Third Party Involvement

Marcia Caton Campbell

Assistant Professor, Department of Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Wisconsin-Madison

Interviewed by Julian Portilla, 2003


Q: Was there a moment of transformation for you, that made you think that this process might be worthwhile?

A: I guess I can talk about it on a micro level, based upon an experience that I've had in Madison, WI, with a community collaborative, to save a piece of land from development. There, a really wide-ranging group of folks came together with dramatically different ideas on how to use this piece of land. Some wanted to see a conservation easement, others wanted to see urban agriculture, still others wanted to see affordable housing, and the neighbors immediately adjacent to the land wanted their informal park to stay forever. I have been working with this group now for four and-a-half years. And I have to say that I am not neutral to this group now. This is participatory action research, so I am right in the thick of it. Not only have we come to agreement on this 31-acre piece of land that is inside the city of Madison, but the group has actually achieved one of those classic mutual gains solutions, in which there is conservation land, there is urban agriculture, there is the informal park, and there is affordable housing — all on this 31-acre space.

A really disparate group of people has come together, and not only succeeded in preventing the land from being developed, but actually succeeded in acquiring the land and getting fairly substantial sums of grant money to help them achieve their community vision. So I guess this is more of a consensus building collaboration than a mediation, per se. For me, the transformative moment was that the community banded together, the city planning department made its proposal for a standard sub-division on this piece of land, and the community threw them out of the process, told them to go away. Then we went on about our business, raising funds, trying to save the land, trying to achieve the community's vision. We succeeded, and now have engaged the city government on our own terms. They are according us a status and a level of respect that I would not have expected to see as a function of the actions that this group took. This wasn't an intractable conflict. But what was so striking for me was the power of the group coming together and coming to agreement on what they wanted to do, and how that transformed their relationship with the city.


Q: Was that mediated? Or was that direct negotiations between the different parties?

A: It was direct negotiations. Now that I am there, I don't mediate formally, but I do a lot of the work of connecting this group with the city government.

Q: Third-siding without mediating?

A: Yeah, because the people we're having to work with at the city are the Planning and Development Department, and I'm an academic planner, which gets me entree to them that the community doesn't get. I have a certain power and a certain clout as a function of being a university professor that gets responses that the community can't often get on their own. And, I also work as a liaison between the community and the planning consulting firm that they've hired. So I guess I see myself intervening without mediating, at the request of the community, in a lot of different things. As somebody said earlier today, "not being the expert but offering up my expertise." I've found that to be pretty rewarding work.


I guess this brings me around to the topic of local knowledge, which is something that I have been thinking about a lot in relation to the knowledge base project.

I think one of the things that the mediation field has not done well has been that they have not listened to local knowledge and local stories, and the importance of those things in resolving conflicts. I have heard practitioners, here and elsewhere, say that they came in assuming certain things about how the mediation process should go, and in the course of the process, they had to dramatically revise their thinking as a function of what local people were telling them about how things should be resolved. So I think there is a lot for us to learn from what the local people involved in the conflict feel is the important solution, or the important response. We miss things by relying completely on techniques that have been devised to deal with conflict in the dominant culture.

Q: A lot of people, who are interveners, talk about how they are not responsible for the outcome, that they are only responsible for the process. And that local knowledge is ultimately the only thing that can determine outcome. But it sounds like you are suggesting that local knowledge should also determine the process to a certain extent?

A: I think so. When you are dealing with groups of people who have a very different epistemology, a very different way of knowing and understanding the world, you have to incorporate that in the process. Otherwise, I don't think you will get the fullness of their views represented at the table. I think about tribal processes, and about how the standard process that we use is a focus-reflective pause. We need to embed this into mediations or into discussions with groups that are comprised of people from western culture, typically. If you work with tribes, if you work with indigenous peoples, the focus-reflective pause is part and parcel of how they do things. For us to take the typically Western view of, "Let's move forward, let's get agreement, let's not waste time, let's be efficient, let's move ahead," we run the risk of missing very important information, or of excluding people's voices from the process. I think that being excluded from the process is a big contributor to intractability.