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A Movement Toward Empowerment

I want to comment on the future of mediation by talking a bit about the past. Whenever I train a group in mediation I make an attempt to locate mediation within a historical context reminding people briefly of the invention of hierarchy and top-down decision-making.  Think of a giant ship making a turn in a new direction.  It doesn’t happen instantly. 

I draw a simple picture on the whiteboard of “little people” bringing their dispute before a king to be told what to do to resolve their dispute.  The belief was that the king was authorized by God to make the decision and that the king had unique wisdom and insight into what would constitute justice or a fair decision.  The assumption was also that the little people were lacking in their ability to resolve the matter without turning to the king.  I then point out that although we don’t have kings anymore, we still have the same way of thinking in place that maintains vast systems of hierarchy that robs people of their right to self-determination.  Mediation represents a different way of thinking that is still foreign to many: the notion that people can solve problems and make decisions about their situation without turning decision-making authority over to someone else.     

In the late 70’s and early 80’s, before I had been introduced to mediation, I was involved with a “community organizing” effort that brought me into some very poor 3rd world villages.  I lived in Egypt for a year; India for two years and Indonesia for two years The message that we brought to residents in these villages was that “you can shape your own destiny”, “you are not victims of circumstances”, “you can take action that will make a difference in your future and in your children’s future.”

We trusted the local people to set their own priorities and make their own decisions about the future of their community.  We sought to give them some skills for decision-making and some assistance in including everyone in that process.  In one instance, in a small rural village in Egypt, we organized a community meeting where the women of the community had been encouraged to attend but they sat in the back of the meeting space and had little to say.   The next day they came back again for further discussions but we moved the blackboards to the back of the room and facilitated from there such that now the women of the village were in front. 

Our approach was that every voice needs to be heard and everyone needs to play a part in creating this new future.  The people of the village rose to the occasion.   They started literacy programs.  They put in a system for clean drinking water.  They put in a small brick making factory and other programs that strengthened the community in a variety of ways.

We understood our effort in this one village to be a part of a much larger movement in which local people were being empowered to take charge of their future in a new way.  The movement went far beyond what was happening in a single village.  For millennia, it had been assumed by the “powers that be” that the people lacked the intelligence or the resources to make wise decisions about their future.  Decisions had to be made for them by those in positions of authority.

The notion that people have what it takes to make their own choices about their own lives remains a controversial idea.  In my lifetime, I have seen dramatic changes happen through the civil rights movement, women’s liberation and the push for equality within the GLBT community.  None of the movements for change happened easily. Multiple forms of hierarchy conspire to rob people of their right to self-determination.  Top down decision-making is deeply ingrained in all of our existing social institutions.  These things don’t change overnight.  The defenders of the status quo have not gone away.  This is what we are up against in our efforts to promote mediation. 

Power dynamics can and do change. See the movie “Selma” for an illustration of how power can be created where there was no power before.  Or we might say that there is ‘latent’ power that was unleashed to create positive change.  I believe that mediation is another attempt to unleash the latent power and creativity that is present among all people.  I also believe that people have a basic desire to participate in making decisions about matters that affect their future. Mediation is a part of a much larger effort to empower people to shape their own future.


James Stovall

James L. Stovall founded The Mediation Institute, a non-profit organization that promotes the use of alternative dispute resolution processes in governmental, corporate, and family law arenas, in 1992. Mr. Stovall has conducted training workshops in Egypt, India, Indonesia and 23 states in the U.S. He has mediated over 500 cases… MORE >

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