Resolution Systems Institute thanks the National Association for Community Mediation for contributing this section on Community Mediation Basics to the Community Mediation Special Topic.
What Is Community Mediation?
Community mediation offers constructive processes for resolving differences and conflicts between individuals, groups and organizations. Participants control the process and create their own alternatives to avoidance, destructive confrontation, prolonged litigation or violence. Community mediation offers participants an opportunity to discuss their concerns and needs. It also strengthens relationships, builds connections between people and groups, and creates processes that make communities work for everyone. Community mediators support participants through difficult conversations, providing a safe environment to discuss the participants’ needs while participants retain decision-making authority. Community mediation centers offer a variety of conflict intervention processes – depending on the needs of the participants and the capacity of the center – that support participants in addressing their own and their community’s unique conflict needs.
Community mediation in the United States began in the 1960s during the civil rights movement as efforts to achieve racial, ethnic, class and gender equality gained momentum. The federal government nurtured the development of community mediation by embedding the Community Relations Service (CRS) within the Department of Justice in the 1964 Civil Rights Act. This required the creation of a non-violent and constructive model for dealing with community conflict that continues to be used today.
In an effort to provide neighborhoods with localized conflict resolution services, organizations sprouted nationwide. Initially, these programs focused on prosecutor-sponsored programs where community members would mediate minor criminal conflict and neighbor disputes. One goal of these types of programs was to reform the justice system. However, a second, parallel path developed. Those that forged this path more closely followed the philosophical framework of the social and political activism of the day, finding that the forum for resolution of community civic issues was within the community itself, not necessarily the institutional structures designed to address such conflict.
Path One: Judicial Partnership
In 1965, a Presidential Commission on Law Enforcement and the Administration of Justice focused national attention on our country’s overburdened judiciary. These findings helped build consensus around the need for reform and experimentation in and around the court system, with particular focus on minor criminal cases involving neighbors, relatives and other acquaintances. Early programs included the Philadelphia Municipal Court Arbitration Tribunal (1969); the Columbus Night Prosecutors Program (1971), which used law students to mediate cases in 30-minute time slots; the Institute for Mediation and Conflict Resolution in Manhattan (1975); and the Miami Citizen Dispute Settlement Program (1975).
In 1976, the National Conference on the Causes of Popular Dissatisfaction with the Administration of Justice, known as the “Pound Conference,” resulted in the creation of “Neighborhood Justice Centers” in Los Angeles, Kansas City and Atlanta. At these centers, people could access dispute resolution services and actively participate in crafting faster, cheaper and (often) more appropriate resolutions than the crowded and overburdened courts could provide.
The early goals of these court reform programs are still present today:
- divert cases from court caseloads;
- provide more appropriate processes for selected types of cases;
- provide more efficient and accessible services to citizens;
- reduce case processing costs to the justice system; and
- improve citizen satisfaction with the justice system.
In October 1977, the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration (LEAA) of the US Dept. of Justice released Neighborhood Justice Centers: An Analysis of Potential Models that reviewed the various models mentioned above, many of which LEAA funded.
Path Two: Community Self-Determination
On the second path, community-focused centers were established under the premise that people have the ability to resolve conflicts on their own. On this path, community conciliation mechanisms were viewed as an opportunity for residents to participate in the prevention and early intervention of conflicts as an alternative to institutional mechanisms. At the heart of the early community mediation movement were principles of democratic participation, drawing on citizen rights and responsibilities and the involvement of networks of community organizations.
Proponents of the early community mediation movement expected that the mediation process would have a positive impact on living conditions in urban centers by affecting underlying levels of inter-group and interpersonal conflict. Not only could mediation afford participants a sense of power and control over their lives, the open process could also allow participants the opportunity to listen, be heard and create sustainable responses. This approach allowed community mediation participants to humanize each other and look beyond their own assumptions to see each other as real people with real concerns and needs, even in the midst of disagreement.
Mediation was viewed as an empowerment tool for individuals, as well as communities, as the open process allowed individuals to take back control over their lives from a governmental institution, i.e., the courts. Early community-based models include: the Rochester American Arbitration Association Community Dispute Service Project (1973), a broad-based response to conflicts in the community resulting from changing racial balances; the Boston (Dorchester) Urban Court Program (1975), a court-connected storefront urban neighborhood justice center in a rapidly integrating Irish-American neighborhood with growing racial tensions and fear of crime; and the San Francisco Community Board Program (1977).
These programs shared some of the same goals as the court reform programs in developing more appropriate and accessible forms of dispute resolution but went beyond that to:
- seek to encourage decentralization of the control of decision-making in communities;
- create a parallel, community-based justice system that addresses disputes well before they enter the formal legal system;
- develop indigenous community leadership;
- work to reduce community tensions by strengthening the capacity of neighborhood, church, civic, school and social service organizations to address conflict effectively; and
- strengthen the ability of citizens to actively participate in their local democratic processes for effective self-governance.
The Shared Path
Community mediation has spread throughout the country and moved from the margins to the mainstream. Starting with approximately ten programs in 1975, the movement has grown to an estimated 400 mediation centers in the US. Community mediation centers handle 400,000 disputes annually and 75% of these centers provide mediation for small claims courts and 49% for civil courts, thus demonstrating the continued connection between community mediation and courts. While a large percentage of community mediation centers offer services to courts, they also offer programs and services that aim to meet a community’s dispute resolution needs at earlier stages of conflict.
During this growth, each community has adopted a model that is culturally appropriate and sustainable in that community. Considering the diverse nature of communities, a universal community mediation model would not be appropriate.
The Nine Hallmarks of Community Mediation
In 1992, a group of community mediation center leaders identified a set of guiding principles that define the practice of community mediation. These hallmarks stem from both paths and are used by community mediators to guide their growth and practice. Two years later, from this shared effort, these practitioners created the National Association for Community Mediation (NAFCM). NAFCM was designed to be the national organization supporting the work of community mediation and promoting the use of the nine hallmarks. The nine hallmarks bind all the divergent paths of community mediation in both philosophy and practice. Each community mediation center is at a different stage of embedding and actualizing the hallmarks into both center culture and communications. Yet, however different the expression, the common values of self- determination, community wisdom and institutional collaboration remain the same.
Hallmarks 1-5 focus on core strengths needed by community mediation centers
- A private non-profit or public agency or program thereof, with mediators, staff and governing/advisory board representative of the diversity of the community served.
- Using trained community volunteers as providers of mediation services; the practice of mediation is open to all persons.
- Providing direct access to the public through self-referral and striving to reduce barriers to service including physical, linguistic, cultural, programmatic and economic.
- Providing service to clients regardless of their ability to pay.
- Providing service and hiring without discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, gender, age, disabilities, national origin, marital status, personal appearance, gender orientation, family responsibilities, matriculation, political affiliation, source of income.
Hallmarks 6-7 focus on the core focus of creating a safe forum for participants
- Providing a forum for dispute resolution at the earliest stage of conflict.
- Providing an alternative to the judicial system at any stage of a conflict.
Hallmarks 8-9 recognize the strengths found by raised community consciousness
- Initiating, facilitating and educating for collaborative community relationships to effect positive systemic change.
- Engaging in public awareness and educational activities about the values and practices of mediation.
What Types of ADR Processes Are Used in Community Mediation?
Community mediators use methods of dispute resolution that empower participants to advocate for their needs, make their own decisions and be accountable for their actions or decisions. The following are examples of the types of processes that may be used and case examples.
Mediation is a voluntary process whereby mediators help participants work together to resolve conflict. A mediator guides participants in a process, usually face-to-face, that allows participants to hear each other’s concerns and then work with each other to come up with ideas for the resolution of conflict. In this model, a mediator will actively listen to allow everyone an opportunity to build a greater appreciation of others and themselves, be impartial and not take sides or give advice, and support the participants through a collaborative problem-solving process. During this process, participants can either (1) develop solutions that meet their needs, or (2) decide to remain in the parts of the conflict they are not yet ready to face or address.
Community mediation centers use a variety of models and styles. Together, these methods help people experiencing conflict to create solutions that fit their needs and help them transform their relationship for the better. Mediation may be used to resolve a wide variety of disputes including: neighbor/property disputes, landlord/tenant issues, parenting and child custody issues, work disputes and criminal matters.
Case example: Joe purchases a riding lawn mower from Janice after learning of the mower through a neighborhood communication app. The mower ceases working within two weeks and Joe publicly, through the app, accuses Janice of knowingly selling him a lemon. Janice responds by denigrating Joe. Another app user suggests that the two use a community mediator to resolve the issue.
Facilitating small or large community conversations is an often-used service of community mediation. Trained facilitators can help design meetings, lead effective decision-making processes, ensure that all voices are heard and keep meetings on-track so that the community’s goals can be reached. In community mediation, facilitators use conflict-resolution skills to help keep conversations productive. Using local facilitators who live in or near a community is often advantageous in that they understand the cultural constructs that impact the issues being discussed.
Case example: A school board wants to acquire land near a residential neighborhood to build a football stadium. Residents of the neighborhood are concerned about noise levels, traffic flow, aesthetics and property values. School board meetings have been raucous as residents have made their concerns known. A community mediator is called in to help design and facilitate meetings wherein all stakeholders have the opportunity to voice their opinions, ask questions and offer ideas as to how to meet the school’s needs without negatively affecting the neighborhood.
Training and Conflict Coaching
Inherent in the idea of community mediation is the belief that people can resolve conflicts on their own. To help people develop the skills to resolve conflicts effectively and live peaceably with their neighbors, training is made available. Not only can people learn to resolve their own conflicts peaceably, they can also learn how to help others do the same.
Case example: Rob has been moved up to a managerial position at the local YMCA due to his outstanding performance as the maintenance person and his likable personality. Rob now needs to manage staff who have weekly interpersonal disputes. He fears conflict, so avoids handling these staff conflicts. The YMCA hires a community mediator, who is a trainer, to offer conflict coaching to Rob and conflict resolution training to the entire YMCA staff.
Restorative justice seeks to bring the recipient of the harm into the center of a conversation in a way that is restorative for those involved, including the perpetrator of harm, the recipient of harm and the affected community. In these processes, the focus is on how to best repair the harm that was done as opposed to focusing on the rules or laws that were broken. Restorative justice processes include a diversity of practices. Within restorative justice processes, in addition to the ones listed below, there is a diversity of approaches such as peacemaking, relationship-building, sentencing and re-entry. Some of the most common restorative justice processes include:
- Victim-offender mediation in which a specially-trained mediator/s guides the offender and the offended through a process that allows them to share the impact of the harm and to discuss how the offender can make things right.
- Accountability circles in which the offender, the offended and members of the community are joined by a trained restorative justice practitioner who offers guidance identifying how best to repair the harm and bring the offender back into community.
- Re-entry mediation in which an incarcerated person, with the guidance of a trained mediator, meets with his or her support network to create guidelines and points of agreement that will help the incarcerated person successfully re-enter society post-incarceration.
Case example (Accountability Circles): Rhonda’s mailbox has been pelted with rocks and destroyed. A neighbor saw (and knew) the teenagers who did the damage. They were celebrating after a victorious football game. The police called in a restorative justice practitioner to try to get Rhonda and the teens together for victim-offender conferencing.
During the conference, the teens described how they were so stoked after their game that they got into a little harmless celebrating. Then Rhonda described how when she came home and saw her mailbox, she thought that a former abuser had found her and was leaving her a message that “he was back.” Traumatized, she took her daughter out of school and left the state for a few days.
Recognizing that their reckless behavior had traumatized Rhonda, the boys were apologetic. They restored the mailbox and said that they would each pass by her house occasionally to make sure that she was okay and report any suspicious behavior. Her perpetrators became her protectors.
Conciliation is a process whereby a conciliator goes back and forth between parties in conflict to try to bring about resolution. As in mediation, the participants are responsible for decision-making.
Case example: Sharon and Doreen were in the same college sorority years ago. They have different political opinions and, through the sorority’s alumnae email list, have been antagonistic. After some particularly antagonistic exchanges, both Sharon and Doreen removed themselves from the list and the group, and refused to communicate with each other. The alumnae group had been tight, and the group members were hopeful that Sharon and Doreen could agree to some ground rules that would allow for their continued participation in the group. It was decided that Sally, who is respected by Sharon, Doreen and the group, would attempt to conciliate between the two. She called one, and the other, and shared their ideas, back and forth, as to how the women could communicate without pushing the other’s political buttons. Within a month, they had agreed to the guidelines and joined the group once more.
A Closer Look at Community Mediation Centers and the National Association for Community Mediation (NAFCM)
Each community mediation center is uniquely designed to serve the community in which it is located. Each center maintains relationships with its mediators and with community partners.
Mediators in community centers often include: trained volunteers, trained mediators who receive stipends or staff trained as mediators. Centers often have a core of paid professional staff who organize a cadre of volunteers. Examples of center personnel include case managers, program coordinators, trainers, facilitators and restorative-justice practitioners.
Given the versatility of community mediation, a wide variety of organizations often partner with community mediation programs. Examples of organizations that partner with community mediation programs include government agencies, police departments, schools, courts, housing organizations and communities of faith.
NAFCM supports community mediation by being the hub for advancing its work, aggregating the wisdom of community mediation and amplifying the voice of community mediators. The purpose of NAFCM is to support the maintenance and growth of community-based mediation programs and processes; to present a compelling voice in appropriate policy-making, legislative, professional and other arenas; and to encourage the development and sharing of resources for these efforts. The services provided by NAFCM member centers vary, depending upon the needs of the disputants and community and the capacity of the community mediation center.