By Eric Sims-Brown
I want the phone to ring and I don’t want it to ring. I think this is true nervousness, wanting two separate things to happen at the same time. Of course, the phone will ring. I’ll fumble the courage, remember the training. I have a little script in case I forget. The words are there, the concepts simple and powerful. I will say my lines verbatim because I want people to have their chance. Nothing is worse than being in the way.
“Have dove – will travel,” says Evan Ferber with a gentle laugh. Ferber is the founder and Executive Director of the Dispute Resolution Center of Thurston County (DRC). The DRC is a quiet idea housed in a nondescript brick building amidst the noisy streets and sidewalks of Fourth Avenue in downtown Olympia. Here is a safe place for people to come and try to settle their conflicts. “Our goal is to offer a process that gives people an opportunity to come to their own resolution based upon the discovery of their own needs and values,” says Ferber.
The DRC uses mediation to empower people. Unlike judges or lawyers, community mediators do not take sides. A mediator’s purpose is to provide structure and guidance. Andra Weddington has worked as a volunteer mediator at the DRC for almost ten years. She says mediation is great because, “it takes in multiple points of view.”
Clients who come to mediation bring with them history and emotion. They also bring their own truths. “There’s always something we don’t know,” says Weddington. Sometimes success is getting people to the table. “We don’t have to have ‘Kumbaya’ moments in order for mediation to be successful,” says Ferber.
The DRC handles about 350 cases every year. Cases range from issues between landlords and tenants to co-workers struggling to get along. However, the biggest workload is between parents trying to put together a fair parenting plan. “These can be very difficult mediations,” says Weddington. “Very often there is a lot of grief.”
I have observed one of these mediations. Turns out, success takes many forms. It can be creating dialogue among divorced parents, opening lines of communication between contentious neighbors, and even offering a crime victim the opportunity to engage with his or her juvenile offender. Ultimately, the objective is to create an environment free of power dynamics, those that often stifle real listening and understanding. “We want to try to help people settle their disputes at the lowest possible level which is in their neighborhoods, in their families, in their workplaces – in their communities,” says Ferber.
This ethos is one Ferber hopes catches on. The DRC is currently helping to develop a Peer Mediation Program at Avanti High School. In the past the DRC has held trainings with local governments and police departments. Forty hour professional trainings are offered four times a year and attract a variety of participants from both the public and private sector.
There are sticky notes of all shades stuck to the computer or file folders. The writing is in at least five different handwritings. Reminders to the next person – me. I’m a volunteer conciliator. “We couldn’t do our work in the community without the well trained, dedicated and committed volunteers,” says Ferber, a look of gratified amazement on his face.
The phone rings. Words pile up at the back of my mouth. I have so much to say to the person at the other end. I want to tell them about how mediation works, about negotiating in good faith, about caucuses and sliding scale fees. I need to figure out if they are a good fit for mediation. I have questions to ask, answers to get. I take a deep breath and swallow everything. The first thing I need to do is answer the phone. The second? Listen.
To learn more about the Dispute Resolution Center of Thurston County, click here.