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Reflections on Conflict Mediation Training as a Sustainability Intern

Smiling woman with dark hair sitting with plants on shelf and white walls behind

By Lauren Michaels (’19)

Conflict in City Government

During my last two years as an Environmental Studies student at Augsburg, I worked as the Sustainability Intern for the City of St. Louis Park in the Environment and Sustainability Department. I worked at St. Louis Park City Hall alongside a small team of employees to implement the city’s Climate Action Plan, which lays out a road map for the city to reach carbon neutrality by the year 2040. Our job was to encourage residents and businesses to reduce their energy usage and promote the use of renewable energy in place of fossil fuels. The biggest challenge I faced during my internship was adapting to the constant undercurrent of conflict that is considered “normal” when working in public policy. Government employees must balance the interests of residents, businesses, developers, homeowners, city council members, and other groups and everyone needs to participate in the planning process when deciding on the actions to take that will shape the city. With so many clashing groups and interests at the table, conflict was inevitable and always present. I saw conflict stem from lack of citizen trust, lack of government transparency, failure to involve affected groups in the planning process, etc.

A Chance to Grow

As an undergraduate student and newbie to local government, I was pretty uncomfortable in this environment. I wanted to solve all the problems and make everyone happy, thinking that if I “worked hard enough” I could get everyone what they needed. I found myself people-pleasing and overworking to avoid additional issues and accepting work that was beyond what an intern should be assigned. This motivation to “fix” quickly led to frustration and resentment. After a year of avoiding discomfort, I decided to try a new approach by seeking some extra training in this area. After doing some research online, I found Conflict Mediation Training through the Conflict Resolution Center of Minnesota (CRC). My hope was that I would be able to use these skills to manage stress and conflict, making my internship more tolerable. I applied for and was awarded a scholarship to participate in a 5 day, 30 Hour Civil Facilitative Hybrid Mediation Class from the CRC and sustainability grant funding to cover the other half. I applied for this additional grant through the Environmental Studies program at Augsburg and I’m very fortunate to have been awarded these grants since I wouldn’t have been able to afford this type of training on my student budget!

Conflict Mediation Training

For five days, I got to work individually and in groups with experts on conflict and communication, learning about mediation from the ground up, beginning with understanding how and why conflict arises, moving on to how to support others in conflict and finally, how to facilitate conflict between two parties and reach a mutual agreement. Each day I learned new skills and concepts that I was able to take home and try out, many of which have become permanent in my communication style. Here are some concepts that have stuck with me most:

  • Win-Win Thinking > Zero-Sum Thinking: As humans, we tend to use zero-sum thinking, which you can read more about here and avoid this pattern by switching to win-win thinking. We do this by remembering that there can be more than one winner in conflict and a possibility usually exists where all parties involved can win or get what they need from the situation.
  • Self Determination = Empowerment: Research has shown that people in conflict are more likely to follow through on a solution they come up with together, rather than a suggestion made by an outside party. This means that the most important factor in conflict mediation is that those two people figure it out together, without intervention. It doesn’t matter if a 3rd person has the best answer or knows who’s right and who’s wrong, self-determination of those involved leads to feelings of empowerment and outcome that those involved will support.
  • Say “No” to Indefinites: Avoid the words “always” and “never”, for example,  “you never do the dishes,” or, “I always do all the work.” It doesn’t make sense to use indefinites because it’s not possible for someone to always do something and you don’t know if someone will never do something in the future, so focus on speaking for yourself and using “I” statements to clearly express your own wants and needs.
  • We Mirror One Another: Humans tend to unconsciously mirror one another, meaning that If you want someone else to stay calm, you must stay calm and you’ll have a greater chance of having that other person reflect that energy back at you.

I didn’t become a conflict resolution expert or find a magic solution that allowed everyone at my internship to work together harmoniously, but I did gain skills in conflict resolution which boosted my confidence and eased anxiety. Knowing that I was a tiny bit more prepared to handle a conflict made the undercurrent of tension at City Hall more tolerable. During the training, I practiced remaining neutral in conflict situations and staying on the outside of them, rather than becoming emotionally involved. I gained clarity on how to take a step back, which lessened the weight of responsibility I carried around at my job. I became a better listener which has improved my relationships in and out of work. Having the opportunity to explore the situations that made me uncomfortable during this training was empowering and made conflict feel less intimidating.

Scholarships and Training for Students (Especially BIPOC Students)

The last note to make is that I believe all students, especially black and indigenous students, students of color, and students from low income and underserved communities should set aside time to reflect on their skills and consider applying for scholarships to complete additional training that would help in the job they are seeking after college. Many organizations have scholarship funding set aside for students. If you can’t find scholarship information on their website, don’t be afraid to reach out via email and ask if there are funds available for students. If you find a training that’s a good fit for you and there are no scholarships available through the organization, check in with your school! Ask the director of your program or your academic advisor if there are grants available. You’d be amazed at what they can find for you. If the training will help you excel professionally, there’s a good chance your school will be willing to support that financially. Besides gaining extra skills, this is a great way to gain extra confidence when entering the workforce and boost your resume. I encourage all students to explore additional training before they graduate, especially those from communities that have been historically and systematically discriminated against.


My name is Lauren Michaels. I’m a community activist with a passion for social justice and an interest in using storytelling as a healing modality. In December 2019, I received a bachelor’s degree from Augsburg University in Environmental Studies and am currently seeking a position that allows me to expand my writing and media skills. Connect with me at: www.linkedin.com/in/laurenmichaels2020

 

Reflections on Leadership and Composting

This semester, Environmental Stewardship Education and Outreach Coordinator, Briana Mitchell, will be blogging about her experience with sustainability, choosing topics that have come up this year that warrant more research. She kicks off her blog series with a reflection on what this internship has meant for her and what she’s learned about composting from 1:1 conversations with students. Interested in the Environmental Stewardship Internships? Email environmentalstewardship@augsburg.edu to learn more!

By Briana Mitchel (’19)

What I learned:

This experience as an Environmental Stewardship Intern was something that I did not expect. I did not expect to get so close to my fellow interns, I did not expect to learn so much about composting, and I did not expect to learn how hard it is to define sustainability! I think that it is important for people to have an internship experience because it will give you a chance to explore different possible job occupations, as well as acknowledging your strengths and weaknesses. This internship really made me question what it meant to be a leader. I’m familiar with being a leader and have no problem doing so – my minor is Leadership Studies! However, I’ve been accustomed in other positions to receive a list of things to do when I got in with no chance of creativity. With this position my supervisor gave me three possible options for projects that I could work on throughout the semester. After selecting a project, I was able to work on it and adapt it to a way that showcased my skills.

The project I chose was understanding the knowledge people had about composting and sustainability then coming up with a way to show my findings. With this, I was put into a position where I had all creative freedom, something that I was not used to, and I realized I had to adapt my meaning of leadership to best fit my position. Something that helped me achieve this is placing bigger-picture meaning into my internship as well as the projects that I do. By doing this I was able to see and execute sustainability within my life and others.

This work was very meaningful to me because this was my first internship and I feel like I accomplished a lot that I’m proud of. I created something with the knowledge I got from my research methods class and was able to be creative about how I went about it. This was the first time I was able to be truly independent and I realized I enjoy independent work and maybe was too dependent on supervisors for guidance. I was aware of sustainability but didn’t know how to define it. Sustainability is different for everyone, and although it’s hard to describe, I came to truly understand its importance. I decided to push myself as well as my roommates to compost in our home and help them understand what should be in what bin. Through this internship I realized the amount of work that goes into composting correctly, and that while it is a difficult thing to understand, it takes little effort to actually do. Internships are a great way to learn about your abilities and what occupations could possibly maximize these abilities. Overall, this experience allowed me to create relationships and understand a lot more about my strengths and weaknesses. I learned to take leadership on projects through critical thinking and brainstorming which is something I was not used to doing.

What I did:

After selecting a project I was able to work on it and adapt it to a way that showcased my skills. The project I chose was understanding the knowledge people had about composting and sustainability then coming up with a way to show my findings. To gather the information, I thought about either choosing a survey or doing one-on-one relational meetings. I decided to choose one-on-one relational meetings because they’re more personable and I wanted more detailed answers as to their understanding of composting and sustainability. With these interviews I met with people for about 45 minutes, which allowed me to get background knowledge about what they see is sustainability, as well as how sustainability shows up in their lives in relation to Augsburg. I focused on five commuters and five people who live on campus, the drawback I found from one-on-one relational meetings is that you can’t do copious amounts by yourself in a short period of time. It’s also extremely difficult to get a time that works for yourself as well as other people, because to get the full effect of a relational meeting you should be communicating for about 45 minutes. From the information I gathered I was able to create a pamphlet that showed the information that I gathered. This is a project that I did independently and gathered the information independently as well which I was not used to. With previous position I was used to waiting on individuals so I can finish my part of a project and had to constantly work interdependently on others. Through these one-on-one relational meetings with students on and off campus it allowed me to create connections that I would not have done otherwise. With this pamphlet I wanted to make it simple enough to have it understandable. With this information I hope that it will help those within my department as well as those within other departments have an understanding as to what students see sustainability/composting as and its significance.

Read about Bri’s findings!

intern briana mitchell