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President’s Desk Q&A: Kimberly Jackson Davidson Discusses YBCD and the Office of the Ombudsperson

March 6, 2017

  Photo by John Seyfried

Kimberly Jackson Davidson (KJD): Congratulations on your appointment as president of Pace University!

Marvin Krislov (MK): Thank you.

KJD: What things do you think you will miss most when you leave Oberlin and move into your new role?

MK: One of the things I’ve talked with folks at Pace about is building community. It’s quite different there – Pace has multiple campuses, and a student body that includes some commuters and non-traditional students, so it’s just a different environment than Oberlin where there’s a 24/7 residential learning community. So the thing I’d say that I’m going to miss the most about Oberlin is the sense of community. Even though sometimes it can be challenging, I think it is something Oberlin does well.

KJD: I wish you well!

MK: Thank you! So, you’ve been in your job how long now?

KJD: Seven months.

MK: How are things going and what types of things are you working on?

KJD: I love what I’m doing. Even in the challenging moments, I really love the opportunity that I have. I feel like it is the best of the work that I did as a class dean, to be able to take the time to listen to people and help with problem solving. It’s absent of some of the helplessness that I felt in dealing with judicial cases, where I would look at a situation and say to myself, “there are so many better things that could be happening here rather than somebody just getting in trouble. For the parties involved in disciplinary processes, there is a temptation to focus on the cost of ‘being written up,’ without embracing the value of the process for reflecting on the impact of personal behavior on self and others. The people who reach out to the Office of the Ombudsperson and YBCD are generally seeking ways to transform a difficult situation into an opportunity for something more positive.”

I feel like I’m being paid to do things that are meaningful to me. People have been coming to me with a range of issues, but I think the top one would be people coming to consult on decision making and dealing with a situation they are facing. We talk about the situation and brainstorm options, which doesn’t involve mediation. It’s not me advising as much as helping people figure out what options feel comfortable to them and which to start with.

Other individuals might come in thinking they need mediation and after a consultation they have the capacity to resolve their situation on their own. In other instances, I might see roommates, or coworkers, or friends who are looking for formal mediation, and I would engage them with the help of a third party to ease the dialogue and come to a resolution. Now that we have people trained and in place, there’s been an uptick in organizations and offices contacting us to conduct facilitations. We anticipate that there may be an opportunity for a more public facilitation event later this semester. So, there have been a variety of things.

MK: That’s great. What question do people ask that surprises you the most?

KJD: Maybe it shouldn’t, but it is “what’s an ombudsperson?”

MK: And what is the answer you give them?

KJD: That’s a fun moment to let them know the history of the word and the practice. In Swedish, “umbuds” means representative and “mand” is the people. The concept is about giving help and support, providing someone to turn to for people who are having difficulty problem solving within an organization or structure. It’s also interesting to consider that our move to add “person” to the end of ombuds hides a part of the rich meaning of the word, but I prefer to be called a person rather than a man, so it works for me. So when that question is asked, it gives me an opportunity to be able to help people focus on the fact that it really is about the people.

MK: That’s great. What is YBCD and what’s the relationship between that and the office of the ombudsperson?

KJD: The Yeworkwha Belachew Center for Dialogue, formerly known as Oberlin College Dialogue Center, is named for the first ombudsperson on campus, who is a dear friend and an amazing mentor. YB was looking for ways to reach a greater percentage of the campus than she could as one person, so she organized a team of students, faculty, and staff who could help people on campus build community and work through conflict. Things have changed a lot because of the political culture that we’re living in, but I want to keep the core principles and strategies in place as we find ways to adapt to what’s happening on campus now and figure out how to be proactive. I feel like almost every person that I encounter is talking about the need for people to interact well across differences so we’ll be developing more workshops on giving people skills directly around communication. We’re going to start building a core format that will allow us to adapt to different needs on campus and to help people better communicate with us. Last week, we began holding drop-in dialogue hours from 7:00-10:00 PM on Tuesdays and Wednesdays and 1:00-4:00 PM on Sundays. The drop-in hours were conceived of to offer people space for dialogue that may involve differences that are not centered around a heated conflict. YBCD provides snacks and may suggest a topic or conversation starter to support informal dialogue. It is our hope that out of this we might grow some new program opportunities.

MK: Some people say that the best way to promote understanding is to have a shared work, something we see in music and theater performances or athletic teams or Bonner Center groups. I wonder if there is some value in having more dialogue that isn’t around a particular controversy.

KJD: The center in its conception was about community building and helping people to solve conflict and communicate better. We’re working at finding ways for that to strengthen and evolve. One of the joys of having the social justice mediation training recently is that it has created a community, and I think the people who are drawn to do this kind of work are people who want to listen and who recognize that they need to be stretched. It has been really powerful to see the energy of people coming together. They’re meeting on a monthly basis to practice their skills, and there is a kind of built-in camaraderie.

MK: Talk more about the social justice training. What does it look like?

KJD: This past January, we spent six days training 30 people on campus. The first five days were focused on training mediators and the final day concentrated on facilitating larger group dialogues. Half of the time we spent together was centered on practicing mediation skills through role-playing, which provides a context where people get to know each other pretty deeply. They may be role-playing with people who have different identities than they have, and so no matter what seat they are in, they have to think about the ways that they generally engage with other people. I think it can be a life-changing experience, and I watched that dynamic happen one more time with this group of people.

MK: That’s great. How is the work you do different from counseling or therapy?

KJD: I think counseling oftentimes helps people repair harm that’s happened in the past. Dealing with emotions in that context frequently involves diagnosis and you want people doing that who are licensed. In mediation, in conflict coaching, and even group dialogue, people talk about their emotions, but it’s usually connected to the problem or conflict is that they are there to resolve. They may tell a story about the past to help give insight about how to deal with the situation that’s at hand. An individual and therapist might have a continuing relationship, while we try to help people resolve a situation and move on.

MK: Are there any specific challenges that you face this academic year?

KJD: The biggest challenge for me has been trying to figure out what is my niche. Knowing what the center has done in the past and seeing where things have changed, has helped me think outside of the box to find a way that my work can complement things that are going on around dialogue. It can be a slow process but I believe it is important that I continue to take the time to build relationships in different quarters.

MK: Related to that, what is your vision for the next five years. What do you hope to see?

KJD: Initially, I would like to work in shoring up what has been at the core of the center and the office. I think that it’s always been a desire to see this work play a part in the retention of students, and I think that there are ways to expand mentorship for people who work with this office. I would like to identify ways to bring more value to the work students and faculty and staff are doing in the office, and I’m trying to develop some structure to accomplish that. It is important to me, given what happened over the last couple of years, to make the office and the services sustainable so the next person who steps into the role can keep moving forward. I want to make sure that the program is strong enough and clear enough that it can last beyond me.

MK: Great. Anything you want to ask me?

KJD: I’ll ask you one more question. I know you won’t be here much longer, but I’m wondering if there are things you desire to see happen before you leave the office?

MK: I think the ombudsperson office and YBCD are really extraordinary. I don’t think that there are a lot of places in America that have such a well-developed program. But I think because of the transitions within the office, not everyone on campus realizes what a valuable resource it is. I would like to build on that. There are a lot of people who want to make things better, or change things, and sometimes it’s hard for them. Sometimes it doesn’t seem easy to have the most constructive dialogue and understanding.

I think we all share in that, but I think the ombudsperson can be very powerful in helping to facilitate that and doing it in a way that people feel comfortable and secure. I know that your predecessor, whom I treasured dearly for her work, really was very, very significant in doing that and it’s a wonderful legacy. I hope that as more people rediscover the ombudsperson and some of the initiatives you’re taking, we’ll see even more of that taking place.

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