of color was not providing what she had asked for. When we were doing the mediation, the white woman said, "Well I asked for it once." The person of color said, "Well I wish you had asked me again. All you had to do was ask me again. I don't know why you had to go this far; just come back and ask again." Again, the white woman said, "Well, I asked you once."

If you could have seen the face of the woman of color. She said, "Do you know how many times I've had to ask for what I've wanted, in order to move up around here?" So this woman of color (who, at this point in time, had a leadership role) had had to repeatedly ask for things in her struggle for advancement, and she was just blown back to learn that part of the reason that the other person was there was because she felt that she had asked once and that asking once was enough.

Q: And her understanding of the way the world worked is that you had to ask several times to get something, and so she expected the white woman to ask several times if she wanted to get what she wanted?

A: Or to continue to persevere, to continue to come back. And she meant that there would be movement, but it might not happen right at that moment. The other woman had to have confidence that there would be some movement in time, and that the two of them would work as a team for this. So I thought that that was really a very amazing story, because it allowed me to observe the difference in how one person from one group was representing something this way and another person from another group was totally representing it another way.

I think they both had their awakening at that point — knowing that when one person makes a request for something and she makes the request one time, she expects a response after that one time, but the person of color had had to go through a series of challenges or repeated inquiries to advance. As I reflect on this, I wonder whether there was a reflection on the differences. I know that they both had an awakening, an ah-ha. There was that kind of new discovery about operation.

What's interesting is that I think that very deeply hidden in that was the cultural perspective of how this one person's life had the challenge of having to persevere and keep coming back, the door being closed; whereas the other person was saying, "I've asked once. There should be movement."

Q: So, caucusing. What else?

A: The brainstorming of the list of what people want to see. This is the tricky part: When a person of color raises the culture/race question and that's the first time that it comes to the attention of the white disputant, you really have to allow appropriate time for that to really have its presence, because it takes time. Really when the white party hears it, they do feel sometimes like they're being attacked, like they did something, and they're like, "Well, I'm just carrying out my job; I thought I was doing what I was supposed to do. I had no idea that I was having this impact." But how was the person of color supposed to bring this to the other party's attention prior to this event?

Depending on different workplaces or different communities, there may be prior ways of bringing it up, but often there are not. That's why, I think, the caucusing is a time to give the parties a place to take their deep breath or to let their anger out. I really don't personally prefer the anger to be brought out all at once during the mediation, although I have had it come out that way, don't get me wrong. I just have a preference about that because there's a lot of teaching that has to go on. So in the caucus, that is where I do the test. I say, "There's a lot of emotion around this, and I don't mind if the two of you have it, but I want to do a reality test. If you raise these questions, it can bring out some emotion. Are you ready for that? And will you understand that it's about having the presence and the first time to share this, and it may or may not be about you personally? I just want to prepare you for us coming back together, and I need to know whether you can do this."

Then I learn what they want. And then, of course, you check: "Well, can I ask the other party this or that? Do you want to ask the other party this?" Then, when the other party comes back, if it's a party of color, I say, "They really want to ask some other questions, but they're concerned about the level of tone, etc." I try to raise what the concerns are to see whether the people can agree to go forward and have that particular dialogue. Then I give them the information and they decide what they want to do — whether they want to go forward with it or not.