Mediators Beyond Borders

March 27, 2009

You have probably heard of Doctors Without Borders (Medecins Sans Frontieres), and possibly have heard of Engineers Without Borders, but you most likely have not heard of Mediators Beyond Borders. It is a relatively new non-profit, established in 2006, with the following mission:

Mediators Beyond Borders brings together experienced mediators to volunteer their skills world-wide, in collaboration with local, indigenous and global partners, to improve conflict resolution capacity and support alternative approaches to expressing, negotiating and resolving interpersonal, political, economic, social, ethnic and religious differences.

I am excited to discover that there is an organization doing this type of work! Conflict resolution, mediation, and alternative dispute resolution are critical to building a more peaceful world, and it is wonderful that there is an organization through which people interested in this work can volunteer and donate their time to the parts of the country and world where conflict is rampant. They have projects going on in several locations, including Liberia, New Orleans, and Zimbabwe. When I contemplate whether I would be interested in doing international, humanitarian work, this is the type of work that most draws my interest (however, my immediate goal is to do such work within my local community rather than internationally).

An important piece of building peace is making it sustainable in the local communities. Although first-responder work is important in crisis situations, for long-term peace it is crucial that the communities take control and are not dependent on outsiders to sustain their peace. Mediators Beyond Borders definitely seems to have this focus, with a goal of partnering with local communities:

Mediators Beyond Borders – Partnering for Peace & Reconciliation is a non-profit, humanitarian organization established to partner with communities worldwide to build their conflict resolution capacity for preventing, resolving and healing from conflict. This partnership involves the design and implementation of sustainable peace building initiatives responsive to the needs and culture of the communities, and to the history of each conflict. MBB is not a first responder, and is not prepared to intervene in the midst of violent crises.

I love the concept of “Without Borders” or “Beyond Borders” in all three organizations. It highlights that we all have a shared humanity which transcends political and geographical borders, and taking care of each other is more important than our differences.


Volunteering for restorative justice

December 13, 2008

In November I started volunteering as a community representative for the University of Colorado at Boulder restorative justice program. I have so far participated in four community accountability boards, which bring together a student offender, two facilitators, and two to three community representatives. The goal of the conference is to allow the student to tell their story fully without fear of repercussions, to discuss who may have been harmed by their actions and the impact those actions had on the greater community, and to come up with a list of concrete things the student can do to help repair those harms. The hope is also that by talking with and listening to non-student members of their community the student will feel a bit more connected to the greater community in which they live. The offenses for which students typically end up in restorative justice are things such as nuisance party tickets and inordinate noise tickets.

I like the concept behind restorative justice; the emphasis on repairing harm rather than punishing makes sense to me. I also think it is important to try to connect the student with members of the community and have them think about the harm they may have caused; if a student feels connected to the people in their community then hopefully they will be more likely to think about the impact of their actions in the future.

However, it is hard to tell whether the students are really taking away from the conference what we hope they are. The fact is that they are there because they got a ticket, meaning they broke the law. Sometimes it seems difficult to take the focus of the conference off of the fact of their law-breaking, and the student’s main motivation seems to be to not break the law again – not because they truly care about their neighbors so much as because they do not want to get another ticket. Although the community members in the conference, including myself, try to talk about the harms and discuss why noise can disturb someone, I question how effectively that message gets through to the student.

In addition, although the agreement items – things to repair the harm – we come up with are mutually decided upon with the student, I think it is challenging to keep them from sounding like punishments. In order to be fair to all the students who come through the program, there are guidelines for how many hours each student needs to do for a given type of ticket. Thus, we are in fact forcing something upon the student, not the exact look of the items but the need for a certain amount of them to exist. There is of course much flexibility within this process, and the student must agree to each item; we cannot force them to any particular thing. However, there is still, to me, an underlying slight sense of punishment, and I wonder if any of the students feel that way as well.

I am not sure how the concerns I have could be remedied. Part of what I am experiencing here may be simply the disappointment of an imperfect implementation of a perfect-sounding theory. I have only worked with two different sets of facilitators but I already see that their skill varies widely (I do not think the facilitator training is particularly extensive). The ability of the facilitator can certainly impact how effective the process is for the student.

I am thinking that the situation where a student has already received a ticket is not the ideal time to get them to connect with their community. It is of course natural that they will be concerned with not breaking the law again. I am imagining that some form of dialogue or community-building between students and their non-student neighbors, that is not tied to anybody having done something illegal, could be more effective at building bridges and encouraging the students to actually want to be respectful of their neighbor’s needs. When people know each other and care about each other to some degree they will first of all be more likely to not cause disturbances in the first place, and second of all be more capable of talking out and resolving conflicts that arise before it gets to the point of someone receiving a ticket. This is the ideal we should be striving for.

I think I would enjoy more working with people in situations unrelated to law-breaking, and in particular I think I would enjoy working on building connections between people. My idea of a neighborhood dialogue or community-building event is still nascent, but I intend to research if any such thing exists and think some more about the exact form such an event could take.

In the meantime, I will continue being a community representative for restorative justice conferences. My understanding is that the ideal model of restorative justice is one where the conference is called whenever one party causes harm to another, in a process detached from legal process, and it is only in our imperfect society that it is implemented within the legal system. Thus, despite its imperfections, I think restorative justice certainly has potential to make a difference, and is one step along the path to peace.

Getting lost in the details

October 25, 2008

I have a strong need to do some sort of active work related to peace, something more than write this blog, but I have not yet figured out the exact form I want such work to take. The question I would like to answer is “what sort of work would make me feel like I am directly doing something for peace?” However, when I contemplate a particular activity I could do, I immediately fear that I will not feel completely satisfied by it, that once I start doing it I will find that the everyday details overshadow any sense of helping the greater good or that it won’t feel like enough because it is only affecting a small set of people. I know these fears stem in part from my strongly held ideals; I addressed this same issue in my post on “How to live as an idealist.” The question of what work to do is difficult to answer because any concrete work is not going to completely fulfill my ideals. I am only able to imagine being fully satisfied by peace work when I think about such work in the abstract.

However, I do think it is possible to participate in peace-related activities that I find meaning in, and I do not expect to answer the question of what those activities are by sitting around at home browsing non-profit websites and writing blog posts. It is important that I do take action, even though the actions feel like they fall short of my ideals, because this is the only way I can come closer to an answer. By trying a variety of activities, I will hopefully discover what sort of work feels most meaningful to me and best utilizes my skills and abilities. This is why I started volunteering in July at a food bank, and am now pursuing volunteer work in a restorative justice program. Although neither of these programs perfectly meet my ideals, my participation in them gives me new experiences and perspectives and sheds different lights on the question of what work I want to do related to peace.

As I spend time studying specific types of work I may do, I do not want to forget the larger reasons of why I am pursuing such ideas to begin with. Although thinking about my ideals can cause me to feel dissatisfied with any concrete work, I feel that remembering them is also central in helping me discover the most satisfying work possible. I need to re-center myself occasionally on my vision of a world at peace and the skills and characteristics I bring to this vision: my strong compassion, the fact that I am not desensitized to violence, my ability to listen and communicate well, and my ability to be in touch with my feelings. As I contemplate doing particular peace-related work, I do not want to lose sight of my vision for the world or of the combination of skills and experiences that is uniquely mine to contribute.

International Conflict Resolution Day

October 16, 2008

Today is International Conflict Resolution Day. In recognition of this day, a variety of organizations at the University of Colorado, Boulder, put together a day of workshops on the topic of conflict resolution. I took the day off work in order to attend five of the six workshops, and it was well worth it. Here is a short summary of the workshops I attended (I may write additional posts with more detailed thoughts on some of them):

  • Communication and Conflict: In this workshop we learned about active listening, “I” messages, framing, and anticipation as four techniques to use during conflict. None of this was new to me, but it is always good to be reminded about these things and it was fun to have the opportunity to do a few partner exercises.
  • Constructive Confrontation: This was focused on the concept of intractable conflicts, ones that may never be resolvable. The presenters talked about techniques for making these conflicts constructive rather than destructive. At the end we had the opportunity to work in groups to discuss how we would advise the president to approach various current domestic topics within this framework (the economy, the environment, and the war in Iraq).
  • The Basics of Dialogue: This workshop presented the techniques to foster dialogue. The goal of dialogue is not necessarily resolution of a conflict, but simply for each party to reach a deeper understanding of the other parties. The woman who gave the presentation works at the university and gave some examples of how they have used the dialogue process. It was very interesting and motivating.
  • Debriefing of 10-14-08 “Un-Debate” Event: On Tuesday evening they had held a debate between the candidates for congressperson, with the goal being to make it a productive discussion rather than a traditional debate. The discussion today was about how that went, and it was interesting even though I did not go to the un-debate itself. I had watched the presidential debate last night and we talked about that some of the time as well.
  • Restorative Justice Demonstration: In this workshop we all participated in a mock restorative justice victim-offender circle. It was an interesting experience, and I also made some connections that may lead to new volunteer opportunities and/or mediation or facilitation trainings.

Overall, the day was even better than I expected because not only was the content of the workshops interesting, but I also had the opportunity to talk to other people who are interested in or actively doing this sort of work. It was very inspiring to meet these people and see hard proof that I am not alone!

I also found out about some possible ways I can get more involved. In particular, I could volunteer as a community representative for the Community Accountability Board conference that the University restorative justice program holds. With experience doing that, I could then go through their training to become a facilitator. They will also be offering a mediation training in February. Another place I could potentially volunteer is at The Conflict Center in Denver; I talked to a very nice and friendly woman who works there (it is a bit far, unfortunately).

Finally, two other interesting people I talked to were an Economics professor from Georgia who has always focused on peace issues and is currently on leave in Boulder starting a new organization related to peace, and a woman who currently works as an electrical engineer but is also getting a master’s in peace and conflict studies.

All in all, it was a very motivating day!

I’m baaaaaack

July 23, 2008

Ok, well I haven’t actually been gone this whole time (I was out of town for a week) but for some reason I haven’t felt inspiration for blogging in the past couple weeks. For one thing, I’m trying to cut down my procrastination while working and consequently I’m spending less time reading other blogs and browsing the internet, which translates to finding out about fewer things I would potentially blog about. However, I think I’m also feeling a bit discouraged – or perhaps distanced – from thinking about peace. The thing is, issues related to peace do not often play into my everyday life. I live a very peaceful life in general: I live in a small town, and my neighborhood has little violence or crime – in fact none that I have noticed or been aware of; I do not often have serious conflicts with other people; and I earn enough to easily purchase all that I need without worry. Granted, perhaps I do not have conflicts with others because I naturally communicate in a peaceful manner. But my point is that much of the violence and war that is currently going on in this world has little perceived direct impact on my everyday life.

Now, I know that it does actually affect my life. Things like the economy, the environment, and the well-being and happiness of the people in my environment are affected by violence and war in the world. And, for me, simply being aware that such violence is occurring is enough to affect my perspective and attitude towards things. Still, I can only read so many articles about violent events or look at so many non-profits trying to make a difference or read about so many approaches to conflict resolution before I start to feel distanced from it all. I feel discouraged reading about mediation and conflict resolution techniques because the impact they may have had (and I know there have been some successes, although I wonder how long-term those successes are) seems so small compared to all the wars, genocides, and other violence. Then there is the domestic violence, rape apology and general misogyny that I read about on feminist blogs, areas where it seems that so little progress has been made. I think, perhaps, like I discussed in an earlier post, I have reached a point of information overload. I have been paying attention to issues related to peace so much that I have started becoming desensitized to them.

I want very much to make peace relevant to my life; that is, to take actions that I feel are making progress towards creating peace. I would like to work with people, as I feel that would give me the most satisfaction in feeling that I am doing something meaningful. However, I have yet to figure out what this type of work (either volunteer or paid) would be. For the moment, I am volunteering at a food bank, but I’m not sure it is quite what I have in mind (however, I have only been there twice so far and I’m sure there is much I will gain from the experience). I also feel that in order to take this action, whatever it is, I want to study peace and conflict resolution more formally, or with at least more direction, than I have so far. I don’t want to continue just reading news articles and browsing the websites of non-profits aimlessly, but rather I want to read such things with a goal in mind of what I want to gain from reading it or how I want to approach the topic mentally and analytically.

Writing this blog is one way that I have been hoping to find more direction for my interest in peace, but I think so far I have been interested in and been inspired to write about such a diverse set of topics that it hasn’t yet helped with giving direction! Perhaps I am simply still at the exploratory phase, but now, in addition to continuing to explore, I also want to work on narrowing my interest to something more focused.

Taking action

June 30, 2008

Those of you who know me personally know that I am not very good at making decisions, particularly when it comes to personal things. Well, one of the things about which I have recently been plagued by indecision is volunteering. I am eager to volunteer somewhere, doing something for other people in my free time rather than only engaging in activities that are purely for my own enjoyment. I have spent hours browsing lists of non-profits and volunteer positions, but I have not been able to settle on something. I feel as I have an abstract ideal in my head of what exactly this volunteer position looks like, and nothing that exists in reality perfectly matches that ideal. When I look at any concrete volunteer opportunity, I am frozen by doubts – what exactly will be required of me? what if I don’t like it? what if it causes me to have a negative view of people instead of a positive one like I am hoping? what if I don’t like working with people? what if this doesn’t have enough people interaction? And so on. And so, I am stuck in a mode of inaction.

However, today I took action. I came across some opportunities posted on craigslist with a local organization called The Emergency Family Assistance Association. They provide “food, financial assistance programs, emergency shelter and transitional housing programs,” as well as work with other local organizations. They had several types of opportunities posted and in my email I expressed interested in two of them: guiding families through the food bank and helping them with their food selection, and interviewing people to assess their needs. I am more interested in the latter, but I thought it might be easier to start with the former, to ease into volunteering.

It does not perfectly match my ideal volunteer position (does anything?), but I chose to act on this opportunity because it involves direct interaction with people in need, which is something I would like to gain experience with. It is not as directly related to peace and non-violence as I would like, but I feel that it is somewhat related: meeting people’s basic needs of food and shelter is critical to creating a peaceful community.

In the end, I can not know exactly what volunteering at EFAA would be like, or what I could gain from the experience, until I try it. With this realization, I broke myself out of my indecision and emailed the volunteer coordinator. Now here’s hoping I receive a positive response and get to pursue this further!