Alternative Dispute Resolution Moves from Courts to City Hall

Article excerpt

This article continues The Weekly's coverage of resources available to cities searching for ways to further racial and ethnic understanding Earlier articles described community dialogue and discussion groups (March 4, 1996), a campaign to encourage candid conversations on race (June 3, 1996), diversity education programs for adults and children (September 9, 1996 and September 30, 1996), and mediation services (February 10, 1997).

Courts, labor unions, businesses and schools have all turned to alternative dispute resolution (ADR) techniques in recent years to avoid costly and time-consuming court battles or accompanies most conflict.

From contract disputes to divorce, ADR is being applied successfully to many areas of the law. These alternative approaches to resolving conflict are spreading from the courthouse steps to other public institutions.

Many local governments now are turning to ADR practitioners for help in solving public policy problems where traditional political solutions have proven ineffective.

In San Francisco a community mediation center is helping Korean American small business owners resolve their conflicts with African American youths. In Rochester, NY, a community mediator is working to resolve tensions between youth and police. In Arlington, VA, a conflict analysis group is studying indigenous leadership and is developing leadership skills among members of new and traditional immigrant communities.

So when can an ADR expert help? According to Kevin Clements, Director of the Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution (ICAR) at George Mason University in Fairfax, VA, there are a variety of circumstances when an ADR expert is a good choice.

"When your ordinary decision-making process has broken down or when the proportion of successful to unsuccessful decisions leans more toward unsuccessful," Clements said.

"Or when you perceive increasing polarization and you can no longer bridge the gap between the parties or groups. Any time you are at an obvious impasse in your policy discussions or in a relationship an ADR practitioner could probably help," he added.

Conflict resolution is a generalized approach using dialogue, listening skills, and other tools to help the parties in conflict develop their own solutions.

"Some in the field are talking about conflict transformation now," said Clements. "That is, changing relationships so people can deal with their differences in a more effective way."

Since the players often have different views about what is taking place, a conflict resolution expert can offer a neutral analysis of the problem, and then can design a process for dealing with the conflict.

"They can help develop collaborative methods for dealing with problems, and can provide alternatives to adversarial politics," Clements added.

ADR professionals agree that finding a person with the best match of skills for your particular conflict can be difficult. Clements suggests looking for a combination of university training and experience in the field. A practitioner with a solid track record -- especially in your problem area -- should be able to provide references.

If your city is home to a large university, you could have a good selection of practitioners from which to choose. More than 300 universities in the U.S. are now offering degree or certificate programs in conflict analysis and resolution. Many university programs are affiliated with political science departments or law schools, but some are independent from an academic department.

These programs often include clinics where students and professionals work together on conflict projects in the local community.

Another resource is your state office of dispute resolution, arbitration or mediation. …