Since we've been talking this week about the issue of civility and civil discourse in Springfield, there's a program here at Missouri State University that deals every day with those very issues: the Center for Dispute Resolution, a part of the MSU Department of Communication. The Center provides numerous services and support programs to help individuals, organizations and communities deal with conflict in positive and productive ways. And they can boast an impressive record of success in this area. So we thought the Center's Director and Associate Director, Dr. Charlene Berquist and Heather Blades, would have some valuable insight into the problem and creating, and maintaining, civil discourse in a society that seems to be geared toward everything but civility.
In talking to Blades and Dr. Berquist, one word, one concept, came up repeatedly: Dialogue. Constructive, thoughtful, considerate dialog between two opposing parties. A seemingly simple concept, but difficult to implement in reality, says Dr. Berquist. "As a culture we have become significantly less civil.
When asked to comment on the state of civility today, Dr. Berquist replies "It's appalling to me that, in the public sphere, we are not seeing civil discourse. I mean, whether you look at the behavior of people in politics--whether you look at a Congress that doesn't seem to be able to talk about issues; when you turn on the news and what you see is people yelling at one another as opposed to being able to truly dialog... those kinds of images affect all of us, adults and children. But they're particularly powerful images for children, because what it says is, "This is okay. This is the way that you can--or you don't--dialog."
One of the Center for Dispute Resolution's major programs to foster civil discourse--and one of the few such programs in the state of Missouri--is their "Juvenile Victim/Offender Dialog" program. As Dr. Berquist describes it, the program "brings together juvenile offenders with the person who, for lack of a better term, is the 'victim,' to talk openly and transparently about what happened--and also to repair the harm. A centerpiece of that process is respect. Both the victim and offender working together to develop a plan. And sometimes that plan is monetary compensation; more often than not it is monetary and community service. And there's always repair that needs to happen.
The program utilizes facilitators trained by the Center for Dispute Resolution to mediate that process, both MSU students and community volunteers. They work with the offender and the victim both before and during their face-to-face dialogs, says Associate Director Heather Blades. "I think preparation is vital any time you are wanting to bring people together to talk about something that's contentious. So most of our work actually takes place before they ever come to the table, to help them think through their own story, to help them start to put themselves in the shoes of the other person and imagine what that person's perspective might be like."
A key element of the program is providing a safe place where the two individuals can work out reparations between themselves, rather than relying on a court judge to simply tell them what they're going to do. Heather Blades goes on to highlight one of the Center's major success stories.
"The victim was a woman. She came in, she was very angry. She didn't know this girl who had committed this offense against her," and her initial reactions were along the lines of "what kind of horrible parents must she have? She's just a bad seed! I want my money!" ans so on. "We went through the process of preparing both her and the young girl and her parent. She had a single mother--they were really having financial hard times, there were a lot of extenuating circumstances. Through the process of mediation and talking, not only did they work out an agreement where this young girl could repair the harm that was done through volunteer service rather than pay money, but it started to form a relationship between that young girl and her mom, and the victim. In fact, the victim ended up buying the Thanksgiving turkey for them that year because they didn't have the money for it. So--completely changed that perspective."
I asked Dr. Berquist what other types of conflict resolution are handled by the Center. "We are here," she says, "to help resolve neighborhood conflicts, community conflicts, mediation in the workplace, facilitative dialog in the community or neighborhood You prepare people, because people oftentimes come in with very specific notions of what this is going to be and what the rules are going to be, and 'what I can do and what I can say.' And our goal is not to extinguish dialog, but rather to help people dialog in ways that are going to be productive. I think that a critical piece is that we begin in communities, in organizations, at the grass-roots level."
If you'd like information about the MSU Center for Dispute Resolution, visit their website or call (417) 836-8831.