Conflict Resolution Teams Facilitate Arlington Community Conversations

Posted: April 26, 2010 at 1:01 am, Last Updated: April 25, 2010 at 7:26 pm

By James Greif

ICAR professor Joan Orgon Coolidge, left, with Dulce Carrillo, multicultural marketing, outreach and advocacy manager for Arlington County Parks, Recreation and Cultural Resources. Photo by James Greif

How can we be a better community? This is the question at the heart of Community Conversations, an Arlington, Va., program that gathers small groups of residents to exchange ideas, with the goal of developing a more successful, inclusive community.

To facilitate the conversations, Arlington County government sought the expertise of Mason’s Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution (ICAR).

“A major purpose of the meetings is to get a sense of who feels connected to the community and who doesn’t,” says Mara Schoeny, ICAR assistant professor and certificate program director.

Schoeny, an expert in dialogue facilitation, worked with Arlington on this project in 2008 during the first round of community conversations, then called “diversity dialogues,” which were implemented by Arlington County Board member J. Walter Tejada. Schoeny helped Arlington County officials to structure the discussions and served as the point of contact between ICAR and the county.

The program is now in its third year, and ICAR graduate students and faculty members remain key partners, with students facilitating small group interactions among county residents.

Arlington County Board member J. Walter Tejada and a comunity member chat informally at one of the community conversations. Photo by Jame Greif

Joan Orgon Coolidge, ICAR adjunct professor, serves as the faculty advisor for the students facilitating the conversations. As part of the ICAR graduate degree programs, students participate in an “applied practice and theory” course (CONF690) designed to help them take the concepts presented in class and apply them to real-world situations.

“Dialogues such as these are a key pre-emptive measure to avoid conflict in a county as diverse as Arlington,” says graduate student Megan Wolfram.

“These events gave neighbors a chance to meet and discuss their lives with each other and realize they aren’t as different as they think.”

Coolidge and Schoeny prepared the students for the Community Conversations by holding a “mock facilitation” as a practice run before the actual conversation sessions.

“I think the mock facilitation that our professors conducted helped prepare me for the dialogues,” says student Mona Hamoui. “As a class, we also researched and shared resources on developing a set of engaging questions and small-group activities.”

Many of the students expressed surprise that the participants were comfortable sharing personal details with neighbors who were strangers until they met through the Community Conversations.

“In a short amount of time, the community members had a good level of comfort towards each other and shared personal and important details about their life,” says student Elizabeth Mercado. “I felt like we provided the group with a safe environment where they could express themselves without any fears or worries.”

ICAR professor Mara Schoeny, left, and student Mona Hamoui after one of the discussions. Photo by James Greif

Student James Stewart noted one experience that stood out as an example of Arlington being a strong, diverse community.

“During the dialogues, a man from Pakistan highlighted the fact that it took him moving to Arlington and living in such a diverse and accommodating place to come to understand and appreciate a rival ethnic group from his home country,” Stewart says.

“By removing the rival groups from the contentious environment and providing them an open opportunity to live together, they found that they have much in common and are at peace.”

As part of the class, the students conducted before-and-after surveys of the participants to look for attitudinal shifts regarding community, diversity and dialogue processes.  Currently, the students are conducting interviews with a select number of participants to gather additional feedback to better understand the impact of the community conversations.

“I believe the students had a rich and unique opportunity to grow as colleagues by learning to work together in a professional environment while serving their community in a meaningful way,” Coolidge says. “In developing the habit of reflective practice, the students were able to help community members do the same.  Everyone involved in this project grew, and the communities, of ICAR and of Arlington County, are better for it.”

Write to mediarel at