Community Dispute Resolution: Assessing Its Importance and Addressing Its Challenges

Vol. 19 No. 2

By

This issue of Dispute Resolution Magazine contains an important and illuminating set of articles on the assessment, conciliation and mediation of community disputes. Three of the longer articles speak directly to issues related to the practices – and the challenges – of community mediation programs, written by authors whose years of committed work make them especially experienced and informed observers.

Now is a good time to look at the state of community mediation in the United States. This is not only because community conflict resolution work has grown remarkably over the past 35 years, or even because community programs have responded and continue to respond to local community, court and agency needs in many innovative ways. And neither is it only because of the challenges of program funding and financial stability, which are discussed by three of the authors here.

Looking at community mediation is timely also because, as Doug Van Epps describes in his article, so many lawyer-mediators received their basic mediation training and initial mediation experiences through a community center, so many attorneys sit on centers’ boards of directors and so many more attorneys refer cases to community mediation centers. Attorneys have an important stake in the continued presence, vitality, and contributions of community mediation centers.

This reflective set of articles provides a detailed snapshot of the numerous ways that community centers, law schools and other mediation practitioners address and resolve community disputes.

In his article, “Public Funding of Community Dispute Resolution Centers,” Van Epps, the director of the Michigan Supreme Court’s Office of Dispute Resolution, makes the point that while community mediation programs in Michigan and in other states have become part of their respective legal cultures, there is growing alarm about these centers’ long-term financial sustainability. Van Epps examines Michigan’s experience with its 1988 Community Dispute Resolution Act, which makes funding available to nonprofit and governmental organizations that provide mediation and other forms of dispute resolution.

Michigan has sought to ensure state-level coordination of some program activities, such as training approaches and mediation processes, and the state office has been able to secure funding from a variety of sources for initiatives in the mediation of agricultural, special education, child protection and other matters. While this approach to community mediation funding has been successful – and sustaining – overall, Van Epps notes that civil filing fees, which are the primary source of mediation center funds in the state, have been scaling downward along with decreased filings, and that this funding model tends to label mediation programs as “court programs,” perhaps limiting centers’ efforts to secure other revenues.

 In “Fitting the Fuss to the Community Mediation Center Forum,” Cheryl Cutrona, executive director of the Good Shepherd Mediation Program in Philadelphia, provides a look at that program’s history, services and challenges, especially the challenge of achieving financial stability. Begun by Sister Brigid Lawlor in the early 1980s, the center and its history remind us of the important role of Mennonite, Quaker, Roman Catholic and other faith leaders, organizations and values that energized and supported early community mediation programs.

Today, the Good Shepherd Mediation Program serves the entire city of Philadelphia, handling referrals from courts, police, attorneys, school administrators, government agencies, neighborhood leaders, nonprofit organizations and others, with disputes mediated by staff and volunteer mediators. Its services include custody mediation in domestic relations court, pre-hearing conference facilitation in dependency court, victim-offender conferencing, elder mediation and more. While its services have proved their value, financial stability for the center has been elusive, especially with less grant money available and growing cutbacks in public-sector funds.

In “Mending the Fabric of Community,” Mark Kleiman, the executive director of Community Mediation Services, the mediation center for Queens County in New York City, brings his 30-year tenure with that program to bear to recount the program’s history and chart its present challenges. His multi-faceted program, which now has almost 100 employees and 200 volunteers, handles thousands of cases each year, including more than 1,500 mediation cases from family, criminal and civil courts each year, with another 500 through community walk-ins and referrals. He describes his organization’s work to resolve court- and community-referred noise complaints, housing and merchant vendor issues, and property crimes. He also notes volunteer mediator efforts to resolve matters referred from the organization’s family, youth development and school-based programs.

Kleiman describes the practical realities of seeking sustainable funding, given the vulnerability of nonprofits to “political, ideological and financial circumstances,” and he is quite eloquent in describing the successes and challenges of bringing an entrepreneurial approach to services and funding. He makes important observations about coalition-building and the capacity for offering a collaborative platform in the creation of new services, especially those that embody a comprehensive and developmental framework.

In addition to the three articles described above, three shorter pieces offer somewhat different perspectives but maintain the focus on community disputes.

Gail Packer, in “Takin’ It to the Streets,” describes the efforts of the Community Dispute Settlement Center, based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to prepare and train Boston “streetworkers.” The center offered streetworkers affiliated with two community-based programs skills and strategies to help them address conflicts between teens, rival gang members, and parents and children. She describes the training program’s approach and content and notes that the training was possible only because the center’s community experience and sensitivity (and, we can assume, its credibility) helped the center address the racial and cultural dimensions of conflicts.

“Parachuting In,” by conflict resolution professor and mediator David Matz, details his efforts to step into a dispute in his own community. After reading a newspaper article about conflict between students in nearby off-campus apartments and elderly residents of these same buildings, Matz sought and received help from a university official and a state legislator to convene meetings of the students and then the elderly residents, facilitate those two meetings, and help both groups reach a “self-enforcing” agreement. Reflecting on this and his similar experiences, he offers a number of observations, including the important role that a legitimate sponsor can play in brokering a mediator’s entry into such disputes.

In a final article on the community mediation theme, “Providing Dispute Resolution Expertise to the Community,” Rishi Batra tells how students in a Multiparty Mediation class at The Ohio State University’s Moritz College of Law provided dispute resolution-related consulting and facilitation skills to a local school district. With a conflict brewing over the implementation of a new high school cell-phone policy, the law school students formed teams and met separately with interested groups of students, parents, teachers and administrators. Taking on different roles as they worked, the mediation class students conducted and recorded interviews with stakeholders and prepared a report that revealed common interests, points of difference and the missteps and misunderstandings that had hindered effective implementation of the cell-phone policy.

Each of these articles suggests – documents, really – the incredibly broad range of community problems, controversies and disputes that are the subject of conflict resolution programs and practices throughout the United States today. The articles also suggest the broad footprint of community mediation centers; even the two articles in this theme issue that are not directly focused on such centers (the school cell phone dispute and the elders vs. college students neighborhood dispute) describe conflicts that might well have been addressed by a community mediation program.

Indeed, a hallmark of community mediation centers over the past 35 to 40 years has been the remarkable variety of disputes they have received and the conflict-resolution-related services they have offered. This has come about not just because of centers’ initiatives: as Mark Kleiman notes, there has been a “dramatic change in the perspective of courts and governments” about the value of conflict resolution. Mediation centers and the larger legal and political worlds they are a part of have naturally influenced each other over the years. Generally, it has been a positive development for both.

Several of the authors, such as Cutrona, Kleiman and Van Epps, specifically identify centers’ challenges in securing and sustaining sufficient funding. This is nothing new; it has been the subject of discussion by community mediation centers and their associations for years.[i] Stories of innovative and useful conflict resolution services are often followed by examples of their private or public funding sources’ drying up or being turned to new purposes. Cheryl Cutrona probably speaks for most center directors when she says, “costs have risen while mediation fees, fundraising, grant funds and government contracts have not.” 

In addition to the amount of funds available, overreliance on a single revenue source, a concern identified by a number of observers[ii] that can result in the rapid rise or fall of a center with its funder or, less obviously perhaps, with a center’s values, is another danger. In such cases, methodology and services may be undesirably or unduly shaped by the funder rather than by the center’s own goals and broader community needs.  

Interestingly and not unconnected from this last point, the single most important criteria for what defines a community mediation program has typically been the use of volunteers as mediators and in other roles such as training and outreach. With more funding for those services affiliated with professional and institutional settings and with fewer revenues available to promote self-referrals and the recruitment, development and coordination of diverse neighborhood volunteers, one imagines that mediation centers may now rely more on staff and paid mediators to deliver their wide range of services. If this is true, it raises a question about the notion of community mediation as a kind of volunteer service system and a primary forum for local justice, as Ray Shonholtz and other early proponents of community mediation viewed the work. 

However, the primary take-away from a review of these articles is that conflict resolution efforts of great importance and great diversity are underway and that community mediation centers have been a significant part of the values and practices that have moved the larger field forward. At the same time, the field’s community sector is pressed by a lack of financial stability and challenges to its own set of values. 

There is no easy answer, of course, although Doug Van Epps suggests a number of thoughtful ideas, including the need for centers to continue to embed their services into institutional processes and work closely together to pursue state and national funding streams. He also encourages centers to be in touch with their state and local bar associations about working on access-to-justice initiatives.

This is perhaps a good time for community mediation centers to be thinking more strategically about alliances with bar associations and other groups – including other community centers in their own states – and working with NAFCM, the National Association for Community Mediation. Attorneys, attorney-mediators, bar associations and law schools should welcome these discussions – and perhaps initiate them. One discussion item might be the American Bar Association’s recent resolution that calls for policies and practices that promote civility and civil public discourse, an idea with important roles for attorneys and many, if not most, community mediation centers.

The conversations should not just be about mediation services but about the enabling values and shared goals for conflict resolution capacities and practices that benefit communities and their organizations and institutions. This, in turn, may lead to broader conversations about what funding arrangements will best maintain the optimal set of actors and services to achieve these ends, as well as about the collaborative efforts required to develop and maintain sustaining funding.


 

[i] See Linda Baron, Commentary: The Case for the Field of Community Mediation, 22 Conflict Resol. Q. 135 (2004; Timothy Hedeen, The Evolution and Evaluation of Community Mediation: Limited Research Suggests Unlimited Progress, 22 Conflict Resol. Q. 101 (2004); Wendy E. Hollingshead Corbett & Justin R. Corbett, Community Mediation in Economic Crisis: The Reemergence of Precarious Sustainability, 11 Nev. L.J. 458, 471 (2011).

[ii] Christopher Honeyman, Financing Dispute Resolution (1995); Hedeen, supra note 1, at 101; Timothy Hedeen & Patrick G. Coy, Community Mediation and the Court System: The Ties that Bind, 17 Conflict Resol. Q. 351 (2000).

 

 

Terry Amsler is the program director for the Institute for Local Government’s Public Engagement Program (www.ca-ilg.org/engagement). He worked with San Francisco’s Community Board Program from 1977 to 1997, serving as executive director for the last nine years. He was program officer and then program director for the Hewlett Foundation’s Conflict Resolution Program from 2001 to 2004. He can be reached at tamsler@ca-ilg.org.

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The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law
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Penn State University, Dickinson School of Law
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Hamline University School of Law
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International Monetary Fund

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Federal Judicial Center
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Mediation Training & Consultation Institute
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