beyond infinity: conflict resolution week at NASA!

john casperI had the great honor of spending a few days at NASA’s Johnson Space Center last week, conducting presentations and workshops for staff, directors…and astronauts (!!!).  Above is shuttle veteran and now my hero John Casper, who attended one of my sessions.

Last year, I gave a spiel at the Texas Association of Mediators Conference, where I met folks from NASA’s Equal Employment and Diversity Office.  Turns out, their Director, Deborah Urbanski, founded and ran a community mediation center back in the day, and she and her team have developed a robust internal dispute resolution system in the space agency. NASA’s Human Resources, Employee Assistance Program, Legal Division, Ombuds Office, and employee’s union, work seamlessly to offer a smorgasbord of conflict management services to the agency’s highly diverse workforce.

To raise awareness of NASA’s internal conflict management systems, observe Conflict Resolution Week, and build communications skills at all levels of the agency, they asked me to come on in and do some trainings — encouraging me to be as creative and offbeat as possible.

marqueeKinda hard to read, but the marquee upon entering NASA reads “Conflict Resolution Workshop today!” That was a cool thing to see upon going through security clearance.

posterHere’s the poster for the work I did — two spiels for Johnson Space Center staff on creative conflict management skills —  and two workshops on making meetings fun, effective, and productive. Like every organization on earth, NASA folks spend a lot of time in meetings, and they were eager to learn new ways to keep people engaged and creative.

FYI, this happened:  

In the midst of giving a filmed presentation to an auditorium of NASA-ites, I tripped over the cameraman’s light fixture (and broke it). Flashing through my mind was a horrifying cascade of events in which my clumsiness led to an electrical outage which in turn shut down Mission Control, leaving us vulnerable to the aliens who lay in wait just beyond our orbit. Luckily that didn’t happen but it totally could have. 

selfie badgeYeah, I’m not going to be taking off this badge anytime soon, y’all.  Speaking of “y’all,” one of my new NASA friends helped me understand the difference between “y’all” and “all y’all”. (They’re both plural!)  So. If you’re in a car full of people and get pulled over by the police, and the officer says “y’all get out of the car,” only the driver gets out.  If he/she says “all y’all get out of the car,” everyone gets out.

astronaut brad This gig has been 44 years in the making, as evidenced by my NASA-themed 3rd birthday in 1970, at the height of the Apollo Missions.

mediating astronauts So I thought I’d try my hand at mediating between an American astronaut and a Russian cosmonaut.

Seriously —  I did learn about how the Americans and Russians — despite tensions here on earth — manage to get along all cooped up in the International Space Station. While the different nationalities have their own spaces (which are really tiny — I saw a full-scale mock-up; see below) — they share meals and social time together, and don’t let our earthly politics get in the way of their shared mission. Different cultures and languages cooped up in small spaces, striving to get along — it reminded me of New York City. We could probably learn a thing or two about conflict resolution from our space space stationBy the way, spacesuits are made of thick, burlap-like canvas.  I was expecting more of a plasticized space-aged polymer.  And the helmet visors are super thin (but strong)…only a few millimeters separate astronauts’ faces from the eyeball-sucking vacuüm of infinity.

brainstormingHere are a few high-level Directors (including astronaut/hero John Casper!) doing a brainstorming exercise. They let me hang my silly drawings amidst their auspicious and historical photos.

Something that surprised me: there’s a crazy amount of wildlife on the Johnson Space Center campus. There are deer, ducks, and coyotes a go-go. There’s also a herd of Texas longhorn cattle. I’m not quite sure what that’s all about.

So, in one of the exercises I did with the NASA folks, I proposed the idea of establishing a petting zoo at NASA.  We did some brainstorming and consensus building activities around this — with lively discussions about the pros (stress relief for staff, honoring the fallen animals used in NASA missions, a nice companion piece to their childcare center) and cons (not the best use of taxpayer money, mission drift, allergies).  One thing I love about my work is bringing the spirit of playful creativity to high level, “serious” groups. Laughing brains, it is said, are more absorbent.

gremlinI got a private tour of Mission Control!  Look in the lower right corner: there’s a gremlin. Someone should look into that. I asked if there are any super secret buildings where they keep aliens and reverse engineer UFOs and such, and was told that they really value transparency — very few areas are off-limits to the public, after you go through security.  (One exception: a building where quantum physicists are allegedly experimenting with warp speed.)

flight directorThey also let me play with the Flight Director controls in the Mission Control room (a national landmark) from the Apollo missions.  The moon landing was navigated from this very chair.

red phoneThis is the big red phone that used to be connected to the White House.  I pretended to talk on it for an awkwardly long time, and my tour guide/handler was most gracious about letting me finish my one-sided conversation with Lyndon B. Johnson.  Who was a surprisingly good listener.

I got chills being in there — it filled me something like a spiritual awe. There’s more computing power in a smart phone that in all of Mission Control at that time…and somehow they sent people to the moon from the place. I can barely use my iPhone to send a text without an embarrassing autocorrect fail.

shuttle drawingParticipants seemed to enjoy my drawings — and were quick to point out that my Space Shuttle depiction inaccurately has passenger windows. So I pretty much designed a prototype for civilian space travel.

NASA folks were sad to see the space shuttle era end, but excited for all kinds of new ventures, Including — get this: capturing an asteroid with an enormous bag, dragging it into our orbit, and landing a manned spacecraft on it. And going to Mars. And cooperating with the private sector such things as an inflatable space hotel. (I saw a prototype of this!).

Getting engineers, designers, project managers, astronauts, technicians, private sector representatives, accountants, artists, and professions I can’t even begin to understand, on the same page is not easy — one of the reasons the agency strives to strengthen its creative consensus-building muscles.

shuttle on planeThey let me behind the cockpit of a Space Shuttle simulator. I met an engineer who made the spacemen respond to all manner of diabolical simulated scenarios (from solar flares, to computer breakdowns, to space madness), so they’d be as ready as possible for the deep blue yonder.

The value of safety underscores everything at NASA. Following the Challenger disaster, the agency rightfully became super vigilant about reducing risks — and it’s a central theme in all meetings and discussions. Safety is also a core value of mediation — we provide a physically and emotionally safe space for difficult conversations. The NASA participants in my workshops really appreciated how safe conversations across hierarchies, divisions, professions, and personalities — where the stakes are super high — fit within their guiding principle of safety first.

robotsboba fettCheck out these cool and creepy robots. Star Wars fans — Boba Fett, am I right?

peace placque Seeing this plaque from the original moonmen on Conflict Resolution Day felt more than a bit poignant.

followedI was kind of sad to leave Houston. And I had the nagging feeling that I was being followed.

swagI came some with super cool tchachkis and am now the proud owner of  bookmark that has been in space! And an amazing piece of art, below, with cattle and astronauts!nasa art

More importantly, I came back with all kinds of inspiration, incredible memories, and gratitude for being able to, in a small way, help foster NASA’s creativity and coöperation.


Don’t forget to get your tix to our superfun PeaceRaiser on November 5th!



so why attend our PeaceRaiser on November 5th?


Hang out and get to know members of New York’s largest civilian peace force. Raise a glass and a fork together. See old friends, make some new ones. Play a ridiculous trivia game with us. Bid on cool stuff in our silent auction (including the painting I made, above.) Participate in a super fun interactive art project.

Most importantly, do your part to build peace in our city, one conflict at a time.  Help us keep mediation free, safe, and confidential. Here’s just one of many examples of our peacebuilding work you’ll support by joining us  on November 5th. (Details changed to protect our clients’ confidentiality,)

Two youth were arrested for setting fire to a community garden, in a minority neighborhood. The garden – created by the sweat equity of the community on an abandoned lot – held tremendous significance to the neighborhood, as a meeting place, a symbol of solidarity, a place for youth to learn about agriculture, and an oasis of beauty and peace. The youths’ offense was understandably interpreted by the community as an act of racist arson – and an act that seriously damaged an incredibly meaningful community resource. The offenders’ parents offered to pay for a new garden – but this only exacerbated the anger in the community. The court turned to New York Peace Institute to find a way to hold the youth accountable and maintain peace in the community. We facilitated a dialogue process – which brought together more than 25 people, including the young offenders and their parents; community garden leaders; concerned citizens; and the local fire marshal. 

As a result of the dialogue, the youth were no longer seen as racist arsonists – but as teenagers who acted irresponsibly when they let a bonfire get out of control. The remorse they expressed truly resonated with the community: it was the first time the young offenders fully understood the real impact their actions had on the community. It was also the first time the community members were able to hear and understand that the youths’ act, while irresponsible, was not racially motivated or malicious. Together, the participants – youth and community members alike — agreed on a plan for moving forward in a way that held the youth accountable, while healing the community. This included: the youth working side-by-side with the community gardeners to rebuild the damaged areas, and the youth giving presentations to local schools about the impact of their actions on themselves and the community. The youth upheld their agreement, and were embraced as members of the very community they had harmed.

This story exemplifies how we roll, and how in these divided times, our work is ever so urgent.  Hope to see you on the 5th. Get your tix and all the info you need here. Come as you are.





get to know a new york peace instituter: melissa!

melissa and cops

Folks, I’m all kinds of lucky to work with such a great team, and I’m fixing to introduce you to all of them, one by one.  Here’s Melissa Appleton, ace Program Manager. She’s a joy to work with, and is able to see detail and understand complexity in a way that hurts my head. Have a look above — that’s her dropping mediation knowledge to NYPD officers.  In addition to her amazing work with us, she has a background in international relations, and has worked to build peace in such places as East Timor and Kosova. Also, she’s Canadian, eh.

Melissa. So what do you do around here?

As Program Manager, I do a few overlapping things. The first is that I work to build and strengthen referral relationships with organizations and agencies with the goal of increasing overall awareness and use of our services. I work closely with our awesome case management team, who engages directly with clients and referral sources. I get excited about excel spreadsheets and using a data-driven approach to support our growth. And lastly, I provide oversight for our Youth-Involved and Parenting Mediation Programs.

What was your first paying job?

My father and grandfather ran a family business selling Native Canadian art and we held monthly auctions in the gallery. When I was little – like 9 or 10 years old —  I was an auction runner. That’s what we called the person who brought the notes from the auctioneer confirming successful bids to the back, where clients would go to pay for and collect their purchases. I eventually graduated to taking payments and packaging the art. It’s unrelated to mediation, but you might say it was an early start on customer service!

If you could be any animal, what would it be and why?

This is the hardest question! Maybe an orca? They are spectacular, highly social, and incredibly intelligent. (And they live in my favourite part of the world, the Pacific Northwest!)

Editor’s note: Look how she spelled “favourite”! See — Canadian!

What inspires you about your work?

Everything! It’s really rewarding to know that we give people support in the midst of a difficult situation and they often reach greater clarity about how to move forward.  And I get to enjoy being a part of our work from all angles – working directly with clients, mediating, and helping mediators grow in their practice.

Who would play you in the movie of your life and why?

Staff once voted on Scarlet Johanssen, which is hard to give up…

Tell us about a time you felt you really helped make a difference for our clients or mission.

Honestly, I feel really good about all the people we serve who don’t end up in mediation…these are the people who have been directed to us mistakenly after going through a bureaucratic maze,  who keep getting the run around, or who aren’t savvy enough to find answers online. Maybe they need advocacy or legal information – not mediation – but we do our best to listen and direct them to some one or someplace who can actually assist. I think being kind and helpful makes a difference for people, whether or not they become our clients in the end.

If you could have any 3 people, living or dead, for dinner, who would it be? OK, now you can only have 2 — who would you kick out?

Maybe this is cheesy – but it would be pretty great to spend an evening with my grandmothers, both of whom are no longer alive. Or, for a more fun option, I’d spend the evening with 2 or 3 people who throw great parties, like Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera!

Editor’s note: See how she skipped the part of kicking someone out? That’s so Melissa.

 What else should we know about you?


Editor’s note: I’ll put you down for “I’m Canadian.” And that Melissa deeply, deeply cares about her teammates, our trainees, mediators, clients.  Recently, I’ve been working with her to train and facilitate a group of New Yorkers heroically struggling with mental illness while emerging from homelessness. I couldn’t have asked for a better partner in this challenging and rewarding endeavor.

Support New York Peace Institute & have fun while you’re at it by attending our PeaceRaiser on November 5th!


conflict resolution day…AT NASA!

astronaut bradI’m delighted to be spending Conflict Resolution Day — October 16 — conducting a series of trainings at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA! In Houston! At the Johnson Space Center!)

As this picture of me with my grandfather, Iggie, from 1969 indicates, I’ve been planning this mission for some time. I’ve since learned that astronauts wear pants.

This is not a dirty picture.

photoSo. I incorporate lots of my marker-on-flipchart paper drawings into our trainings. This is my rendition of a chameleon, which represents one of the classic responses to conflict: accommodation – going with the flow, not making waves, ceding to others’ needs, etc.

In a recent training, here is more or less what went down when I showed this drawing:

Me: OK. What’s this a picture of?

Participant X:  It’s two lizards having sex.

Me: What? No, it’s just one lizard —  a chameleon.

Participant X:  Nope, I’m seeing two lizards getting busy.

Me: No really, it’s just supposed to be one lizard. You must have a dirty mind.

Participant X: You’re the one who draws the dirty pictures.




what do all these folks have in common?

scroll down and find out.copsBUELLER-700x331Pinheadmatlockjared letodentistrobinflo-aliceUN Nick Nolte

These are among the professions who just survived our intensive, 5-day, bootcamp-meets-bandcamp Basic Mediation Training: NYPD cops, teachers, an acupuncturist, lawyers, activists, a dentist, therapists, a food industry worker, a United Nations staff member, and more.

One of the things we love about these trainings is the community that we build through 40 hours of learning, laughing, eating and playing together. People who might not ever meet in real life — and may hold a stereotype or two about each other — bond and connect in incredible and unpredictable ways. Over the years, we’ve seen more than 2,000 people build mini-communities through holing them up in Brooklyn for five days.  We figure we’re only about 7.125 billion people away from building world peace.

And what we love about mediation is that you can be great at it regardless of your background, education, or profession.  You may need to un-learn stuff as well as learn stuff, but if you’re committed to building peace, willing to honor clients’ self determination, able to check your ego at the door, and resist the urge to be judgey, mediation may be just the jam for you.


raise some peace with us on november 5th!


We are delighted to invite you to our 2nd Annual PeaceRaiser!

Let’s face it — you deserve some fun.  And who doesn’t want a more peaceful New York City?

Have we got the event for you. Join us on
Wednesday, November 5, 6-9pm, for great company, tasty delights to tantalize your palates, high & low octane beverages to slake your thirst, a lovely venue, and fun and creative activities.

The best part — while you’re schmoozing, noshing, and imbibing, you’ll be doing your part to build peace and reduce violence in our city.  Proceeds from this event will help New York Peace Institute to continue to provide free conflict resolution services to our communities.

New York Peace Institute is a vital part of our community, providing more than 10,000 New Yorkers with the resources they need to resolve their conflicts peacefully, creatively, and durably.  Our wonderful staff and more than 400 mediators represent New York’s largest civilian peacebuilding force — catalyzing countless acts of healing, understanding, agreement, forgiveness and trust among families, neighbors, businesses parties, community groups and more. 

So, we’re all about cooperation.  But for one night only, we’re gonna throw a bit of competition into the mix. In addition to getting to know and reconnect with some amazing people, you’ll have a chance to compete in our specially-curated silent auction and in our potentially raucous trivia game. And, we’ll also have a fun interactive art project.

The cost? $100. By the way, a couple of tickets covers the cost of a mediation session for our clients — and the result can be priceless. 

BREAKING NEWS: We’re offering a student discount — so if you’re a kindergarten, elementary school, middle school, university, or graduate student — the price is a mere $60. We’re committed to building community among the up & coming generations of peacebuilders. (Just enter the code STUDENTS when you purchase your tix.)

The event with take place at a fabulous venue — the WeWork space at 25 Broadway, 9th Floor.  Come as you are. Get your tix HERE!

Wishing you the very best,