‘They were role models, they were no longer criminals’

Espen talks about the inner workings of the Red Cross street mediation in Norway

Espen Foss

Espen Foss

Espen Marius Foss is the national advisor for the street mediation program in the Norwegian Red Cross. He holds a degree in social and visual anthropology. He is currently working on project ALTERNATIVE in the framework of his PhD in restorative justice.

As a restorative practitioner, Espen works mainly with the Red Cross on street mediation. ‘Street mediation is a crime prevention method, an educational method where young people can learn to deal with their own conflicts non-violently. They also learn to mediate between their peers’, Espen explains. ‘The program offers three levels of training for youth. The first level is where the adolescent deals with his or her own conflicts. It deals with questions like who am I in a conflict, what are my triggers, how does conflict escalate and how can I respond differently? It teaches non-violent communication. It really looks at how the participant can be empowered in its own ways of dealing with conflict. It involves some great practical exercises.’

The second level is a street mediation workshop. ‘They learn using different techniques, games and exercises like role play’, Espen says. ‘The third level is where the youth are trained to be mediators themselves. After each level they receive a diploma. The Red Cross also offers mediation facilitated by adult volunteers in bigger conflicts, which young people cannot resolve on their own. About ten years ago, the Red Cross started up with street mediation, after a pilot project in the National mediation service. They have been developing and coordinating it since.’

The training is open to all kinds of young people. ‘The main target group is youth at risk, marginalized if you will. We also work with youth who are not considered to be at risk’, explains Espen. ‘Sometimes we have drop outs who come in with low self-esteem, who have committed crimes or are at risk of committing crimes. For them, this is all about getting a new perspective on how to handle things, how to deal with conflict as well as understand themselves better. Both young people who are at risk and those who are not develop a better sense of themselves. Many of them develop strategies to better get on track, cover their needs in a nonviolent manner, help out their peers with mediation,, and they learn how to form better relationships.’

‘There was a conflict involving guns’

The trainings can be very effective for those who go through every level. Espen: ‘I remember working with this one guy. He was in trouble, hanging with the wrong crowd. He went through all the levels of the training. In the end, he actually became an active role model for his peers as a youth instructor. Now he also has a very good relationship with his mother, something that was not the case before the training. For me, he is an example of how the training gives you the ability to strengthen the relationships with peers and family.’

‘There was also this rivalry between two groups of kids, between the ages of 18 and 20 in Oslo’, Espen recalls. ‘Their rivalry went far, so far that at one point, there was a conflict involving guns. One person ended up in the hospital. The social workers were worried that they were being recruited in criminal organizations.’

‘They joined the Red Cross street mediation training, where some of them even did the full three levels’, Espen says. ‘Some of them became youth instructors, some received the diploma. That made them really proud, since some of them never had received a diploma in their life. They were role models for the younger people living in the area, they were no longer criminals.’

However, not everyone can claim the same success. ‘Two of the guys from the group are now in prison’, Espen explains. ‘So it is obviously not a solution for everything. Most of them resolved their conflicts and strengthened themselves, but others did not.’

‘It is an intense training to become a Red Cross mediator’

All the mediators and the trainers at the Red Cross are volunteers. ‘One challenge we face is to find volunteers who are willing to stay a while’, Espen says. ‘It is a pretty intense training to become a street mediation trainer (about 60 hours inclusive practice). The fact that we work with volunteers adds an extra motivation for the young participants. It sends a message to the youth that the trainers and mediators believe in them. It also motivates the participants to take responsibility for their own learning and conflict management. However, the downside of volunteer based work is that you never know how long a volunteer will stay in the program. Unfortunately we have trained too many volunteers who do not stay long in the program. Therefore recruitment is of essence’.

‘I love this work because it believe in it – I’ve seen the effects’, Espen relates. ‘It can be an important turing point for the young participants.. In Norway, the national, public mediation service offers mediation in crime cases as well as civil cases. The Red Cross offers a supplementary mediation service, using the Red Cross’ mandate as a neutral humanitarian organization to get access to vulnerable groups, before the conflicts escalate into crime cases. My dream is to build this street mediation in the Red Cross to become a viable supplement to the national mediation service.’

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