June 2002 [oberlin online]
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A Place to Work Things Out

Oberlin College Dialogue Center Uses Cutting-Edge Technique
by Anne C. Paine
Art: R. Jon MacDonald

If peacemakers are blessed, then Oberlin is blessed 18 times.

That's how many people - students, staffers, and faculty members - are campus mediators with the Oberlin College Dialogue Center (OCDC), an innovative endeavor that began operating last fall.

A full year in planning, the OCDC is overseen by Yeworkwha Belachew, a slight woman with a quiet voice and a big reputation for getting things done. After 22 years of service in Oberlin's Division of Student Life, Belachew became the College's ombudsperson in July 2000; one of her new charges was to set up a campus mediation program.

To date, the OCDC has helped students, faculty members, and employees successfully resolve 17 disputes. Among the most common problems are roommate conflicts, intergroup disagreements, interpersonal difficulties, and personal relationship issues. The OCDC also presents educational workshops and facilitates large-group discussions, both on and off campus.

"Seeing how people at Oberlin dislike conflict and how willing they are to utilize the services our program provides has been a plus for me personally, and for the members of OCDC," Belachew said.

The use of mediation is well known in international politics, labor negotiation, and the American justice system, but it is still a relative newcomer in the higher-education arena.

Specialized mediation programs began appearing on college campuses around 1980, but progress in establishing programs on the nation's 3,600 campuses was slow, according to Bill Warters, editor of the online journal Conflict Management in Higher Education Report.

In an article titled "Conflict Resolution Education at Colleges and Universities," Warters writes that the movement grew from 18 programs in 1990 to about 220 by 1999. (The article can be found on the Association for Conflict Resolution web site, www.acresolution.org.) With Oberlin's new program, Warters can add one more to his tally.

In addition to being on the vanguard of the mediation movement, Oberlin is one of only six institutions using a cutting-edge theory of mediation that incorporates the philosophy and theory of social justice. Based on the idea of personal narrative, or storytelling, this model was developed over the last decade by Leah Wing '84.

"This model has received great interest in the mediation field and is getting some visibility on the national level," said Wing, a private mediation consultant who also directs the campus mediation program at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, where she is completing her doctoral dissertation on mediation and race.

Along with Deepika Marya, an accomplished mediation trainer who also teaches English at the University of Southern Maine, and Diane Kenty '77, director of Maine's Court Alternative Dispute Resolution Services, Wing provided an intensive, 50-hour training program for Oberlin's new mediators last August.

"The training the OCDC mediators received is fundamentally different from that done in most mediation programs," said Wing. "Two basic concepts have traditionally been used to train mediators in North America and Europe: neutrality, which means that mediators don't take sides, that they're impartial and equally distant from both parties; and symmetry, which is connected to the concept of fairness - giving each person the same amount of time to speak, for example."

Neutrality and symmetry are not universally used as the core values of problem solving, however. The result, said Wing, is that despite honorable intentions, mediation as generally practiced does not serve all people equally.

"Research has shown that more than 70 percent of the time, the agreement reached in mediation is geared toward meeting the need of only one party. Critiques by white women and people of color have illustrated how bias regularly affects mediation practice," she said.

Wing overcomes these problems by viewing mediation as a narrative process rather than a bargaining session or a problem solving session. In her model, the opportunity for both disputants to participate fully is paramount.

"Our goal is to set up the entire process to be as inviting and inclusive as possible for everyone," Wing said.

To accomplish this, a mediation program first must have a diverse group of mediators. Oberlin's team includes 6 faculty and staff members and 12 students of differing ethnic backgrounds. The person who does the initial interview and assigns mediators - at Oberlin that's Belachew - must consider the storytelling needs of the participants. Do they prefer a mediator whom they know, or someone they've never met? Are the disputants most comfortable speaking a language other than English?

Rather than training mediators to be impartial, Wing trains them to be "multipartial," by which she means able to assist both participants in telling their stories. This can result in the mediation becoming asymmetrical - for example, because of differing communication styles, some people need more time to express themselves. Some people need to express anger before they can discuss the conflict. Cultural values assigned to such things as respect for elders and eye contact also can affect how people come into the mediation process.

"We're asking our mediators to pay attention to the cues they get from the participants," Wing said. "We're asking them to think about how to open up the space by the kinds of questions they ask, so both people can tell their story."

She gives an example of a typical roommate conflict. A student comes to the mediation session complaining that his roommate constantly locks him out, even when he is just visiting friends in the next room. The roommate views the situation differently. From a less affluent background, he cannot afford to replace items if they are stolen.

A traditional mediation would focus on achieving a solution to the seemingly simple problem of the locked door. Storytelling's more holistic approach allows the roommate to frame the problem from his perspective, rather than just react to the first student's telling. This method unearths the underlying issues, increases communication and understanding, and improves both participants' awareness of the cause of their conflict, enabling them to devise a "future story" (as Wing calls the final agreement) that's truly mutually agreeable.
The storytelling model works as well in homogenous populations as it does in diverse communities like Oberlin, Wing said.

"Actually, even seemingly homogenous populations aren't really homogenous. There will still be issues of class, sexuality, religious differences, athletes versus non-athletes - so many issues can play out besides racial and cultural differences."

Oberlin's new mediators are strong proponents of the model.

Ombudsperson Yeworkwha Belachew and mediation trainers Leah Wing '84 and Deepika Marya (left to right) paused during last August's training for a quick portrait. Diane Kentry '77, who helped with the training, is not pictured. Photo courtesy of Yeworkwha Belachew.

"The training made us aware that what's discussed in a mediation is housed within the individuals' experiences, and not housed in our own experience. In order to understand that, you have to understand society and how groups in our society have interacted," said mediator Albert Borroni '85, director of the Oberlin Center for Technologically Enhanced Teaching and a lecturer in neuroscience.

"The skills we use are similar to those used by traditional mediators, so it doesn't affect how we go about the mediation, but it does affect our level of consciousness," agreed mediator Joya Colon-Berezin '02.

The mediators also say that their work is rewarding, but very challenging.

Anne Siegler '02 co-facilitated a meeting for international students just after the September 11 attacks. "The purpose was to provide a space for people who didn't feel at home or safe, so they could talk about their feelings. It was difficult sometimes because not all international students have the same views."

"Mediation - getting two people to a place where they can actually talk to one another - is really hard work," Borroni said.

"Even though it is a nerve-wracking and difficult task at the beginning, it is also very rewarding to see people own the outcome of the resolution at the end of each process, " Belachew said. ATS

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