Lauren Atherton (LA) MBBI Writer, interviewed Valentina Vethencourt (VV), on 12 July 2016
Valentina Vethencourt is a Venezuelan, New York-based MBBI member who has worked with the organization for almost a year. She was trained in conflict resolution at Columbia University, has a profound desire to contribute with her work and a strong sense of collective engagement.
LA: How did you get into mediation?
VV: I’ve been involved with nonviolent action for more than half of my life [including as a member of a nonviolent student movement that saw to President Chavez’s only electoral defeat]. The mediation aspect started about six years ago, when specializing in International Arbitration. There were a few courses about mediation that inspired me to look for other graduate programs with that focus; I found the Master of Science in Negotiation and Conflict Resolution at Columbia University in New York City and studied there for two years! It was an amazing experience that got me into mediation and peacebuilding.
LA: What have you been doing with MBBI since joining last year?
VV: I started as part of the Colombia project, then the Team Leaders decided to name me Project Representative to the Projects Committee, so I’ve been working as a liaison between the Colombia Project and the Projects Committee. The Projects Committee is another platform to learn about what the other members have been doing around the world – which is a lot. I’ve been part of the UN working Group and within that group I’ve helped co-write reports and documents for the UN; attended different events representing MBBI; and have also been involved with the New York City Chapter.
LA: Do you have any moments from your mediation career that are particularly meaningful for you?
VV: Specific to mediation I’ve had several interesting moments, but what I remember most dearly has to do with my experience when I went back to Caracas after my Masters, and started working at one of the Mayors’ offices, I was all about mediation, mediation, mediation. My co-workers would joke about the fact that everything with me was about mediation. Then after a while, they all began to ask questions and became interested in mediation, so much so that by the end of the time that I worked there they engaged in conflicts with a mediation mind-set. They even started using the language! That was a good feeling.
LA: What characteristics should a successful mediator have?
VV: In order for mediators to help the parties discover and achieve their desirable outcome, they should be: aware of their own biases—in order to be able to balance them and be as multipartial as possible; flexible—embracing the fact that every narrative is as true as the next and approaching narratives with the same curiosity and respect; adaptable to what the parties need; mindful—present in the moment; sensitive to others and able to manage emotions; and confident—able to manage and conduct the process in a confident manner to reassure the parties.
LA: What can others learn from your experiences?
VV: That even when you’ve gained knowledge and experience, and you feel completely self-aware of your biases, there are still times when situations will trigger specific past responses from you, they’ll sneak up on you and all of a sudden you are in your old conflict role; as if you had no knowledge of peacebuilding and conflict transformation. That happens to me sometimes when I am in Venezuela. With time I’ve learned how to pull myself back, but it’s hard. So you need to be aware of those triggers.
LA: What have you enjoyed most about being part of MBBI?
VV: What I’ve enjoyed the most are the people in the MBBI community. It was an amazing surprise to find a network of wonderful, inspiring people with a shared belief of how peace and cooperation should be obtained.
LA: What has MBBI done for you?
VV: MBBI has challenged me to learn more, stay current and to connect with people from different cultures. It’s been really enriching in the way I see my work and what I want to do in the future. At the same time, in the midst of life’s difficulties – and the detours I have had to take – MBBI has been an anchor; a reminder of what I want to do with my career. It keeps me coming back to what I want my work to be.
LA: Who should join MBBI and why?
VV: Anyone who believes and understands that the process of healing and transformation is a dance between pain and hope. It doesn’t matter who you are, where you from or what you have been doing ‘til this point, if you believe in the cause and are committed to that dance, then there will be a place for you in MBBI— and you’ll get to meet a lot of likeminded people doing mediation and peacebuilding in really inspiring ways.
LA: Why is mediation important?
VV: Mediation provides a platform for more dynamic interactions and has a wider reach. It doesn’t matter where you come from, what ethnicity you are, how much you earn or what you believe in, mediation just sits everybody at the table and levels the playing field. It’s a great way of getting everyone engaged to find a win-win solution. It provides a sense of fairness and justice; it empowers and gives you recognition of others – and yourself – in a way that other forms of conflict resolution probably won’t give you.
LA: Why is mediation preferable to litigation?
VV: Litigation might bring about a legally fair outcome, but it still leaves you with the feeling that you’re empty handed. You often spend so much time and resources and damage many relationships in the process. It definitely doesn’t help as much in creating sustainable relationships and fostering empowerment. There’s no actual transformation of the conflict; it stays there lingering with the bitterness of a win-lose outcome. It also fails to address emotions and intangible needs that mediation is so good at addressing.
LA: What gender issues have you encountered in mediation today?
VV: I know there are a lot of gender issues in mediation and the world in general. However, in mediation, the most difficult thing I’ve faced is age discrimination. It’s as if it doesn’t matter how much you know or how well trained you are, if you are too young you are just not as credible. I’ve seen a lot of really young people with no training whatsoever who would make for great mediators.