Wyss Scholar Alumna: Diana Portner
I still remember the morning I received the exciting news that I was to become a Wyss Scholar. At that time, several years ago now, I was early in my graduate school career at University of Michigan, and not quite sure of the path ahead. One thing I was sure of, though, was that I wanted to make an impact on the landscape that I spent my childhood summers exploring – the intermountain west. I experienced first-hand the intensity of conflict that can surround public land management, and I knew in my heart that the best way to make a positive impact was to work directly with the people that call those places home.
Since that time, I have honed my skills to find place-based solutions for land management decisions through my role as a mediator (and now senior mediator) at Meridian Institute (www.merid.org). Meridian plays a unique and essential role in conflict – we help people, who may not know each other, and often do not trust one another, work together to agree on and implement solutions to complex and controversial issues. In that role, I have had the privilege to work with federal and state land management agencies across the American West to help diverse stakeholder groups communicate with each other to move beyond conflict and find solutions that ultimately benefit all involved.
My entry into the world of collaborative problem-solving was in large part due to the benefits of being a Wyss Scholar. The year that I was accepted as a scholar, I helped organize an event that brought together past Wyss Scholars and Doris Duke Fellows, and the keynote speaker was none other than one of Meridian Institute’s founding partners. With that initial exposure to spark my interest, I launched my journey via a summer internship assisting a fledgling conservation partnership in Montana’s Bitterroot Valley. Funded by the internship stipend from the Foundation, I had the freedom to explore what it means to serve as a third-party convener, while helping the partnership to define its mission, goals, and potential path forward.
While today I work on a wide range of substantive issues at Meridian, I often gravitate back to conflict surrounding public land management and the impacts on neighboring communities. Through my facilitation role, I work with stakeholders to build relationships with each other and express their underlying interests, often uncovering a common, shared vision for the future. As an illustrative example, I have been working with a group in Southeast Alaska to explore new approaches to timber management on national forest lands. Even when the group members find themselves in stark opposition, they come back to their common desire to find solutions that worked not only for themselves and their organizations, but for current and future generations of Alaskan residents and communities.
As our country continues to face uncertainty and political discord regarding how to manage our public resources, I often think about how such a shared vision can serve as the glue holding a group together, ultimately leading to solutions for our public lands that can stand the test of time.