Dr. Val Farmer
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Mediation Helps Rural Communities Resolve Conflict

November 17, 2002

I interviewed rural sociologist John Allen at the University of Nebraska about his work in resolving community conflicts. I also consulted with Steve Daniels at Utah State University who had previously worked in the Pacific Northwest mediating disputes between loggers and environmentalists.

School board controversy. Allen worked with a school board of a small Nebraska town of 2,000 people that was being torn apart by a school board recall election. He was a facilitator selected to help the community resolve their differences.

Community members on each side of the conflict saw Allen’s role as a referee and the issue would be won by the side that presented the best argument. Self interest was the driving force. Many were motivated by revenge for the hurtful and personal things that had been said.

Despite it being a small community, the residents didn’t know each other nor had they mixed in the same social circles. Trust was limited. Children didn’t stay overnight with children from different groups. The number of interactions in the community was quite low in reference to what was possible. The fact they didn’t know each other contributed to the depersonalization of the other side. Their social networks were isolated and homogenous. There was no reciprocity and trust.

Allen solicited key people for a resolution team from three groups - those who wanted to overthrow the school board, those who wanted to maintain the board and those who just wanted to see the controversy end. Allen encouraged representation from all interested parties. This included anyone who had a strong opinion.

Opposite camps meet together. Allen had each group meet separately for the first few meetings to help them articulate their positions and needs. He had them lay out their arguments on why they were so angry.

The issues ranged from who controlled the school, the creation of a better education versus the prevention of any changes to the education their children were receiving, and finally, equity of treatment between children from certain social groups being seen as having more influence and preferential treatment because of their social status.

There was a frank discussion about community values. Initially questions were directed to the facilitator and then to members of the other group. Eventually people started addressing one another directly. These meetings were physically and emotionally draining.

These were evening meetings. After a while, the groups alternated bringing food for each other. Each group would report back to constituents with their impressions of the meetings, red flag concerns and return with modifications.

After a time all lawsuits were dropped. At the end all jointly signed their recommendations and it was reported to the school board along with a full spread in their local paper. Both sides agreed to stay together as an accountability committee to the school board to insure implementation. The process took 16 weeks.

Keys to success. Allen believes that how well the disputants knew each other determined how they treated each other. Under safe and respectful conditions, they heard and understood each other’s positions. They established a respectful give-and-take relationship. Self interest was overcome as they acted together to solve a specific problem. The result they got was the best they could do.

They shared a common need to resolve the crisis. The ordeal of experiencing adversity together was the glue that connected them.

Participants moved from individual self-interest to community-wide good. They learned it under conditions where their own vital interests were threatened. Healing past hurts and moving on, they also learned how to cooperate for everyone’s mutual benefit.

The collaboration model. Daniels meets with disputants ahead of time to assess their potential for collaboration. He trains them in conflict management and then arranges meetings, field trips, and workshops designed to promote mutual learning and constructive debate. The process promotes civility, respects time and knowledge, fosters learning and creates an action plan to improve the situation.

He carefully mediates a venting session. Representatives of all interest groups are involved. This gives protagonists on both sides on an issue to talk about how they feel. These events take place on clearly neutral turf. If the issue affects the community as a whole then a public meeting would be held.

These meetings are often volatile and unpredictable. Speakers are counseled to give only "I" statements. "I know." "I believe." He monitors carefully to keep conflict within manageable limits as they get close to an agreement. The two sides have a meaningful voice and fashion their own agreement.

Daniels Collaboration Model:

- targets progress and improvement rather than solutions.

- emphasizes situation rather than problem or conflict.

- focuses on concerns and interests rather than positions.

- encourages systems thinking rather than linear thinking.

- recognizes much learning about value differences needs to take place before improvements are possible.

- emphasizes that learning occurs through communications and negotiations.

Daniels doesn’t expect a change in values or a new set of relationships. He does expect an enhanced sense of accomplishment, a deeper sense of community, and respect for the legitimacy of the values of opposing groups.

Community members learn to function in a multiparty setting with groups they may dislike or distrust. They rethink their negative stereotypes. Like Allen, Daniels found that progress on some issues lead to a willingness to address more issues.