Streetworkers (def.) noun. pl.: youth advocates who work in urban neighborhoods (typically where they grew up) with at-risk youth and gangs, intervening to prevent violence.
“We’re 38,” says one of four Streetworkers as they meet with me, their role-play coach. I think to myself (with a mental shrug), “Gee, they don’t look that old.”
So, with puzzled curiosity, I reply, “Thirty-eight?”
“Yeah. We just figured out that altogether, the four of us have spent 38 years in jail.”
Building bridges, people to people, face to face. The motto of the Community Dispute Settlement Center (CDSC) took on new meaning as we designed and conducted mediation training for Streetworkers in Boston. Established in 1979, CDSC has trained hundreds of mediators. Even so, we discovered that working with Streetworkers, who would be mediating on the street corners of Boston’s urban neighborhoods, presented a unique opportunity – and unique challenges.
How did the Streetworkers know about mediation and connect with CDSC?
The connection began in 2004 with Chris Byner, the director of external programs at Boston Centers for Youth & Families, who supervised the Streetworkers at the time and recognized that mediation could be an essential component of their daily work. Through CDSC’s community connections in the Boston area and network of friends and colleagues, Chris’ quest to find mediation tools led the Streetworkers to CDSC’s doorstep.
The challenge for CDSC was how to translate mediation skills to a setting without the structure of a table, the privacy of walls, or the formality of a conventional mediation process. And how to take advantage of the fact that each Streetworker would bring to his or her new role as a mediator lots of complicated personal history and real-life hands-on engagement with conflict.
CDSC has significant experience assessing the needs of a community, so we were especially tuned into the cultural and racial dimensions of the Streetworkers. Assembling a team of trainers for this program, however, was a real test.
As we were recruiting the training team and designing the training, I engaged in a great deal of self-reflection and pre-training angst. What could a “nice Jewish girl,” from a privileged Boston suburb and nearing middle age, possibly teach the Streetworkers? How could I connect and relate? We looked for trainers who had an openness and curiosity of mind, soul and spirit, a readiness to learn as much from the Streetworkers as they would teach. We also needed people who were humble and adaptable.
We successfully balanced the composition of the team by age, gender and experience with at-risk youth but were not able to match their demographics as to ethnic diversity or gang-related experience. As a team, we had to rely on our individual and collective approach of genuine openness, underscored with respect and dignity. Remarkably, it worked, with little pushback from – and actually much engagement with – all the Streetworkers.
For the training, we created role-play simulations from their real-world situations. We summarized – and laminated on a business card – key steps in the Streetworker mediation process with symbols of a TV remote control:
DVD: Deal with Violence Differently:
Replay: Ask Questions
Zoom In: Uncover Interests
Fast Forward: Create Options
If Chris Byner’s comment after the training is any measure, we more than fulfilled his expectations. “Given the nature of work that Streetworkers do on a daily basis, mediation is decidedly one of the most important skills in their toolbox, if not, the most important!” he said. “Whether it’s resolving conflict between two rival gangs, two gang members, or parents and teens, they are now able to confidently address some potentially dangerous situations in formal and informal settings. We have to use our mediation skills all of the time.”
Since 2005, CDSC has provided mediation skills training to 68 Streetworkers affiliated with two community-based programs, Boston Centers for Youth & Families/City of Boston and StreetSafe Boston/The Boston Foundation.
We paid extremely close attention to language and along the way redefined how to measure success in mediation. During one of our training sessions, a Streetworker recapped his successful mediation with two teens outside a basketball court who had agreed to “do the fair ones,” meaning the teens had agreed to have a physical fight with no weapons, only their hands. Once the fight was over, they played a game of hoops together. Another Streetworker brokered a truce between two gang members just before they were released from prison, preventing retribution involving their respective groups. Peace in the community was preserved.
Gail S. Packer, Master of Social Work, has been executive director of the Community Dispute Settlement Center, Inc. since 1988. Her responsibilities include program development, design and delivery of trainings, fundraising and oversight of staff and 70 pro bono mediators. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The author would like to thank Jim McGuire from JAMS and Chris Byner, without whose vision this project would not have happened. Chris has consulted with many cities around the country to help establish Streetworker programs, including Chicago, which was the subject of the documentary film “The Interrupters.”