Interview with Marvin Johnson

For Marvin Johnson, it all started with his father, a postal worker and proud union member. He recalls as a child being allowed to walk the mail route with his father, and listening to his father’s stories about Postal Service workers, management, and the union. Now a nationally recognized ADR professional, Johnson imbibed exciting ideas about people from different classes, races, and positions sitting down together and working out their differences. Today, Johnson is the founder and Executive Director of the Center for ADR, the first ADR center in Maryland, which provides dispute resolution education and training to culturally diverse audiences. During those childhood walks his father planted the first seeds of his interest in labor relations and workplace issues.

Marvin’s first turned that interest into a bachelor’s degree at Kent State University. He attended Kent State between 1969 and 1972, and was present during the anti-war demonstration during which 4 students were gunned down by police. During those heady times, Johnson’s interest in labor relations became infused with other ideals from the movements of the 60’s: civil rights, peace, and equal opportunities for minorities. He knew he wanted to bring people with differences together, and help them resolve their disputes peacefully. Even today, whether in a neighborhood dispute over barking dogs or a high level corporate dispute, he feels “a real high” when he leaves a mediation in which the participants have started talking and collaborating with each other again.

After obtaining a master’s degree in labor relations, Johnson, a young African American loaded with degrees, headed directly for the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service (FMCS). He had long aspired to work as a mediator at FMCS, a small independent agency whose mission is to resolve labor disputes across the country. But FMCS wouldn’t hire him because he had no experience, so he went to work instead for the Department of Labor, hoping to become a mediator there. At Labor, he found himself working with union and management writing administrative law decisions. Realizing that knowledge of the law was important, he enrolled in law school at Catholic University, and focused there on employment law. Ironically, FMCS took him on as an intern during his three years of law school. There he gained experience mediating, and knew this was his calling.
After obtaining his law degree, FMCS finally wanted to hire him, but as a lawyer, not as a mediator, the role he sought. After turning down their offer, he spent the next several years working for the Labor Relations Authority, the Football League Players Association, and the National Treasury Employees Union.

In 1983, Bowie State hired Johnson as an Associate Professor of Labor Relations, Law, and Dispute Resolution. He faced many skeptics when he first broached the idea of starting a dispute resolution center at Bowie State. Most people, even in the academic world, knew nothing about ADR. In 1986, without any funding, he started the first ADR program in Maryland, the Center for ADR at Bowie State. Marvin has served as Executive Director of the Center for all 18 years of its existence. The Center trains neutrals for mediation and arbitration in many settings, including workplace, business, and government, and also offers diversity training. The Center was the first in Maryland to offer comprehensive curricula with core courses and electives. In September 2000, the Center left Bowie State and initiated new affiliations with Salisbury State University's Center for Conflict Resolution, the Cooperative Consortium for Dispute Resolution, and the University of the District of Columbia and ended its fifteen-year relationship with Bowie State University. It has always been self-sustaining, funded by fees from its conferences and training programs.

Besides training hundreds of ADR professionals, the Center produced a biweekly educational channel television program called “Dynamics of Conflict.” For eight years, the show educated the public through interviews and discussions with people in conflict and mediators. According to many employers of ADR professionals, the Center’s graduates often display a higher level of knowledge than graduates of more prestigious programs. Marvin Johnson’s aim for his students, that they be “grounded and rounded,” seems to be working.

Marvin Johnson has personally mediated or arbitrated over 1,500 cases involving for-profit and not-for-profit corporations, federal and state agencies, and local government entities with dealings in numerous sectors. These include education, transportation, health care, utilities, and housing, to name a few. A nationally recognized figure in the ADR field, today he, through his firm, Accormend Associates, often mediates at the corporate level, traveling extensively to do so. He serves as a panelist for JAMS, a prestigious national private dispute resolution organization.

We asked Marvin Johnson what changes he has seen in the ADR field in Maryland since the early 80’s. “Early on it was a movement, now it’s a profession,” he says. He has watched the profession grow from a handful of people practicing only one kind of mediation, to one with hundreds of practitioners practicing several different kinds of mediation. He believes that the different types, such as evaluative and facilitative, are all valid, but that it is difficult for consumers choosing a neutral to understand these nuances when choosing a mediator. “I see the field struggling over the types and definition of mediation” says Johnson. He believes the profession needs to better educate the public about the different types of alternative dispute resolution processes and approaches.

Skilled in the broad spectrum of those approaches, he sees himself as most effective as a facilitative mediator. “What it’s really all about,” he says, “is getting people to talk directly with each other, not just getting a settlement.” While some of his colleagues prefer arbitration, he views mediation as a much greater challenge, with much greater rewards for the participants, whose working relationship may be improved in the process.
A second change Johnson has seen is the formalization of mediation, as it is adopted by courts and other institutions. One reason for this is that those entering the field, particularly lawyers, have adopted the trappings of their original professions. He views this as sometimes a positive development, as it reflects the integration of ADR into many arenas. But, he believes, it can also be problematic and increasingly legalistic. As a case in point, he notes that there is an evolving case law regarding ADR, as a result of law suits on confidentiality, conflict of interest, and disclosure. The field has become more litigious as it became more formal.

On the positive side of change, Marvin delights in the proliferation of training programs for neutrals at all levels. In the beginning, he says, there were just mentors. His own mentors were Herb Fishgold, an arbitrator and Jerry Ross arbitrator/mediator.

Today there are bachelors and masters degree programs in ADR, certificate programs, non-certificate programs, and conferences sponsored by national organizations such as the Association for Conflict Resolution. Many of those trained in the 80’s and 90’s are now busy training other in dispute resolution skills.

What should change in the field of mediation? It’s ironic, says Johnson, that sometimes people in the field don’t practice what they preach. He is saddened when he sees ADR professionals competing by speaking badly of others, rather than collaborating.

We asked Johnson for his thoughts about the best way to achieve quality assurance of mediators. As the field has expanded, he explained, many new people from a variety of fields have embraced it, bringing other skill sets.
While he was originally opposed to any type of regulation of mediators, his views have shifted over time. “We need to ensure a minimal level of knowledge and skill, and that is not necessarily proven by a degree. There are some very fine community mediators practicing who have only had 40 hours of training.” He sees both strengths and weaknesses in both written and role play types of evaluation. While some people are not good test takers, they might excel as mediators. With role play evaluation,
there has to be a match between the orientation of the mediator and the orientation of the evaluator, otherwise the result can be too subjective and unfair.

Johnson sees diversity is an important value for the field to embrace, both in the training of mediators and in leadership positions when decisions are made about the direction the field is taking. “The goal of our field should be inclusion of minorities, and of mediators with different styles, and from varying classes, educational and cultural backgrounds.”
Where does Marvin Johnson think the field of ADR, and specifically our organization, the Maryland Committee for Dispute Resolution, should put its energies right now? “Create a market for the work we do” suggests Johnson. “Educate the public about alternative processes to peacefully resolve disputes. Make presentations to schools, rotary clubs, or anywhere else that people will listen.” This will expand practice opportunities for the many mediators being trained today.

Marvin believes it is critically important to educate the public about how mediation can be useful in our lives. He believes our best chance of accomplishing a widespread use of ADR is by starting with young children. He advocates going into the elementary schools and teaching children conflict resolution skills. With this cultural shift, he envisions a day when every adult will naturally look for a skilled Neutral when they are faced with a difficult conflict.

It’s been 40 years since Marvin walked with his father and was thrilled to learn about the empowering work of the postal worker’s union. He is just as excited today whenever he has the chance to participate in facilitating peace making through dispute resolution.
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     MCDR is the oldest membership-based organization in Maryland dedicated to promoting the use of mediation and supporting

the mediation profession.  We have a proud history of successfully advocating for allowing multiple professions to practice mediation,

halting attempts to restrict the practice some fifteen years ago.  MCDR is the first organization to establish performance based criteria

now in use as a national model, part of an ongoing dialogue on quality assurance and mediator credentials.

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