Melissa Appleton: A Career in Conflict Resolution

By Emma Kushnir, WorkStory Ambassador

When Melissa Appleton took the “What colour is my parachute?” quiz in school, it always told her to become a lawyer, social worker or psychologist, but she knew those traditional jobs were not the right fit. Thus she entered McMaster University’s interdisciplinary Arts and Science Program with no idea of what to do with her life. Soon she discovered all the electives she had picked and enjoyed were under the Peace Studies umbrella. This was partially influenced by the fact that she lived in Israel for a year after high school. She graduated from McMaster University with an honours degree in Peace Studies and planned to work internationally in the Balkans (a region in Southeast Europe) with a local NGO, which produced social educational theatre for young people. Through the experience she learned that international development was still not the right fit for her, but also realized she needed more concrete skills. Melissa continued her graduate education at Columbia University for Peace Education, oriented towards practice with a focus on conflict resolution.

In 2008, Melissa started working at a local mediation organization, the New York Peace Institute, in Brooklyn, New York. The New York Peace Institute is one of the largest community mediation organizations in the United States. Through state and city funding, the organization offers free mediation and conflict resolution services to the New York City community. Mediation is defined by the New York Peace Institute’s website as “a conversation between two or more people, led by a trained, neutral mediator, and is a less expensive, time-saving alternative to court”. They allow people to settle their differences, to get what they need or even to just be heard, for a myriad of different reasons. Melissa started there as the Outreach Coordinator, but now acts as the Program Manager.  As the program manager, she “focuses on building and maintaining referral relationships, and increasing use of the services through the development of programs to meet the needs of the community”.

She explains her inspiration was from her upbringing. She was very involved in the social justice-oriented Jewish youth movement as a child, which largely impacted her life by introducing her to “isms” such as racism and sexism at an early age. This not only got her care about the world and other people, but also started her love of conflict resolution, and the facilitation and training of it. Melissa enlightens, “I didn’t go into school intending to work in mediation or conflict resolution… I was honestly unaware of the option, but given my sensibility and interests, it makes perfect sense that I landed in this field.”

When asked about why she loves her job, she replied “mediation is [a] very rewarding and engaging occupation for me. I am continuously challenged to grow, to learn, and to improve my practice. With my clients it’s a privilege to support and witness people making transformative decisions, and moving forward in ways that make their lives better”.  Melissa explains that on her path there was,  of course,  the challenges that people face when their career falls outside of traditional career options, but the hardest part was really just finding the right job.

Melissa’s advice for people figuring out what they want to do is “talk to people, LOTS of people, people you know and people you don’t, and ask them about how they figured it out, and what lessons they learned from their experiences. Don’t limit yourself to the easy options, the ones that have their own professional degrees in school.  And stand firm against people who pressure you into these standard careers. There are so many different ways to make a living. Some of them just require some extra creativity, willingness to work hard, and comfort with the uncertainty of how things will turn out. Do internships at places you find intriguing. By volunteering, you get to see what the day-to-day reality actually looks like. Internships are also a tremendous networking tool, do good work and people will want to help you moving forward.”

To learn more about mediation and the New York Peace Institute visit