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JAMS Pathways Profile: Focus on Rich Birke

Learn more about JAMS Pathways Chief Architect Rich Birke, what conflict resolution means to him and when he knew he would devote his life to helping solve problems
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How does your background lend itself to doing JAMS Pathways work?

After 35 years in the field, I’ve seen all kinds of conflicts. They are about as numerous as the maladies a doctor might see. And like a doctor, the job of the conflict resolution professional, as I see it, is to diagnose and then treat. And those treatments are as wide-ranging as the maladies. If the problem is rooted in a communication issue, then it’s time to look to the skills and education I have in that arena. Similarly, if the problem is data driven, or economic, or cross-cultural, or about strategy or the allocation of limited resources, I can draw from my experiences and education in those sub-fields. By having a wide range of skills, I can administer the appropriate treatment for whatever it is that ails our Pathways clients.

What is your motivation for doing JAMS Pathways work?

When I was a full-time professor teaching conflict resolution, I was invited by a wide variety of constituencies to intervene in large conflicts—political, environmental, commercial and beyond. The resolution of a long-standing dispute involving multiple stakeholders is exhilarating. It feels great to help people, and on top of that, it’s a low-carbon and non-consumptive way to make a living. It’s good for the stakeholders, and it’s good for the soul.

What are the values that resonate most with you?

Perhaps my favorite thing about working on other people’s problems is that they keep me from thinking about my own! On top of that, I come from a family of very hard workers, and I believe that working hard makes me a better person and better citizen of the world. I also always wanted to have a job that was consistent with who I am. I didn’t want to be one person on the job and another away from work. Conflict resolution allows me to take the stance of helper at all times.

What are your Pathways-related areas of focus?

My focus area in Pathways is large, complex problems. I’ve been fortunate to be involved in problems in universities, hospitals, trade associations, government entities, sports organizations and other entities that have large constituencies with multiple objectives and competing interests. Organizing and directing a large group of disparate stakeholders in a productive conversation is something I think I’m good at, and for clients who work in or with large groups, I add value.

How would you describe your training style?

A big driver of my trainings is choosing lessons and modules that correlate most directly with the problems faced by the trainees in their everyday work life. I try to adapt big, important lessons to the needs of the group, rather than teaching and hoping they make the connection between the lessons and their jobs. 

My trainings are extremely interactive, generally fast-paced and—I hope—as entertaining and enjoyable as they are educational.

I also try to work as part of a team as much as possible. Having more perspectives yields trainings that reach more trainees.

When did you realize that you would devote your life to helping people overcome conflict and similar challenges?

My first realization that I would spend my life preventing conflict came in childhood. My parents survived the Holocaust, and I grew up afraid that something like that could happen again—to me. I knew that the path to a better life involved taking care of small conflicts before they grew, helping peers resolve problems without fighting and developing skills to talk things out. It would also be pretty easy to say that I realized this when I took my first law job as a prosecutor and saw firsthand how our criminal justice system is essentially a social service sector, helping restore order after conflict got out of hand. 

And I realized this when I got my first academic job teaching conflict resolution. Then I was sure.

What professional accomplishments are you most proud of?

My proudest professional accomplishment is helping to resolve the controversy over Opal Creek, a 35,000-acre watershed in western Oregon that was the subject of a nationally known 30-year dispute that produced a documentary, two books, six failed pieces of legislation and, eventually, Oregon’s newest wilderness area.

What is the best piece of advice you have received?

Always take the high road.

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