Silke Hansen

CRS Mediator, Denver Office

[Full Interview]


Is there anything else that you try to do in the initial meeting besides finding out what their view of the issue is?


To some extent, I am already trying to lay the ground work for potential mediation. Now of course, the majority of the cases do not end up going to mediation! But let me give you an example. This could be any community. I go into the minority community and let's say that they are concerned about a racist school superintendent. So I will go in and say, "What's the problem?"

They say, "We've got a racist superintendent."

"What do you want to do?" I'll ask.

"We want to get rid of him."

That is their number one demand, get rid of the superintendent. So I go on.

"Okay. So if you get rid of the superintendent, then what?"

"Well," they say, "we will get a superintendent who isn't racist."

"Fine," I reply, "but who hired the superintendent?"

"The school board."

"Okay. Who is going to hire the next superintendent?"

"The school board."

Now we're getting deeper into the issue. "Well, how can you be sure that you are not going to get another racist?"

"We'll tell them that we don't want a racist."

"But how do you know that he is not a racist?" I'll ask. "What are the kinds of things that this superintendent is doing that let you know that he or she is racist? What are you going to tell the board that will convince them so that they will not hire another racist?"

"Okay," they'll say, changing their approach a bit, "we'll say we need somebody who hires more minority staff."

Okay. Now we've gotten somewhere. So then I start writing on my flip chart if there is one. "Okay, so part of the problem is the hiring policies here," I'll say. "What else?"

"Well, look at the discipline here. They are expelling and suspending far more minority kids than white kids."

"Okay, so the discipline problem is an issue." I continue writing on the chart. By having that kind of discussion I am now helping the community to focus not on the individual, but on the existing policies that need to be changed. Because the reality is that even if they get a different superintendent, if he or she does the exact same thing as the one they have now, they haven't gotten anywhere. On the other hand, if the current superintendent can be persuaded to do things differently, the problems could be resolved. Now, of course, I'm not at that point yet with the group. But if the superintendent would change some behaviors if he would do certain things differently then he wouldn't be seen as a racist that needs to be replaced. Yet initially, the only option that the community sees is, "Get rid of the racist bastard and get somebody better."

So when you start taking about what somebody better would look like and what the differences would be, we now begin to get some issues that I can then take to the superintendent. I can't just go and say, "They think you're a racist," because, obviously, the superintendent is not going to agree that he is a racist in most cases. But often, after some conversation, the superintendent does agree that his job would be easier if he had a better relationship with the community. And even though this is just a small, minute trouble-making part of the community, (it always is in the superintendent's view), he begins to realize that his job would be easier if his relationship with them was better.

So if I can show him that I can maybe improve relations with that community, and he is willing to talk about some of the hiring policies and the disciplining procedures, then I have something I can work with. If we can talk about those issues, rather than whether or not he is a racist even though I haven't talked about mediation a whole lot yet I have begun to lay the groundwork for identifying what some of the actual interests are. This shows that the frustration isn't so much the one person as it is with what's happening to the children of that community. And by helping them to define that, I am also helping them to address it.