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Just What is Community Based Mediation?

Updated: Aug 24, 2022

I get asked all the time, “Just what is community-based mediation?”

Well, simply put, community mediation offers low-cost constructive processes for resolving differences and conflicts between individuals, groups and organizations. It seeks to foster restoration of individuals, businesses, organizations, and communities through alternatives that promote individual rights and foster resolution. It affords participants the opportunity to humanize each other and look beyond their own assumptions and biases to see each other as real people with real concerns and needs, even in the midst of disagreement. Participants control the process and create their own alternatives to avoidance, destructive confrontation, prolonged litigation and/or violence.

Community mediation actually began in the United States in the 1960s during the civil rights movement. The federal government fostered the development of community mediation by embedding the Community Relations Service (CRS) within the 1964 Civil Rights Act. This required the creation of a non-violent and constructive model for dealing with community conflict that continues to be used today.

At the heart of the early community mediation movement are principles of democratic participation, drawing on citizen rights and responsibilities and the involvement of networks of community organizations. Proponents of the early community mediation movement expected that the mediation process would have a positive impact on living conditions in urban centers by affecting underlying levels of inter-group and interpersonal conflict. Not only could mediation afford participants a sense of power and control over their lives, the open process could also allow participants the opportunity to listen, be heard and create sustainable responses.

In an effort to provide neighborhoods with localized conflict resolution services, community mediation centers and organizations have sprouted nationwide. These centers provide low-cost or free mediation services to individuals, businesses and organizations in their communities. They have existed for more than 50 years and are located in over 400 communities throughout the United States. Initially, these programs focused on prosecutor-sponsored programs where community members would mediate minor criminal conflict and neighborhood disputes. Community mediation centers implemented the philosophical framework of the social and political activism of the day, finding that the forum for resolution of community civic issues was within the community itself, not necessarily the institutional structures designed to address such conflict. One goal of these types of programs was to reform the justice system.

In 1965, a Presidential Commission on Law Enforcement and the Administration of Justice focused national attention on our country’s overburdened judiciary. These findings helped build consensus around the need for reform and experimentation in and around the court system, with particular focus on minor criminal cases involving neighbors, relatives and other acquaintances. Early programs included the Philadelphia Municipal Court Arbitration Tribunal (1969); the Columbus Night Prosecutors Program (1971), which used law students to mediate cases in 30-minute time slots; the Institute for Mediation and Conflict Resolution in Manhattan (1975); and the Miami Citizen Dispute Settlement Program (1975).

In 1976, the National Conference on the Causes of Popular Dissatisfaction with the Administration of Justice, known as the “Pound Conference,” resulted in the creation of “Neighborhood Justice Centers” in Los Angeles, Kansas City and Atlanta. At these centers, people could access dispute resolution services and actively participate in crafting faster, cheaper and (often) more appropriate resolutions than the crowded and overburdened courts could provide.

During this growth, each community adopted a model that is culturally appropriate and sustainable for their community. Early community-based models include: the Rochester American Arbitration Association Community Dispute Service Project (1973), a broad-based response to conflicts in the community resulting from changing racial balances; the Boston (Dorchester) Urban Court Program (1975), a court-connected storefront urban neighborhood justice center in a rapidly integrating Irish-American neighborhood with growing racial tensions and fear of crime; and the San Francisco Community Board Program (1977).

Community mediation has spread throughout the country and moved from the margins to the mainstream. Starting with approximately ten programs in 1975, the movement has grown to an estimated 400 mediation centers in the US. Community mediation centers handle 400,000 disputes annually and 75% of these centers provide mediation for small claims courts and 49% for civil courts demonstrating the continued connection between community mediation and courts. While a large percentage of community mediation centers offer services to courts, they also offer programs and services that aim to meet a community’s dispute resolution needs at earlier stages of conflict.

The early goals of these court reform programs are still present today:

  • divert cases from court caseloads;

  • provide more appropriate processes for selected types of cases;

  • provide more efficient and accessible services to citizens;

  • reduce case processing costs to the justice system;

  • improve citizen satisfaction with the justice system;

  • create a parallel, community-based justice system that addresses disputes well before they enter the formal legal system; and

  • work to reduce community tensions by strengthening the capacity of neighborhood, church, civic, school and social service organizations to address conflict effectively.

Given the versatility of community mediation, a wide variety of organizations often partner with community mediation programs. Examples of organizations that partner with community mediation programs include government agencies, police departments, schools, courts, housing organizations and communities of faith.

Each community mediation center is uniquely designed to serve the community in which it is located. Each center maintains relationships with its mediators and with community partners. Mediators in community centers often include: trained volunteers, trained mediators who receive stipends or staff trained as mediators. Centers often have a core of paid professional staff who organize a cadre of volunteers. Examples of center personnel include case managers, program coordinators, trainers, facilitators and restorative-justice practitioners.

People have the ability to resolve conflicts on their own. Community mediation centers offer an opportunity for individuals and communities to take back control over their lives and participate in the prevention and early intervention of conflicts as an alternative to institutional mechanisms of litigation and criminal prosecution.

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