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U.S. Ambassador John McDonald (ret.)
with Christel G. McDonald
Editors’ Note: On the surface, the authors describe an ingenious and far-reaching effort John McDonald undertook many years ago to foster peer mediation among students in schools. But for those interested in systemic change, the McDonalds’ subject leads farther: this chapter stands as a demonstration of what it takes to use the political system to support a societal change that can be far-reaching for our field.
The emergence of negotiation as a field over the past forty years owes something to each of a whole array of influences. They span, in turn, many fields of human endeavor and study. A fair cross-section of them is described in other chapters of this book. Yet all of them have one thing in common: they implicitly or explicitly treat the field as the province of adults, or at least of graduate and sometimes college-level students.
Perhaps no one influence among them, however, offers more long-range potential than one initiative that set out, about thirty years ago, to teach negotiation and mediation to children. Because its effects have been widely dispersed, accurate numbers are difficult to compile; but it has been some years since it was first reported that a million children in the U.S. alone had been trained as peer mediators in schools, and no doubt the number has grown. Another crude measure is derived by simply typing [peer mediation in schools] into Google. This returned more than 330,000 sites. Even insisting on the phrase with quotation marks returned upwards of 8,000 websites on which that exact phrase apparently appears.
What’s more, the forgivable assumption that something about peer mediation is deeply characteristic of American culture, and therefore unlikely to translate well or be adopted elsewhere, is called into question by this work’s take-up in, among other places, Russia—described below.
The “how it happened” of peer mediation is a story worth telling for other reasons. It may serve as an object lesson in the value of negotiation’s and mediation’s developers taking more seriously a practical field much derided these days, namely, politics. And it says something about the potential for further growth, over generations, in people’s understanding of peaceful resolution of differences. This matters particularly if one takes a moment to consider that for every peer mediator working on a dispute in a school somewhere, there must logically be a minimum of 2X child negotiators—per case—who are also learning something by the encounter. And finally, this story is an example of how we must negotiate even to implement our programs…while it also shows a relationship to other writings in this volume. [e.g. NDR: Reynolds, Activism]
A Brief History
In 1982, Ray Shonholtz and Gail Sadalla of the Community Boards Program in San Francisco, California came up with a new idea. They wanted to help young people to learn how to solve their own conflicts. They called this peer mediation.
They put together a 40-hour training course for teachers, in middle school, and later in high school. They advertised their course, saying that they were the chief trainers. Gradually, teachers around the United States came to San Francisco and took their course.
In 1987, they decided to do a survey of graduates to find out how successful they were. They were shocked to learn that 90 percent of their graduates, on return to their school, were rejected by their school administration. Administrators did not like the idea and typically prevented the teachers from actually teaching this material to students or organizing peer mediation programs. While Shonholtz and Sadalla were shocked, they did not know what to do about this. In a potential lesson for would-be developers of conflict management systems everywhere, however, fate intervened, in an unlikely form: a professional from a very different field and in a very different place (me), was on the point of retirement, and looking for a suitable initiative to launch from a new pad.
The Scene Shifts—to Iowa
I was a U.S. career diplomat for 40 years. I had served 20 years overseas, in settings about as far from American school life as it is possible to get: 8 years in postwar Europe, 8 years in the Muslim Middle East, and 4 years as Deputy Director-General of the International Labor Organiza....
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