One day I read in my town’s newspaper that there had been heated friction between students of a local university and a number of elderly residents, all of whom lived in several square blocks of apartment buildings. These buildings were just a few streets from my home.
Conflict in my own backyard? I am a professor of conflict resolution and a professional mediator; wasn’t this the kind of thing I am supposed to know something about? Of course it wasn’t my business, but still: Could I sit quietly? Wasn’t there a Good Samaritan obligation here? (Besides, as friends have suggested, what wouldn’t I do for a good classroom story?)
But how to proceed? I got hold of the university’s personnel directory and found that an assistant dean of students had been a student in an undergraduate course I had taught 15 years before. It was a long shot, but I called.
“What are you folks doing about the off-campus students?”
“Nothing,” the assistant dean replied. “It is off-campus and so not our problem.”
“But they are off-campus because you don’t have enough dorm space.”
“OK, but what can we do about it?”
“Here’s a suggestion. If you will send a meeting notice to the students living in those apartments, I will conduct the meeting. You don’t even have to be there, though pastries and coffee would be nice.”
Twenty-two students showed up. All, needless to say, had no connection to the friction with the elderly, but they all agreed, rather passively, that something might be done. So I asked how many would be willing to attend a meeting with some of the elderly residents to discuss what that something might be. Ten or eleven said they would.
In the newspaper story, the state legislator representing the neighborhood had been quoted as saying something innocuous about the importance of people being good neighbors. When I called his office and asked if he would convene a meeting of the elderly residents at a community center on the corner, he agreed, eager to demonstrate that he was doing something. More than 50 elderly residents showed up. At first they said there was no problem (“those students are just like my grandchildren”), but this benign front broke down as people talked about late-night noise, cars on the lawn, vomit in the hallway and even some rude remarks directed at the elderly residents. I suggested a meeting with the students, and many of the elderly residents were enthused.
So, with the sponsorship of the state legislator and the university, we had a joint meeting. It was a love-in. By unanimous agreement, none of the villains was present, and no one knew who they were. Still, no one now denied that a problem existed.
I asked what might be done about it and easily filled a few flip charts with the suggested ideas. What emerged was a set of rules for courteous behavior in the neighborhood, an agreement that the rules should be posted in and around the apartment buildings, and consensus that violations could be reported to the dean’s office. Enforcement was indeed the focal point for much discussion, as no one, least of all university officials, wanted to be responsible in the event of a violation. So those present agreed that the rules might be “self enforcing.” In short, “let’s give them a try.”
The rules were posted, and a month later the same local paper ran a story saying that all the neighbors interviewed thought the problem had been solved. At the end of the term I got a call from a student who was worried about how the rules would endure the transition to new student tenants in the fall. Would he be willing to convene and lead a meeting of students in the fall? He agreed, but only if I would coach him. I did, he did, and the notices reappeared in the neighborhood. I asked the people in the dean of students’ office if they would take responsibility to keep this going at the end of each term; they declined. No student called me during the next term, and the idea petered out.
I tried parachuting into conflicts several other times. In three I was thrown out (“We can handle this ourselves, thank you.”), in two I was accepted, and one of those came to an agreement. My hypothesis is that my offer of help had the best chance of being accepted when I could find an adequately legitimate sponsor for my entrance.
Later I tried to create an internship in the dispute resolution graduate program at UMass/Boston (where I teach) using the parachute model. It failed because I couldn’t guarantee that the students would have a useful educational experience in the semester of time available.
I still think that parachuting is a good idea and that a community group, not tied to an academic calendar, might be able to capture volunteer energy and help resolve local conflicts. Even when the intervener gets tossed out, parties learn that such help is possible, perhaps for the next time.
David Matz is a professor of conflict resolution at the University of Massachusetts/Boston and a partner in The Mediation Group of Brookline, Massachusetts. He has taught and practiced mediation and negotiation in the United States, Israel, Nigeria, China and England, spending much of that time introducing mediation practice and training in different settings. He can be reached at email@example.com.