How Susanne Terry Puts Peace on Conflict’s Table
by Ginny Sassaman

Every holiday season, we are surrounded by written and sung hopes for peace. Yet it remains elusive, whether on the home front or the international stage. Fortunately for Vermonters, we have an expert peace builder here: Susanne Terry has been wielding the tools of alternative dispute resolution for nearly 40 years.

Hers is not a household name, but the mediator community in Vermont knows that Terry is both a state and a national treasure. In 1983 she created and designed Vermont’s first mediation education program, an innovative approach to solving conflict at the then newly created Woodbury College in Montpelier. Woodbury was eventually purchased by Champlain College.

Thirty years later, she is still one of that program’s most respected teachers. Just this June, Terry was presented with Champlain College’s 2013-2014 Francine Page Excellence in Teaching Award. Champlain College President David Finney says Terry “is without a doubt one of the most inspiring teachers. There are some teachers who give you their heart, and others who help you find yours. She does both. She is flat-out terrific.”

Terry also taught mediation for five years at Vermont Law School, a somewhat unusual role for a non-lawyer. But Terry is an unusual person, despite her assertion that she leads “a very ordinary life with some extraordinary circumstances.” She, in fact, has worked hard to create those circumstances, thanks to her passionate belief in alternative dispute resolution.

Heart of Conflict

Mediation is a way to resolve disputes between two or more parties by getting to the heart of what really matters to everyone involved. It achieves concrete effects. Typically, a third party will mediate between the parties to help them move beyond their positional arguments to negotiate a settlement that best meets everyone’s needs.

Photo: Jan Doehler

Mediation’s paradigm is not binary win/lose; its methods are more informal and more complex. It is both an art and a science, and can be used to ameliorate conflicts in a wide variety of situations, from family relationship struggles through corporate and international disputes.

On the state level, those circumstances that Terry created include founding the Vermont Mediators Association and serving as its president. She had a leadership role on the Vermont Governor’s Commission on Dispute Resolution, and her work within the Vermont Superior Court Family Mediation Program is ongoing.

On the national level, Terry has been a leader in the Association for Conflict Resolution (ACR), which arose from a merger of three separate organizations. She led a task force to develop national guidelines to certify divorce mediators. She has served on the ACR board of directors, and has been a consultant for many mediation programs throughout the United States.

Within ACR, Terry acknowledges that she is “a natural leader with the ability to help influence the direction” of that association. “I’m not a sparkly name,” she says of her leadership role in the national movement. “I’m a workhorse. I get things done.”

She also credits her influence to being with ACR since the beginning. The organization created networks of people throughout the country who know and respect her. She has often used these networks to help meet the needs of mediation practitioners, who may struggle to make a living.

Mediation is not well-established in all regions of the country, but job prospects for ACR members are growing. People from many backgrounds are now entering the field, as more businesses, couples, and individuals want to avoid the delays, publicity, and high costs of litigation. Alternative conflict resolution is here to stay.

In 2011, the New England Chapter of ACR awarded Terry a Lifetime Achievement Award. She maintains her own thriving mediation and facilitation practice in the Northeast Kingdom. With her husband Steve Parker, she also runs High Reach Farm in Danville, and says about it, “The work we are doing here in Danville is very much at the center of our lives right now.”

Together, the couple intends to create “a teaching, learning, and gathering place where we can explore the human and natural ecologies of the earth. Steve and I have been doing this work for years, and now we'll have a ‘home’ for our workshops and group work.”

Peace as Work

Clearly, Terry’s kind of peace building—whether on the farm, working with divorcing couples, or teaching mediation students who become colleagues near and far away—takes stamina, persistence, and focus.

But her leadership is not just about hard work. Her Champlain mediator students are taught that one of the best tools a mediator must possess is the power of personal presence.

Terry herself is a tall, strong woman who, as she puts it, “knows how to fill up a space.” Through years of training and practice, she has learned how to use her presence “to serve the people I’m working with, and not just take up space.” She admits that while she’s a generally relaxed person with an easy laugh, she “tends not to give off many signals of being easy to push around.”

Her colleagues tend to have high praise for Terry. Tammy Lenski now owns Myriaccord, a conflict resolution firm based in New Hampshire. She first learned mediation from Terry, and later taught it for many years. She said, “Terry has a way of honing in on the heart of the matter with almost an intuitive sense. She also walks a line that many find difficult: balancing the ability to be direct, and to be kind at the same time. Combined, these abilities make her a true force of nature in the very best way.”

Julian Portilla, director of the Masters in Mediation and Applied Conflict Studies program at Champlain, summed her up more simply, “She’s totally amazing.”
In any given month, Terry says, she can mediate “a divorce or a partnership case in which millions of dollars are involved, and then mediate a divorce or property dispute in which it’s not clear how the parties will make it financially through the next month.”

When asked about this, Terry said that in many of her client cases, “It’s not clear how they’re going to feed their kids, no matter how hard they work.” She sees, and greatly admires, those clients who began with very few resources, and then got hit with an illness, or are living with a profoundly handicapped child—and nonetheless act like their lives are completely normal. “I am just blown away” by these folks, she says.

But Terry also insists she is “no Pollyanna. I have people who act badly and hurtfully, and do things they shouldn’t. Many times, they are acting out of grief and fear. And most of the time—not all the time—if I keep at it, I can see the real person and their intention, and we can work something out.”

Conflict Training

The mediation program that Terry designed at Woodbury uses the imagery of a three-legged stool to illustrate its approach to training mediators. The first leg of the stool is the self: Students are taught to reflect on how they themselves cope with conflict.

The second leg of the mediation story is theory: Students study and research how and why conflict erupts in particular situations, and how it can be resolved productively.

The third leg is structure: Students of mediation must repeatedly mediate in active role-plays, with the help of coaches.

Interestingly, Terry’s own mediation career rests atop a three-legged stool of experience. She learned self-reflection as a young girl in a Southern church, she practiced mediation methods in her early journalism career, and she studied conflict theory while living in a community devoted to nonviolent social change.

Rural, Righteous Roots

Her childhood in rural Louisiana may well be the most important leg of her experiences.
Growing up where and when she did, Terry found herself receiving “mixed messages” from her Southern church. Before reaching her teens, she had decided on a personal creed: “We’re all equal. We all deserve to be treated with reverence. And no status is higher than another, regardless of race, income, or anything else.”

Terry has stuck with those principles. “When you truly believe that,” she asserts, “anything to the contrary is just extraneous noise.”

How Terry arrived at such a strong foundation at such a young age is slightly mysterious. Certainly her parents were important influences. Though conservative, both her mother and father had respectful relationships with folks who were different from them. Both stood up to do the right thing during racially charged episodes.

As a construction superintendent for a large project, her dad risked his own job to hire an African American foreman who he thought was the best man for the job. And her mother was a teacher when Louisiana schools were first integrated. Other teachers protested by refusing to return to school. Terry’s mother, in contrast, resolutely returned to her teaching job—escorted for her safety by Terry’s father.

“I am my mother’s daughter,” Terry says proudly, her eyes welling with tears. Her parents were both living examples, who taught Terry that “you don’t get to sift through who is in your world.” She adds, “It is possible to live in a world of extreme differences and still navigate” that world. Her job today “is to help folks navigate those differences.”

Journalism Practice

Later, as a young minister’s wife, Terry and her young family with two children, moved around some, from Louisiana to Texas and North Carolina. She initially taught music to help support herself and her kids. Eventually, she started writing from home for magazines and newspapers. She also became “extremely involved” in the civil rights movement, at a time when it was very frightening as well as educational.

In 1972, Terry left North Carolina for Philadelphia and the Movement for a New Society. Here, while deeply immersed in non-violent social change (see below), Terry continued her journalism career. A highlight was covering the “Harrisburg 8” trial for National Reporter and NBC News. As a “screaming liberal with really strong opinions” in those days, “It was a real discipline to listen to others, to learn what was going on, and how it was affecting people,” Terry says. Aspiring to objectivity as a reporter was an important lesson for the future mediator.

Journalism also taught Terry “to be curious about what you believe, what you buy into.” The story, she learned, “was always bigger,” not just a T-shirt slogan. This insight taught her to hold back on judgments in conflict, where the story is often “so much bigger that what one person, or two, or three, say.”

The lessons continued in 1976, when she moved to Vermont, and began working for the Caledonia Record. The folks at that paper, she says, were “very generous” in what they allowed her to do. She learned a lot about research, as well as ethical journalism— lessons like, “Never sneak up on people.”

Finally, she got to practice another very important mediator skill: sorting through “exciting” facts to figure out what really matters. While a full-time journalist for a few years, it was a career that served Terry–and much of the future mediation profession in this country—very well. By 1982, she was ready to launch her mediation career.

New Society

Terry first trained as a mediator in Philadelphia, during the four years when she lived at the Philadelphia Life Center, affiliated with the Movement for a New Society (MNS). The founders of MNS were mostly Quakers and civil rights workers. Some had worked with Dr. Martin Luther King, some with Mahatma Gandhi in India. This was a community committed to nonviolent social change.

While there, Terry was part of a team working with the American Friends Service Committee to develop strategies to move beyond demonstrations and placards, and instead begin communicating with—and listening to—others. She learned some “extremely painful lessons” about how Vietnam veterans were treated on returning home.

“The only lasting peace is when there is justice,” she says. “Until people—individuals and societies—have a legitimate place at the table, and are heard, we will not have lasting peace. We may have an absence of violence, but that is not the same thing.”

It was at the Life Center that Terry met her second husband, Steve Parker. In 1976, they moved to Danville, Vermont, to be closer to her husband’s family roots

Vermont Life

Terry was already an accomplished conflict worker when she arrived in Vermont, having mediated many conflicts in Philadelphia with Christopher Moore, who would later publish one of the most important books on mediation, The Mediation Process: Practical Strategies for Resolving Conflict. Here, she soon found work as a facilitator and problem solver, and helped peace organizations and coalitions. It was practice, but not enough to make a living.

Then a number of people Terry cared about got divorced, and had a lot of trouble with the process. That spurred her to get training in divorce mediation, and begin her mediation livelihood in earnest. It was rough going at first, but she stuck it out. Mediation had taught her not to make decisions too fast.

Today, Terry has clients all over the United States, as well as in Europe and Africa. Currently, she is also consulting with the Clinton Global Initiative on training its staff to facilitate gatherings of business and governmental leaders who have made a commitment to global change. Her hard work has paid off.

Full Circle

Terry’s rural childhood environment was not all that different from her new world on the farm near Danville. St. Johnsbury, the city closest to the farm, is about the same size as the nearest town where she grew up in Louisiana. Interestingly, both Louisiana and Terry’s part of Vermont, which is close to the Quebec border, have high percentages of French speakers. And both Vermont and Louisiana are independent-minded states, filled with strong-willed individualistic citizens.

And then there’s the weather, which could be described as extreme in both cases, just at opposite ends of the spectrum. So how did this Southern girl handle Vermont’s winter weather? “This is your life,” she says. “You get funky weather one day, what are you gonna do about it? Do you believe the universe is here to meet your needs, or are you here to figure out how to handle what comes your way?”

Reflecting back on her career, Susanne Terry says, “I happen to love this work, and I love the mediator community, both in Vermont and nationally.” And finally, “I figure every day I’m alive, and get to see the weather, is a good day.”


Writer Ginny Sassaman is a regular contributor to Vermont Woman. She was one of Terry’s students in Woodbury College’s Masters in Mediation program, which is now the Woodbury Institute at Champlain College. Sassaman now coaches for mediation students at that institution.