After an award-winning career as a journalist across the globe, Dr. Larry Schooler became a mediator, facilitator, public engagement consultant, and educator. He works with agencies around the world to resolve disputes, build consensus, and involve the public and stakeholders in decisions that will affect them. He also specializes in land use mediation, strategic planning, and visioning.
As a child, Dr. Schooler was really interested in journalism, politics, and the public world. By the time he was 18 years old, he was organizing a small rally in Houston. He states, “it made me feel part of something bigger than myself.” From a very early start, he had this sense that his life needed to be about a larger purpose beyond furthering his self-interest. Therefore, in University, he pursued history as a major from Yale University recognizing the impact that narrative has on how we see and approach the world.
When Dr. Schooler got into journalism, he had many goals in mind. He stated, “I went into journalism to help voices be better heard and help those stories that have not been told as much to be told in a different way or more compelling way.” He gravitated to the radio because the medium has a unique and remarkable power to move people in ways that other mediums cannot. Radio for him was a safe space to begin meaningful dialogue across differences. He said, “I really got excited by the chance to not only lift up a person’s story but help a person understand a particular topic in a different way and/or by hearing the story of someone from a different perspective.”
One example that he recalled was when he reported on a story of bullying towards North Carolina’s LGBTQ+ students. He interviewed the school board, parents, activists and the story aired later that week. The process itself was very enriching especially when he saw the difference in made in other people’s level of awareness and mentality shift. He said, “for me, this was a way to help set the table and provide a framework that I felt was meaningful” He felt like he was earning trust from a multitude of perspectives. He said, “That was 17 years ago, and looking back at this experience, I can see that I was beginning to think about becoming this objective convener of conversation and resolver of conflict.”
Work on the Ground
Dr. Schooler established the first public engagement division for the City of Austin, Texas, one of the first of its kind nationally, where he designed innovative and award-winning tools for involving the public in decision-making like Conversation Corps and the Televised Town Hall Meeting. He also served as president of the International Association for Public Participation (U.S. affiliate) and has taught at Southern Methodist University. However, early in his career, he was called to be part of the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission. It was the first in the U.S examining the clash between the KKK and member organizers that called themselves the communist worker party.
Though he passed up this opportunity, he never let it go because his book and doctoral research stay on this topic. For him, this was a launching point to think about the areas of conflict resolution more deeply. He finds the framing of truth and reconciliation somewhat limiting though. He says, “the truth is key to understanding the process – free of the fear of being arrested; and reconciliation is powerful particularly in the African-American example. However, there is tremendous potential for reform and social advancement as a result of what comes out of it.” That was particularly powerful to him and this type of research got him interested in this line of work much more deeply.
Learning about MBBI
Dr. Schooler stated that early on he associated mediation with law. However, he was never really interested in the legal field until he discovered the intersection of mediation and public policy. He stated, “I found MBBI through my graduate program in Florida.” He was also familiar with Ken Cloke’s scholarly work on mediation. Therefore, out of his familiarity with Ken’s scholarly publications, and the mission of MBBI, he joined the organization and had the opportunity to participate in a couple of committees. Through Ken, he found MBBI a remarkable platform that has a clear commitment to mediation but also a difference in perspective, which includes a bit of a competitive side of attorney mediators versus social scientists or practitioners.
He is the author of a manual entitled “Keys to an Effective Public Meeting” and a forthcoming book on truth and reconciliation commissions. Dr. Schooler published manual is a record of cases inspired by his meetings where mediation was at the center. This includes basic and advanced points in relation to mediation for new and experienced mediators. It is a version of a checklist and a set of best practices that are not always taken into consideration.
The book is a deep dive into how the public participated in the returned reconciliation records in North America. He stated, “it is really remarkable to see how much and what great lengths all three commissions went though to invite people into the dialogue. They did not restrict it to the three parties. They staged these national events in all these provinces where they had hundreds of people to speak. ” For Dr. Schooler, it was inspiring to see the lengths they went through to have a role in shaping the future of their community and to the extent, the commission themselves were responsive when they drafted the recommendations.
This process permitted the commissions to deliver back to the public something that reflected their points of view. What he is hoping is that the book will serve as a set of best practices “that I think groups like that should pay attention to” He also teaches facilitative leadership at the University of Texas at Austin. He also facilitates trainings with the philosophy that “those affected by a decision should be able to affect that decision” and this applies to any aspect of the work that he strives to do.
Dr. Schooler states, “one of the hallmarks of our field is that we are not letting jurists control the entire of the discourse, it is very much dependent on the parties.” In fact, for him, the design of the process and meetings themselves permits for unique spaces for people to actively participate.
He emphasized how new and older mediators should work collaboratively. In fact, he states, “I think that young mediators are capable of being assertive regarding maintaining the flow and keep things moving. In fact, sometimes, younger people have less fear, more courage.” He goes on to say, “I often take inspiration from the actions of young people” He states that the biggest take away from his own journey in mediation is the true role he plays. He said, “It took me a while to understand that I can be as valuable as setting the table and letting go because the goal is less about showcasing one’s one skills but achieving a particular outcome.”
Article by Elizabeth Gamarra, MBBI Writer