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Current Economy in Conflict Resolution

Conflict Resolution Field Responds To Economic Downturn

The current economic downturn is affecting practitioners in the conflict resolution field, including Teaching Peace Executive Director Deb Witzel and Program Manager Amanda Mahan. Teaching Peace, founded in 1994, is focused on restorative justice in the community of Longmont, Colorado. Witzel does not believe that she will see the full impact of the economic downturn on Teaching Peace until about mid-year, but she is already beginning to see changes. Teaching Peace holds two major fundraising events each year. One is by direct mail and the other is a dessert tasting contest called Sweet Peace, which takes place in November. The dessert tasting contest was held for the first time in 2007. The event had 300 attendees and raised $10,000. When it was held this past November it had half the number of attendees and only raised $2000, which is only about enough to cover one staff person for one month.

In order to off set their reduced funding, Teaching Peace has had to raise their fees with the hopes that those able to afford it will pay the increased fees. For those who cannot pay the full fee, financial assistance is offered. Last year almost half of the people who came through the program used financial assistance and it is expected the percentage will increase this year. There has also been an increase in the amount of bounced checks that have been received.

Teaching Peace has also seen a change in their clientele. There has been an
increase in the number of young adults referred to the program. This may be the result of an increase in young adult crimes, but Deb Witzel believes that the increase in referrals is due to the Longmont Police Department's belief that restorative justice programs are effective and their push to educate patrol officers about the program. In fact, while many budgets are being cut in the city of Longmont,

Teaching Peace has actually seen an 11% increase in their contract for services
with the city. Despite the decrease in fundraising, there has been an increase in the number of volunteers involved with Teaching Peace. Amanda Mahan believes this is likely a result of President Obama's call to service. Teaching peace has always relied on volunteers to facilitate their processes, support events and work on different projects. So, although the increase in volunteers is helpful, it does not off set program costs. Teaching Peace is also in need of more Spanish speaking volunteers to handle Spanish speaking clients to keep up with the population change in the community.

In response to the economic forecast, Deb Witzel believes that she will have to focus more on writing grants and fundraising. But despite the dire economic predictions, she is still optimistic about the future of Teaching Peace. "The challenge is greater around financing this organization this year, but I am very hopeful", she says "You know, I guess the thing that comes up for me is, 'Oh, a challenge? Bring it.' You know, I love it. I am excited by the opportunity. For me it's an opportunity to ask farther, to reach out bigger. The people who have been giving to us, they have friends. And this is the year that I ask them to ask their friends. So, I don't feel like we've even begun to reach as far and wide as we can. And that's what we'll be doing this year. So, it's a challenge, but I am sure that we will meet it."

During a time when economic speculations can be wildly inaccurate, it is hard to predict what effects this economy will have on the environmental conflict resolution field. Many remain optimistic, though, and see the downturn in the economy as an opportunity to introduce alternative dispute resolution (ADR) to a wider variety of people and problems. Paul Aldretti, Senior Program Manager at CDR Associates in Boulder, said practitioners should "help potential clients and decision makers understand that ADR increases efficiency and the design of effective strategies while reducing long-term costs in economic, human, time, natural and other types of resources." If the current demand for practitioners is low, it is not for lack of environmental conflicts that need creative solutions, but is instead due to a lack of public awareness of the benefits of conflict resolution services, Aldretti said.

According to Aldretti, environmental conflicts will increase with changing political dynamics, decreasing resources, and added pressure on decision makers to make sustainable choices. This should increase the demand for environmental conflict resolution services. Mark Loye, Director of Jefferson County Mediation Services and environmental conflict resolution consultant, has experience working in conflicts related to park lands, mining, endangered species, landfills, and hazardous waste. He thinks "that the new administration's protectionist policies will provide great potential for conflict resolution work."

Loye noted the seemingly contradicting goals of government's environmental protection and industry's extraction practices, and wondered, "As land use policies change, who will be favored, how will it be managed, and how will America's basic needs be reconciled?" These questions and many others are exactly the types of conflicts for which environmental conflict resolution practitioners are prepared. Aldretti noted the need for "decisions and strategies that extend into the far future," and agreed with Loye that the new administration's policies will provide opportunity.

He said that the "new energy economy," including infrastructure that is necessary to generate and transport renewable energy, will open a window of opportunity for practitioners. Aldretti and Loye each have over twenty years experience in environmental work, possibly making it easier to see opportunity. Those new to the field may have trouble staying optimistic, Loye said. "People trying to hang a shingle are worried. They wonder will the economy help or hurt us." He sees less speculation from more seasoned practitioners who may share Aldretti's perspective. Aldretti said it is hard to tell if there is real or only perceived current shortage in projects, and it is harder to predict the future, "I believe the reality is that it's too early to really tell."

Practitioners at Longmont Mediation Services, a conflict resolution resource for Longmont residents, said that the irregular case patterns of past years have continued during the economic crisis. Longmont's Susan Spaulding is a Community Relations Specialist. She works in various conflict areas including housing, family, racial and cross cultural issues, neighborhood, and disturbances. Given the widespread nature of the services that are offered and the continuously irregular caseloads from week to week, the continuation in irregular cases might indicate that conflict has not increased to a significant level as a consequence of the economic crisis.

It may just be too early to see a significant change, but an initial assumption that frequency of cases has not increased does not necessarily signify that individuals and families are coping well with the stress and frustration of the economic crisis. Edwin M. Rios works at SAMHC Behavioral Services, an institution in Tucson, Arizona, that offers crisis services to individuals who are suffering from personality crisis or substance abuse. Rios uses consultation and inclusive work with patients and their families to properly respond to a patient's crises and get them back on their feet. Working at SAMHC for nine
years, Rios has seen an explosion of cases within the past year.

The social and health services seem to have experienced a boom in clientele and office-hours, Rios observed. Where conflict resolution services, such as those offered by Spaulding, have a role in more long-term and structured response, the economic crisis has been met with crisis response services in order to deal with individual crises. Rios said most of the cases they are receiving involving personal trauma and substance abuse are a result of job loss and financial difficulties. Given that it is individuals that are being laid-off , crisis response services are an immediate and necessary service in order to prevent individual frustrations from exploding into group conflicts. Perhaps the separate roles of crisis response and mediation services can join to offer comprehensive solutions to the potential conflicts that individual frustrations are likely to affect.

Mediators can play a role in offering services for the new challenges in negotiation facing many Americans. The national practitioner organization, Association for Conflict Resolution, has started a new task force to develop the use of mediation in foreclosure negotiations. New Jersey has already established such a program.

As Americans continue to feel the effects of the struggling U.S. economy taking its toll on their pocketbooks and stress levels, they should be mindful of the effects those stresses contribute to conflict in their daily lives. Although people's reactions to the downturn in the economy vary, stress is one factor that increases when economic times are tight, according to Philip Arreola, the Regional Director of the U.S. Department of Justice Community Relations Service, Rocky Mountain Region. Ron Ludwig, the Executive Director of the Conflict Center in Denver also says that "with folks out of work, there will be increased opportunities for family conflicts."

In order to reduce stress before it is manifested in conflict one should seek ways to help manage stress before it gets out of control. What can one do to reduce conflicts caused by stress in their daily lives during these hard economic times? Arreola says that it is important to seek help before things get too tough. He notes that there are a variety of counseling services provided by both non-profit and private organizations that can assist with this.

Samuel Gordon of Judicial Arbitration and Mediation Services ( JAMS) in Denver also says that we should be upfront about our stress and concerns both in personal and business relationships so that our motives are not misread. Ludwig says that it is helpful to have a "toolbox filled with options, that allows people to deal better with the stresses they face in any situation, including hard economic times." The Conflict Center is one local resource that would be well equipped to help develop a "toolbox" as they are an educational group that "teaches people the skills they need to positively deal with everyday conflict situations and to deal with anger issues so that they do not become destructive." In these economically challenging times, we need to learn to take care of ourselves and also let others know if we are struggling, which will hopefully help to stop conflicts before they start.

-- Fernando Ospina, Lindsey Sexton, Edwin A. Rios and Holly Guthrey