“We are all immigrants. For me being a good mediator means curiosity, humility, interest in learning, and most of all seeing that we are all humans. We all have 99% of the same basic needs, we want to live where there is a future for us and our children, we want hope, and reason for being, and we want to feel that possibilities are there. And we have the resources in this world to get that.”
Bruce is a mediator based in Austin, Texas, where he lives since 1991. Growing up in the suburbs of Oklahoma City, he was exposed to the multicultural background of his family, which shaped his worldview and helped him later in his mediation career. Thanks to his parents, father from big New York, and mother from rural Idaho, he had an opportunity to experience different types of lifestyles. “Some summers I would go visit my mother’s family on the farm in Idaho and I would learn how that life was, very rural, and how their views were kind of fixed in a certain way” Bruce recalls. Family on his mother’s side all came from Finland in the 60s, 70s, and 80s. His father’s side were Ashkenazi Jews from Russia and Poland who came to the US in 1890, and early 1900 to escape serving in the Tzars army. As Bruce says, he enjoyed learning about the cultures, different backgrounds, and religions. In Oklahoma the Jewish community was very small, therefore Bruce experienced both living as a part of the majority: as a white American male, but on the other hand minority, being Jewish instead of Christian. Bruce recalls that was good and bad, recalling some of his friends would tell him to convert and be willing to pray for him. Encouraged by his father, Bruce planned to join the military after high school, and upon graduation, he was accepted to the US Naval Academy to be a military officer. However to pursue this goal, he would have to wait one year, and that was not something he wanted to do. Instead of waiting, Bruce preferred to go to university like all of his friends, and that choice turned out to be crucial for the rest of his life. “Looking back I see that Universe, a power higher than me said: Bruce you are not meant to be a warrior. We will not let you,” he says.
After receiving a Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering from the University of Oklahoma, Bruce spent 18 years of his life in the telecommunication industry and never really explored the other parts of himself. He just thought math and science are easy, and telecommunication was interesting, so 10 of those years he spent in engineering and engineering management, and for the last 8, he moved into marketing, sales, and product management. Working in the telecom industry for 18 years allowed him and his wife to move from the US to New Zealand, where they spent 5 years between 1986-1991, and in 1989 had their child, Scott. Bruce recalls that living and working in a different country was a wonderful experience. Working for the government-owned telephone company, unlike his colleagues he showed initiative and willingness to represent New Zealand at international telecommunication standards meetings, which opened new opportunities to meet people, explore new countries and learn about cultures. There he was, in his mid-20s, getting sent all over the world to participate in international meetings in Geneva, France, Japan, and some places in Europe and the US, and meeting with new groups of people. “I had a taste of living internationally, and at the end of my time in the high-tech industry, I learned that I am very curious about people. And I have a big respect for everyone’s culture, language, and religion” he says.
In 1991, Bruce and his wife decided that they had a great adventure in New Zealand, long enough to not only have a son there but for Bruce to get his second citizenship. They decide to come back to the US in 1991 and settle down in Austin, Texas. In the year 2000, Bruce left the high-tech industry to follow his life-long passion for helping others. He quit his job in a company that was ironically making video conference equipment, as he says 20 to 30 years too early. At the time not only was the equipment expensive, and the network was not there, but it took a pandemic to force people into using video. Later he thought that his heart wants him to do something different, to make a difference in the world, more than just making money, more than just working all the time in high tech. “After I was laid off from the company in 2000 I probably took a year off, and slept,” Bruce says, “I took a time to unwind, get to know my teenage son, pay attention to my health, start exploring what it is to live a life when you are not just working for somebody else.” Bruce used that time also to explore all sorts of alternative career paths, lifestyles, and what is more important: different values.
He thinks living in New Zealand was very helpful, it was a kind of middle-class country, with not much emphasis on making tons of money, with people who worked but they did not put all their energy into work, they had a good work-life balance. When Bruce and his family came back to the US it was a little bit of a culture shock. “My goodness, stores are open 24 hours, my goodness, there are over 25 choices of breakfast cereals, my goodness, we can get fruits and vegetables all year around!” he recalls laughing. In a way living abroad helped to give him and his wife a different set of values about living slower, lightly on the Earth, and caring about each other. He followed his heart ever since, and thought how can he make a positive change in the world? At this point he had no financial debts at all, no mortgage, and with saved retirement money, living without financial burden and stress allowed him to start looking at a bunch of different jobs. Bruce mostly worked in the non-profit world wanting to help people, he thought about being a teacher or going back to school to get a Master’s Degree in Social Work but there were different aspects of being a professional teacher he did not like. Ultimately he ended up being an unofficial social worker, mostly for a non-profit related to services for the elderly, adult daycare, caregiving, education, and seminars. From 2009 until 2014, Bruce was employed at AGE of Central Texas where he helped seniors and their family members successfully navigate the many challenges of aging and caregiving by providing customized advice and information. He also created the CaregiverU educational program which provides free caregiving seminars and classes throughout the five-county Central Texas area.
A Better Peacebuilder
“It was at that job in 2010 that my boss at a time said ‘Hey, you help a lot of families trying to find resources for seniors and their loved ones. I know there are a lot of conflicts, would you like to take a 40-hour basic mediation training class?’ I said sure, I am always about lifelong learning.” Bruce took this class through a local non-profit organization in Austin and loved it. He went back to work knowing that he is going to be a better peacemaker. He also mentions that he likes to use the terms peacemaker or peacebuilder, because in the US if you use the word mediator, people either know right away what it is or is not. And if they do know it is because they have been divorced and forced into mediation which is not always done in the style that he would do.
In 2010, Bruce became a credentialed mediator in the state of Texas so he could better assist families with resolving their conflicts. He convinced his boss to let him volunteer once, twice, or three times a month for two different organizations that use volunteer mediators. One was there in Austin called Austin Dispute Resolution Center and one was in the town of San Marcos, called the Central Texas Dispute Resolution Center. For 5 years he volunteered a couple of times a month for those two, and also for a 3rd non-profit, the Better Business Bureau, helping with disputes between a business and customers. Bruce gained experience in a variety of mediation, not just divorces but also neighbors that did not get along, business partnerships, etc. By January 1st of 2015, he quit the non-profit and formally started his own private mediation business called ElderPeace Partners. “The reason I called it ElderPeace was that I thought all I would do is mediate disputes among families arguing about the care, wellbeing, and property of an elderly person,” he says. “It is a whole niche called elder mediation. There is a huge amount of conflict but sadly people still don’t know it exists or don’t know its value because they don’t want to pay. So after 3 years of banging my head, trying to get people into mediation, families that are having conflicts, usually 3-4 parties and 2-3 generations. Just logistically getting people together was very difficult.
Creating and Expanding Community
When the pandemic started in 2020, and everything moved to Zoom and one of Bruce’s business advisors suggested him to get involved in all sorts of mediation, not only with the elderly. During this entire time, he also continued to volunteer for the three organizations and was getting continuous training, mediating all sorts of cases. But then he finally realized he has to do what most mediators do to make money which is mediating divorces. Speaking about the uniqueness of his business, one thing that makes his company different than a lot of individual mediation companies is that even if Bruce is the sole owner, he creates opportunities for other mediators to get involved. When he was volunteering for those 5 years before starting his own business, he was lucky to meet a huge pool of retired wonderful mediators based in Austin who volunteers for the Dispute Resolution Center, but they do not have enough opportunities. “Being the entrepreneur I am, I said why don’t I be the matchmaker between the disputes I know that are in this area and these wonderful peacemakers who want to help but don’t know how to find the disputes?” And that is what his company does. Bruce has been around for enough years, has enough referrals, and with Zoom his independent contractors can do mediation from any place. This way they have the opportunity to help, they get paid, Bruce gets paid, and they all get to put more peace to the world through mediation.
Speaking more about the pandemic and its impact on mediation, Bruce says that when it completely flipped his business upside down, he moved everything to Zoom and cut the prices in half. Attorney mediators who are still paying for big expensive offices in downtown Austin are charging huge amounts of money and frankly, most of their clients are saying it is not worth it. This way, by moving mediation online, Bruce made it more accessible for his clients. Bruce hopes it will stay with us for longer but admits that whether we use virtual mediation or in person will be determined by the nature of the dispute. Multi-million dollar disputes always meet in person, and that mediation will never change.
Despite this successful business, Bruce still has plans to expand his peacebuilding impact. “My big vision is that I am getting a little tired of just being a local peacemaker. I want to be a regional or international peacemaker” he admits. Currently, he is in the phase of asking himself how to help resolve disputes not just between people getting divorced or business partners. Experience of living in a foreign country and having a hugely diverse set of friends in the US and around the world helps, also having a love of people and a tolerance of different religions and cultures. Having that thought to move from very local and specific conflicts to something on a regional or global basis, Bruce started to look for an international network, and that prompted him to become a member of Mediators Beyond Borders International. Thanks to the organization’s activities, he gets to meet many interesting mediators and peacebuilders from all over the world. As he says, this is how we work effectively, to connect with people, and if you need to open the door, maybe someone will open that door for you. Bruce hopes that he can take his practice internationally and maybe go to a region where people experience a lot of conflicts, and become a peacebuilder in conjunction with local people. That is his bigger dream, to go somewhere for a longer time and see what he can do to help teach or lead local people to become peace-builders.
We Are All Migrants
Speaking about the importance of intercultural understanding, Bruce agrees that people should learn about different cultures, religions, and historical backgrounds. Sadly some countries because of geography, are not surrounded by a bunch of different countries, tend to be very isolated, and that is why people should travel – not just as a tourist but as a person who is interested in learning about the region. Bruce one more time emphasizes how fortunate he has been to have growing up, have the idea of living in the suburbs, but also to visiting rural areas, and the big New York. In Austin where he currently lives, there is a variety of people from all over the world. Since 1991 he has been involved as a member of several interfaith intercultural dialogue groups, where he gets to personally make friends with Turkish Muslims, certain Christian groups, and many others. For example, there is an interfaith group that organizes interfaith Ramadan dinners and Bruce also helps them put it together. Christians, Jews, and Muslims all come together, sharing bread, and halal and kosher food, and the Muslims are giving a little explanation of what Islam is. The community is basically telling everyone to not be afraid, they are immigrants, they just want a good future for themselves, and their children, and they are in that kind of strange phase. They are still Turkish, but also American, wondering what they bring from their cultures, what they like in the new country, but also what they miss from home. “We are all immigrants,” Bruce says. “We all have 99% of the same basic needs, we want to live where there is a future for us and our children, we want hope, the reason for being, and we want to feel that possibilities are there. But our existing political, financial, and cultural systems get in the way.” Bruce also calls himself an eternal optimist, or a pragmatic optimist. It means that we will get done as much as he can without getting upset, burned out, or tired. That is important.
“If you’re attacking a problem that can be solved in your lifetime you’re not thinking big enough. Dream big, see what needs to be fixed, go work on it” Bruce says speaking more about setting up big goals in life. His personal belief is that the higher power, the Universe, God, whatever people believe in, wants all of us to be useful in the best possible way. And if there is something in our hearts, souls, or brains telling us that we are not on the right path, we should listen to that little voice. If we want to make small steps towards a big goal, exploring, moving, and changing does not have to be radical, it can be a series of small very pragmatic steps. Sometimes the luckiest people in the world are those who not only know what they really want to do but are allowed to do it, live in our system, get paid, etc. Those are the most blessed and luckiest ones. Many people know what they would like to do but they think they cannot, because they are trapped in various ways. Maybe those traps are in their minds, maybe those are realistic. And for those people who are not sure what they want to do, Bruce encourages them to wander around, read things, talk to anybody who may be doing something interesting, and find out. “Don’t be afraid to try different paths of exploration knowing that you are not going to find exactly what you want at the beginning – you won’t. It will be a series of explorations and over time your interests may even change, and you may go from one career to another as you get more experience” he says. Life is a mystery, day by day we do not know what is going to happen. As Bruce says, he moves in the direction that makes sense to him, gives him purpose, and hopefully makes a positive difference. But all sorts of things happen completely out of our control. We just have to deal with it the best we can, and it is important to get a lot of support around us, family, and friends, to take care of our health, and not be confused and fooled by all the crazy things on social media that make us want to have stuff we do not need, or look a certain way. “In a crazy world, normal people feel out of place. And it is ok to feel out of place knowing that what you are doing is right for you. There are larger cultures and societies, and those are the ones messed up.”
Article by Maciej Witek, MBBI Writer