By nature, human beings are social, and this puts us in constant interaction with each other. We each have unique lives and opinions, and sometimes differences of priority, belief, or opinion can cause us to disagree. Conflict is a normal part of human interaction, and is not necessarily negative in principal- it can be the source of very important discussion and learning. If dealt with properly, conflict can provide wonderful growth, and new perspectives and understanding for all parties involved. But despite this potential for profound learning, conflict can escalate to a problematic level if it is not recognized and handled properly.

In Bellingham, neighborhood conflict between students and their non-student neighbors is a particularly common point of tension. Students have loud parties and their neighbors get upset, there is a dispute over garbage on student lawns or broken beer bottles in the street, landlords refuse to give students their deposits, or students are angry because a neighbor’s phone call causes cops to bust their party. Because we share neighborhoods, we impact each other, and when conflict arises out of negative impact, the whole neighborhood suffers.

Did you know that there are certain skills you can learn to manage and resolve conflict in positive and effective ways? Conflict resolution is a term used to describe a variety of creative ways to deal with conflict. Mediation is one technique used in conflict resolution that Lara Welker, coordinator of the Campus Community Coalition describes as “a fairly defined pathway” of skills. With the idea of building and fostering positive relationships between Western students and their neighbors, the CCC is partnering with the Whatcom Dispute Resolution Center to bring a series of free conflict resolution and mediation trainings to Western students. Welker described the intention as “student and non-student neighbors working together to resolve tension.”

“By design,” she said, “the trainings will be mixed,” meaning that Western students and non-student community members will be learning together, actively working on ways to identify and address the conflicts particular to their relationship. Facilitators from the Whatcom Dispute Resolution Center will be leading the trainings, which will be based on the workshops they currently offer on conflict resolution. However, they are “tweaking and modifying [the trainings]” to devote time and focus to problems specifically related to relationships within neighborhoods shared by students and non-students. Mixing the trainings is one way to provide increased, positive communication between these two groups.

Because conflict manifests in many forms, some more elevated and severe than others, Welker said the trainings are “focusing on multiple levels” to provide an informal introduction to conflict resolution for those wishing just to get their feet wet, and options for more serious, intensive study for those who want to jump right in and swim, swim, swim.

The most basic training is a three-hour course called “Dealing With Conflict.” This course serves as an introduction to conflict management, and will focus on “addressing the root of conflict and how different people respond to it.” By asking questions like “What are skillful and appropriate ways to intervene and offer assistance?” this course will give students “more confidence in how to approach conflict,” said Welker. The second training, “Neighborhood Conflict Management,” is a bit more in-depth. After completing this training, students will be expected to “take a proactive role in their community. They will be asked to be the eyes and ears for conflict,” said Welker. After completing the training, students will have the skills to assess neighborhood conflict and offer assistance in its resolution.

This winter, there will be a third and even more in-depth training. It will focus on teaching students the specific set of skills involved in mediation. This is a 40-hour training followed by a practicum, which results in becoming a certified mediator.

“We are asking trainees to take a proactive role [in their communities] by identifying and skillfully intervening [in conflict] when appropriate. Trainees can also be active by referring people for mediation services when [the conflict] seems too big,” said Welker. After the second training, “there is an expectation to be more proactive and take a leadership role in addressing conflict.”
With 65 percent of students living off-campus, Western plays a large role in many Bellingham neighborhoods. As neighbors, we must find ways to be respectful of each other and resolve conflict as at arises. By learning the skills to manage and resolve tension in its early stages, larger, more serious conflict can potentially be avoided.

One of the things the trainings can do is to help one recognize conflict when it occurs.

“Many people might not perceive conflict in their own lives, but we all experience conflict, even the most peaceful of us,” said Welker. “Sometimes the answer lies in simply recognizing conflict when it appears in one’s life. So much [tension] can be headed off by that recognition,” she said.

The Campus Community Coalition was founded in 1999 to prevent and control student alcohol misuse using “environmental rather than individual approaches.” Environmental approaches to address this problem are “community-based,” and designed to “connect students and their neighbors in positive ways.” The group is composed of roughly 150 people, including students, landlords, faculty and staff, city employees, bar owners, the liquor control board, and more. Welker said that it is quite something to see all of these people, who are often at odds or in opposition with each other, come together for the same reason- to work for a stronger community with positive relationships between all parties. Welker stressed that the CCC is “not a prohibitionist organization. We are not interested in eradicating student alcohol use. We are trying to prevent misuse.”

They received grant funding from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of Alcohol and Substance Abuse, and the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services. The CCC will be receiving these grants for the next two years, and in that time Welker hopes to develop them to a point where they will be self-sustaining after the funding is gone. One reason Welker is excited about partnering with the WDRC for the conflict resolution and mediation trainings is that it provides an established base for these projects to continue, a base that is within the community.

There is currently no mediation center on campus, but Welker noted, “it would be fantastic to have an on-campus home.” However, she also addressed that because these trainings are focusing specifically on neighborhood issues, it is nice to have them take place at the WDRC, which is located in the larger Bellingham community.

The skills learned in these trainings provide valuable insight into day-to-day interactions. A trainee recently told Welker that since completing the trainings, there are many day-to-day things she feels more equipped to deal with in a skillful way. These things include issues between co-workers, classmates, roommates, friends, and family. Welker is confident that the skills learned in these workshops “will be very relevant to students, because they can be applied and used in a wide range of settings.”

“Dealing With Conflict” will be held at the Whatcom Educational Credit Union, Education Center, 511 E. Holly St. The workshop will be offered three times this quarter, from 6 to 9 p.m. Thursday, October 27; 9 a.m. to noon on Saturday, November 5 and 6 to 9 p.m. on Monday, November 7. To sign up for this workshop or “Neighborhood Conflict Management,” contact the Whatcom Dispute Resolution Center at 767-0122.