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Resolving conflicts, one student at a time

Whether it's a freshman who can't stand her roommate, a group that has trouble working together or a romantic relationship hitting the rocks, the trained mediators of the Brown University Mediation Project want to help. While BUMP's services — conflict resolution through mediation sessions with trained student mediators — are readily available, confidential and free, few Brown students seek mediation, making BUMP "the best-kept secret at Brown," according to Phil O'Hara '55, director of student activities and staff adviser to BUMP.

"A lot of people have a vague idea" about what mediation is, said BUMP's general coordinator Charlie Wisoff '11.5, but many "don't even register it as a possibility" to resolve conflict.

"The way disputes are settled in society normally is a very adversarial way," in which people argue against each other to determine a winner and loser, Wisoff said. Mediation, on the other hand "is much more collaborative," he said.

Mediation works by bringing together everyone involved in a conflict. They sit down together with "a third party, the mediator, to try to find some resolution to their dispute," said Steven Davis '11, co-president of BUMP. This mediator "is just there as a facilitator to the discussion," he said, and "isn't there to make a decision."

"The parties have total control over the process, over any resolution that comes out of the process," Davis said. The mediator is there to draw out each party's interests and bring about creative solutions, he added.

"It's not give-and-take, it's not zero-sum," he added. "It's collaborating to make a solution that works for everybody."

Students who want to meet with a mediator e-mail the organization and BUMP contacts the other parties in the dispute. If everyone is on board, the parties sit down for a two-hour session with a BUMP mediator who has no conflict of interest with either party. Mediators will arrange more sessions if the parties desire.

"The point of mediation isn't necessarily the agreement, the resolution," Davis said. "It's really the process of bringing people closer together."

 "Even if people leave hating each other," he added, "at least they know why. And they have some way to deal with their relationship going forward."

Molding mediators

BUMP was founded in 1993 by the Office of Student Life and the Office of the Chaplains and Religious Life "to afford students an alternative route to dispute resolution," O'Hara said. "We only had one format back in those days" for solving conflict, he added, "and that was through the dean's office."

A few years after it was created, the students involved decided to change the group from a departmental to student organization, O'Hara said. It was during this transition that O'Hara — a trained mediator himself — became the staff adviser to the group. He added that somewhere between 200 and 250 students have become trained mediators through BUMP, which offers free training sessions for interested students and faculty once a year during the spring semester.

This year, mediation training drew about as many participants as in previous years. Davis said 20 new mediators — 17 students and three University employees — completed the more than 30 hours of training at the beginning of this semester.

The Community Mediation Center of Rhode Island handled the BUMP training this year, said co-president Susan Restrepo '11. "We've really been trying to revamp," she said.

Before this year, BUMP had "been dormant for about five years."
Involving the Community Mediation Center was one way Restrepo hoped to revive the group. "I really wanted to get involved with them because they're so active in the community."

This year's BUMP trainees "were absolutely eager and excited," said Victoria Moreno-Jackson, program director at the center, who conducted the training along with Executive Director Abbie Jones-Herriott. "They were really turning the concepts over in their minds and seeking to understand how they work," she added.

The training session "was an introduction to mediation skills" that taught all the components of mediation, including active listening, impartiality, helping parties listen to one another and understand their deeper interests, asking open-ended questions and encouraging the development of a solution, Moreno-Jackson said.

BUMP mediators go through the training with the goal of mediating Brown students as well as building skills they can use in their own lives, Restrepo said.

Wissof added that meditation skills such as communication and dispute resolution are "valuable in so many career paths."

Moreno-Jackson also noted the group's enthusiasm with the prospect of volunteering and further training opportunities. Currently, both Restrepo and Davis are interns at the Community Mediation Center.

Restrepo works with the center's eviction prevention program. "It's been a really eye-opening experience into downtown Providence and really what many Americans are going through right now," she said. The internship has also helped her realize "the good will … that can exist between landlords and tenants. People really are willing to communicate."
Davis works in local small claims and housings courts, helping to resolve disputes before parties go in front of a judge.

"What people generally find is that mediated decisions are more satisfying to the parties and are upheld more often," he said.

Wisoff has also been involved in mediation in the greater Providence community through the center. In February, he participated in a conference about sustainable farming attended by government officials, interest groups and farmers.

BUMP's work off of College Hill has not gone unnoticed. In May, Rhode Island's Fund for Community Progress will be giving BUMP the Susan Welin Award for Nonviolence. The award is given for promoting "peaceful conflict resolution in the state of Rhode Island," Moreno-Jackson said. The Community Mediation Center nominated BUMP and O'Hara, "who has really kept the program alive," Restrepo said. "He's just a tremendous member of the community, a mediator himself, and someone who genuinely believes in the process of mediation."

A BUMPy road

While people in the greater Providence community may be willing to communicate through mediation, "BUMPers" have been disappointed with a lack of participation on Brown's campus. "We haven't been able to get any sustained interest on behalf of the students," O'Hara said.

"It's been very difficult to convince people to reach out to BUMP instead of going to the deans," Restrepo said. Part of the problem, she added, might be that BUMP is completely voluntary. "It's difficult because with most successful mediation programs, students are mandated to go through mediation before they talk to a dean."

At the same time, she added, "I think that it goes along with the Brown culture that it be voluntary," even if it means fewer students are signing up to be mediated.

Often, "people think they can handle it on their own," Davis said of student conflicts. Or they think that they "can suffer through it" and that "after this semester, it'll all be fine."

"We want people to understand that they don't have to suffer through conflict," he said.
"That does not lead to greater understanding," she added.

Some students also might worry about discussing their issues with peers. But BUMP's mediators do not even discuss mediation sessions with each other and destroy their notes at the end of the mediation, O'Hara said.

In regards to roommate conflicts, Wisoff said, given "the choice between moving out of your room, and all that stress, versus talking it out with someone — I would like to think that sitting down and talking it out for two hours would be more productive."

BUMP has been in negotiations with the Office of Residential Life about offering mediation training to incomin
g students and Residential Peer Leaders. "Our goal is to lessen their overflow of student conflicts," Restrepo said. Building this partnership, however, has been "a slow process," she added.

"We consistently work with outreaches to ResLife and to Student Life, so it isn't that they're not aware of us and aware of the potential," O'Hara said.

BUMP is also increasing its outreach to students through advertising and new office hours, Davis said. The group is also "building a leadership team right now that will probably take over by the end of the semester," Restrepo said.

"We have a really energetic and great group of people right now," she added, and "it's our effort to ensure that the momentum continues."

Spreading the concepts of open communication and positive-sum results to conflict are important on college campuses, Moreno-Jackson said. By mediating in the Brown community, BUMP is "introducing these concepts to our future leaders."


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