Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Letter to the president's cabinet of Skidmore

The letter below was written in response to a proposal by the President's Cabinet at Skidmore to extend permanent funding for mediation training to students.

Dear Members of the President’s Cabinet,

Mediation training at Skidmore is an invaluable skill worth far more than the sum required to continue annual or twice-yearly training. As a 2011 graduate and former president of Skidmore’s Conflict Resolution Group (Fight Club) I cannot emphasize enough the impact the training has had on me.

The training has been an integral part of alternative dispute resolution on the campus. Turning out classes of about 60 trained mediators a year, students are given the tools to reduce conflict on their own. In Fight Club we worked hard to not only cultivate these skills but to give every student access to them at all times. There are several “crash courses” of alternative dispute resolution training on campus every year for many student leaders—residential life, inter-group relations, and club trainings. Mediation training, however, remains unique in its comprehensiveness as well as the official state certification that it bestows on trainees at the end of the training.

The training is just the beginning though. With a robust campus community of ADR enthusiasts as well as the support of the local mediation program—Mediation Matters—students are given a unique opportunity to cultivate, hone, and refine their skills for the real world. By the time I left Skidmore I had been mediating for 3 years—a first-year could have 4 years of experience by graduation. These are directly transferable skills. When many jobs require 3-5 years’ experience in a field, this gives graduates a substantial leg-up and competitive with graduates several years their senior.

That was the case for me. I started at Triangle Associates in the Fall of 2011, gaining employment almost immediately in this down economy. Triangle Associates is a Seattle-based facilitation and public involvement firm that uses the principles of ADR and applies them to questions of policy. At Triangle Associates we act as neutral third parties that help diverse interest groups come to consensus. It is not an easy job, and it would be even more difficult if I had not been versed in the principles of ADR.

Every day we work with clients on high conflict, high stakes issues. Recently we facilitated the Bristol Bay Draft Environmental Assessment public hearings. These hearings assessed the possible environmental impacts to the Bristol Bay watershed if an open pit mine were constructed. Subsistence tribes, salmon fishers, congressmen, senators, local politicians, mine representatives, and many more commented on the importance of the area. Their comments were all taken and the hearings run in a fair and open manner by our staff. If we had not been trained in ADR and experienced neutrals we could have faced enormous consequences—not least of which would have been the dissolution or de-legitimization of these important comment sessions.

This last spring Triangle Associates also facilitated the King County School Siting Task Force. At the end of the process there was 100% consensus on the recommendations for school siting compliance with the Growth Management Act. This is something that will have a tangible impact on how the Seattle and King County regions will grow and develop for the next 50 years—policies that will impact over 3.5 million people today and millions more in the future. Without mediation training or ADR, the group could have easily strayed and lost their focus. During initial stakeholder interviews, many potential sources of conflict and misunderstanding were present. Through our commitment to open dialogue we were able to help the Task Force reach their goals.

Internally, we spend much of our time looking at how we can craft an environment conducive to effective conflict resolution for our clients and ourselves. In our many and varied dialogues I have found my opinions are valuable contributions to how Triangle conducts business.

My training in mediation was supported by the commitment of Mediation Matters and the school to my professional development. With the downturned economy, those funds came into jeopardy, and by the time I graduated, the next training appeared to be the last. It wasn’t—barely.

While at Skidmore, one of the single greatest stresses for the fledgling Fight Club was the uncertainty of funding for the following school year. It consumed many hours of my—and the e-board’s—time. This effectively reduced the quality of services and depth of conflict resolution skills that any one student at Skidmore could achieve or provide.

While I have successfully gotten my foot in the door at Triangle Associates, Skidmore’s conflict resolution program is still in its infancy and can do much more for the student body. By guaranteeing funding for basic mediation training at Skidmore, the President’s Cabinet has the opportunity to give Fight Club a place to expand. The majority of Fight Club’s annual budget has been dedicated to this basic training with subsequent means of professional development truncated into one hour lectures or recommended reading lists.

If Skidmore were to have the funds guaranteed, then each subsequent class will have the opportunity to drastically increase the quality and depth of their conflict resolution education. This will translate into students positioned to make direct impacts in the world that advance Skidmore’s strategic goals. People willing to actively listen to the nature of conflict and dedicated to its resolution at all scales.

Mediation training afforded me something that very few academic programs offer: the opportunity to descend from the Ivory Tower and apply the philosophy in real world settings. I was a volunteer mediator at Mediation Matters. I helped facilitate—if incompletely—the dialogues at Skidmore after the Compton’s incident. If building community and preparing students for the real world is Skidmore’s destination, then mediation training has—for me—been the light on my path. And I venture to guess that there are few alumni of the program that did not find a valuable and applicable skill from this training.

I urge the President’s Cabinet to approve of this proposal. The opportunities afforded to me should be afforded all students, and by giving the program this funding, the President’s Cabinet is laying the ground work for an extraordinary and meaningful program.

Thank you,

Nick Hara
Class of 2011