John Jay College of Criminal Justice, City University, New York
Topics: Communication, trust and transformative mediation
Interviewed by Julian Portilla — 2003
Listen to Full Interview
Listen/Read Selected Interview Segments on the Following Topics
- Conflict Resolution During Crisis
- Organizing ADR
- Inner-City Trust
- Transformative Mediation
- Negative Images of "the Other"
- Reinforcing Communication
A: There are probably six areas that I would identify as being part of my work. The first is what David Chandler and I have identified as a "pracademic" â?? someone who is essentially an academic, who has an academic appointment and also practices dispute resolution in our respective contexts. Another way of describing the pracademic is as an indigenous conflict resolver on a campus. Someone who does conflict resolution work by virtue of their position as an academic, which is markedly different than being designated as a conflict resolver, like an ombudsman person, or a grievance officer, or a hearing person. There are all kinds of implications to being a pracademic because you're not specifically identified as a practitioner because you're an academic. So you get your stature from the academic side, but there are all these challenges when you do the practice side.
As a result of the pracademic role, I end up doing a lot of what I call negotiation coaching â?? people stopping you and saying, "do you have a minute?" and its never a minute, its always like an hour or two hours. I have this situation that I just want to talk to you about. Or, you'll get called upon to do the applied side of your work- can you do a mediation? But that's not what you're rewarded for. As an academic, you're rewarded for your publications and your research, not for the practice side. So there are all these conflicts that arise, especially when your doing them behind closed doors and no one can know about what your doing- the situation is supposed to be confidential, you cant share with anyone what you're doing. And as an academic you get rewarded for research, publication, grants, and here you are behind these closed doors not being able to share even with your chairperson who would have to present your case before a tenure promotion committee.
The second area that I would say is a part of my work is my research. I have two research projects at the present time. One is on the police use of mediation. The other is on ADR responses to 9-11. I have also been, over the years, interested in dispute resolution in educational institutions, particularly institutions of higher education. The third area of my work is doing training work. We often get called upon to do all kinds of training. Most of it is in the university setting, like mediation in the sexual harassment context and for our officers on our campus I've done training in a wide range of contexts. The fourth area is as a facilitator. This is with dialogues, like the one that we had last night, our cops and kids program. We've been doing those since 1993, where we facilitate these dialogues with cops and kids.
I've facilitated dialogues with Blacks and Jewish faculty. We had a grant from the New York Times to do a dialogue with Black and Jewish faculty. I've also designed the weekly town meeting that we've been holding here since 1989. Every month we have a town meeting that is facilitated. The entire college community comes in for it. And then, my fifth role is as a program administrator. I administer the dispute resolution program which is an academic program, and that's a John Jay program, and its at the undergraduate level. The Cunny Dispute Resolution Center, which is a university wide comprehensive mechanism where we do all kinds of stuff. We provide training around the university, we offer mini grants to faculty, we do staff development work, maintain a website, newsletters, publish papers, this has been funded by the Hewlett foundation, so that's our theory building center. Finally I am a grant writer for grants and fundraising. So that's the deadline driven part of the job, but it can be fun. If you want to do innovative work, particularly in the university context, particularly in these extremely fiscally challenged times, it's really important to get additional support. It's challenging and daunting. I mean, you could send out 50 applications and not get funded. We've been really fortunate that we've gotten some really exciting stuff funded.
Q: Tell me some about the 9/11 project?
A: The 9/11 project grew out of interest to find out what dispute resolvers were doing after 9/11. When 9/11 occurred, we're about 11 miles north of the World Trade Center. We were watching all the other professionals, practitioners, and others respond to the horrific situation. There were firefighters, police officers, medical personnel, religious, even journalists, and photographers who all had a role in responding to the World Trade Center scene. And we were getting calls from others around the country, emails, faxes, to see if we needed any help as dispute resolvers. We started calling around and none of the dispute resolvers were really doing dispute related work. Many responded by facilitating dialogues, but in fact what most of the dispute resolvers were doing was going to memorial services, working on the bucket line, doing fundraisers and going to services. But as we started talking to each other, there were a number of us that found out that there didn't seem to be a whole lot going on. So what I did is I sent out an email to the national list serves, the AB, ABR, and the dispute resolve list serve, asking anyone who was in New York who was involved in dispute resolutions, to come together on Sept. 20th for a breakfast meeting to talk about what we've done, and what we could do as dispute resolvers.
One of the things that we found out very early was that we didn't even have a way to communicate with one another. Therefore one of the first things we did was set up a list serve. So that as a result of 9/11 we now have a way to communicate with each other. NYC/DR is our new list serve to which anyone can subscribe, for those who are interested in only what is of concern to New Yorkers in dispute resolution. What we kept finding was that there wasn't a whole lot that dispute resolvers did initially. And so, out of curiosity, I thought it might be more beneficial to do this more systematically, and we've been collecting data since then on what is it that dispute resolvers did. Initially we were only going for focus on the World Trade Center, then it broadened to New York, and now we seem to be collecting data from around the country. It's interesting. What we're finding is that dispute resolvers are doing what a lot of other people did- go to services, fundraisers, but we are also finding that a lot facilitated dialogues. We found that a number wrote articles and expressed their concerns like a number of others did from their knowledge as practitioners of dispute resolution work. The project is still in progress, so we don't have all of our data. We're finding that there was very little mediation that went on.
There was one mediation that was set up in the World Trade Center area for small businesses. We've identified one restorative justice case in Oregon, related to a hate crime, were still trying to track those. Those would be prime for dispute resolvers to be responding to. Were still trying to see, if dispute resolvers in fact, as mediators, as facilitators responded to any of the hate crimes, or if those were just processed in the traditional criminal justice system. It has been fascinating to see how little we did as practitioners on the one hand, and on the other hand, a lot of concern around what we could have done. There were people who were facilitating dialogues that didn't have any of our skills. So the question for us was, did we bring anything unique to 9-11? What is it that we as a dispute resolution team bring that would make us a compelling practitioner in the aftermath of these sort of horrific crises? And we're still exploring that.
Q: Do you have a hypothesis? Do you see a role for dispute resolution in crises like these?
A: Its interesting what's beginning to emerge for us is that, and I don't have enough data yet though, is that in the immediate aftermath of these crises, that there may not be a role for us, that it takes a while for the conflicts involved in the situation to role out. Most of the immediate response is of a highly specialized technical nature, I mean, fire fighters need to put out fires, medical people need to respond to injuries, the mental health people are dealing with the stress. And many dispute resolvers did respond to the stress part of the situation but they did so because they were mental health people. So some will say that yeah I did it, but when you ask them what their background work was, they were social workers, or therapists, or others, who were working at some of the sites. They weren't there as conflict resolvers, they were there because they had knowledge in other areas. The other thing that we're finding is that it takes a long time for the conflicts to emerge, to ripen.
The other is that you can't just appear on the scene and say that you're a conflict resolver. The leg-work needs to have been done before hand. One needs to have presence, recognition, and visibility before the crisis. In the middle of the crisis it's really hard for someone to begin to trust you, to find out what you do. We found out that the people who actually did some work were the community relations service mediators from the US Department of Justice. They had established a previous relationship with FEMA in another conflict, so when there were conflicts on the corners over who could get down the street and who was able to get home, there were mediators out there, but they were from CRS because they had been trusted by, and built relationships with FEMA. So out of our own work in New York, one of the other things that grew out of those first breakfast meetings, in addition to the list serve, were these monthly breakfast meetings and we now have them every first Thursday of the month.
One of the things that grew out of these breakfast meetings was that we needed to gain more visibility for dispute resolution in New York City. It's a very eclectic group of people. They are a very diverse group of people from diverse backgrounds. They don't always come, some came the first time and didn't come afterwards. They come whenever they can, but there's always a chemistry, a dynamism in that room, over what is it that we as dispute resolvers need to do to be recognized and acknowledged in order to lay the groundwork, if any other situation were to occur. I think that we in New York are much better prepared to day than we were on Sept. 10th, or 11th. We have a way of communicating with each other, we have a way of doing face to face work with each other, electronically, so at a personal networking level, were at a very different place, than we were a year and a half ago.
Q: That's really interesting. I think that's probably a lesson that could be nation wide for dispute resolvers. I think that it's really just a micro causism for the field. Its interesting to speculate. If we had visibility in the Post 9-11, is there a possibility that we would have been called upon to assist with the clashes between the fire fighters and the police officers. What other kinds of opportunities were there?
A: Well, another thing that was learned is that ADR doesn't just happen. A lot of our work to do ADR requires a lot of organizing work. If we had organized people; we could have held some of the kinds of dialogues that were subsequently held at the South St. Sea Port, and the Jacob Javis Center. As it turns out, it wasn't people who consider themselves dispute resolvers who held them, but America Speaks, I don't know if you're familiar with them down in Washington. They used their technology to hold their 21st century town meeting and they did a phenomenal job. But they didn't know New York, they didn't know the New York people to get the facilitators, particularly for the first listening to the city. And by then, it was January, we had our list serve and they called to ask if we could post a call for facilitators and mediators in New York.
I can imagine that if the dispute resolution community was also geared up to do lots of community organizing work, we could probably do a lot more work. Because in order to bring people together, one often has to do a lot of preparing for people to come to the table, which is a pretty labor intensive. Community organizers do a lot of that. The question is, that when bringing people together they then know how to facilitate that people in this field do, and my sense is that a lot of it is on the job training and many of them can do it very well. So the question again is what do we bring that's so unique if other people can do our work, or if we don't do all that's required for us to do our work.
Q: Yeah, that's a scary question for the field.
A: Well, for the field, we always say that people aren't using mediation; they're resisting it. Well, in order for people to feel comfortable with it, they have to know it. They have to know about you, I mean there's a lot of groundwork that needs to be laid. I mean talk about intractable conflict, where there are layers and layers and layers that need to be dealt with, feelings, perceptions, history, issues, concerns, in order to get those individuals to the table. It takes a lot of organizing work; trust building work and community organizers at the local level often do that. At the international level you've got diplomats and others who are trying to lay that groundwork.
Q: Do you want to say more about the 9-11 project?
A: Well, the project has really evolved. Were looking forward to posting a questionnaire through CRInfo and hoping that we can generate some more responses. What were trying to figure out now is the timeline. After an event like 9-11 the impact of a timeline of how long it takes individuals in this field to sort of kick in. Do we at all? What we're finding is that immediately after 9-11 that there was very little activity for this field. Was there a point at which there was a critical mass of activity, we still don't know. It will be interesting to see if there are still things that were going on around the country. Were finding that some groups were doing inter group training. So another learning experience from 9-11 is that some of what we need in order to intervene, may be subject matter, expertise, and those who think that only process is sufficient may be surprised. There was a lot of interest in the dispute resolution community to find out about Islam, and Arab culture, you know areas that were not part of the radar screen for many people in this field.
In order to intervene, one often needs to have those relationships; the subject matter for the expertise and so a bigger learning for the field is that we may need to become more specialized to manage all the diverse situations in which we contextually have to work. Around the country we saw a number of dispute resolution groups doing training and lectures around Arab relations, cultures, and Islam. We had Muslims against terrorism come to speak with some students, as well as to come to speak at some of our conferences here. Where those who live the culture, who are also in this field, are coming together too. They would be really valuable in managing some situations that others are trying to get up to speed on.
Q: Can you talk about an event in your career that has especially touched or inspired you?
A: Well, I think one of the areas that I work in, that is really touching, is the cops and kids work. Since 1993, we've been bringing cops and young kids together. I think I can say that in the groups that I've had of young people, there really hasn't been a group that really wanted to come together with police. There's suspicion, lack of trust, their feelings about the police like perhaps no other. These are young children who live in an urban environment where there are always challenges and police can always be present. For many of them, it's a defining moment. They are coming into a room where there are no ground rules, and the police don't have an upper hand. And we prepare the young people to come to the table. A lesson learned there is that you don't just bring them together. A lot of groups bring police into young people groups to lecture to them, more of the authoritative roles from the authorities. What we do is prepare these young people. They come up with the ground rules and they come up with the questions. We type up their questions so that they have them there when we bring them together.
It's really quite touching to see them come together. It's true as it's always been, that no one wants to sit next to the police. So we've now designated spots where the police are sitting, and the kids' can't all bunch up together, they have to sit between the officers. And it's really exciting to see the inches of transformation we're not talking about major transformations, were talking about minor movement. Where a young person who wanted to put the police officers hat on for a picture, or to be photographed with the officers. Not all of them want to be photographed, and that's fine. But they can ask questions, have this dialogue, and ask for explanations, at least for the time that we have them in the room. Is this the defining moment for them? For some it is. But it's a small step in that trust building, in the information gathering on both sides. The current project that we have expands our traditional project.
Our traditional project prepares them to come to the table with the police and that's the end of it. The current project is one that is designed to be a much more protracted one. We have prepared the young people. In this case we've been meeting with the police and last night was the first night of bringing them together. The young people are now going to go sharrets in the community. They will try to identify hot spots and hopefully work through some of the more collaborative problem solving with the police. So were bringing them together again in about two weeks to talk about some of the concerns that kids have about their parks.
At least that seems to be the emerging concern. Then we'll have the young people go out and try to identify why the park is the concern to them that it is, particularly at night, when they cant go in there and play. We want them to go in there and work things out. But We'll have them together for a couple of months, which is different than our earlier version. I suspect with this particular group of young people that there will be more significant transformation. In this field we often talk about transformative mediation and we bring individuals together for two or three hours, and we think from our perspective that the individuals are now transformed. And they came in with years of feelings, baggage, and that we transformed them, or the process transformed them. Most of the situations that I deal with require a lot more than the traditional mediation session for a transformation.
Q: Can you talk about who these kids are, where they come from, how you find them, how you prepare them for these dialogues, and also the police?
A: The kids are from all age ranges, from first grade to twelfth grade. We have traditionally and typically focused on middle school kids, eleven to fourteen. But at the children's storefront school of Harlem, we started with the middle school kids. They started talking about it with the younger school kids and they asked us if we would do it with the younger school kids. We went right to the first grades. The cognitive levels are so different, but it was just really exciting to see. The little ones with their questions for the police, even as shy as they were. The relationships between younger kids and older kids and the police are very different. They still, at that young age, haven't yet formed those attitudes. They are still in awe of the police.
Our project up there was much more comprehensive because we also did the parents and the police because they were the police coming from the narcotics. There had recently done a sweep and some of the kids had been questioned, and the parents were concerned. So it was a pretty comprehensive program of brining everyone together in small groups. We first met with the police, and then met with the parents. Then we started with the middle school kids that had been involved with the sweep, and eventually went right down to the first graders. But most of our kids come from after school programs, up and down the west side of Manhattan too. In the early days we actually did a partnership between a prestigious private school and a public school across the street whose worlds never met. The private school kids have car services waiting outside whereas the public school kids went to the subway or walked. Their worlds never met. And we decided to bring them together and then bring them together with the police.
To prepare them, we usually do some skills work with the kids. We have them talk about their perceptions of the police. It depends on how long we can get the kids. We usually can get them for a couple of sessions before we meet with the police. Do they trust the police? Do they think that the police respect them? A lot of the discussion is around perceptions, trust, respect, and then we do some listening work with them and we talk to them about different conflict resolution processes. How they might conceptually think about collaborative problem solving techniques with the police. Have them prepare ground rules as well as have them prepare the kinds of questions that they would like to ask the police. You might be interested in knowing that one of the questions that is probably in every single list of questions is why the police eat doughnuts. Which has nothing to do with anything.
There is this stereotype of police that they are always in the coffee shop eating doughnuts. And a common response is that many of the police never eat doughnuts. But there was a time during the night that the only stores open during the night were coffee stores. And we work 24 hours a day so we would go in, and the only thing that you can have with your coffee is a doughnut. A lot of it is TV stuff and a lot of it is stereotype. At the end of the program we bring in doughnuts, you know, its kind of a final night joke. We have a video that was on NBC nightly news, and you see the kids asking the police if they eat doughnuts while were serving the doughnuts to them at the end.
Q: So, what aspects of your work have been the most rewarding?
A: Actually the most rewarding is coaching people to do their own resolution work. I found that a lot of people do not want a third party with them. Rather, they want to be able to go to the other side and be able to be sufficiently informed and skilled. I'm not talking about being able to listen to the other side and practice responses and what their BATNA might be. They don't know the first thing about a BATNA, or a WATNA, or whatever. You're helping them to think that process through. Helping them learn to use I messages, you're not giving them a lesson in I messages, but teaching them to say something without making the other side become defensive and can help them practice it. And what if they say that, and then they come back and tell you that it worked, that is probably, particularly rewarding. Or occasionally, in the university, administrators ask you what they could do and that is another form of coaching them.
They can't for whatever reason, bring in another party because they might loose their credibility, or stature, or legitimacy, especially with their staff people. Yet they don't know how to start a meeting between some disputants in their department, or in their staff; and just helping them think through what kind of ground rules and how they would start off, by saying, now lets take a few minutes to say that this is a respectful meeting, just having them practice that. Having them come back and say, I can't believe that I did that, this is really hard work, I really had to keep stopping myself, and I really had to make sure that I balanced my reactions, my nonverbal communication.
Having them come back and tell you how they did it, or how it worked, and sometimes even the parties come back and say, I was really impressed that so and so was really able to hold back, of course they don't know that the other side also came in for coaching, sometimes you coach both sides, and they don't know that you're coaching both sides. I've written many letters, ghost written I should say, for both sides, where they've really worked and toned them down. But they'll say, I got a really great letter. And that works great too.
I also have a memo cemetery. When they come in with their first version, I say, lets see, I think that this needs to be reshaped here or there. Leave all the inflammatory, accusatory, viscous, visceral stuff in my office, and leave with, what one called, her you miss wonderful, you do it form because I can't. There are days when I say for myself, I cant wait to get out of this field and I can tell people exactly what I think. But then I look at what people are dealing with as a result of what they're dealing with because they told someone exactly what they thought.
Q: What techniques have you found to be the most useful?
A: Probably meeting with the parties before you bring them together. I think that in my early days I was taught, you bring the parties together without knowing them, saying, I don't know either one of you, I don't know anything about this situation, I'm here to hear what you have to say, as an advantage. That doesn't work anymore for me. Particularly in a setting, as a pracademic, there's a lot at risk for me, things could just explode in the room. Afterwards people saying, Dr. Volpe doesn't know how to control a session. I'd like to know what people are coming into the room with. I'd like to anticipate what some of those hot buttons are going to be. This goes for mediation particularly, but also for facilitation for the kids. A lot of people say that they don't meet with the parties.
Q: You're sort of going against the grain with that?
A: No, actually there are a lot of mediators who are doing that. It's called case development. It's called screening. Its also called preparing parties to come to the table. I think it depends on the context in which you do mediation, but its called different things in different contexts. It's called caucusing for some before you bring them to the table. But that notion that you don't know the parties- in fact, in my case, I do know most of the parties. I'm a member of the community. I'm an indigenous conflict resolver. And so there are special burdens that I have in being able to have the trust of lots of people. Once you lose the trust of one, you just can't continue. So sometimes that means that as an academic I can't serve on certain positions, because then you're known as someone who's being positional, or making statements to support that position. How could you ever go in and mediate a situation who was one the other side, they may not trust you.
Q: What are the most common obstacles for the success of your work?
A: The parties' insensitivities that become part of their mental tapes towards each other. So they've done something to each other, and they keep rehearsing it and rehearsing it. And you know what, its just really hard to see any goodness, for lack of better word, because they're rehearsing the insensitivities of a letter that may have been written in 1984, and here it is in 2003. They've rehearsed it, and all these other situations have happened after however many years. It's really hard to see any goodness in the other side.
Q: How do you deal with it?
A: I don't always have the magic formula. Depending on the situation, sometimes using third sides, someone who they trust, who can talk to them about toning down. Other times its just pure luck. I've had people who say, after all these years of holding on to this, I just can't give it the energy that I've been giving it all these years, I'm in a different place. Some of this may have started in an academic community, where individuals were untenured and some of the insensitivities were surrounding one's methodology, one's theoretical work, publications, and things were said. You hold on to them, but hey, now you're a full professor and you don't have to hold on to that any more, and you just want to have a peaceful existence. But they want now to get to the other side. I've had people say, well, what do they want, or why now. I have to say, they are just in a differently place. And they reply back, well, how do I know they're in a different place, they said all this stuff through the years, how can I trust them, what do they really want? That's where you go back and forth with them and say, "Well, from what I'm hearing, they don't really want to have anything, they just want to be able to say good morning to you and feel comfortable."
It sometimes takes months to bring individuals together because they don't know about being in the same room as someone that they haven't been able to communicate with for fifteen years, or whatever it is. It's really hard. Once I can remember is that I want you to stand at the door while I go in there to talk to the other side. I stood at the door. Both thanked me for the wonderful job. I hadn't done anything; I was just standing at the door. But I had bridged the conversation enough between them, going back and forth, finding out what they both wanted, what they were going to say, on and on. I was the messenger. And eventually they're ready to come together, but they don't want you to do anything, but they need someone there just in case something happens.
Q: Right, which is a great argument for the power of the third side, just being that convener and observing the process, we don't want you to get involved but we want you to be there.
A: I literally stood at the door, and they did a great job. They had rehearsed some of what we call I-messages, but there are more none defensive responses to what is said. And it worked out well. I've helped some of them rehearse how they would open up after so long, what the first thing that they would say to each other after not talking to each other for so many years. Some of that's just pure luck. It could be where they are in their personal lives, that this doesn't seem that important anymore. It may have nothing to do with whatever I'm doing, but getting them to get over the mental tapes can be really really challenging. They called me, they sent me a memo that was offensive, they did whatever-that's really hard. And then what happens is people go to their allies and people say, yeah right, you shouldn't meet with so and so, why are you giving in to that, after what they did to you. Very few of us are really good allies.
Q: So another obstacle would be a friend telling them not to engage in this process?
A: Yes. Who do we go to first? People we trust and people who we think like us. We go to people who we think that are going to support us. Not people who say, have you thought about what they think about the situation? And I think that one of the things that I've been able to do here, in my role as an indigenous conflict resolver, is do that. Parties know that if they come to me, I'll try to get them to see from the other persons' shoes, or to help think where the other person might be. And its hard, but most of us don't do that to each other, we just reinforce, and support, and help them to keep entrenching them. I think that gets multiplied from the interpersonal to the international. We go to our allies.
Q: Can you tell me about your favorite success story?
A: My favorite one is about a decade ago, when our students took over the buildings here at the university. After they had taken over for 23 days, the president asked me to mediate the contested student elections. These were students who had also taken over the buildings. These were my earlier days when I thought that all of the good principles of mediation would work, and I declared it a confidential session. We were going to have our ground rules, and one of them would be that it would be a closed session, it would be confidential, and only the parties to the conflict would be permitted in the room, I think there were like 13 of them. They showed up with about 30 people. My team of student mediators and I thought that only the disputant parties would come into the room.
We had all of our ground rules ready for them. They told us that the sunshine laws were to govern this meeting and that if we didn't open up that there might be a threat of another take over. This was at night when we had gotten the buildings back. So I said to myself, a mediation is a confidential session, however, if these buildings are taken over again tonight, I'll have a lot of explaining to do tomorrow. So, I had a team of about 4 or 5 students to think really quick and hard about how we were going to violate one of our really basic principles of mediation, and have everyone in the room. Not only that, but everyone that had been part of the protest was now interested in knowing about what was going on. After all, I was a tool of the administration because I had been appointed by the administration to mediate. It was confusing about how we were going to handle it.
Then I decided that we, all 6 of us, would stand at the door, and welcome each one of them as they walked in the room by shaking hands. By the time we got done, there were 35 of them, and all the disputants sat on the inner circle, and the others were on the outer circle. We shook every persons hands coming into the room. Now in retrospect, what I think that we were trying to do was to build trust by to humanizing who we were. We opened up the meeting, and you know what, it was fine. They didn't need a confidential session. They wanted everyone to know what their grievances were against each other. I've learned that it is not necessary for every mediation to be confidential. In this case the individuals wanted all their observers in the room. There wasn't any trust between anyone. The secrecy that was going to go on behind closed doors was scaring everyone. What were we going to do to them? I also learned something else during those meetings. The students had been standing outside on the corners with bullhorns. Some of them were really good at preaching for eight hours straight with the bullhorns. We had done a take over the previous year where we had done mediation into the night forever, I mean, these students could really talk. Since there were so many in this case, I decided that they would have timed opening statements.
I ran over to the physical education department and got the basketball clock, this huge clock. When they saw me coming into the room, one student said, I thought that I was going to get whiplash when I saw you coming into the room with this clock. Then they all said, oh no, she's going to time us. And I said I know how much you all enjoy listening to each other. They just couldn't stand listening to each other. I just thought that I would make it easier on them. We started with ten minutes for an opening statement. We figured how long we would all be there. Then there came a point during the session when some of them asked if we could have, while their exchanges were going on, you could tell that they really didn't want to listen to each other, but they had to, so it was like could you set that for thirty seconds. Believe it or not, they actually could say what they wanted in thirty seconds. Which then created a wonderful mechanism for our town meetings.
After the first take over in 1989, the president wanted to talk to the community about what had transpired at a town meeting. There hadn't been much dialogue between the administration and the students. They were going to have this dialogue publicly. I had a basketball coach then using this chime, and had the students finally agree to a two-minute ground rule. When they took over in 1990, one of their demands was a monthly town meeting. The president readily agreed to that. We were using the same basketball clock that we had used at their sessions, but set for two minutes. Since then, the president has purchased a digital clock with lights and beepers, an electronic device. In the end it worked. The success was taking the risk on our process, thinking on our feet. The other thing I was violating was that I was giving everyone as much time as they needed to talk. In essence, we were here as long as it takes. If I hadn't done that, I might still be there. We had to think about how we were going to open it up , and contain it. With 13 parties, each who could talk for 8 hours straight, we had to find a manageable way of dealing with this. It has helped me to put boundaries on some of these processes. I no longer think that we need to be there as long as it takes.
Q: So it really sounds like you are open to adapting your mediation techniques to whatever comes up, it's less of a standard model.
A: I know mediators who have a 4 step, a 10 step, and 15 step model, and they swear by it. But in of these situations you can get really challenged. I mean, try doing the 4 step by going into a room full of students who don't feel that they are being heard. It's a predominately minority group, not trusting you, and now this process is going to close this process again. Fat chance that's going to work.
Q: What advice would you give to someone who was thinking of going into this work?
A: Amass as many credentials as you can. And as much substantive knowledge as you can because conflict resolution does not happen in a vacuum. It occurs in a context. I think that what we're finding is that there are probably better trained students coming out of our doctoral programs than those in the ilk's of George Mitchell, Jimmy Carter, others. Given an international situation, would they ever call upon that student? With their 40 hours of training, in 30 courses, whatever. Stature in many cases will be the only thing that will get you in the room. They trust you because of who you are. In my own work here, as an assistant professor, I thought that I knew more than I think I knew now, because I was newly out with all these new techniques, and you know what? There was faculty that would not come into the room with me because I was an assistant professor without tenure. No stature. No clout. As a full professor, with tenure, it gives me an amazing amount of room to work, people trust you. I'm not beholding to anyone, I don't need anyone's support to be here, for support to be tenured. It does make a difference.
In my own context here, I've really grown to appreciate what stature means. And understand what it means for George Mitchell to go to the table rather than one of us. As distinguished as we are, we aren't distinguished enough for the individuals who want to feel their coming to the table with someone who they feel is important, or someone who doesn't have any stakes in what their involved in, someone who is trusted by both sides. It's really important for us, as a field to amass, and credentials doesn't mean just the hours of training, but the credentials that you need in different contexts. It's sometimes unpredictable what you bring to a situation that might make you the most acceptable intervener. Last night I facilitated an entirely black group of young people, I think they trusted me because I run the dispute resolution program here. I'd been to some of their meetings, I gave them food, and we created an environment that they felt comfortable in. We bought them John Jay chocolate and we greeted them at the door. We did whatever we could before the meeting to build that trust with the police. Part of that is that stature of what we brought to the table. I think that if I was just another young person I wouldn't have been able to do it. A trained peer mediator, the police wouldn't have sat at the table with me, but a professor at a college of criminal justice, they have come to trust our work. And the young people have because we spend so much time with them before we bring them to the table. But increasingly I've appreciated this sense of what it means for us to have presences. And what does that presences get translated into? It's not just like 40 hours of training.
I don't mean to say that one doesn't need to have credentials. But for me to have any credibility around here I have to have a PhD. in a discipline, to be tenured, to be at the highest rank of my profession as a full professor. This is because that then could get translated into my work as academic. I have to vote on here tenure, I'm not going to sit in a room with her. I heard that when I was an assistant professor. It's much harder. I also do other things that create amassing the credentials. I go to a lot of functions around here. I've been called an honorary Jamaican. I've gone to enough events to where I'm the only one that doesn't look like a part of the group. Yet one can understand the group and where they're coming from. If a situation arises where they feel comfortable enough to come to you because you went out of your way, or you were there at a time when something meaningful was going on for them, or when they were sharing information about their culture, so that you understand what's going on. But that takes work and that takes time. When someone says that they want to talk to you for a minute, but you know that it's not going to take a minute. You want to work with different groups, but you are going to have to spend time.
In some ways, Peace Corps workers and others do the type of work that many of us want to be able to do to be accepted by the community. I know that we spend a lot of time in this field talking about whether the mediator reflects the parties. I no longer think that. But I do think that it is really important to do the legwork. I'm very often in a room with individuals who don't look like me and don't sound like me. And I've had some of them say, I'll only go if you say. I'll go because I trust you. But that's because do all the work of building relationships with people before hand. Now, does that get translated into other settings? I had one setting, I called up people on your campus, because there wasn't trust from the person that was telling them to consider mediation, and like who's this person going to be. So I checked you out on your campus, with these people here, and they said that you were even handed and that you were fair, and that we could trust you. This is because they do not trust the other side, and they don't know you. Something has to credentialize you with them.
Q: What are some of the most important lessons that you've learned?
A: I've learned that everyone wants to be respected, recognized and acknowledged. They are not respecting each other, and they talk about disrespect, and the other side said that they did, but the other side always wants more respect. It's an interesting phenomenon. Another important lesson is that conflict resolution is very time consuming. Five minutes is never five minutes. When someone says, "Can I talk to you for just a few minutes?" My mental tapes go off. Add a couple of zeros, at least. Another lesson that is becoming increasingly more visible for me to see is that people have to be ready, willing, and able to participate in these collaborative processes. If they're not ready, or willing, or able, or any combinations, then the resistance gets higher. The need for more legwork on our part so that maybe they might be ready, willing, able. Clearly the ones that are have all of the three in sink; they're ready, willing and able. Another lesson is that the third side is really important. This is particularly important in the context that I work under.
Knowing whom else their going to and who else might be someone who could help them to see the other side to reinforce another view. It's helpful for me to hear. I was talking with my husband and he said that I shouldÂ?be more open minded, my friend said that IÂ? Oh, so there's the third side for this person here to help the person work through this situation. For instance, is that someone that might be able to help you think through other options, because they probably can't do it on their own. Another lesson is that many parties do not want a third party in the room. They want to be coached, but they don't necessarily want another person in the room. This doesn't always bode well for the mediation field, because there might not be the kind of work out there for us that we're all looking for. This might be a lesson that might not be politically correct, but it shows that maybe not everything can be worked out. I've learned that sometimes transfers to another location in the work force are just great. It's like real estate - location, location, location. Individuals thrive on working with others, but not the person that they're having conflict with. And we shouldn't think that we've failed, because I've helped many individuals to coexist, than they were doing on their own. They were able to clarify, structure relationships, to hear what the other side was saying, but when they were transferred it was just great. Being with other colleagues in a different context, just allowed them to not be challenged the way that they were being challenged working with each other.
Q: So it's not even being away from the individual, but in a totally new environment?
A: It could be just from the individual. Another notion of presence or stature is important. I'm not convinced that just any party can assemble just any parties, it depends on the situation. I don't think that anyone of us could go in and assemble individuals who are high ranking officials. They're just not going to sit at the table with us. But get another high ranking official, someone of high stature, a George Mitchell, they'll come to the table. It has nothing to do with us. It's just this notion of presence. Its not that we're not skilled, yeah were skilled, we could set the ground rules, we could listen, we could help them to think through their concerns, generate option, we could write agreements, we could do all of the stuff, but we're still not the right person. The other thing that's sort of amazing is that our work is all over the place. There is an amazing umbrella for the work of the conflict resolution field. It would be really fascinating to see what it looks like in a decade or two.