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The Mediator
Photo by Scott Gruber

The Mediator

UCLA Burkle Center Assistant Director Anna Spain brings government and UN experience to the job, along with lessons learned since high school about solving problems collaboratively.

We have to focus on all of the scary issues in a way that breeds positivity and hope.


Growing up in Granville, Ohio, Anna Spain wanted "to make the best of a bad situtation." The wishes of housing developers seemed to matter more than woods and wildlife, and racial tension was evident. Trees did come down and deer showed up in the front yards. With the human conflict and the threats to the local environment, it was a little world, even if not "the most diverse place at that time."

Under the guidance of a high school mentor, Spain and a dozen other students completed formal certification to become mediators who could intervene in disputes among peers and in the community. When high-schoolers got into fist fights, she says, "some miscommunication" was always the culprit.

"Once they could clear that up, it was no longer so dire."

It's a perspective that Spain would bring to undergraduate studies in environmental science and economics, to eco-tourism work in defense of humpback whales in the Dominican Republic's waters, to Harvard Law School, and to jobs at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the State Department, and now the UCLA Burkle Center for International Relations, where she was hired last month as assistant director.

Most lawyers train to come out ahead in "adversarial" realms such as litigation and arbitration. Though a firm believer in legal process, Spain pronounces the word in a faintly pejorative tone.

Instead, she has pursued "alternative dispute resolution" (ADR) as a method and collaboration as an ideal even while taking up high-stakes, cross-cultural and international disputes. In the final years of the Clinton administration, she served as a scientific adviser for U.S. negotiators on the Kyoto Protocol on global warming, before law school. She is proud to have been sent by the State Department as a delegate to the UN Compensation Commission that sorted through some $60 billion in claims by victims of Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait—and that is now, remarkably, closing up shop.

A Little More Conversation

For this mediator from a bicultural family—her mother is English and her father African American—the UN is a worthy work-in-progress and "certainly striving in the right direction," she says. "The sense of that is so palpable when you're there."

In recent work for the State Department, Spain prepared and tried cases at the Iran-U.S. Claims Tribunal in the Hague, which settles disputes arising from the halt in diplomatic relations between the countries.

"You do feel patriotic," she says of representing her country in a necessarily adversarial process. "You do feel a sense of satisfaction that you can see things through to an end that began 25 years ago."

At the Burkle Center, Spain will work with Director Kal Raustiala to plan high-profile conferences and events and to support expert research and analysis on global affairs, including her own research in ADR. Gen. Wesley K. Clark (ret.) joined the center as a senior fellow in 2006, and there are plans to bring on additional fellows, Spain says.

The goal of these efforts is clear, she says, though daunting: to find solutions to the world's most pressing problems. Not surprisingly, Spain doesn't see confrontation as the way to get there.

For the sake of the world's poor and the young and indeed the rest, Spain worries in particular about global warming. She warns that even conservative estimates of its impact "do create problems for the world," such as exacerbated shortages of water. The crisis may be the great long-term test of what people can accomplish through collaboration.

"There are a lot of scary issues out there. We have to focus on all of the scary issues in a way that breeds positivity and hope," she says. "If we lose hope, we won't be able to have the vision; if we lose the vision, we really will be lost."