Virginia's Judicial System

Does Diversity Matter?:
A Question For Mediators

"Am I qualified to mediate?" "Of course you are. You're certified." "Yes. But can I truly help people hear each other, understand each other and work together to make a plan that meets their needs? Am I actually performing the service that I say I am providing?" "Look. You are a certified and recertified mediator, a certified mentor mediator, an approved trainer to teach certified courses, a mediator with nearly thirteen years of experience who has served thousands of people and you have co-authored three manuals on the topic. What are you talking about?" "I am a middle-aged, white man with blue eyes. I am the status quo. The dominant culture. Since birth, the path has been made before me. No obstacles. No biases or prejudices against me from those in power. No reason to be anything but successful. I've had it easy. I was part of the club without even joining. What do I know beyond that? What experiences do I have that give me even an inkling of what exclusion means, what prejudice feels like, what uncertainty is?" "Hmmmh. Well I don't know. I mean...uuhh... what are you talking about?"

Why does this seem so complex, when it is very simple, really? Let's start with a simple idea. The world is multicultural. The United States and Virginia are multicultural. Differences abound...languages, customs, clothing, paces, expectations, moralities, religions, histories. Biases, prejudices, racism, sexism, ageism, homophobia and other states of mind and heart exist in the world, the USA, and Virginia.

There are dominant cultures within societies around the world that comprise the leadership of the governmental, social, religious, financial and commercial centers. The dominant culture has power, expects assimilation of all citizens, and does not understand why people do not assimilate and why anyone would complain about the way things are. People who are not in the dominant culture feel left out, excluded, demeaned, abused and oppressed. It is a struggle.

Members of the dominant culture do not talk about it much because it is not a struggle for them. They do not, or do not wish to, recognize that anyone is struggling. The excluded peoples talk about it often because it is a daily struggle for them and for their children. People of the dominant culture do not understand.

Responding to a request for mediation, a team of four mediators, two men, two women, two black, two white, traveled to a community in Virginia. After meeting with some clients in the morning and driving across town to interview others in the afternoon, one of the African-American mediators said to the other, "We have to get out of this town before dark." "Yes we do," replied the other African-American mediator. "What do you mean?" asked one of the white mediators, with a sincere, wondering look. The reply-"This place is not safe for black people, especially from out of town. This is a place where black people disappear."

The conversation that followed was enlightening and enriching for each mediator. The year was not 1920, or 1950, or 1960. It was 1999. I had been to that town before and never felt threatened or unsafe. I used to wonder about conditions in that town and many other towns that I visit. Now I ask about my wonderings, and now I know more.

So, what do I know when the two clients before me are of different races. How can I help them understand each other? How can I help them see the other's point of view? If one client is a white man and the other is an African-American woman, I must recognize that I am at least two cultures away from understanding her. Will she perceive that the meeting is biased against her, if I work alone? I could say that diversity does not matter, and proceed. Or, I could say that diversity does matter and provide a multi-cultural two-person mediation team. Or, if I cannot provide a team, I could discuss the question with the woman and see what she prefers. In my practice, I have provided teams and, on the rare occasion that I cannot provide a team, I have explained to the client that if she did not wish to work with me alone, I would understand and encourage her to seek other mediators.

What about the mediation process we use? Do we hold to it religiously? What if we have clients who talk to each other and interrupt each other, who speak loudly and show great emotion? Some cultures are more expressive than others, more interactive and louder than others. Some need to have a time for lively, open argument without any interruptions by the mediators. Other cultures prefer strict order with people taking turns, talking while the other is silent. Some need a little of both. Not all people want to come alone to have to work one-on-one with the other client. They may want a supportive person with them like a friend or family member.

How open are we to these differences? If we take the view that our purpose is to facilitate understanding and if we recognize that diversity matters, then we will be flexible with our process. We want each person to gain some understanding of the other. We want to identify issues that each person needs and wants to resolve. We want to acknowledge the stories, information and feelings that we are hearing to show that we understand what is being said and to assist the other person(s) in understanding.

Does the mediator understand? As a mediator, each of us must look at our own cultures. Do we bring any understanding to the meeting that will allow us to hear what actually is being said and to ask helpful questions? Do we get the meaning of our clients' words and manner?

All of us who serve as mediators must acknowledge that diversity matters. We must be vigilant about our own level of understanding and about the appropriateness of the process we use when we serve our clients.

It is simple, really. Be thoughtful. Work and play with people who are different. Ask questions. Keep learning. And keep wondering.

[Resources: Online search key words: Diversity, Multicultural, African-American, Islam, etc. Books: You Just Don't Understand, by Deborah Tannen; Why are all the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? by Beverly Tatum.]

Bob Garrity is a partner at FSR Associates, a mediation and training company in Charlottesville and Mt. Crawford. His practice involves services and training for groups of people in the workplace, schools, government, corporations, agencies, organizations, places of worship and communities.

This page last modified: October 18, 2002