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Farewell RSI: Gratefully Recalling Milestones on an Incredible Journey

Susan M. Yates, June 13th, 2024

With my last day as Executive Director at RSI — July 12, 2024 — rapidly approaching, I’m experiencing a bit of nostalgia, especially as I think back to the earliest years of RSI.

I wasn’t there at the very beginning, but as the story goes, the organization started in 1995 when a small group of lawyers and judges gathered around a fireplace in a hotel lobby after a mediation training and hatched the idea for a nonprofit entity that would assist court mediation programs. They called it the Center for Analysis of Alternative Dispute Resolution Systems (CAADRS).

I got involved soon thereafter as a consultant working on a research project. Then the executive committee of CAADRS hired me as its first full-time staff person, in 1997. One of my first tasks was to define the original mission: Collect and disseminate reliable information about court ADR.

In 1999, I hired Jennifer Shack, now RSI’s Director of Research, not knowing this would be the best decision I ever made at RSI. For me, working with Jen for these 25 years has been the greatest gift of my career.

Over the ensuing years, there have been many milestones. Here are a few that stand out to me:

  • CAADRS was an early user of the internet, launching a website to disseminate reliable resources about court ADR
  • CAADRS changed its name to Resolution Systems Institute (Whew!)
  • RSI spun off from our original home as part of the Center for Conflict Resolution, becoming an independent nonprofit
  • RSI more than doubled in size to respond to the foreclosure crisis — providing mediation services in three jurisdictions, training mediators all across Illinois, developing data collection tools and conducting two in-depth evaluations
  • RSI developed and operated more mediation programs — first in child protection cases and then in eviction cases in response to the COVID pandemic
  • More recently, RSI has decided to double down on our strengths in research and evaluation with the hiring of additional staff and taking on more projects
  • For many years now, our mission statement has been “strengthening access to justice by enhancing court ADR systems”

If I started naming the names of all those who have supported RSI and me over these years, there would be no end to this post. Suffice to say I am deeply grateful to everyone who has been part of this incredible journey. 

Fortunately, I am leaving RSI in good hands. Transitioning into the role previously held by a founding executive director is no small feat, but I know Heather Fogg is up to the challenge and will do a great job as the next RSI leader. Please join me in welcoming and supporting her!

Welcome, Heather!

I am not a gambler, but I would bet no child has ever answered the question “What do you want to be when you grow up?” with “I want to run a nonprofit that helps improve access to justice by enhancing court ADR.” Well, there are now two people who could have said that: RSI’s incoming CEO Heather Fogg, and me.

Heather’s first day at RSI will be June 17, 2024. Please join me in welcoming her!

Heather is going to do such a great job building on RSI’s past successes and taking the organization to new heights. Here are just a few of the qualities she brings to this position:

> A passion for quality ADR and the role it can play in enhancing access to justice

> Deep experience with ADR, in particular mediation and restorative justice

> Knowledge of court mediation, especially focusing on quality

> Skills in communication and a focus on excellence

> Background in and enthusiasm for the role research can play in improving court ADR

Heather’s knowledge, expertise and character should assure everyone that this next phase for RSI will be an exciting one that is full of opportunity and success. Please join me in welcoming Heather on June 17!

Jennifer Shack, left, and Susan Yates “then” and now.

Sowing Seeds that Blossom into a Meaningful Life’s Work

Susan M. Yates, April 16th, 2024

On April 11, 2024, the American Bar Association Dispute Resolution Section honored me with its D’Alemberte Raven Award. The award is given “in recognition of development of new and innovative programs, demonstrated improvements in service, demonstrated improvements in efficiency, research and published writings, and development of continuing education programs.”

The following are the remarks I made at the award ceremony.

Susan M. Yates gives a speech after being presented with the D’Alamberte Raven Award at the American Bar Association Section of Dispute Resolution 2024 Spring Conference.

Thank you.

I must say, when I first learned I was getting this award, I was stunned.

That was followed quickly by a surge of love for my friends who nominated me. Thank you, Peter, Jen, Jim, John, Kelly and Terry. I live in abject fear of leaving someone out when I publicly thank people, so I am going to stop naming names right there! But I will give a huge thank you to all my friends and colleagues, who I respect and love from the bottom of my heart.

An occasion like this was bound to lead me to reflect on my career. As I did, I thought about all the small, day-to-day actions that turned into something important for me. This evening I invite you to join me in reflecting on little things, and to keep doing those small acts because you just never know.

Here’s my first example:

It’s from the end of the ’70s. I was at Cornell’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations, studying mediation, arbitration, negotiation, etc. A representative from the Rochester (NY) Community Mediation Center (not their long-time executive director Andrew Thomas) came and spoke about community mediation. And that idea lodged in the back of my mind and deep in my heart.

So, when you are asked to speak to a class about mediation, conflict resolution, ADR, whatever … go! It is possible that when you do, you could plant a seed that will bloom for decades.

Another example:

ABA Section of Dispute Resolution Chair Ana Sambold, left, presented Susan Yates with the D’Alamberte Raven Award at the section’s spring conference. (Photo courtesy of ABA Section of Dispute Resolution)

A few years out of college, I was living in Chicago and found that there was a local community mediation center — what is now known as the Center for Conflict Resolution. I reached out; they were doing a mediator training the next two weekends and invited me to participate. That training, which came about because someone answered the phone and extended an invitation, formed the basis for the rest of my career!

So, as you are going about your day, answer the phone or an email, and make a simple offer. It might not be consequential for you, but it could be life changing for someone else.

Here’s an example from later in the ’80s,when I was executive director of that community mediation program in Chicago:

I went to a Chicago Bar Association reception and happened to meet in person a funder, Kent Lawrence, who was supporting our eviction mediation program via a third party. (Yes, eviction mediation was happening back in the ’80s.) From that chance meeting came a multiple-decade friendship and funding relationship that has enabled Resolution Systems Institute to grow into the organization it is today.

So, go to those gatherings and other events — whether in person or online. Meet new people and develop those personal and professional friendships.

Here’s another example from a few years later:

Jim Alfini — who many of you know and is the OG of the DR Section — invited me to grab coffee and talk about the ABA DR Section. He was about to chair the section and invited me to chair the Associates Committee. Well, that led to me serving on the Council for a number of years, being one of the ABA’s two representatives to the revision of the Model Standards of Conduct for Mediators and many, many, MANY other involvements — budgeting, nominating, ethics, strategic planning, conference programming — in the Section. In the Section, I found my professional home.

So, take someone to coffee. Invite them to engage with the DR Section or another organization of your choice. Help your colleagues find their professional home.

And one final example from about the same time in the ’90s:

Susan Yates (right) with RSI Director of Research Jennifer Shack (center) and RSI Researcher Rachel Feinstein at the ABA Section of Dispute Resolution Conference in April 2024.

I was executive director at Resolution Systems Institute — where I still am today — and looking to hire someone to be the second RSI staff person. One person I interviewed was right for the job, but could only promise to stay for 18 months. Well, that was the magnificent Jennifer Shack, RSI’s Director of Research, with whom we recently celebrated 25 years at RSI. Were it not for her, RSI would certainly not be the organization it is today, and I would likely not be standing here in front of you.

What does this tell us? Better to hire someone good for a short amount of time. You never know where it might lead. 

Each of these seemingly small actions had a huge impact on my life and ultimately led to me standing here this evening. So, I encourage us all to keep doing those small things. Speak to a class, respond to an email, meet people, invite someone to get involved, hire someone because they are good.

In closing, I will add another action: Nominate a colleague for an award. You will never know how much it means to the person who receives the award.

Thank you.

The True Flowers of Life

Susan M. Yates, February 12th, 2024

At my first job, working at a Dairy Queen, I learned a lesson that has been proven time and again during my career. The people you work with make or break any job.

Photo by David Bartus, via Pexels

Applying that lesson to being executive director at RSI, it is easy to see why this has been the job of a lifetime. The people who work at and with RSI are amazing. They are smart, hardworking and dedicated to using ADR to make the civil court system work better for people with the least resources.

That’s one big reason it is bittersweet to leave RSI after 27 years.

But I’m also excited about my next phase. I am going to work in my two favorite areas – conflict resolution and non-profits – providing coaching, consulting, training, etc. And I’m hoping to maintain those wonderful relationships with the people who have made this job so much fun.

If you know someone who might be a good fit for the RSI CEO position, please encourage them to apply here.

I’m proud of what we have accomplished together at RSI. Board members and staff, mediators, judges, lawyers, researchers, funders, mental health professionals, professors and so many others have worked together to develop RSI from an idea to a nationally respected organization. We work hard every day to accomplish RSI’s mission of improving access to justice by enhancing court ADR.

In reflecting on these years, and thinking ahead to the coming transition, I remember a quote from comedian Lord Buckley that was on a poster in my childhood home. “The flowers, the gorgeous, mystic multi-colored flowers are not the flowers of life, but people, yes people are the true flowers of life, and it has been a most precious pleasure to have temporarily strolled in your garden.”

Support RSI’s Pet Projects

Susan M. Yates, July 11th, 2023

Every time my foster dog looks at me with those big eyes, wags her tail and rolls over for a belly rub, I get a warm, fuzzy feeling.

You know, like the feeling you get when you think about supporting RSI’s work.

Or is that just me?

“Bri” (short for “Brillo”), foster dog of RSI Executive Director Susan M. Yates.

As the second quarter of 2023 comes to a close, I’m so proud of RSI’s accomplishments studying and sharing the qualities of successful mediation; learning how online dispute resolution programs might help parties with low literacy make better use of ODR; and mediating eviction cases.

But as meaningful as our work is at RSI, I know that, for most people, RSI’s mission doesn’t have the instant emotional appeal of rescuing dogs and cats in need.

I get it. When you support RSI, you may have to go through a step or two to get to the warm, fuzzy feeling. But rest assured, you are supporting important work that improves real lives.

Maybe you see a fair, open justice system as a foundation for democracy – and so you value procedural justice in mediation.

Maybe you can imagine how scary eviction court would be – and so you value a mediation process that enables landlords and tenants to sit with a mediator and work out solutions together.

Maybe you are eager to learn how mediation really works – and so you value our project to explore mediator behaviors that engender party trust.

Whether it is instant or it takes a few steps, I hope you enjoy the warm, fuzzy feeling of supporting RSI. Please click here to make a difference by donating to RSI.

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