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Local volunteer mediation center can help with solutions.

Perhaps you already know that your local volunteer mediation center is a great place to resolve interpersonal disputes, but did you know that these precious community resources are increasingly able to help with community-wide issues such as inter-racial and cross-cultural frictions?

While it is true that the first generation of local mediation centers concentrated on interpersonal disputes arising out of relatively minor criminal charges and cases diverted from small claims court, many have expanded to offer services that provide promising vehicles for dealing with inter-racial and cross-cultural disputes. Such services include peer mediation in schools, victim-offender reconciliation, and the mediation of public disputes. These services help anchor both families and communities that are going through conflict and change associated with, among other things, interaction across racial and cultural lines.

There is at least one community mediation center in each of 43 states, according to a recent review. Nationwide, there are an estimated 20,000 trained, experienced, and committed volunteer mediators working out of approximately 350 centers, according to American Bar Association studies.

One such center is the Orange County Dispute Settlement Center in North Carolina. Through the Center's Public Disputes Program, staff and volunteers have mediated dozens of community disputes and facilitated scores of group problem-solving meetings for local government departments and community agencies over the past five years. A number of the Center's public sector cases have involved inter-racial or cross-cultural dynamics. For example:

* The Center facilitated negotiations over a dispute in which a community art center was perceived to be providing insufficient financial support to a project on black folk art for racial reasons. The Center was able to help disputants work toward agreements on shared fundraising responsibilities and expectations regarding future support.

* With financial support from the federal Housing and Urban Development Department, the Center is providing management skills training to an all-black public housing tenant group that is taking over management of a Chapel Hill (NC) housing project. The project design calls for: (a) an initial training in a retreat setting; (b) a debriefing session in which participants will provide the trainers with feedback regarding culture-related adaptations that might increase the effectiveness of the training for this audience; and (c) a second training retreat, modified to include this feedback.

* Under the sponsorship of the Orange County Human Rights Council, the Center has sent several of its volunteer mediators to the National Coalition Building Institute's workshops on prejudice reduction to prepare them to conduct similar workshops for County residents.

* The Center is currently facilitating discussions between black parents and the administration of a predominantly white public school over treatment of black students by school authorities. While tensions were high in the beginning, a spirit of collaboration has taken root and participants are working together to revise disciplinary policies.

Center staff see projects such as these as a natural extension of the mediation role the Center has played in its community since 1978.

How Mediation Works

Americans of all walks of life are turning to mediation in increasing numbers for help in finding win/win solutions to the issues that inevitably arise in the normal course of life. In some cities, community dispute settlement programs are operated by public agencies - the courts, prosecutors, police, or human services agencies. In other cities, private, not-for-profit organizations run the centers. Regardless of emphasis, dispute centers are staffed primarily by volunteers.

Disputants may enter mediation as a result of a judge's order, an attorney's suggestion, or on their own initiative. The mediators make no judgements regarding the outcome of the disputants' discussions. Instead, they assist the parties in communicating and in developing their own agreements about how to resolve their dispute. The mediated agreement may be reviewed by each of the parties' attorneys to ensure that no legal rights have been abridged.

A mutually satisfying outcome to a family or community dispute is the product of careful and joint movement by the parties through a series of problem-solving steps. Mediators guide the parties through these steps. The basic process used in inter-racial and cross-cultural disputes is the same as that used to resolve divorce and barking dog cases, although there are more subtle factors to consider when whole groups of people are involved (e.g., who speaks for whom).

The first step for the mediators is to gain acceptance on the part of the disputing parties to work together at finding a mutually acceptable solution. Second, the mediators help the parties to listen to and understand one another's views about the dispute. Third, the mediators ask the parties to clarify what is most important to each of them and to set as a goal an outcome that would satisfy the most important of each party's interests or needs.

After goals are set, the mediators aid the parties in generating ideas for how to reach those goals. In the fifth step, the mediators assist the parties in evaluating those ideas and identifying solutions that would best meet the party's goals. Any solution that isn't acceptable to all of the parties is abandoned. Finally, the mediator helps the parties put into writing the details of a joint plan of action.

A Transferable Skill

The training and experience acquired by volunteer mediators at local centers, as well as the experience gained by participating disputants, becomes a valuable family and civic resource. Volunteer mediators are trained to lead disputants through the problem-solving processes described above. They receive training in listening, diffusing intense emotions, asserting needs without attacking, and remaining impartial. Volunteers who mediate in specialized areas, such as interracial and cross-cultural conflicts, divorces, youth issues, or public policy, receive additional training.

Many volunteer mediators use their collaborative problem-solving skills in their home lives. After their training and some experience, they find that they are better able to listen to their children and their partners, and better able to confront and resolve conflicts with family members. The training of volunteer mediators thus serves a double purpose: it provides mediators to members of the community who need this kind of outside assistance, and it builds the capacity of individuals in the community to resolve their own disputes.

Developing Civic Involvement

Local mediation centers are having a direct impact on civic life as well as family life, helping to make these essential arenas more collaborative, more satisfying, and more conducive to healthy growth and change. The existence of a public disputes program at a local, volunteer dispute resolution center gives citizens a new way to participate in civic affairs. The role these citizens play is neither that of opponent nor advocate in local, public debates. Instead, they become involved as facilitators of a dialogue, helping their communities overcome impasse and contention. This can be a much more satisfying and positive civic role than civic participation opportunities of which residents have previously been aware.

Toward a Cohesive Community

Community-based mediation centers can be agents of change. It is not conflict per se which undermines a family or a community. On the contrary, differences among family members or among members of a community are inevitable. The expression, acceptance, and skillful resolution of differences enables families and communities to learn, to plan, and grow in healthy directions.

Families and communities need easy access to dispute resolution methods that are safe and satisfying. Community-based mediation centers provide individuals and groups with access to collaborative dispute resolution methods. Such methods give people in conflict an opportunity to preserve their relationship, satisfy their needs, and work together at resolving differences.
COPYRIGHT 1992 National League of Cities
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1992 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:includes related article on problem solving in Costa Mesa, California; Special Report
Author:Sachs, Andrew; Bradley, Scott
Publication:Nation's Cities Weekly
Date:Aug 31, 1992
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