Based in Columbia, South Carolina, Alexandria Skinner is the owner of Just Mediation, where she works largely in divorce mediation and mediation involving people who are in ongoing relationships, such as elder mediation. Although her background as a lawyer informs her practice, she aims to foster a more constructive and less combative mediation environment than the settlement conference style of facilitative mediation she has observed being utilized in the court system. Alexandria cares deeply for her clients and wants to be sure that her work as a mediator empowers people, fosters insight and self-determination, and creates lasting solutions. Alexandria is also currently pursuing a Master’s degree in social work to further her passion for helping people. She characterizes herself as an integrative, cross-disciplinary practitioner with the goal of meeting the underlying need of the client. Due to her approach, she was one of 100 lawyers included in the ABA published book, Lawyers as Changemakers: The Global Integrative Law Movement.
From Law to Mediation
From the time Alexandria Skinner was in college and thinking about career choice, she knew she wanted to be involved in peacemaking in some capacity. Unfortunately, this was in the 1970s, a time when there was little discussion or awareness of mediation among the general public. Unsure of what occupations would allow her to work in peacebuilding, Alexandria settled on going to law school with the hopes that this would lead her down the path she wanted. After law school, she clerked for a judge and then worked for the state of South Carolina in the Attorney General’s office. There, she worked in both civil and criminal law. She found the system very adversarial and “lose-lose.” She recounted one instance in which a seventeen-year-old boy was put in prison for a minimum of twenty years for acting as a scout for drug transactions. “I thought,” she said, “‘we’re just taking this child and throwing him in the garbage can.’ And that’s when I said ‘I’m out of this system.’ ”
From there, she moved to the State Budget and Control Board, at that time the primary executive body for the state of South Carolina, where she had a wide range of responsibilities, including state lawsuits, property management, personnel, and retirement system, information systems and intellectual property, and giving legal advice to the governor. She describes this work as “pleasant,” but knew that it was not her true calling. Thus, Alexandria got a graduate assistantship at the University of South Carolina Center for Bioethics, where she planned to get a Ph.D. in philosophy and become a medical ethicist. Sadly, her grandmother became sick. Alexandria became her primary caregiver and was unable to finish her program. Her studies in medical ethics were directly applicable in this experience, though, as she began to think about self-determination and decision-making, narrative ethics, and became extremely interested in helping families who were facing life transitions.
A Cross-Cultural Journey
Alexandria’s journey took an interesting turn when her husband was offered a position in China, where their family subsequently lived for four years. In China, Alexandria says she became sensitive to the need to respect other cultures and not being the “ugly American” that is overly opinionated, while still retaining good things about one’s own culture. She realized that though Chinese culture is vastly different from American culture in many ways, and is not a culture one is easily adopted into, she was able to draw similarities between Chinese and American Southern culture, in which she was raised. “Southerners,” she jokes, “we worship our ancestors and we never say what we really think.” When she returned to the United States from China in 2008, Alexandria did not want to go back to practicing law. She was in the very unique position of being an outsider in her own culture, having been away for so long. She likened it to moving into a new house, when “you see all the little scuffs on the wall, and you think ‘I’m going to fix that! I’m going to fix that!’ But once you’re living there you no longer see it so much anymore.” She feared she would get used to being back in the United States, and that the “scuffs” would fade, but she found that they did not fade as much as she expected. She launched her mediation practice, Just Mediation, in late 2008.
Alexandria became aware of MBBI when she attended the 2009 International Conference for the Association for Conflict Resolution in Atlanta, GA. At this event, she attended Ken Cloke’s sessions. She says that his thoughts and ideas “totally resonated” with her. Unfortunately, she could not afford to become a member at the time, as she was not yet making any money through her mediation work and had two children in college. A few years later, though, she decided to take the plunge and become a member of MBBI, inspired by its high level of skill and understanding of mediation.
Fairness and Staying Neutral
Alexandria characterizes herself as a narrative-style mediator. She sees her job as being “to bring two people together and help them shift their narratives so that individual A’s narrative can begin to encompass individual B’s narrative and vice versa, and maybe try to find a way to blend that together or make peace with that.” Her clients often have ongoing relationships that they want to preserve, which she wants to help them do. Due to her narrative perspective, she believes that no mediator can step completely outside their own narrative to claim pure “impartiality.” Alexandria seeks to empower parties to locate a result they can feel good about, and that will be sustainable and constructive for them. Instead of maintaining neutrality by not caring about the outcome, she, therefore, stays neutral by caring deeply for all parties.
Alexandria also applies Bowen Family Systems Theory in her mediation practice, viewing mediation as a deliberate triangulation that is designed to enable parties to communicate well enough to identify and address the source of the issues. She also frequently employs principles from Nonviolent Communication to help parties build bridges of communication that are more positive and fruitful. Because mediators do not have access to the same coercive resources to enforce fairness that courts do, and given that many of Alexandria’s clients are facing serious challenges that have significant life consequences, Alexandria requires clients to commit to principles of fairness as a condition of mediation. Alexandria feels that without this commitment, mediation as a process can be cynically abused and can result in client harm.
Alexandria believes that the skills involved in mediation and peacebuilding are scalable and transferable to many different realms, including social justice issues, democracy building, and disputes between her children. She conceives of peacebuilding as a spiritual practice rooted in nonviolence and emanating like a series of concentric circles, expanding from the inner person to family and community, and ultimately to the larger world. As such, she believes it is important to focus locally and personally as well as internationally when it comes to peacebuilding. Alexandria grew up in the deep South during a time when deliberate and systemic racial segregation was the norm. When she returned from China in 2008, people were still unwilling to discuss race or systemic racism as an ongoing issue, finding it too challenging to even talk about in her culture.
However, the Mother Emmanuel massacre changed that attitude. The perpetrator of that massacre had close family ties in the same community where Alexandria lives, including that his sister attended the same high school as one of Alexandria’s children. The tragic event forced a community reckoning and prompted wide-scale awareness of the need to continue to confront and address issues of race and justice in the local community. When this window of opportunity opened, Alexandria responded by convening and facilitating groups devoted to ongoing dialogue involving issues of interracial peacebuilding and justice.
Article by Tess Hargarten, MBBI Writer