Yeworkwha Belachew: Ombudsperson
Number of Years at Oberlin: 22 years in Residential Life and Services and 12 years as ombudsperson
What do you like most about your job? One of my favorite things about this job is cultivating the students who are a part of the Oberlin College Dialogue Center (OCDC) and watching them grow as members of the center and as students and future leaders. OCDC promotes social change through conflict transformation, mediation, community building, and dialogue. The center recognizes differences in power and privilege and addresses these dynamics so that all parties can be supported and have their voices heard. Students who work with OCDC are already on their way to being change agents. The multipartiality and social justice education OCDC provides makes students more equip to make positive change. Also, there’s nothing more gratifying than seeing people come up with their own mediation process. They become empowered to own their own outcome.
How many mediators do you work with in a given year and who are they? At the moment OCDC is made up of 18 students and 15 faculty and staff members.
What are some of the services offered through your office? In addition to the ombuds work, we also provide educational programs such as the Social Justice Institute.
In what ways does your office work with the surrounding community? We provide the same services to the community as we do to the college—mediators, facilitators and training.
Your office usually plays a significant role when hot button issues need to be discussed in the Oberlin community. Walk us through this facilitation process? When individuals come to the Ombuds office seeking a service, I assign facilitators based on the topic or on the facilitators' interest. Another way we become involved is through recognizing key issues or concerns that are happening on campus and create a space for a meaningful conversation about these issues. The goal of these facilitations is to make sure that all voices are heard during a discussion. We also provide minutes from these discussions so that the conversation or action around a certain issue can continue.
Being able to communicate concerns effectively is important. How do you suggest people do this in a nonthreatening way? The first thing people should do is to step back from the passion of the moment and think about what they want to express. In this moment of reflection, try to think about the situation from the perspective of the person with whom you might have a concern or issue. When you are actually communicating, do so with the goal of mutual understanding and remember to not only talk but to listen as well.
Your office also takes part in Orientation. Tell us about that. Our part in Orientation is the Social Justice Institute (SJI), a two-day workshop where students are given space to learn about and discuss different topics related to power and privilege as they apply to various social identities. The objective is for them to bond as peers and to be supportive allies of one another. To date, we have had well over 600 students who have participated in SJI. The experience has changed the campus discourse by giving students a common language to discuss and address issues of race, gender, class, sexual orientation, and ability.
Photo and interview by Yvonne Gay Fowler