Effective Approaches to Conflict. Member Spotlight: Joanne Dantonio

Joanne Dantonio is a recently retired federal Administrative Law Judge who now volunteers in conflict mediation. She has vast experience with social security disability and criminal law, and uses her experience to her advantage in mediation. She is skilled in dealing and communicating with a wide variety of people, and feels that her creativity and quickness are a huge asset to her. Joanne is interested in building peace at home and internationally, for which she greatly admires MBBI’s mission.

Legal Roots

Joanne Dantonio’s path to mediation has been primarily through the legal profession. She went to law school at nights while working during the day, and eventually graduated cum laude with a law degree, with hopes at the time of becoming a prosecutor, but as fate would have it, she actually became a public defender with a private law firm.  She also branched out into other areas of the law to supplement her income and experience, because, as she joked, “they paid very poorly”, as not all attorneys make as much as you may think.  After seven years, she was ready for a change in her career.

With a number of attorney friends working at the Social Security Administration’s Office of General Counsel, Joanne left the trial courts behind and began working as a Special Assistant U.S. Attorney with SSA, reviewing the decisions of the agency administrative law judges on disability claims. In this role, she also participated in some mediation, which she found interesting. Eventually, an administrative law judge position came up after a ten-year hiring lull for that position. Joanne competed for one of the openings and was hired, subsequently working as an Administrative Law Judge for twelve years. In this role, she primarily adjudicated disability decisions, but also worked on some payment, retirement, and labor and employment-related cases.

Shift to Mediation

A few years ago, Joanne saw an advertisement for her local dispute resolution center’s 40-hour mediation training, which she initially viewed as a path to employment post-retirement, particularly with a flexible schedule. The Kitsap Dispute Resolution Center is very active, because as she says, the court system requires mediation in many cases thereby resulting in many  referrals. Joanne attended the training, and found that it was “not what I was used to as a lawyer, where typically it’s results-oriented, where you push your parties to a decision.  Where this was completely interest-based and so very different than anything I had ever experienced.  She found it to be much more difficult than she expected because it required more mental work than she had previously experienced in mediations.  She thought, “I don’t know if I want to do this and I don’t know if there’s any money in it.’ ”

Despite this doubt, she found mediation a challenging and intriguing field, and was motivated to continue with it. Following the training, she began interning with the center, and is now a Level 2 certified mediator. She currently does co-mediations with a partner, and has now done well over ten mediations since becoming a co-mediator at the beginning of this year. Joanne is very aware of the significant differences between litigation and mediation. However, she feels that law and mediation both “go hand in hand but they are also completely opposite.” Mediation, she says, allows parties to come to a more mutually beneficial agreement, rather than having a judge decide for all involved. In addition, mediation is a more cost-effective alternative to the legal process, which is incredibly important for so many. However, mediation and law can also work in conjunction with one another. In Joanne’s county of practice, the court system requires parties to seek mediation in certain disputes, when they are unable to come to an agreement. Mediation can also be a constructive precursor to the court process, Joanne says, as it allows parties to get a sense of what court may be like, and release some deep-seated emotions prior to entering a legal setting.

Effective Approaches to Conflict

Joanne feels that her legal background, though different from her current work, has actually become a major asset to her persona as a mediator. She is very familiar with the legal process as well as the law in general, which is handy when the legal system comes into play. Joanne also has experience as an administrative law judge, which she says has allowed her to better understand the different types of communication people use, especially when it comes to people with disabilities and mental health issues. In addition, her work as a public defender has given her experience with people from all walks of life, further expanding her ability to communicate with those different from herself. Joanne feels that achieving communication between two previously adversarial parties is the most rewarding part about being a mediator, and loves being able to “sit back” and watch the parties transition to effective communication by simply providing them with the rules of engagement and some gentle guidance.

MBBI and Beyond

Joanne got involved with MBBI after seeing an article posted by one of the training coordinators at her local dispute resolution center, which was written about a member of MBBI who the training coordinator had previously worked with. She really liked the idea of MBBI, and thought that “after January 6th, the whole idea of peacebuilding and trying to just resolve the conflict and have people see each other’s side; what we’re going to do in our country to patch up what’s happening here became more forefront.” In particular, though, Joanne was very interested in the international aspect of MBBI, as she has always been interested in other countries and their affairs. She hopes that mediation can take on a greater role in the United States and abroad in the future, and that it will become a more prominent form of conflict resolution.

Article by Tess Hargarten, MBBI Writer