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Considerations in Providing Mediation and Conflict Resolution Services to Spanish-speaking Latinos

I want to start by saying I am White and not Latina. My perspective is informed, in part, as a Spanish-speaking White person who has been working with Latinos and in Latino communities since the mid ‘90s. We all must strive to treat each other well and figure out what that means for each of us! Diversity is glorious…and sometimes difficult. The goal of this paper is to advance the discussion of what makes for “best practices” in providing mediation services to Latinos.

How do mainstream conflict resolution agencies ensure better services for Latinos [1] ? Are there differences between mediation or conflict resolution services with Spanish-speaking Latinos and other groups? Are these even the “right” questions?

With these questions and more in mind, in September 2001, the Hewlett Foundation provided a grant to the (now defunct) Oregon Dispute Resolution Commission to:

1. Increase Oregon Hispanic/Latino participation in Appropriate Dispute Resolution (ADR),

2. Increase knowledge about Hispanic/Latino needs and preferences for ADR,

3. Develop an understanding of and address culturally based conflict, especially in relationship to the Oregon Hispanic/Latino population, and

Build linkages between ADR services and communities which utilize those services. [2]

After collecting statewide data for a needs assessment, six Community Dispute Resolution Centers (CDRCs) throughout the state of Oregon applied to be part of the grant to create and enhance services to Latinos. In December 2003, I was hired under contract at Resolutions Northwest (RNW) in Portland, Oregon (the largest CDRC in the state) to work on the implementation piece of the aforementioned goals. I focused on how our programs currently served Latino community members, so I was better prepared to speak to what the process would look like when a person called or connected with our services.

Although the Hewlett grant ended in December 2005, RNW was able to push past one of the largest barriers to doing this work – continuity. Time and time again through the phases of the grant, grant recipients struggled with the ethics of providing outreach at a level of service we couldn’t be confident would exist in the near future. This is a common dilemma for many non-profits, and marginalized communities often feel abused by these funding patterns. A Latina focus group participant in Phase I commented, “They fill a person up with hope and expectation and then they don’t follow through.” [3] Another participant added, “Many agencies have come through, they take information, and for what (to study us)? We need someone who is really coming to help here with our problems…” [4] As the Hewlett grant ended, Resolutions Northwest re-structured its funding to keep the position open, and I have stayed on as the agency’s Spanish Language Mediation Specialist and the only bilingual person currently on staff.

Although there is no set of right answers or rules for working with Latinos, there are many questions, concepts, and “better practices” to consider and explore. The rest of this paper will explore some of the work I’ve done to ensure that RNW is and continues to be accessible to Latino communities, as well as provide information to continue questioning ourselves on how to be accountable providers. Among the range of topics for consideration are: Mainstream Agency/Business Review, Mediation Outreach, Referral Processes, Language, and Multicultural Issues.

Mainstream Agency/Business Review

To start, an agency or business must decide who will focus on implementation. “At a project debrief meeting, the CDRPs [5] identified the key elements to look for when hiring a project coordinator to do this type of work.” [6] Among critical qualities listed were being bilingual and personable as well as having the ability to do outreach effectively and to communicate respect. Prior experience with Latino communities and general fluidity in/out/through different communities was strongly desired. Less important, though still highly valued were being well connected, having a prior knowledge of mediation and being bi/multicultural. “The group acknowledged that the needs of the individual community and program also need to be taken into consideration.” [7]

The level of detail required by a mainstream organization to serve non-English speaking populations is immense, though it need not be overwhelming and may be overcome with proper foresight. Since the Hewlett grant began, “simple but overlooked and incredibly important tasks such as providing Spanish versions of answering machine messages were accomplished.” [8] Ensuring that a Spanish-speaker was available to take calls was also achieved.

We translated all documents we use in mediation into Spanish. In addition to being translated, forms and resources were significantly edited at times, updated, and verified for their usefulness to monolingual Spanish speakers. On some standard client letters and outreach materials, we ensured that specific information was listed on how to reach a Spanish-speaker. By adding that specific information on all forms, we send the message that English is not the only language spoken, and it strengthens the visibility that we can and do work with Spanish-speaking Latinos. Additionally, this acknowledges that we don’t assume to know what a person’s language preference is, and, by adding that we have Spanish language capabilities on the letter in English, we enhance the possibility that Spanish-speaking Latinos will use our services in the future. If the person who receives the letter doesn’t need to utilize our services in Spanish, they might still remember that we used Spanish on our form. This work on in-house projects makes the agency more effective for outreach efforts.

Culturally appropriate additions to our Opening Statement have been made for multi-lingual cases. As a reminder to mediators, we have written onto forms and into training that mediators should check with parties in the moment about language(s) needs and determine whether they should speak in the formal (usted) or more informal (tú). We also added, “We acknowledge and educate that each person’s history, expectations, styles and behaviors (cultural backgrounds) might affect misunderstandings that have led to the dispute or that will affect the mediation. This will later help parties to return to an exploration of potential cultural differences if they feel there are differences affecting either the process or the outcome of the mediation.” [9] Additionally, mediators are reminded to offer to read written forms to participants to save face when literacy may be an issue. This offer is made to all people, regardless of race/ethnicity.

As with any type of social service, all stakeholders in the service appreciate consideration for office location or where services will be provided. Is the location physically and geographically accessible? The 2003 needs assessment states, “Mediation for Latinos works best in an environment that fosters trust, security, and confidence. An environment that is non-threatening, welcoming and already established within the Latino community is most effective, such as Latino community based organizations, housing development organizations, community centers, clinics, churches, etc [10] .” During my tenure here, I have at different times had office space and time at a local Latino community center. Having an on-site presence at a Latino-focused organization gets workers closer to the target community and more connected with other service providers. These connections are invaluable in providing good service to the community. On the other hand, going to a place that is less inundated with people seeking services can have benefits, too. In communities and regions where fewer services are available, your program might be easier to remember and use as a resource; though one does run into the possibility of being asked to do more and different tasks than were expected.

In addition to the basics that any organization needs to consider when creating a more welcoming environment, this field has an added task of training bilingual mediators. Language issues will be discussed at greater length later in this document. For now, however, it is important to assess whether monolingual Spanish-speakers or bilingual English/Spanish speakers are the best candidates to serve both community and agency needs. A long-term goal is to be equipped to train and retain monolingual Spanish speakers but, at this point, we only have the capacity to recruit and retain bilingual mediators. It is also important to consider that some conflicts will be multilingual in nature.

It has been my experience that offering training – including role plays and print material – in Spanish is a must. Spanish-speaking trainees must feel confident that they are using the same vocabulary as one another and that they have practiced mediating in the ways in which they will be asked to perform. When training bilingually, expect that it will take more time, as concepts will need to be explained in both English and Spanish. Additional time may be needed due to longer discussion periods, and more social interaction time. [11] Past trainees have also noted their interest in participating in a regular state networking conference/training of Spanish speaking mediators.

Mediation Outreach

People often don’t know what mediation is or how it could be useful. Given that Latino service providers often assume the role of client advocates, people mistakenly presume that mediators are people who give advice, counsel people, or tell people what to do. Further, there is a lack of information given to Latino groups about the existence of mediation and the importance of volunteering as a mediator. Translating the description of mediation from English into Spanish has been a difficult task that presented multiple semantic issues. When I asked a Latina participant who had recently gone through a face-to-face mediation how she would describe mediation to someone else, the terms she used were nebulous at best.

Because the concept of mediation is confusing to many, outreach and education are of great importance. Outreach is marketing, and getting people to the table often takes extensive explaining and re-explaining what we do and don’t do. This has to do with the lack of knowledge of the concept of mediation as well as potential lack of trust in the process. As mentioned at the outset of this article, the piece of this work that I believe is of most importance is consistency. What happens when someone actually wants to utilize your services? That’s when the rubber hits the road, because no amount of marketing or networking will make a difference if, when the person calls or comes in, they are not attended to or attended to in a way that feels comfortable for them.

Appropriate outreach measures include a variety of tactics. While, as mentioned before, print material should be available in the target language, it is widely agreed that going into the community, literally reaching out, rather than simply waiting for “them to come” is most effective. Finding key people and places in the community with whom to connect will also make outreach more successful. Walking into a community group and talking about mediation will get the information across, but having the local leader provide a glowing recommendation for the group to listen to their special guest passes on a level of trust and relationship that a cold-call alone will not accomplish.

Additionally, outreach can take many forms – from a quick and dirty 5-minute chat with a group of passers-by to a one-hour extensively role-played presentation for a captive audience. Outreach is a glossy poster or a colorfully drawn or printed flyer. It’s being interviewed in the media (radio, TV, and print); and it’s a radio spot that is replayed over time. In its most veiled form, outreach isn’t about talking directly about mediation services at all. Part of the work I do at RNW is educate the community about mediation specifically and part of it is provide workshops in Spanish and bilingually to Latino communities that focus on conflict resolution in general. The work I do tends to include vignettes and/or actual skits to illustrate mediation, either to tell about our services or to provide participants with tools to resolve conflict on their own. Every time we are seen as providers of conflict resolution services, our organization gains credibility in the community.

I recently received a call from someone whom I met briefly 6 months prior during a 10-minute outreach presentation. She had held onto our phone number and finally called! By educating and building trust with the community at large, and by still funding the position that provided that education and trust-building with the community, mediation as a field and organizations, specifically, will be more successful, and, most importantly, the public will be best served.

Referral Processes

The central questions in this segment are: Is the referral process for mediation the same for Latinos as for the general population, specifically English speakers? What might make it different/unique? In this section, I discuss culturally relevant and appropriate strategies used with Latino populations referred to mediation.

Whereas all community members learn about mediation in varying ways (through school, a case worker, city services, police, etc.), for Latinos, our most successful referrals and cases – referrals that have gone well from start to finish – have been those in which the participants were linked to our agency via a personal connection with their referral source. A hallmark Latino cultural value is personalismo, which is generally understood to mean that relationships are built on trust and personal connection. Thus, word of mouth and individual/agency respect and integrity are perhaps worth more than simply what service is available. Such focus on respect and relationships is found in many cultures and countries. According to a workshop participant at the 2005 Association for Conflict Resolution Conference, in Singapore, the mediator asks the parties for their respect before beginning the session.

“Fundamental to this work is a commitment to building relationships and providing services to Hispanic/Latino clients in a respectful manner. That may look different depending on the needs of the client. CDRPs should be as flexible and adaptable as possible when working with the Hispanic/Latino community.” [12]

Guiding this work is a focus on the Collaboration Model. [13] The 2003 needs assessment states the purpose of the Collaboration Model is to: “Develop long-term partnerships and form collaborative relationships with existing Latino community service providers already established and trusted in the Latino community.” [14] Utilizing this model, I had office time at a Latino community-based organization a few hours per week as mentioned in a previous section. That “face-time” allowed me to engage in critical networking with community members and gave me more access to the larger political and community circle, thereby enhancing the visibility of the program and mediation as a viable service.

One family referred to mediation by a counselor asked the counselor to be at the mediation with them. The counselor said that no other family had requested that before and now she would most likely proactively offer that service to other Latino families in the future. Additionally, she said she usually goes to the initial meeting of a new referral with Latino families (and not with other families she works with) to help transfer trust by introducing the new parties. This family asked if she would come to the second mediation and she took that as a cue that they wanted her to be there, so she did. Even though everyone attending a face-to-face mediation is welcome to bring a support person or persons, pending an okay from the other party, service providers who work with Latinos have shared anecdotally that, generally, only their Latino clients request their attendance; their non-Latino clients do not.

A core principle of mediation is that cases are party-referred, which is to say that interested participants must contact us first. This ensures that services and participation are voluntary. We also know that simply giving out our phone number and expecting people to call does not provide as many successful referrals with Latinos as with other methods. Party-initiated referrals are definitely important, but having hard and fast rules excludes non-party initiated referrals. One way to avoid this exclusion is to be creative in our definition of “party-initiated.” For example, our organization provides law enforcement officers and others in social service provider roles with small referral slips to pass on to potential parties. Thinking outside the box, as long as the party has given verbal consent, the officer or provider can call in the information to us. We are still very clear about the voluntary nature of mediation services and potential parties can still opt out, however provider call-ins create a more accountable service provision and begin the process (of speaking with the parties involved, for example) more quickly. So long as the agency has express permission from the parties to make the initial call, we are happy to work with agency-referred cases, as they tend to be culturally more appropriate. In the context of cultural preferences, intake procedures include in-person as well as over-the-phone processes. For the reasons mentioned above, the mediation field in general and organizations and practitioners specifically should think about non-party initiated referrals.


To be sure, language – of participants, of mediators, and of the mainstream population – must be highly considered. Resolutions Northwest is a community mediation center which focuses on family, neighborhood, and restorative mediation. Each of these types of mediation fulfills different roles and needs when working with Latinos. The issue of language is central to all of the programs, yet it manifests differently in each.

In non-family cases, we present the option to the parties of having the mediation be led primarily in one language (with interpretation), generally in the language of the first person who calls. For example, if the first party (P1) speaks Spanish and the second party (P2) speaks English, we would utilize Spanish-speaking mediators to provide Spanish as the base language and have interpreters present to facilitate linguistic communication between the parties. If P1 speaks English, the mediators would strive to only speak English.

For example, while many neighborhood cases involve people that speak the same language, in others, conflict arises specifically because people are literally (and not figuratively, like in so many other cases) speaking different languages. I once co-mediated a session between two parties in which one side was monolingual-English speaking and the other monolingual-Spanish. Before we got past signing the consent to mediate form, the parties had resolved their issue simply because we provided an interpreter for their communication.

The role of the mediator is to facilitate communication. The same could be said for the role of the interpreter, yet the similarities largely end there. Although some bilingual mediators have been thrust in the dual-role of mediator and interpreter and, as we will see, there is a degree of necessity that arises in certain circumstances, some mediators who were asked to perform dual-roles found it extremely difficult. There are different skill-sets for each of these roles, and not all bilingual people make good interpreters; conversely, some interpreters haven’t received training and don’t feel skilled at mediating.

Mediators work towards balancing power and providing a space for all parties to hear and listen to one another. The interpreter’s focus, however is much more limited to transmitting information without facilitating any reframing beyond assisting when/if obvious cultural blockages have been formed. A best-case scenario for using interpreters in mediation is to have professional interpreters also trained in mediation to better understand the nuance that balancing power is influenced by language, and how knowing the importance of this mediation strategy might affect interpretation. Having worked as an interpreter, I can attest that mediators and other professionals could use training on how to work with interpreters, too!

Interpreters are conduits of communication, and, in that role, should be as unobtrusive as possible. Parties often gain trust and build a relationship with the interpreter and not the mediators or other party(ies), simply because they are speaking to the interpreter. Some mediators feel left out of the process when interpreters are used. For these reasons, anyone using the assistance of an interpreter should speak directly to the other party – and not to the interpreter.

In the preceding example, it is clear that the role of interpreters is apparent in certain situations; however, it is not always this cut and dried. Using bilingual mediators is still a good idea in these scenarios as an added accountability to guard against potential linguistic errors in interpretation.

How does the native language of participants and mediators play a role in the success of the mediation? In a family where the parents are more comfortable with Spanish and their children with English, what language do mediators use? How is this determined? What questions need to be addressed in advance?

During case development of family-related mediation, we try to find out in which language each family member will be comfortable speaking. Even when all parties say they will speak only in English or only in Spanish, we’ve seen that in moments of distress/conflict, people sometimes default into a different language. Some of the reasons for this have to do with levels of acculturation. Further, we recognize that acculturative factors have implications for power in relationships and we must always remember this when working on power balancing. Using an interpreter for inter-family conflicts could provide more barriers to service, so bilingual mediators become essential as they can use their dual-language ability to broker these elements of multicultural communication.

Some tips and tools that bilingual mediators have shared are to go back and forth in both languages – trying to be sure everyone understands what’s being said – but without getting in the way of the process. This is very different than strict interpreting. Additionally, mediators have asked if all parties can agree to stick to one language and gently pull them back to whichever language they’ve agreed on. Mediators also have tried to first talk to the parent in their preferred language and then hear the child in their preferred language and combine them together. With any of these tools, it is important to stick to the basic tenets of summarizing and reframing without putting words in either party’s mouth through interpreting. In any of these scenarios, mediators are using their skill of bilingualism to further the process and still not acting as interpreters, per se.

Anecdotal data show that in mediations with bilingual though not bicultural (most often White) mediators, it is less likely that the mediator will default to Spanish, which could help the parent or, said another way; it is more likely that the mediator will default to English, which might be more useful for the children.

To borrow a large chunk from the final Hewlett Report,

“Part of the challenge of mediating across cultures has to do with bridging aspects of culture such as whether parties prefer direct or indirect communication, how formal or informal the mediators are, and whether the ideal mediator is neutral and unfamiliar with the parties or is a trusted family friend or respected community member. The other challenge has to do with language. While both aspects were and continue to be addressed by the CDRPs, this project highlighted the challenges of bilingual mediation. In some cases, a[n…] interpreter was used. When a bilingual mediator was used, the mediator was sometimes surprised that the interpreter was doing more than merely translating what was being said but was also changing or leaving out key pieces of information. Mediators in this case were not always certain about how much they should correct the interpreter or start doing the [interpretation] work themselves. Questions of whether a mediator should act in a dual capacity as a[n interpreter] have been raised. In bilingual mediations, it also raises questions of how the non-Spanish speaker views the neutrality of the bilingual mediator if the mediator is also serving as a[n interpreter]. These issues need to continue to be studied as more Spanish speakers become mediators and more Spanish-language and bilingual mediations take place.” [15]

Multicultural Issues

There is real or perceived racism in nearly all of our neighborhood disputes involving Latinos, and with the current influx of Somali refugees, new issues abound. Doing outreach to Latinos, I feel prepared: ready linguistically and with paperwork in Spanish on hand. With other immigrant communities, we are faced with the same questions, concerns, and considerations that we have worked so hard to overcome or at least acknowledge with Latino communities. Furthermore, more and more conflict complaints are coming from Latinos about their new Somali neighbors. Latinos, who once (and still) knew so little of our services, are now guiding the work into more and more immigrant communities. Clearly, this represents an element of success as far as outreach and education are concerned.

I recently did outreach where Latinos were present, as were Chinese people, Russians, and Somalis. Far from feeling prepared, new questions and concerns arose for me. Seeing where we are, I know we don’t have the ability – in this moment – to translate for all populations, and, even if we did, it would not be sufficient. Do I not even attempt to speak with someone who’s Chinese, since we won’t understand each other anyway? When I pass out program information in English, knowing that this is not entirely helpful, what happens if they do call? If I don’t speak with the Russians, will it appear – and be true – that the Latinos are receiving preferential treatment? I can’t answer all of these questions, but geographic regions that once had separate ethnic communities are becoming more and more integrated. Clearly, multiculturalism and cross-cultural communication pose thrilling challenges, allowing for growth opportunities in the field of service provision.

Closing Thoughts

My belief is that there is no single best practice. There are better practices, however, which include choosing an appropriate mediator (e.g., such as bilingual or not) and determining what style and model should be employed, with a consideration of contextual factors. Although it is important to have policies and standards for the field to grow and for service provision to remain equitable and accessible, we still need to work on a case-by-case basis with the understanding that Latino communities are as rich and diverse as the greater community-at-large and not all Latinos require the same type of service. Even as culture is an integral element of communication and conversations, individual needs and biases provide a unique mix to any dynamic and thus we must still consider each client individually.

End Notes

1 The majority of my professional experience comes from living and working in Portland, Oregon. Although other regions and census data may use different defining terminology, the majority of people I speak with prefer “Latino” to “Hispanic.” However, most will affiliate more quickly with country of origin (“Mexicano”, “Cubano”, etc.) than with either Latino or Hispanic. For further information:

2 ODRC grant application to the Hewlett Foundation

3 “que le llenen a uno con muchas esperanzas y expectativas, y después no cumplen”

4 “Han venido muchas agencies, recogen mucha información, y ¿para qué (para estudiarnos)? Necesitamos a alguien que de verdad llegue a ayudarnos aquí con los problemas…”

5 Community Dispute Resolution Programs

6, p. 14

7, p. 14

8, p.6

9 From “Bridging Cultural Gaps in Mediation” by Lonnie Lusardo, M.Ed and Donna M. Stringer, PhD

10, p.46

11, p.16

12, p. 16

13, p. 6

14, p. 13

15, p.15


Sandy Bacharach

Sandy Bacharach has been working as a Spanish Language Mediation Specialist with Oregon’s largest nonprofit mediation center, Resolutions Northwest since December 2003, strengthening the organization's ability to provide mediation services to Latino communities. Through this work, Sandy spearheaded an advanced training for bilingual mediators and was a presenter for the… MORE >

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