Somali elders learn mediation to integrate community

Confidentiality. Quality of process. Impartiality. Conflict of interest. Competence. Those were the words scribbled across the chalkboard in a St. Cloud State University classroom March 21. Beside them: I am a qualified mediator under rule 114 of the Minnesota General Rule of Practice. In three chairs — one in the middle, two facing each other — sit a middle-aged Somali man playing a 20-something college student, a St. Cloud State communications professor playing an elderly neighbor and a Conflict Resolution Center director playing a mediator.

They are discussing the loudness and late hour of a (pretend) college party.

As the situation plays out, Karmit Bulman, the mediator, calls pause to ask observers what she's doing wrong and what she's doing right in the situation.

It's part of the training that will allow Somali elders to mediate disputes within and beyond their communities. Organizers think it's one way to resolve conflicts and structural problems, like those that emerged at Technical High School two weeks ago.

When the elders submit their registration to the state, they will be listed on an official list of mediators, and judges can refer cases to them for mediation.

The training allows the elders to work in civil mediation cases — think disputes between neighbors, in the workplace or among business people. Family mediation, which deals with divorce and custody issues, requires another training. There are special issues to consider when a child is involved.

Framework for solutions

Somali elder Jama Alimad arranged the training. He is also the executive director of the Central Minnesota Community Empowerment Organization, which works for the betterment of refugee and immigrant communities.

Alimad contacted St. Cloud State professors and worked with the Conflict Resolution Center to bring the training to Somali elders.

The Minneapolis-based CRC has existed for 32 years and until recently did not have any satellite offices. It now has programming in St. Cloud and Duluth. New state funding and a recognition of need by St. Cloud State professors and volunteer mediators Jeff Ringer and Roseanna Ross brought the office to St. Cloud.

"I saw that in this Central Minnesota, in this area, we don't have a framework to work with the community to settle problems that we have," Alimad said.

The training is one venture of the CRC's St. Cloud satellite office. The other is a mediation program in the schools.

Alimad has been working on the elder training project for months. On the weekend elders received their certificates of completion, a task force was forming at St. Cloud Public Library to address concerns of Somali students in St. Cloud schools, days after a protest at Technical High School.

Alimad draws a line connecting the training they are doing and the problems in the wider community.

"The main goal is to keep safe this community, and in order to keep safe everyone, we have to provide mentoring, counseling, mediation, negotiation, restorative justice. Those are the things that are missing here," he said.

He sees an escalating problem with the school district.

"We are envisioning to have a mediation and conflict resolution in the schools to solve those problems. Our kids they ... have a high rate of suspension at schools. They feel bullied at school, they feel displaced, they don't feel comfortable," he said.

But to solve those problems, they need mediators. In mediation, participants maintain control over any outcome. The mediator is present to promote an atmosphere where agreement is possible. Mediators encourage participants to see the situation from the other side.

The process is built on self-determined decision-making, which respects the rights of all involved.

"It provides easy access to justice, and that really is what the Conflict Resolution Center is all about," Bulman said.

Building mediation skills

Enter Ringer, professor and chair of St. Cloud State's department of communication studies. He's on the roster of qualified mediators. He is one of the people who conducts the trainings at St. Cloud State, and he volunteered his time to train the elders. He said he learned as much from the elders as they did from him.

Ringer taught the elders the Western style of mediation, which is more hands off, and they discussed how that was different from resolving conflict in Somalia.

"I also have a sense ... being an elder, there's a lot of responsibility there. My guess is there's a lot of pressure on you," Ringer said. "You're expected to uphold communal values and make decisions consistent with previous decisions. They've told me they want to have more skill in managing conflict, because of that pressure."

Alimad selected the group very carefully.

"Those are the elders of the community. In every culture there is a focal (point) ... that holds the community together," Alimad said. "They have the trust of the community, so they are able to do this kind of mediation. People trust them, they are loyal to them, so they have a voice. That gives them the ability and the leverage to do mediation for the community."

The elders practiced conflict resolution skills among themselves early in the class. The first day, one student wanted shorter training days. So they negotiated and ended up voting.

"They are very good at identifying compromise solutions," Ringer said.

Alimad also deliberately included a mix of genders — eight men and four women.

"In our culture, men and women are always in the mix of solving problems in the community," he said. "If you don't have a woman involved in mediation, you will never have a solution."

The CRC-trained mediators reflect the people who come to the mediation table. Increasingly, volunteers are from immigrant, minority and poor communities. The group has done specific outreach to train people from Somalia, Spanish-speaking communities and low-income African-American groups.

One of the things Bulman knows from working with Somali communities is the need to emphasize letting participants find their own solutions.

"We don't tell people what to do. So Somali elders, for instance, are more accustomed to a model where people are told what to do," she said.

That means they have to meet somewhere in the middle. For example, when reviewing Somali mediators, they are more lenient with those who inject their own ideas.

"There is a fair amount of alignment that needs to happen," Bulman said. "Some of it happens just with a conversation, where we get to know them, and what works for you in your community."

In order to be qualified for the roster, the training can't deviate much.

By Stephanie Dickrell,
March, 2015


Connie Theron, Practising Attorney - UCT Law Clinic
“While working at the University of Stellenbosch Legal Aid Clinic and later at the UCT Law Clinic, I found the pro bono mediation services of Gerrie van der Watt of the Mediation Centre to be highly professional and extremely effective in our divorce matters. It is fantastic that our clients, with little or no financial means, can benefit from such an excellent programme.

The mediators are able to provide a non-threatening environment in which the clients are able to talk openly about issues that matter most to them, but which the Court in a divorce matter may choose not to entertain. Through the mediation sessions, the clients are able to reach an agreement together which ultimately they are both happy with. In cases where mediation did not yield the result of a settlement, the process was still extremely valuable, giving the parties better perspective and highlighting the key issues in dispute.”