University of Oregon office launches mediation training program for Spanish speakers

By Gemma DiCarlo (OPB)
Feb. 12, 2024 2 p.m.
The Office of Community Dispute Resolution is part of the UO law school which recently sponsored the first training session for Spanish speaking conflict mediators.

The Office of Community Dispute Resolution is part of the UO law school which recently sponsored the first training session for Spanish speaking conflict mediators.

University of Oregon / KLCC

In what might be the first program of its kind in the country, a University of Oregon office recently offered a series of trainings for Spanish speakers to become mediators.

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The Oregon Office for Community Dispute Resolution supports 12 centers across the state where trained mediators help residents settle disagreements before they go to court.

Those disputes can range from neighborhood arguments over fence lines and noisy dogs to eviction and juvenile justice cases.

“It’s an opportunity for individuals, groups and organizations to create their own solutions and retain decision-making authority while holding people accountable for their actions,” said Patrick Sponsler, the OOCDR administrator.

But with 15% of Oregonians speaking a language other than English at home, there are gaps in the communities that the office can reach.

Even though the resolution centers provide interpretation services, Sponsler said things can still get lost in translation, especially when tensions are running high.

“When parties are reaching out to the centers… they’re under a lot of stress, so they’re looking to build trust and be able to move forward,” he said. “One of those ways of connecting is being able to speak to the party in their first language.”

The office began looking for Spanish training programs 18 months ago, after leaders at the resolution centers expressed a desire to better connect with and serve Spanish-speaking communities.

Sponsler assumed the office could use a program implemented by mediators in other states, but it became clear that Oregon might have to build its own program.

“I was actually a little surprised as to how there aren’t these trainings available across the nation,” he said. “It was a little bit of a surprise that there was a build that needed to be had.”

A woman in a black jumpsuit and gold necklace smiles at the camera.

Portland-based consultant Veronica Bañuelos (shown here in a provided photo) recently led a basic mediation training for Spanish speakers. The program may be the first of its kind in the country.

Courtesy of Veronica Bañuelos

Veronica Bañuelos, a Portland-based consultant, developed the office’s Spanish mediation training and led its first workshops last fall.

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One of the biggest lessons she tried to incorporate was the role that power dynamics play in mediation.

“One of the things I train mediators on is… to see when you’re standing in for the system,” she said. “[And] for us to be really clear on understanding the different dynamics that are at play, and to be able to normalize that and bring those into the table.”

While linguistic nuances are important, Bañuelos said cultural nuances are more likely to get lost in translation.

She said, in general, Spanish-speaking communities tend to be more interdependent and relationship-based than many English-speaking communities. She let that communal focus guide the structure of the workshops.

“The way that I teach in English is different than the way that I teach in Spanish,” Bañuelos said. “We tend to do more relational things, you know, ‘How have you been practicing your tools this week?’ And really diving deep into some of those personal stories.”

Gabriela Buamscha participated in the new mediation training for Spanish speakers. Though she’s a biologist by trade, she’s long had an interest in conflict resolution and had already completed basic mediation training in English.

Taking the training in Spanish, though, was a completely different experience.

“I literally relearned the whole process of mediation,” she said. “When we speak in our first language and we’re surrounded by people who share the culture, we access our emotions much better.”

And being emotionally aware is key to the job — Buamscha said mediators have to be careful not to take sides, and to put their biases aside if the dispute touches a personal nerve.

“All that might not happen in another language because your brain is working differently,” she said.

The office hopes to eventually expand training opportunities beyond the Portland metro area.

Sponsler said the long-term plan is to build out Spanish-speaking services in one area of the state and share those lessons with the other regional centers.

“We have a goal of implementing sustainable services, but we want this to be a thoughtful build over time,” he said. “Right now, we’re in the process of listening and engaging in meaningful conversations with community partners.”

A second Spanish meditation training will take place in Hillsboro this spring. The deadline to sign up is Feb. 20.

Veronica Bañuelos, Gabriela Buamscha and Patrick Sponsler spoke with “Think Out Loud” host Dave Miller. Click play to listen to the full conversation:

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