Harry Mazadoorian ()
It’s often difficult to watch the local news on television. Tales of conflict and breakups of relationships leading to unfortunate, often violent, conclusions seem commonplace.
How could this be we ask as we watch or read about a terrible outcome? How did the situation get so out of hand? Was there no one there to intervene we wonder?
Regrettably, the answer is often no—there was no one to intervene, to introduce a voice of reason, to mediate a situation which could have been salvaged.
But one exception, and an exception which has time and again played a critical role in averting potentially disastrous results, has been the many community mediation centers throughout our country.
These grassroots centers, which began to emerge in the 1960s and ’70s, have provided vital dispute resolution services to the most needy and vulnerable of our society. While they have achieved great success in resolving a wide variety of thorny disputes arising from interpersonal issues, they have also served as a model for dispute avoidance by the programs and trainings they regularly provide. Peer mediation programs, court diversion programs and mediation training are but a few of the invaluable services provided.
The growth of these centers has proven to be phenomenal. More than 400 centers utilizing some 20,000 volunteer mediators have been operating throughout the country, each with its personalized array of programs and services tailored to the communities in which they operate.
A shining example of a respected community mediation center is Community Mediation Inc. serving Greater New Haven. The programs of CMI address many types of disputes: In a recent annual report, board president Bill Stempel pointed out that while the beginning of the organization was rooted in neighborhood-related disputes, the spectrum has widened dramatically to include schools, victim/offender, religious, property and environmental disputes, among many others. Training itself has become a major part of the activity of such organizations: those trained include students, police officers, offenders about to reenter the mainstream society, governmental and nonprofit employees, and on and on.
Just as varied as the programs is the makeup of the mediation centers themselves. In Connecticut, CMI operates as a free-standing nonprofit. In Michigan, however, centers operate within the Office of Dispute Resolution (ODR) of the Michigan Supreme Court. Under Michigan law, the Office of Dispute Resolution provides funding to entities, which in turn render the actual dispute resolution services.
Numerous other models exist throughout the country, each model presenting certain benefits as well as disadvantages. The director of the Michigan ODR reports benefits including a unified approach to training and services as well as an advantage in obtaining grants through a state-level office. A disadvantage, however, is that many of the local programs eventually become perceived as extensions of the court, sometimes impeding external funding possibilities.
The Connecticut model, CMI, is a self-standing nonprofit responsible for raising its funds. It has its own independent board, made up of leaders, including many well-known members of the bar and from the communities it serves. Founder Charlie Pillsbury and current executive director Brenda Cavanaugh are well-known and widely respected nationally.
The winter 2013 issue of the American Bar Association’s Dispute Resolution Magazine selected the community mediation movement as its theme and spotlighted the importance and accomplishments of the numerous centers across the country. And yet the one haunting tone which was stressed in virtually all of the articles was the vulnerability of these great organizations.
A recent article on community mediation centers, reported that 99 percent of the centers nationwide reported funding concerns and a fear of financial instability as the No. 1 concern.
The most recent economic downturn has clearly taken its toll in community mediation centers in Connecticut. While active programs once thrived in Hartford and Norwalk, CMI now stands as the only standalone community center in Connecticut, even though other related programs continue in other communities.
In the case of CMI, the financial numbers are troubling. The current budget is one half of what it was in 2009 and the recent annual reports tell a grim story of substantially reduced governmental funding. Program cutbacks and staff reductions have followed the funding reductions.
While other mediation programs continue, including judicial housing, foreclosure, family and small claims efforts, CMI has the capacity to provide substantial additionally needed vital services by trained mediators.
In these days of uncertain economic times, everyone is looking for a wise investment, guaranteed to produce great returns. Very few of these exist. But community mediation is an exception. A modest additional investment of both governmental and philanthropic funds are guaranteed to make a major difference in many of the issues which plague all of our communities.
An increased investment in community mediation could very well break the sad cycle of violence and breakdown of interpersonal relations which we so often see on the evening news. It’s a worthy investment which we should all advocate and support—an investment with a track record of producing guaranteed positive results.
The cost is relatively modest. But the payoff is unlimited.•