Former CRS Mediator, New York and Washington, D.C. Offices; Associate Professor at the Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution, George Mason University
Question: It has been asserted that most of what mediators do here in the States is what's called the North American model.
Answer: Oh, God. Drives me crazy..... What is the North American model? I mean, so what version of the North American model....?
Question: Well, the model that's based on Fisher and Ury, Chris Moore standard interest-based bargaining.
Answer: Oh, I see, that s the classic North American model. Well, I have a couple of perspectives about this. First of all, there's very little research about what model works in what kind of dispute. It's mainly anecdotal, heuristic kinds of perspectives. Is it true that the so-called North American model does not work in some cultural settings? Yes, it is true. But, what I think people are ignoring in the midst of the popularization of this notion, is the issue of class as an intervening variable. What they assume, is that any group except for the North American group for whom the model works, is necessarily some kind of romanticized culture......it's like, people running around in the forest someplace, anyone who has a traditional culture. It would be interesting to speculate as to how that got generated and what people think of traditional cultures and where that comes from, but maybe we won't go there (laughter).
But the fact of the matter is, class is a much more dominant intervening variable than traditional culture is. The work we were doing in Rwanda -- and just transpose Rwanda into even domestic settings and I'll do that in a moment -- so we were doing a project in Rwanda with Viskias Asetas and I, and Larissa Fast, the doctoral student who was working with us. We had this week-long skills activity that we were doing in Kigali, and the question was: "Should we do some basic mediation training? We said, "Oh, we can't do mediation training, because we all know what's said about doing this kind of training with traditional cultural groups. On the other hand, this could be important, because they're going to need to know how to do this in some form....
We agonized over this for days, right up until the night before. We had an alternative agenda, if we decided not to do it. We said, "No, it's a skill, we think it's worthwhile learning, and let's do it, so we began the session by saying, "We're going to do some mediation skills training. We gave a description of mediation, and said, "this may not fit exactly with your culture, but tell us how you resolve disputes in your culture, and got some information about that. We looked for parallels, there weren't any, and so we said, "Here's what the mediation process is like. We did a presentation on the mediation process, and then we did some simulations and some role-plays. Well, they got it. The reason why they got it is because the Rwandan leaders were all middle-class people -- college-educated, middle-class people. Could we have done this back in the bushes? Absolutely not. So one has to look at class as a much more dominant variable than traditional culture.
I have a good story about that here in the United States. It wasn't one that CRS was involved in as far as I know, but back in the mid-70s at the height of the school desegregation policies -- when the federal courts were issuing school desegregation orders, in Atlanta, Georgia. Atlanta was being looked at and there was an order for the Atlanta schools to desegregate. Now, the history of relationships between blacks and whites in Atlanta was such that the Atlanta NAACP was incredibly sophisticated, probably the most sophisticated branch of the NAACP in the country. At that time, Atlanta had more black middle-class people -- possibly with the exception of Detroit -- than anywhere else in the country. The Atlanta NAACP decided that bussing should not be the defining issue in the negotiations. First of all, in most bussing situations, it was supposed to be two-way bussing, but it was really a one-way kind of bussing. So it meant that black schools were the ones being primarily closed, so that black kids were being bussed at all kinds of hours of the morning to white schools, only to be re-tracked once they got to those schools.
What the NAACP recognized, was that in the black communities, not only was there fairly decent education going on -- they may have been under-resourced, but they were doing well with what they had -- but there some powerful icons that had been built up in those communities by those schools. Somebody's father and grandfather had gone to those schools, had been valedictorians in those schools, had run track, and so the sense of identity that was taken for granted in white communities was under threat of being destroyed in these black communities. So the Atlanta NAACP decided that bussing wasn't the issue -- the more important thing for them was superintendents, school principles, and resources. "And if you give us that, we'll educate our own children, thank you very much. The national NAACP got wind of this, and threatened to take away the charter of the Atlanta NAACP, until they began to think about it: do you really take away the charter of the Atlanta NAACP? I don't think you really do that. It was an interesting juxtaposition of conflict resolution values and approaches that we used -- and the Atlanta NAACP had already gotten to a point where they were looking at this much more from an interest-based perspective. I mean there were values there, but by now they were quite prepared to deal with this on an interest-based kind of mediation. So I think we, in the field, need to look at that a lot more carefully.