One of the first lessons Western Justice Center teaches is that with conflict, there is opportunity — a chance to break barriers, appreciate differences and raise awareness.
The nonprofit’s mission is to build a more civil, peaceful society by promoting differences and understanding in culture, race and class through creative programs that build skills in conflict resolution. And one of the best places to begin building, WJC has found, is from the ground up: in the schools.
“You can never eliminate conflict because conflict is a part of human nature, but teaching people how to manage and deal with conflict is essential to reaching peaceful resolution, whether it is in the courts, in schools or in the community,” said WJC Executive Director Judge Judith Chirlin.
After 24 years on the Los Angeles Superior Court, Judge Chirlin has seen her share of disputes, handling a mix of law and motion, civil trials and mandatory settlement conferences. She points out that a person’s different perspective on an issue is often the root of a problem, creating vantage points that are impenetrable. A skill called “active listening” can help break through those viewpoints.
“When two people are rolling around in the mud, it is very difficult to see who made that invitation and who accepted that invitation,” said Chirlin, who came to WJC in 2011 after retiring from the bench. “On our website we say ‘We have one mouth and two ears, and we should be using them in that proportion.’”
Founded in 1987 by a group of judges, lawyers and civic leaders, the idea for WJC was led by Judge Dorothy Nelson, judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit and former dean of USC Law School. Nelson was one of the first in law to actively advocate for mediation as an alternative to litigation, an idea that was rebuked by many judicial traditionalists.
“Back then, when you mentioned conflict resolution, or alternative dispute mediation, lawyers and judges thought you were trying to take away their jobs,” Chirlin dryly noted.
Not only did Nelson help bring alternative dispute mediation to mainstream courtrooms, (as well as initiating one of the first mediation programs for a federal appellate court) she was also passionate about a goal close to home: teaching people in her community how to do the same.
“It’s still the hottest topic in the justice system today,” Nelson said from her courthouse office, located next door to the WJC building. “I simply felt that it made sense, a way to bring about peace, justice and better solutions. So many times [in court] a favorable outcome depends on if you get a red hot lawyer or not. Mediation allows the parties to come up with their own solutions — they know their cases better than anyone else.”
With the help of WJC, the idea that conflicts can and should be resolved collaboratively is taking hold in schools and communities. The nonprofit has set programming in place as groundwork for resolving and even avoiding future conflict. In 2014, it merged with Encompass, a nonprofit youth development organization devoted to reducing prejudice and bias-related conflicts. Together as WJC, the nonprofit works with students, teachers and community members to raise awareness, build skills and increase the possibility of just communities and schools.
Some of the programs bring creative arts to schools to help students develop compassion and better understand each other. One popular live theater piece, “Compassion Plays,” is a 90-minute program that offers a 45-minute play (chosen from one of three written by playwright Peter Howard), and that offer a perspective from someone facing discrimination, addressing issues such as homophobia, racism and bigotry. The plays are followed by a 45-minute discussion by trained WJC staff
and create a dialogue for students to express their feelings, be they negative or positive.
One of the pieces, “Wheels,” which addresses xenophobia, is performed by WJC Artistic Director Kevin Black. The play focuses on a troubled white student, who is increasingly interested in white nationalism and gets a swastika tattoo.
During the discussion that follows, Black said he’s been impressed with the maturity and responses from the students to the question, “What would happen to a kid like Danny at your school?”
“One kid said, ‘You know, I’d try to be his friend, because if it’s not going to be me, then who will it be?’ He wanted to try to have some positive influence over him,” said Black. “The students’ ability to empathize has been pretty amazing over the years.”
“Compassion Plays” tours to middle and high schools all over the state, and Black said WJC would love to take it even further, perhaps a national tour of colleges.
“It’s a great way to combine the arts and mediation,” he noted.
Housed in Pasadena’s stately and historic Maxwell House, Chirlin sat down recently to discuss WJC’s future and mission. A tall, clear-eyed woman of 70, she has a habit of leaning over the desk, pontificating. She loves horses and is a member of the Cowboy Lawyers Association. She is no longer a Republican, she confesses in a low voice, with a chuckle.
With quick wit and dry humor, “Judge Judy” has dedicated her life to the judicial process, bringing “heart and soul” to the bench and to WJC, colleagues say.
“She’s been God’s gift to the Western Justice Center,” said Nelson, who, as the first female dean at a major law school, was a mentor to Chirlin when she was a USC law student. “We went after her when she retired and we got her, thankfully. Not only is she interested in law reform, she’s interested in children and mediation, and she’s a wonderful people-person who really relates to the community.”
Chirlin’s first love was politics, and she only ended up in law after she was told by a male professor, also a politician, that it was good to have a profession to fall back on if one lost an election. Something else he said, that stuck with Chirlin: “In politics, a woman with a law degree is a lawyer and a woman without one is an envelope stuffer.”
Drawn to law reform, she later became increasingly aware that long-term changes were made by the justices.
“I realized that the best way to affect the way courts function and to improve the administration of justice is to become a judge,” she recalled.
Chirlin also has strong ties in international law circles, making some 25 trips with the American Bar Association’s Rule of Law Initiatives. As part of the International Legal Assistance Consortium, Chirlin visited Iraq in 2003 as part of a mission to provide aid and assess Iraq’s distressed legal system. From that trip, she almost didn’t make it back alive.
With her team based in Baghdad’s Canal Hotel, Chirlin took a risk one afternoon to navigate the war-torn streets and take a meeting across town with a much-admired Iraqi judge, who had been imprisoned by Saddam Hussein. The meeting went long, and upon returning to the hotel, she found it in ruins after being bombed by terrorists. Twenty-three people were killed, including people she knew from the United Nations. What followed was a terrifying race to get out of Baghdad.
“That was the last time I drank Scotch,” she quipped.
Going forward, Chirlin expects great things from the community efforts through WJC. The nonprofit has found its footing after some financial struggles in years past, she assured, turning the corner with a strong mission and even stronger programming. It recently launched an innovative website called “School Tools,” for educators interested in accessing material on conflict resolution to enrich their students’ knowledge and skill base. The tools are useful for resolving conflicts in the school setting, as well as throughout people’s daily lives, she noted.
The website has been popular across the U.S. as well as international circles, and has been viewed by educators from 153 different countries.
“In an increasingly volatile time, with a rise in violence, hate crimes and bias-motivated behavior targeting people from vulnerable groups … we need to continue this work to strive against beliefs and systems that fuel hate,” she said.
WJC program director Emily Linnemeier, who has a master’s in conflict resolution, does outreach with schools to bring the nonprofit’s programming to more educators and students. Combining the performing arts with anti-bullying and anti-bias campaigns has proved hugely effective, she noted.
“Learning doesn’t happen when people don’t feel safe or part of their school and community,” she said. “We can all develop our skills to resolve conflict more peacefully and productively and to appreciate and celebrate differences in order to create safety and inclusion.”
WJC wants to build on that foundation, starting in schools. The younger that kids learn, the more chance they have on practicing it as adults, Black said. He said the WJC “bends over backward” to make the programming affordable for schools or community groups.
To learn more about WJC, its programs for schools and community groups, or to donate to its mission, visit westernjustice.org.