Law school answers the demand for Spanish-speaking mediators

When the University of Oregon School of Law discovered an unmet need affecting Oregonians across the state, staff members searched nationwide for a solution. When they couldn’t find it, they created one.

This article was first seen in Around the O on December 18, 2023.

When the University of Oregon School of Law discovered an unmet need affecting Oregonians across the state, staff members searched nationwide for a solution. When they couldn’t find it, they created one.

The problem? A lack of trained, Spanish-speaking mediators. It emerged last year when the Oregon Office of Community Dispute Resolution, which is part of the law school, helped organize equity discussions at 10 mediation centers throughout Oregon. One hot-button issue kept coming up: Why aren’t there more mediators who speak Spanish?

So, in what may be the first program of its kind in the nation, the community dispute resolution office held an inaugural mediation training session for Spanish speakers last October. It was so successful some applicants had to be turned away, but more workshops are planned.

Twenty Spanish-speaking Oregonians completed the 35-hour mediation training program conducted over five consecutive Fridays. Those mediators will help Spanish speakers resolve conflict, avoid costly litigation and solve problems, said dispute resolution office administrator Patrick Sponsler.

Funding for the training program came from a state grant earmarked for helping prevent evictions, an area where mediators can play a key role.

“After a national search, it became clear that there are few, if any, training programs specifically for Spanish-speaking mediators,” Sponsler said. “So we decided to start our own. Hopefully, it will serve as a national model and more workshops will spring up around the country.”

The inaugural class represented an array of backgrounds and professions, hailing from different parts of Oregon. Many were chosen based on their involvement with Spanish-speaking community groups. For all the participants, Spanish was their first language. 

Resolution Oregon, an organization partnering with the UO community dispute resolution office on the workshops, is a statewide association of 12 community mediation centers across the state. The centers provide mediation services, connect Oregonians to community organizations and provide people with tools to resolve their own disputes. 

The dispute resolution office, which is housed in the law school, supports Resolution Oregon through grantmaking, consultation, training, research and more. Community mediation is complementary to other avenues of justice and can save the state money while helping underserved communities, Sponsler said. 

Mediation is often faster, cheaper and more confidential than going to court. It also offers greater flexibility for developing solutions and boasts a better track record for maintaining relationships between parties after the process ends. Mediating renter disputes, for example, can save both landlords and tenants time, money and disruptions to daily life. 

In addition to training mediators, the workshop organizers hope their new training program will help them connect with community organizations across Oregon, expand their referral networks, and learn how they can better serve Spanish-speaking populations. 

Program leaders say the benefits of having a Spanish-speaking mediator go beyond mere language translation, a service that the state office also offers. An interpreter cannot act as the mediator, so that adds another person and additional steps to the process. Subtle, but important, nuances can get lost in translation. 

But when both parties speak Spanish directly with the mediator, it speeds up and smooths out communication. It also supports trust-building.

“It’s not just about the language but also culture and understanding,” said Veronica Bañuelos, the Portland consultant who led the workshops. Spanish is her first language. 

“We get into conflict because there’s something that has been disconnected or hurt,” Bañuelos said. “The way to repair this is to be seen, heard and understood. When we’re able to do that in our own language, it’s less transactional. It’s also easier to move through the stickier parts of negotiation.”

When mediating for Spanish-speaking parties, it helps to understand cultural differences firsthand, added Bañuelos, who identifies as a bilingual and bicultural Chicana. Through her mediation work she’s seen how diverse cultural perceptions of family, independence vs. interdependence, and community often come into play. 

Equity, trust, power dynamics, class and age also come up, she said.

During the workshops, Bañuelos covered the essentials, what she calls the basic ingredients of mediation. Those include bringing people together, establishing ground rules and listening.

She also spoke about the importance of looking at conflict through a systems-thinking lens. That helps mediators gain a broader perspective, Bañuelos said. And it opens doors to more profound understanding, especially when historical power dynamics are involved. 

However, she added that each situation is different. Once you know the basic mediation recipe, success requires improvisation. An effective mediator also looks through lenses of communication, understanding and reconciliation to adapt and create solutions.

Bañuelos hopes her students will apply what they’ve learned, increasing the capacity of organizations throughout the state that offer mediation. 

“I also hope it’s something they can take into their personal lives and jobs, to their families, friends and colleagues,” Bañuelos said. “These are tools that we all can benefit from and that are very much needed at this time.”

By Ed Dorsch, University Communications
—Top photo: The Knight Law Center, home of the UO School of Law

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