Welcome to the launch of our new 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. To kick off our series I sat down with Jennifer Shack, RSI’s Director of Research.
NW: What is your role at RSI?
JS: Director of Research
NW: How long have you been at RSI?
JS: I have been at RSI for 18 years. It has gone by so fast! I started out as the Administrative Director at RSI and I was only planning on staying for a year and a half. But then I was offered a new position at RSI, Director of Research, and here I am.
NW: What is a typical day like as the Director of Research?
JS: I don’t really have a typical day because I’m involved in so many different projects. What I do in general is conduct evaluations for court programs as well as develop evaluation systems for our own programs, other court programs, and non-court programs. This means I figure out what data programs need to collect and how to best collect it. An evaluation system includes the instruments for collecting data (surveys, forms, case management systems, etc.), as well as the platform and structure for using those instruments. I also keep up on the research that other court ADR folks are doing so that we can use that information to inform our own practice and to help other programs by disseminating the information through our Resource Center. Our goal in disseminating information is to help programs develop effective practices for their programs and their mediators.
NW: What is your favorite part of your job? Why?
JS: I really enjoy working with the people at RSI. RSI has been lucky to always have a great staff that is fun to work with. In terms of my actual work, I enjoy taking information whether it is data we are collecting or research that others are doing and pulling it together to figure out what it is all telling us. It’s fun synthesizing data and drawing conclusions from that because it tells us more than the individual pieces alone. For example, the foreclosure mediation programs around Illinois can be looked at individually, but when the data from them is combined, we can get a clearer picture of the factors that lead to greater participation in the programs. The same goes for research. If we can find patterns in the research results, we can make stronger arguments about the efficacy of mediation in particular situations.
NW: Based on your experience, do you feel like there is a common theme/item that people working in Court ADR want to learn more about?
JS: A common theme right now that people want to know is what works. We know that ADR, and in particular mediation, can be effective. Now we want to know, what works better? Are there things that can be done program-wise to make them more efficient? Are there things mediators can do to make mediation more successful, to lead to better outcomes for people who participate in them?
NW: Do you feel like you have an answer to any of these questions yet?
JS: I think we are getting close to being able to answer those questions. In the past, little research has been focused on those things. Studies that have looked at program characteristics or mediator techniques haven’t been uniform in their categorizations of the factors being examined and many haven’t been rigorous enough, so while we have some ideas of what works, we don’t have definitive answers. However, there has been a real push lately to get to those answers. I think we are getting there.
NW: During your time working in Court ADR, what, if any, would you identify as being one of the biggest challenges you have faced?
JS: One of the challenges I faced when I first started was that I had a huge ADR learning curve because I came from a background in international studies. I became interested in mediation when I first experienced it as a Peace Corps volunteer in West Africa and thought it should be made available in the US. When I came back home, I looked into it and discovered it was already a part of the legal landscape.
NW: How were you able to overcome that learning curve?
JS: I became a mediator myself. From that I had a better understanding of what I was reading about mediation because I had actual experience I could pull from. When I started maintaining RSI’s Resource Center, I also read everything about the theory of ADR and about issues that were popping up at the time. And of course, I learned a lot from Susan [RSI’s Executive Director], too.
NW: What aspect of ADR are you most interested in?
JS: I am really interested in the ways in which ADR can open access to justice for people who don’t have the means to go through litigation process and how it can provide voice to those who don’t generally have one in the justice system. In terms of types of programs, I am very interested in the impact that child protection mediation can have on the parents involved.
NW: What are some of your favorite projects that you have worked on at RSI? Why?
JS: I have two favorite projects. The first was an evaluation of Cook County’s [Chicago] Child Protection Mediation Program. I loved it because I was actually able to see the impact of ADR on the participants. I observed 30 mediations and I was able to see how it could change their perspective in what was going on –particularly for the parents. It was enlightening to be able to watch the parents sit down and talk about what they needed and to talk with the people who decide what happens to their children. It was also rewarding for me to be able to talk to parents afterwards, to confirm that it was a positive experience for them and then put their perspective into a report with other quantitative and qualitative data that showed how important this type of mediation is and how beneficial it is overall.
My other favorite project was working on our foreclosure mediation programs. I enjoyed the intellectual process of being able to take, what is now, eight very different programs and figure out how to collect the same data from them while keeping costs down and administrative time to a minimum. I loved analyzing the data across the programs and being able to use the results of that analysis to identify what makes such programs successful. In the end, it was really rewarding to make recommendations based on my analysis and see programs make changes based on those recommendations and then see those changes lead to improvements in the effectiveness of the programs.
NW: You have written excellent resources on Court ADR, which resource would you say you are most proud of?
JS: Other than the two that I mentioned, it would be a combination of my Bibliographic Summary of Cost, Pace, and Satisfaction Studies of Court-Related Mediation Programs and the ABA Dispute Resolution magazine article that summarized it and said that and challenged the ADR field to improve studies of programs and the characteristics that make them more effective. I have found that people have used those two resources more than anything I else I have written, which I think means that they have been useful in the ADR field.
NW: What is your favorite activity to do outside of work?
JS: Anything outdoors: hiking, biking, walking on the beach, or walking in the woods. As long as it is outdoors and in nature I am happy.
NW: If you could have dinner with any three people (living or dead) who would they be and why?
JS: I would have dinner with Mohammad, Jesus and Buddha because I would love to see what they would say to each other, how they would interact. Would they dwell on their similarities or their differences? I’d also want to ask how they feel their messages have been followed over time.