Peace Talk with Daniel Soloff

Daniel Soloff has served as the WDRC's AmeriCorps Youth Program Specialist since 2016. In an interview with Tim Campbell, the WDRC's AmeriCorps Outreach VISTA, Daniel reflects on his work at the WDRC. 

 photo credit: Phil Montogomery

photo credit: Phil Montogomery

Tim Campbell: How long have you been with the WDRC?

Daniel Soloff: 1 year and 10 months.

TC: What brought you to the WDRC?

DS: I realized how much the curriculum focuses on my interests, such as the physiology of stress and conflict, decision making, and connection. I also had a big interest in facilitating groups. I was a volunteer while working with another nonprofit and I kept applying for this position because I thought it would be a great opportunity for personal and professional growth.

TC: Tell me about your background. 

DS: I went to Western Washington University and made my own degree through Fairhaven College.  The degree was titled Social Stewardship and was designed for helping groups of people relate more and collaborate better. It combines psychology and leadership studies, and turned out to be a really great fit for my current position.

TC: What programs do you tend to work with the most?

DS: I work with the Youth Program mostly, though sometimes I facilitate adult training as well. I also co-mediate Small Claims and Parent-Teen Mediation.

TC: What is your favorite thing about working with youth? What is the most difficult?

DS: My favorite thing about working with youth is the sense of accomplishment when the youth begin to accept you and they begin to share out. They become more engaged and it makes all the difference for achieving learning outcomes and enhancing the general experience of the class.

I'm very comfortable in my role, though when I first began the most difficult part was kids not engaging. The ones who sit in the back and just roll their eyes, but now I just see that as a personal challenge. I make it my goal that by the end of the presentation or workshop all of the youth will be interested and engaged. I'm relentless and it works most of the time.

The biggest difficulty that comes up is the temporary support these students receive. Many of these students need and even request ongoing support and conflict coaching. 

TC: What are some of your favorite trainings to give?

DS: I really like them all, but for different reasons. I like the Juvenile Justice Diversion workshop because it is a smaller group, allowing us to build a stronger rapport with them as well as the youth building stronger rapport with each other. Through this, these groups tend to have more insights and gain deeper understanding of themselves and each other. I also really love the classroom presentations. I enjoy showing the youth that there can be a sense of fun in learning. They are expecting to be taught about conflict resolution and they prepare themselves for a boring lecture. And then we go in with different activities and a positive attitude and it surprises them, and they begin having more fun.

TC: Describe what healthy and constructive approaches to conflict means to you.

DS: Something I ask in my Juvenile Justice discussions is "When do you think that conflict has gotten too far?" A couple of the common answers are "when people start yelling," or "when things get physical." What I think is that conflict goes too far when people stop listening to each other. From that point, conflict tends only to escalate. So I believe that a healthy approach to conflict is really learning to listen. Being able to hear someone else before speaking.

TC: What WDRC trainings from have you taken?

DS: Almost all of them.

TC: Any favorites?

The Professional Mediation Training. It just really resonated with me. It matched my intuition on what communication is supposed to look like.

TC: What is something that you have learned at the WDRC that you apply to your everyday life?

DS: Recently this idea of the cycle of violence. When we have needs that aren’t being filled, we often react by blaming others and sometimes even taking from one another to fulfill our own needs. Then the person you just took from will be in need and this cycle just goes on. So what needs to happen is that instead of this trend of blame and guilt, we need to flip it around and begin sharing/giving to make sure everyone’s needs are met. When a situation comes up, people should stop targeting each other and instead realize the situation is the problem and the situation can be changed. Then they will be able to work together and focus on the solutions rather than focus on problems.

TC: What is your favorite event that we put on?

DS: I definitely love Peace Builders. It is just so inspiring to see all of the good that these people have done and fills me with a sense of pride and hope.

However, I would also say that I love our Cribbage Tournament. I grew up playing cribbage. It was a pretty big game for my family and I just love seeing others enjoy it too. It’s a game that not very many people talk about, but when you find out someone plays it there is immediately a sense of kinship there.

TC: What’s been one of your favorite things about the WDRC?

DC: Definitely the staff. There is a sense of cohesion and centeredness that I haven’t experienced anywhere else. It’s the kind of staff you think you could only dream of. We’re always looking out for one another, and helping each other out. It’s like when you're in your twenties and have roommates that will never do the dishes and eventually give up hoping they will do the dishes. The staff here would be the kind of roommates that would always be happy to help do the dishes, whether they are theirs or not. They remind me that the ideal is actually possible because this is an ideal team. In school I learned about a term called social capital, where the relationships between people determine the efficacy of that particular group or community. I would say this organization has a lot of social capital.

TC: What is something you find unique about the WDRC?

DS: We definitely have a very unique role in the community. Our services are very widespread and we work with a lot of different communities. For instance, the youth program works in all of the school districts in Whatcom County, the Juvenile Justice System, and other youth serving organizations. It’s a really special opportunity and we’re so glad we have the opportunity to reach out to so many.

TC: Are you able to see an impact with your service? What is it like?

DS: I do feel like we make a big impact. The impact may not be visible yet. Years from now the youth may not remember this guy that came to their classroom to teach about conflict resolution, but when they come across a conflict or other high stress situation there will be something in the back of their mind saying “Wait, let’s look at this situation. Why am I reacting this way? What is the other person saying?”

This kind of impact won’t necessarily show an immediate change, but will reinforce positive skills that they are already working on developing. It’s not that different from marketing, where enough exposure eventually leads to a behavior to buy. The more exposure that they have to these kinds of lessons and ideas, then the more they will be able to see the application of those lessons in the real world.

TC: What do you think is the long-term impact of your service?

DS: Down the line, I hope that these youth will teach their own kids these lessons and the message will just continue to spread. However, if we want to make a bigger impact we need to be teaching more of these workshops to parents. Instead of teaching a class to about 30 students we could teach a class to 30 parents. If those parents have multiple kids, then ultimately we would be able to reach a larger audience. That way the parents can  help the youth practice these lessons in the home and the children can keep the parents accountable.

Also I feel like we need to work on changing schools from just a place to learn into making it an active community of learners. Make schools such that the students are invested and families are engaged. Have there be more of a shared responsibility as well as a shared celebration.

TC: Any general advice for readers?

DS: Youth really need to be heard. They need to know that there are safe and supportive adults out there that will be willing to listen. Ask them questions. If you ask them how they are doing, don’t stop after they just say “I’m fine.” Keep asking even if they are just answering with one word responses. You have to annoy them into a conversation. They are looking for someone who cares enough to keep asking and not walk away as soon as they begin to talk.