I was part of RNW’s pilot cohort for Equity-Informed Mediation. In age, culture, and experience, the cohort was a diverse group – African-American, Kenyan, Native American and Latinx. We spent hours building community, engaging in the universal practices of empathy, and discussing how to be impartial to participants while being intolerant to injustice. In the beginning, we struggled to find the balance.

Oregon’s standards and practices for mediation accommodate dominate culture. But how do we welcome cultural nuances of communication so all parties can bring their full selves and resolve conflict in a way that is meaningful to those outside the frame of dominate culture?

In my first mediation, I saw clearly how cultural dynamics and structures of oppression play out in individual conflict. And I also saw how we as mediators can get in the way of people bringing their whole selves to the conversation.

Two neighbors were encouraged to come to mediation by their building manager – both were apprehensive. One was a middle-aged white woman, and the other was a middle-aged Native American man. Their conflict had escalated to feelings of vulnerability, lack of safety, and fear. The personal histories of each party – layered with culture, gender, and class – created a perfect storm in which these parties saw each other as enemies.

During the mediation, the Native American man asked to tell a story. We as mediators almost denied him that space. Fortunately, the other party acknowledged the importance of story for Native Americans and created the opening for him to share. The story gave a detailed depiction of rage, fear, and pain – leaving the other party (and myself) teary-eyed.

Shortly after, both parties came to an understanding and both began to think collaboratively about how things could be different. So much was at play in that mediation – culture, gender, structural poverty. I began to ask myself how I, as a mediator, can create the space for all parties to bring their full selves to the table.

In my next mediation with a white woman and black man, I was determined to keep in mind the structural issues of gender and race at play. At that time, there was so much happening in the community around the killings of unarmed black men by police that tensions were running high. Over the course of the mediation we created space for the black man to share how the white woman’s words really impacted him. We shared the nested model of conflict and were able to zoom out of the interpersonal conflict to the structural issues at play. The white woman was receptive to hearing how her interpersonal interactions contributed to the structural and historical impacts of passive racism. The equity component of the mediation process gave him space to bring his authentic self to the conversation and in that room, they connected in ways they had never done before.

Conflict doesn’t just work at an interpersonal level. As mediators, we must consider how structural, historical, and cultural dynamics contribute to conflict. And always be open to what we are not seeing.

– Jae Tai, Equity-Informed RNW Mediator