Welcome to the second installment in our Get to Know You Interview series! My name is Nicole Wilmet and I am RSI’s Resource Center Director. Each month, I will be sitting down with members of the RSI staff to learn more about them and what they do in their role at RSI.
This month, I sat down with RSI’s Executive Director Susan M. Yates.
NW: What is your role at RSI?
SMY: Executive Director
NW: How did you first get involved in ADR?
SMY: Back in college, I studied labor relations at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations. I was especially interested in the courses about mediation, arbitration and negotiation. The school was very divided between people coming from the labor perspective and those coming from the management perspective. That seemed pointless and wasteful to me.
When the school brought in someone from one of the very first community mediation organizations in the country to talk to the students about community mediation, it clicked for me. Why waste all that time and energy in divisiveness and angst when you can sit down and work out a plan that satisfies everyone?
NW: What is your favorite part about being a mediator?
SMY: The people. I love getting to know people and learning from them. People in conflict are often very open with mediators, and I am no exception. With that openness, I can generate rapport and help people construct a way out of a conflict that has been weighing them down. It is a pretty special service to be able to provide.
NW: How did RSI come to be?
SMY: That is a long story. As with many successful ventures, RSI started with a few smart, committed people who shared a vision. A judge, an academic and a funder saw the need for collecting and disseminating reliable data and guidance that courts could use to improve their management and delivery of ADR services. They formed the base for RSI and over the years we developed a remarkable Board of Directors, a fabulous staff and a wide array of services.
NW: With all the various types of ADR, how did RSI come to focus on court ADR specifically?
SMY: If we want to make systemic change in how people resolve their disputes, what better way than by working with courts? I have adapted the quote from the bank robber Willie Sutton who, when asked why he robbed banks, said, “Because that’s where the money is.” I say, “Why work with court ADR? That’s where the cases are.”
NW: What is a typical day like as Executive Director?
SMY: Ha! Typical day? There is no such thing!
NW: What is your favorite part of your job? Why?
SMY: Dispute system design. I love figuring out how ADR can meet the needs of people in dispute, as well as all the stakeholders. These days I am focused on online dispute resolution for families. A process like this will help smooth the way for parents as they go through separation or divorce, and we know less parental conflict is good for the children. It will help judges who are overwhelmed with parents who are trying to represent themselves. Plus, from the perspective of the ADR field, it will help keep the “A” in alternative dispute resolution.
NW: What role does RSI play in the ADR community and how do you see this role expanding in the future?
SMY: We are seen as the “go-to” source for everything related to court ADR. We accomplish a lot of this through our totally renovated website (AboutRSI.org) that we launched recently. The other critical piece is the expertise of our amazing staff. Over the years we have worked with all kinds of court, bar and other committees; trained mediators, judges and court staff; presented at conferences and via webinars; and written, written, written. With all these great resources – online and in person – I expect RSI will be able to meet the needs of people working in court ADR for years to come.
NW: During your time working in court ADR, what, if any, would you say has been one of the biggest challenges you have faced and how were you able to overcome this challenge?
SMY: Funding. I can’t say we have overcome this challenge, but I don’t know that any non-profit ever overcomes the challenge of bringing in the funds needed to provide services. I must say that RSI would not exist were it not for the generous support of the M.R. Bauer Foundation. They have supported us since the very beginning. Over the years, they have been joined by individuals, law firms, ADR providers, corporations and other foundations. We are also supported by government entities. For example, the Office of Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan has supported our work in foreclosure mediation for more than four years. Also, courts around the country have contracted with RSI to provide services ranging from training to program evaluations.
There is still a lot of work to do. If anyone wants to donate, they can visit our page on Razoo, which processes our contributions!
NW: What aspect of ADR are you most interested in?
SMY: I am dedicated to mediation as a method of improving access to justice. There are a lot of challenges, but I think there is enormous potential.
NW: What are some of your favorite projects that you have worked on while at RSI?
SMY: Foreclosure mediation is definitely a big favorite. This is the area where I say RSI got to “practice what we preach.” Thanks to the support of the Illinois Attorney General, we got to do it all: dispute system design with stakeholders, training mediators, administering programs, collecting monitoring data and conducting a statewide evaluation. We helped all the programs in the state improve by giving them actionable data. With foreclosure mediation, I think we showed we know what we are doing.
NW: What is your favorite activity to do outside of work?
SMY: Anything related to my son! He is a Marine so I don’t get to see him often, but he is always my favorite person. (Pictured below.)
NW: If you could have dinner with any three people (living or dead) who would they be and why?
My great-great-great grandmother. She was pregnant when she got on a ship to emigrate to the US and she gave birth on that ship. I would want to ask her what she was thinking.
Someone who wants to fully fund RSI in perpetuity!