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My Students Are Ready To Handle The Most Divisive Conflicts

I teach a graduate course on facilitation skills for both master’s degree and graduate certificate students  at the Carter School for Peace and Conflict Resolution at George Mason University.  For several years I taught it face to face, but starting in the spring 2020, it went virtual and synchronistic, which means I meet with students in a virtual classroom weekly.   The class starts at 4:30 p.m. ET.  Most of my students are in the U.S., but increasingly I have students from around the world.  Lately, I’ve been getting students from east Africa: Ethiopia, Kenya, and Uganda, where it is 11:30 p.m. when class starts.

Because I believe that the best way to learn is experientially, the class focuses on students engaging  in actual facilitations for two and half hours.  We might engage in  two to four facilitations (with breaks) per class.   For every facilitation, two students are designated as facilitators, and rest of the students are assigned roles. 

For the first 10 weeks of class, I assign the facilitations.  This semester students acted as facilitators in a range of situations including a community meeting where police were allegedly  targeting men of color; a coal mine that is closing and the impact on the community; a city that has experienced a major flood where a meeting is held of residents, the business community, and city officials; nurses in a hospital threatening to strike because of poor working conditions and low salary; a rural community dealing with an opioid crisis and its impact on a city’s medical infrastructure; a school board considering a call to ban books; a group of NGOs attempting to coordinate a response after a major hurricane;  a U.S./Mexico border community dealing with the influx of migrants;  a culturally diverse neighborhood meeting about residents having loud parties;  a meeting of residents and officials in a city facing a contaminated water crisis; a community dealing with allegations of voter fraud in the last election; and the closing of a clinic providing abortion services and its impact on a community.  

The facilitator students meet  in advance to plan the approach they will use, including any technology.  Jamboard is a popular digital whiteboard for taking notes and fostering engagement that students have used.  The roles I assign are designed to be contentious and reflect high emotions and anger.  Young conflict resolution professionals will soon find themselves in meetings of angry, despondent,  and determined community members.   In a society that is as polarized as ours, we need facilitators skilled at navigating combative gatherings, reassuring those needing support, and helping communities reach decisions that work for all.

For the final few weeks of the class, students develop their own facilitation situations that they run with fellow students.   I ask students to develop something that reflects the type of work they wish to do: the fights they want to want help settle, the situations they want to play a role in bringing to closure, and the challenges they see most pressing in our future.    This semester I had 19 students, and each came up with a unique situation. 

  • A  meeting of university officials and students on how to restrict firearms on campus
  • A gathering of hospital officials and consumers looking at how to increase transparency in healthcare costs
  • Students, faculty, and administrators at a college discussing the canceling of certain popular majors
  • A meeting of students, parents, and officials in a rural high school considering a request by students to start an LGBTQ club
  • Students, community members, and high school officials trying to reduce gang violence
  • A community meeting to consider a zoning change that would increase the presence of bars and restaurants supported by young residents and opposed by older ones
  • A policy meeting in Bangladesh looking at how the government can respond to climate change
  • A meeting responding to legislation in France that would outlaw religious symbols being worn
  • A meeting of hospital officials looking at ways to improve patient safety
  • A community’s response to a proposal to establish a women’s shelter in their community
  • A public hearing considering the high cost of living in Arlington County, VA and what can be done to encourage the middle class to move in
  • A city’s plan to increase public transportation by building more bus stops and the opposition to it
  • A school community including students, parents, and teachers responding to a rise in sexual assaults
  • A church community dealing with the proposed closing of its inner-city parish
  • A community dealing with post pandemic life including the need to go back to the office face to face to support businesses and the health needs of children and families
  • A healthcare group meeting to consider staffing issues including job titles and establishing more equitable salary classifications
  • A community dealing with ethnic conflict in Ethiopia

And in some reconsidering of history one student set up a meeting of East Timor officials and community members considering how best to seek independence, and another student looked at U.S. post Civil War Reconstruction policy in a meeting facilitated by President Andrew Johnson.

Am I missing any issues that need to be facilitated?  

My students, many of whom will soon graduate, are ready. Bring it on. (And call me if you need a good facilitator).


David Smith

David J. Smith is the author of Peace Jobs: A Student’s Guide to Starting a Career Working for Peace (Information Age Publishing 2016). He teaches part-time at the School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution at George Mason University and is the president of the Forage Center for Peacebuilding and Humanitarian… MORE

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