I just returned from the Academy of Professional Family Mediators (APFM) Annual Conference in San Diego. Presenters included veteran mediators Forrest (Woody) Mosten, Bill Eddy, Marilyn McKnight and John Fiske, among others. I've been mediating since early 1999 so I’m not new to the field, but these folks have been mediating since the 70’s and 80’s, many of whom have had a direct hand in actually creating the field of family mediation (including Diane Neumann who unfortunately was not present this year). In fact, in the late 90’s or early 2000’s I attended a family mediation conference where John Fiske facilitated family mediation role-plays in front of a room full of 50 or more people, and I even participated as one of the parties. There’s no reason for Fiske to recall me, but I remember him quite well because of his sense of humor and his ease in front of others. At one point during this recent conference in San Diego I turned to a colleague during Bill Eddy’s presentation and asked about Eddy, “Do you think he knows he’s a mediation rock star?” My colleague replied: “absolutely, yes.” Eddy’s confidence and knowledge is always on display, yet so is his accessibility and willingness to teach, like with Fiske and other veteran mediators. Folks new to the field may not be fully aware of how unique an opportunity it is to tap the expertise of individuals so instrumental in creating, defining, and expanding a profession.
I have created and presented on a number of topics myself, most recently collaborating on the topic of same-sex couple disputes including at the national Association for Conflict Resolution Annual Conference held in Chicago four years ago. I recently blogged about how I entered the field of dispute resolution which is re-posted on a colleague, Alyson Carrel’s, blog: ADR as First Career. I've written a fair amount about mediation, have taught conflict resolution to undergraduate and graduate students, and have educated the public about mediation at my own cost.
Yet I found myself having two simultaneous thoughts during this conference. The first was that, given how energizing it was to be around such collective mediation knowledge, I realized that I need to re-challenge myself to consider my own offerings to the mediation field after nearly 16 years of experience. What do I have to contribute to the field of mediation at the present time and how do I build on that to have something to offer in the future? How do I connect with colleagues in some meaningful way? How do I say something not already being said that is practical and accessible and pushes fellow mediators in the ways I was professionally challenged during this conference?
The second permeating thought I had during and since the conference meant looking at how I defined myself from the outside in, considering the ways in which other attendees perhaps saw me. I could see them size me up, being 41 years of age (thanks Mom and Dad for blessing me with genes that make me look even younger) among a majority of folks in their 50’s and 60’s, and having a non-traditional entry into the field of Alternative Dispute Resolution. I saw expressions of surprise when I told folks that I mediated full-time, that I've had my own business since 2007 (currently accept select pro-bono cases only) and employment from one of the largest court systems in the country, and that I had been mediating since 1999.
For example, I continued to get the age-old question: “are you an attorney … therapist … social worker?”
“No,” was my reply complete with a head shake.
“Oh, so …. “
“I have a Master of Arts degree in Dispute Resolution,” I nodded.
“Oh, really? You can get a degree? From where?”
“Mine was from UMass Boston, but there are other programs.”
“Oh, so you…”
“I mediate full-time,” I concluded.
This particular conversation-along with my asking the open ended question of “what’s your ADR background” – was repeated with everyone I met. In the past, such questions didn’t surprise me, but keep in mind how long I’ve been mediating now. It was one thing to get this question in 2001, another thing all together to get it from fellow mediators in 2014; not clients or associates asking, but folks working directly in the field. How do folks in my own field, after all this time, not know that it’s possible to get a graduate degree in our field, and to have done so fifteen years ago? Initially, I found this irritating, but as I reflected on it, I saw that the shift had to come from me, not them. This brings me back to my first thought, and to the education work my colleague, Alyson Carrel, is doing through her ADR as FirstCareer blog. I, as well as others who started professional careers in ADR, need to make our presence more widely known.
So here’s what I will do. I can’t promise to present at next year’s conference, but I do commit to thinking beyond my day to day mediations, to analyzing the body of knowledge that I’ve accumulated in 16 years, and to building upon my unique perspective and experience to meaningfully connect with my peers in ways that will challenge and inspire them like so many mediators did for me in San Diego. It’s true that in the 70’s and 80’s and 90’s great attorneys took it upon themselves to become excellent family mediators, as did therapists and social workers. I won't become a mediation “rock star” but I do hope to shift the perspective within our field that we are limited to our origins when in fact the field of dispute resolution is itself its own field of origin for increasing numbers of us. Some speakers touched upon this at the conference, but there is a lot more work to do.