Friday, March 29, 2013

Mediation Community's Response to School Shootings

Virginia Mediation Network (VMN)

President’s Message

January 2013

The VMN Board of Directors met on January 12, 2013 to begin an intensive strategic planning process.    On the long drive back into the Central Appalachian Mountains, I stopped to visit my former research assistant.  Shortly after the shootings at the Sandy Hook Elementary School, I sent an email asking how she was doing.  You see, she is one of the people who survived the shootings at my own little school on January 16, 2002.  She has suffered for ten years with severe PTSD.   She immediately blocked media reports of the shooting, found comfort in friends and family, and coped as best she can with her persistent symptoms. 

Many of you may remember that tragedy in which a student, who had learned he would be academically dismissed, murdered our Dean (a new father), a much beloved professor, and a student.  The shooter, later diagnosed as suffering from paranoid schizophrenia, was spared the death penalty, and will spend all, or most of his life, in a mental health institutional setting.   Three other students, including my former research assistant, survived their grave gunshot wounds. 

After each deadly incident of school violence, our school community revisits our own tragedy in the many ways we expect a diverse culture to respond.   Facebook facilitates that conversation, but knowing how best to respond always requires some soul searching. 

My first response, and the one that has proved easiest for me, is how we care for the “victims.”  My own experience, coming to ASL six months after the shooting, has shown me that the circle of victims is much broader than one might first recognize.  Certainly our Restorative Justice (RJ) colleagues would recognize the scope of that circle.  It includes the parents, spouses, and children – of those shot and of the shooter.    A news story reports that Newtown’s first responders are dealing with their own psychological trauma.   Once they use paid vacation, leave, and other benefit days, they face losing their jobs because they are suffering themselves by stepping into that horrific crime scene.  Witnesses to the shootings bear their own suffering.  Most of the faculty and staff employed at that time at my school now work elsewhere.   Perhaps it was just too difficult to walk in to that building after that day.  

Much of the chatter on Facebook argues about whether armed people could have prevented the loss at the site of these massacres.  Eventually, one of our students, a witness that day, busted the myth around our own tragedy, by saying:

[S]everal of us students [w]ere armed that day, and he had completed his terrible acts before anyone could have done everything other than just kill him mercenary style.  [He] was out of ammo and voluntarily surrendered.  Perhaps [having] armed students thwarts any ideas of running from the scene, but the murders couldn’t have been prevented.
In preparing for the VMN Board retreat, I spent some time learning about the schools in Virginia that had dispute resolution programs.  Only one undergraduate school, Virginia Tech has a program.  It was the school’s response to its own loss of life at the hands of a troubled student.  The center for this program is housed in the building where so many people lost their lives. 

So, how do we as a community, focused on conflict resolution and peace building, respond to these situations?   The Association for Conflict Resolution (ACR) issued a statement on December 20, 2012.  It promised that: “We and many of our other colleagues stand ready to lend the full range of our professional expertise and devotion to processes that support healing, as well as those sustained efforts that will be required to facilitate dialogue, build consensus, and take action to address the deep rooted structural issues that contribute to this tragic pattern.”

The President of the American Bar Association, Laurel Bellows, issued a three sentence statement, on the same day of the Newtown shooting, expressing the organization’s sympathy for the victims and their families.   The Section of Dispute Resolution was oddly silent.  On January 16, 2013, President Bellows issued a statement about the ABA’s support for new measures to prevent gun violence.  It also supports efforts to prevent school-based violence and bullying and to enhance access to mental health services for children and adults.   It applauded President Obama’s announcement that same day and described it as “the catalyst that should spur immediate and far-ranging congressional efforts to address gun violence in our country . . . .” 
Psychologists for Social Responsibility recommended a ban on assault weapons, as well as a RJ approach.  Its spokesperson, in writing to Vice-President Joe Biden’s Task Force on Gun Violence, stated:

We see school attacks such as Newtown in the context of a broader culture that endorses force and violence as the way of resolving disputes, including war, urban violence and a harsh, punitive criminal justice system.
The group then recommended that public schools and youth justice systems integrate RJ principles and practices.

The Greater New York chapter of ACR plans, for the first week in February, a program entitled, Bringing the NYC Dispute Resolution Community Together in the Aftermath of the Newtown Tragedy: An Open Space Forum.   Using an “open space” format, the chapter members will discuss aspects of the tragedy that may include “the children, families, educators, the Newtown community, schools, gun concerns, violence, citizen responsibility, household accountability, justice, police, prevention, protection, laws, policies, and other issues and a way forward for our nation to imagine and work on safer futures four our children.” 

One of my ADR colleagues, who teaches at another law school, sent out the following message on our ADR listserve shortly after the Newtown murders:

ADR can be transformative in moving people away from violence and war--how can ADR scholars/practitioners participate in the current and upcoming debate on guns?  
After last week, I find myself (again) ready to enter the political fight with an uncompromising anti-gun view.  I am worried, though, that as usual the debate will get completely muddled and unworkable with multiple conflicting rights and values.  This worry makes me wonder (again) whether ADR people can help clarify this discussion and these kinds of discussions, especially if the ADR person has strong views on the topic.  Can we be leaders here?  
I'm sorry to write with all these questions.   I would so appreciate anyone's thoughts on the matter or advice on further reading.  I just feel so frustrated and powerless.
Mediators talk frequently about the joy we feel in helping parties feel empowered and better able to control the decisions they make in their lives.  And yet, here is a colleague feeling completely disempowered herself. 

So, how do we, as an organization respond to these situations which call into question our devotion to peaceful ways of resolving conflict?    As your President, I would like to know how to respond on your behalf, because right now, I also feel very disempowered.   

Paula Marie Young

Thursday, March 28, 2013

The Many Sadnesses of School Shootings

Today, the New York Times posted a story called: From Sandy Hook Killer's Home, A Chilling Inventory.

Reading it mostly made me sad.  The shooter, Adam Lanza, had guns, gun manuals, and a large stock of ammunition.  But, he also had a book called, Blue Day - Inside the Mind of an Autistic Savant.  And, another: Train your Brain to Get Happy.   The article says: " Experts say people with autism spectrum disorders are often bullied in school and the workplace, and frequently suffer from depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts."

So, was this shooting an example of the bully-d becoming the bully-er?   It made me flash back to the times when I am sure I interacted with someone who would now be diagnosed on the spectrum as exhibiting Asperger's syndrome.  I remember a woman in high school, crazy smart, but just "off."  She worked hard to be involved socially, and now, I can admire her persistence and courage.  How terribly alone she must have felt.  Being an odd-one-out myself -- tall, smart, and very right-brained -- I always empathized.

Later, a brilliant guy applied to my law firm.  He had almost a perfect law school record, but when my partners asked me to join the employment interview, I noticed his poor grooming.  I questioned whether he had bathed in the last several days and dandruff covered the shoulders of his suit.  Later, my managing partner asked me about working with him, and frankly, I said I would not. I am not proud of that response, but at least I was expressing my own needs as a stressed out litigator.

This inventory of Adam Lanza's home shows us, again, that the story is never as simple as we might hope.  The victim turns Devil.  But, his anger turns on the most helpless among us.  Just read the description of the massacre on Wikipedia to see what "chilling" really means.

As President of the Virginia Mediation Network -- the largest state-wide group of mediation practitioners, trainers, and scholars --  I have thought long and hard about how our organization should respond to these incidents.  In my next posting, I'll show you what I asked of our membership.  

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Do You Care About What You Do?

"We are living in a moment of time, the first moment of time, when a billion people are connected, when your work is judged (more than ever before) based on what you do rather than who you are, and when credentials, access to capital, and raw power have been dwarfed by the simple question "Do you care about what you do?  We built this world for you.  Not so you would watch more online videos, keep up on your feeds, and LOL with your high school friends.  We built it so you could do what you're capable of.  Without apology and without excuse.  Go."  Seth Godin, The Icarus Deception.

My little law school, Appalachian School of Law (ASL), sets itself apart from the crowd in several ways, but perhaps its unique feature is a fearless bet on students who might not otherwise have the opportunity to attend professional school.  We tell them: "Go."  Our students, often showing a poorer performance on the standardized admission exam, show great promise as they master the knowledge, skills, and professional values taught by our faculty, staff, and alumni.  Most of our students still flow in from the surrounding Appalachian Mountains or the adjacent plateaus of Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, North Carolina, and Tennessee.  Many of them are the first person in their immediate families to earn a college or graduate degree.  We are lifting students from proud working class backgrounds into the professional world with all the advantages that world offers.    

As a current member of the Admission's Committee, I am struck by the courage applicants show in overcoming obstacles they have faced.  Some have experienced severe trauma -- rape, accidents, illnesses, death of a close loved-one, an abusive or alcoholic parent, homelessness, and immigration with the challenges of adapting to a new culture and learning a new language.  As human beings tend to do, they take these hardships and forge a strong will to change the world with their energy, intelligence, commitment, and work.  In a very short time, a number of our graduates have become prosecutors, public defenders, judges, state legislators, and other community leaders -- which reflects the mission of our school.

In 2005, of the 250 counties in the U.S. with the lowest per capita incomes, Kentucky claimed thirty-five of those counties.  Only Texas, a much larger state, had as many people living in impoverished counties.  Tennessee, North Carolina, Virginia, and West Virginia added another twenty-four counties to this list.  Thus, the region ASL serves includes 23 percent of the poorest counties in the United States.

The school's founders believed that lawyers educated within the region, who were steeped in notions of professional service, would more likely stay in and provide service to the people of the region.  Graduates have validated that belief.   In 2008, approximately half of our alumni were employed in small law firms in Virginia, West Virginia, Tennessee, Kentucky, and North Carolina.

Overall, the founders envisioned a graduate who would emphasize problem-solving skills and adhere to high professional ethics.  The graduates would represent a throw back to an earlier generation of lawyers, who were more than hired guns, and instead were esteemed leaders in their local communities.  We call these types of lawyers “community-based generalists.”

My contacts with alumni through my Facebook page, inspire me daily.  They have bought houses, married, started families, found meaningful jobs, and played hard.  They are courageously creating the lives they dream, despite a sour job market for new grads and a debt load often called "crushing."  They serve the public or clients and, with some exceptions, seem to do it with great joy.   I sense that they care deeply about what they do.

Before I became a law professor, I worked for 20 years in the private practice of law as an energy lawyer and then a commercial litigator.  The work was exhausting many days, but also intellectually challenging and satisfying on many levels.  I was lucky to have jobs in which I cared deeply about our clients and knew that I made a positive contribution to the collective good.  Most days, I arrived at the office excited, energized, and  thrilled by the opportunities the day might bring.  I cared a great deal about what I did.

Now, I have the rare pleasure of engaging with young professionals as a law professor.  I can't imagine a better job.  I love to see them grow in competence and confidence.  I love to see their courage and compassion.  I can't wait to see what they decide to care about -- what art they decide to create.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Lawyer as Artist.

As I read Seth Godin's new book, The Icarus Deception, I kept asking myself: What is my art?  What do I create joyously, diligently, passionately, and with increasingly greater skill and insight?

In the early 1970s, my high school  -- University City High -- had one of the most REMARKABLE art departments in all of St. Louis County.  Staffed by three teachers, the program taught painting, drawing, sculpture, ceramics, and fiber arts. Thirty years later, I still have pieces of art I created at that time: pencil drawings of my boyfriend and the male rhinoceros at the zoo; a bronze cast sculpture of a heavy-bottomed woman; a huge hookah pipe, made of coiled clay, I now use as a deck ornament; a silk screened T-shirt imprinted with an original design; and watercolor landscapes.

The program also introduced me to many techniques and materials that I have used fearlessly throughout my life. The course made me a better problem-solver.  About a week ago, I needed to create a "vision board" that suggested how our Lion's Lounge at the law school would look after renovations.  I had no trouble creating this board in just a few hours.  I had many of the materials I needed stored in my basement waiting for me to turn them into something else.

Most importantly, the high school program cultivated my eye for design, color, shape, texture, and space. I see the world differently from the way many people see it.  I now understand that I access the right side of my brain more routinely than other folks.  Have I always had that ability?  Or, did exposure to art courses help me access it more confidently throughout life?  Most recently, I used my art to choose and place accessories in the Lion's Lounge in anticipation of our Open House for prospective students. Overnight, I transformed the feel of the room, and interestingly, students are using it more.

Over the last decade, I have carefully and lovingly designed my garden.  I think of it as a living canvass of color, texture, shape, and scent.  My house, decorated with many primitive antiques from central Appalachia, also expresses my design eye.

For me, most of these activities seem more like hobbies than art.  For me, my art takes other forms these days: teaching, writing, and public speaking.  I am especially excited when I am drafting complicated simulations for student use.  They are multi-layered stories, typically based on a news articles, that reflect the complex emotions, interests, and needs of several parties, all of whom must "bargain in the shadow of the law."

When I was still in private practice, my art took the form of creatively solving a client's problem, communicating emphatically with clients, counseling them effectively, and writing persuasive motions and briefs.  That art also included the thoughtful design of deposition questions or the well-designed presentation of evidence that effectively told my client's story.

More recently, that art expresses itself in my mediation practice.  I now use all my talents to design the best process I can for parties, with careful thought given to the location of the mediation, the food I offer, the communication skills I use, the way I encourage them to brainstorm creative options, and the ability to bring peace into the room.

I hope that my students see the path they have chosen, not just as the path of the professional, but also as the path of the artist.

Nov. 23, 2013 Update:  Another take on the topic.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Make art. Think like an artist.

I finished Seth Godin's new book, The Icarus Deception.  I like his "big ideas."

In this book, he argues that in a post-industrial economy, in which we are bombarded with media messages, we will stand out only if we give a gift to the world that is REMARKABLE.  The gift, freely given from a place of urgency and pure joy, is our art.

While I don't see an effort to clearly define what "art" he means, he uses the term so broadly that it could include any creative effort that you pursue diligently, passionately, and with increasingly greater skill and insight.  It requires you to face down your own fears of failure and inadequacy (which he attributes to the "lizard brain," aka the amygdala and other fear centers of the left brain, mostly).

It requires you to pursue your art even when those around you discourage you actively and more passively.  It requires you to separate your art from your own self-worth, so criticism of your art does not unbalance or undermine your identity as an artist. It requires you to make better art, all the time.  It requires a fearless commitment to expressing yourself in a way that sets you apart from everyone else.  It makes you REMARKABLE.

He argues that our economy is one based on connectivity, provided by the world wide web, in which we now have the luxury of finding all the people who may share with us even the narrowest interest in music, photos, painting, gourmet meals, sports, fiction, poetry, gardening, woodworking, web design, crafting, fashion, home decor, architecture, research, film, theater, and every other form of creative endevour.

In the old days, an author needed to find an established publisher.  Now with Kickstarter fundraising and on-line publishing tools, an artist can bring his or her work quickly to an audience.  In the old days, a musician had a minuscule chance of every getting a record label to produce a commercially viable recording.  Now YouTube watchers regularly discover new talent.  iTunes provides the vehicle to make that new talent a commercial blockbuster.   The difference now from then?  The artist must use these new tools to create the audience for his or her art.  She no longer needs, or should rely on, a middleman.

How exciting is that big idea?  How will I apply it in my own life?  I'll tell you later.