A Place to Work Things Out
Oberlin College Dialogue Center Uses Cutting-Edge Technique
by Anne C. Paine
R. Jon MacDonald
peacemakers are blessed, then Oberlin is blessed 18 times.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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,
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
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.
goal is to set up the entire process to be as inviting and inclusive
as possible for everyone," Wing said.
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 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.
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."
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
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.
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."
new mediators are strong proponents of the model.
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.
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.
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
mediators also say that their work is rewarding, but very challenging.
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."
- getting two people to a place where they can actually talk to
one another - is really hard work," Borroni said.
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