Editor’s note: Named for long-time Harvard Law School professor Frank Sander, the Frank E.A. Sander Innovation in ADR Award was established to recognize innovative methods and extraordinary achievements in the field of Alternative Dispute Resolution..
Andrew Thomas clearly merits what he recently received: the 2022 Frank E.A. Sander Award for innovative methods and extraordinary achievements in the field of dispute resolution. But his contributions deserve recognition for another reason as well. He has shown how a single mediator can embed dispute resolution principles in communities while taking the initiative to stimulate constructive dialogue and engagement.
“Every city in America needs an Andrew Thomas,” said Kenneth Bentley, a local Sanford, Florida, school administrator, speaking of the difference Thomas made in Sanford over the last decade. We agree. Here we seek to illustrate Thomas’s extraordinary achievements in the field, focusing on his three-decade legacy in Rochester, New York, and his recent work in “retirement” in Sanford, Florida.
Expanding Capacity and Scope in Rochester
Andrew Thomas’s presence in Rochester “was larger than life,” according to Sherry Walker-Cowart, former CEO of the Rochester Center for Dispute Resolution (the Center). She described his tutelage as “the equivalent of earning an advanced degree in alternative dispute resolution from a major university.”
Former Rochester Mayor William (Bill) Johnson first met Thomas in the 1970’s when they completed mediation training together conducted by New York’s Public Employment Relations Board. According to Johnson, the intent was to diversify the ranks of mediators and factfinders who help resolve labor disputes between government agencies and their employees.
“We both were able to utilize that training to our advantage, but it became Andrew’s career focus,” Johnson explained. “He brought the traditional tools of mediation, fact-finding and arbitration beyond the usual institutional setting into the not-for-profit sector and into neighborhood issues and tensions between citizens and government. His efforts frequently led to a higher level of citizen engagement and reduced tensions between parties that were in conflict.”
Walker-Cowart described Thomas as “THE go-to person in the City of Rochester anytime there was a conflict in the city or the surrounding counties.” Indeed, during Thomas’s three-decade tenure with the Center, he oversaw its expansion into nine counties in and beyond the Rochester metropolitan area. He also helped create the New York State Dispute Resolution Association, which represents dispute resolution centers through the state.
Thomas’s role embedding dispute resolution in the community was not limited to neighborhood disputes. Thomas was “part of the Crimi-Thomas commission that changed the law enforcement oversight process for the Rochester Police Department,” Walker-Cowart said. Additionally, Thomas embedded “community mediators to review citizen police complaint investigations. The Civilian Police Oversight program evolved over the next two decades into a highly regarded citizen police complaint monitor model. This model of oversight is highly regarded for its neutrality and use of neutral volunteer community volunteers,” said Frank Liberti, former CEO of the Center.
Walker-Cowart described Thomas’s engagement with deep division and violent conflicts by citing his work with street gangs more than two decades ago. The Center “collaborated with a number of community-based organizations to address the problem, culminating with a decision to meet with the gang leaders to hear their concerns and to discuss addressing, mitigating, [and] eliminating the violence among and, primarily, between gang members,” Walker-Cowart said. “Thomas asked the two largest gangs to call a truce and meet with the Center. They agreed!”
Walker-Cowart recalled that the Center met in a church “with representatives from the gangs along with law enforcement to begin bringing peace and resolution of conflicts between them back into our community.”
“Even after leaving the City of Rochester,” Walker-Cowart said, “Andrew was called back by the mayor and other top officials for his knowledge and expertise to address various community issues.”
Embedding Dispute Resolution Concepts in Sanford
In 2012, George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer, shot and killed Trayvon Martin, a Black teenager, as Martin walked back from a Sanford store to his father’s residence. There was a delay in arresting or charging Zimmerman. Within days, the story drew national attention, and tens of thousands of people came to Sanford, a lakeside resort community of 55,000, to protest and demand change. The results could have become simply one more tragic story involving citizen outrage about the killing of an unarmed Black youth, possible property vandalism, citizen arrests—and no change.
But that did not occur in Sanford. No demonstrators were hurt. No demonstrators were arrested or charged with a crime. There was little property damage. And, of deep significance, the energy generated by the crisis was channeled into a decade of progress and improved relationships across racial and other societal fault lines in Sanford. But for Thomas’s contributions, our interviewees told us, things might have gone differently.
Following decades of work in Rochester, Andrew Thomas had retired to central Florida. In his “retirement,” Thomas took on a position with the City of Sanford administering the Department of Housing and Urban Development federal block grants program for low-income housing. Though it was not his job then to act as a mediator or to offer suggestions for supporting the community as it grieved Trayvon Martin’s death, Thomas responded to help his new community.
As an experienced community mediator, Andrew Thomas recognized that the decision to prosecute the shooter would not quiet the furor that started when there was initially no arrest. Rather, he understood that the demonstrations would become a vehicle for raising other deep concerns festering in the Sanford community. He knew that the city officials would need help.
Thomas played a key role in expanding the number of mediators working in Sanford from one (himself) to ten. He did this by arranging for city officials to speak with their counterparts in other communities that had faced comparable situations to learn effective practices for addressing these dynamics. And a key lesson was to secure assistance from the US Department of Justice’s mediation arm, the Community Relations Service (CRS). Thomas helped Sanford officials do so. “Andrew was the key, instrumental person to bring in the Department of Justice,” said Sanford City Manager Norton Bonaparte.
Within hours of Thomas’s call to CRS, federal mediators began traveling to Sanford from around the nation and worked to de-escalate emotions, put in place trusted communications approaches, and get people talking.
Thomas modeled the welcoming and respectful attitude toward protestors that invited the same attitude in return. “Andrew taught the city and city leaders that to peacefully navigate this crisis, the city would need to make space for all people and send a message of welcome, care and respect—of nonviolence,” said Rachel C. Allen, Director of the Peace and Justice Institute, Valencia College. As Grande Lum, then Director of CRS, reported, Thomas encouraged the city to rent a jumbotron screen so that protestors who would not fit into the city council room could see and hear what was happening during the meeting. He even encouraged the city to provide transportation with rented golf carts during demonstrations so individuals with physical disabilities could reach their
Rachel Allen recalled a particular incident that illustrates how Thomas’s actions modeled the tone of welcome and respect he wanted to set. Immediately following the shooting of Trayvon Martin, “a group of passionate, young peace and justice activists, the Dream Defenders, led by Philip Agnew, planned to walk from Daytona Beach to the Sanford Police Station where they would chain themselves to the doors in protest of what they saw as failed police action,” she said. “Andrew encountered them along the road, stopped his car, engaged, and wished them safety and wellness. The young people, many of them students, were appreciative of his kind gesture. When they arrived in the City of Sanford, they were caught off-guard when Andrew Thomas, the man they had met on the road, appeared again before them with an equally welcoming demeanor—only this time representing the City of Sanford. Their protest and resistance were welcome in Sanford. They were welcome in Sanford.”
Other residents noted that Thomas brought people together and facilitated new relationships that helped the community work through the crisis and that persisted beyond it. Thomas explained to the authors that when one is “working through the challenges and the difficulties within a community . . . the anchor in all of that is getting people to the table—having people talk. The liability of not doing that is getting out not just mixed messages, but wrong messages.”
Noting that Sanford’s Black and white clergy leaders did not regularly meet together, Thomas, with the assistance of CRS staff, organized the first joint meetings of clergy from throughout Sanford. To maintain their work, he encouraged able people like Pastor Valarie Houston to assume leadership positions. The combined clergy group, called Sanford Pastors Connecting, developed communication streams during the Zimmerman trial, took turns attending the trial, and became a trusted source of accurate information.
These clergy remained engaged after the initial crisis passed and the CRS mediators left the city. At that point, “I organized CCC (Clergy-City-Community) to reinforce what was decided and needed in the African American Community,” Houston explained.
Thomas made sure that people understood each other so they could work together constructively. “From the minute I arrived in Sanford, Andrew was welcoming and provided me with tremendous background information on Sanford’s history, including institutional racism that impacted significantly on my role as Interim Police Chief,” recalled Rick Myers, who became Sanford’s iInterim pPolice cChief following Trayvon Martin’s death. “Andrew is a strategic thinker, and I often bounced ideas and strategies past him . . . . He was often pointing out areas where city departments were overlooking the needs of disenfranchised members of the community.”
As the energy from the protests was channeled into improving the community, the City of Sanford appointed Thomas as Director of Community Relations and Neighborhood Engagement. Thomas’s new title reflected his actual role in the community, explained City Manager Bonaparte. “His role is so undefined and inclusive—anything happens community-wise, you go to Mr. Thomas. Community groups know Mr. Thomas. The importance of Mr. Thomas’s role is having a staff person whose function is getting out there, getting to know the grass roots of the community, and for the community to know them. So, if something happens, he is the reputable conduit of information to city hall as well as a conduit from city hall,” said Bonaparte.
By then, people in Sanford had become accustomed to working with Thomas. People thought of him as “an advocate for doing what’s right” and “a practitioner of doing good by bringing everyone along with him,” said Pastor Meghan Killingsworth. “When he is in the room, everyone’s blood pressure goes down ten points.”
As a result, people began asking for Thomas’s help. “When there is a crisis, they call Mr. Thomas,” Killingsworth said. “When an injustice is brought to the city, seeking a solution, they call Mr. Thomas. When someone has big dreams but needs a pathway for implementing them, they call Mr. Thomas. He builds bridges and helps ensure work isn’t duplicated. And he does it all with a heart of peace.”
Rachel Allen recalled two more incidents in which Thomas’s mediation background and creativity made a difference in the community. One was his persistent desire to promote healing. Even ten years after the death of Trayvon Martin, Thomas continued to promote and support community and city officials by bringing them together to design a memorial dedicated to Sanford’s civil rights history and the positive changes in Sanford resulting from Martin’s tragic death.
Another notable incident occurred when a group wanted to paint “Black Lives Matter” on the street outside the Sanford Police Department, such that during the painting, no emergency vehicles could enter or leave the department. When the news broke about this interest in painting Black Lives Matter on the street, another group demanded the right to paint their own message on a different street, City Manager Bonaparte told us.
“Andrew was able to redirect this impulse,” Rachel Allen explained. “After city commissioners diverted the request to the city’s arts council, an all-white group, Andrew skillfully guided the commissioners to establish a volunteer committee, the [Sanford] Race, Equality, Equity and Inclusion [Advisory] Committee. This group would train together, prepare for and host community dialogues in order to report to the mayor and city commissioners the racialized experiences, needs, and vision of Sanford residents, visitors, and city employees, to create a more welcoming and inclusive city.”
In 2021, the advisory committee was charged with “institutionalizing equity and inclusion into the culture of the City of Sanford as an organization and the community at large, and establishing the foundation for a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) initiative within the City of Sanford.” According to Thomas, in the summer of 2022, the committee submitted their draft report to the City Commission for approval and adoption. The recommendations include a “Path to Reconciliation,” a series of kiosks within Fort Mellon Park (where demonstrations connected to Trayvon Martin’s death took place) that chronicle the 44 days between Martin’s death and George Zimmerman’s arrest, coupled with illustrations of what has occurred in Sanford over the past decade.
Thomas’s Impact and Legacy
Those we interviewed who experienced the Andrew Thomas “difference” in Sanford wish the same for other communities. “He has been generous with his time and talents, and he has been an inspiration to many,” said Mayor Johnson, former Rochester mayor.
Sanford businessman Melvin Philpot gave a job description for another community seeking to hire someone like Thomas. It included “integrity, honesty, commitment, selflessness, love for community, and desire to give back to the community without recognition.” Community-wide mediators strive to embody these traits.
“You really can’t replace Mr. Thomas . . . You can fill the position, but you cannot replace Mr. Thomas,” said Sanford City Manager Bonaparte.
As Frank Sander might have asked, what’s the lesson here, other than that Andrew Thomas richly deserves this award? A first lesson might be that every city would benefit from having an experienced community mediator on staff, even part-time, and from involving that person in the difficult decisions the city faces. Additionally, a lesson for experienced community mediators might be that they can contribute deeply by initiating conversations with local leaders and offering them suggestions, even if not asked to do so. A third lesson is a hopeful one for us all, amid our discouragement with seemingly intractable polarization. As Andrew Thomas says, “you can always start the work. You can always do something.”