Newsletter #111 — May 4, 2023
From the BI/CRQ Hyper-Polarization Discussion
by Heidi Burgess and Guy Burgess
May 3, 2023
D.G. first explained the history of community mediation, which, he pointed out, goes back at least as far as the U.S. 1964 Civil Rights Act. That act, he explained, said that whenever "any community has a disruption, disagreement or disturbance, everyone in that community has the disruption, disagreement or disturbance. And the best people to address it are those involved in it and those impacted by it."1 So Congress recognized then that the best people to resolve conflicts were the local people themselves. In response, a growing number of communities set up centers to do just that.
They did not call themselves community mediation centers. They were dispute centers, neighborhood centers, neighborhoods boards, dispute councils, a variety of different names. ...
So instead of going through a court system, needing to get a judge, needing to get an attorney, if you were recognized by that county or city, and many counties and cities did have the appropriate body for deliberation, what you would do is file with that government [a statement saying] here's what happened, here’s the issue. Here’s what needs to be resolved. And, as long as the resolution wasm't illegal, the counties and cities were thrilled to accept it. They didn't have to pay for a county attorney. They didn't have to worry about court docket. No one was being arrested, Police weren't involved. There was no jail time for anybody and, best of all for these individuals, there was no permanent mark on them that a crime or conflict had occurred. They really resolved it in a way that they could live with and co-create together what they wanted it to be.
As I (Heidi) listened to this, I found myself thinking "isn't this exactly what people are calling for now, when they say 'defund the police?' When you unpack that line, it means getting people other than police to handle many types of events that police and the courts are drawn into now, but might be better handled by people in other roles." But this isn't standard anymore. Why not?
D.G. explained that over time, largely for political reasons, funding for such centers began to dry up and more and more centers stayed in business by becoming attached to the courts. This changed the focus of their work (to divorce mediation, for instance), as well as their independence (it's hard to say that the courts aren't dispensing equal justice when you are an arm of the court).Now, however, he reports, some community mediation centers (though certainly not all) are returning to the original vision of helping to resolve community-wide conflicts and providing non-police/court based processes for resolving interpersonal and community disputes.
When we asked him to give us some examples, he mentioned Dayton, Ohio, where, he explained," if a call comes into 9-1-1, and it isn't an emergency, a criminal life and death situation, the call goes to the community mediation center. And they send folks out. They [those mediators] have amazing stories of the difference that has been made in the city of Dayton. When the mediator responds, they're not having to arrest someone. They are not immediately thinking 'you're the criminal.' They are sitting down with you, talking with you, doing coaching, working out a solution without giving the person an arrest record, without them sitting in a jail cell, without compounding the trauma." They help people figure out a solution to the problem themselves.
D.G. also stressed that conflicts need to be handled by people in the community and outsiders should not be involved. Here he talked about school board conflicts, which are frequently very heated these days. "So, if you are really angry about the books in the library and you live in this community, come on over and let’s talk. But if you're really angry about the books in the library and you come from two states over, you're not in our community. It doesn't matter what you think about our library. Go to your school, go back to your community."
NAFCM is working with Living Room Conversations and the Carter School [for Peace and Conflict Resolution] to create a "toolbox" that can help school boards, communities, advocacy groups and others concerned about educational issues to figure out how to talk though these issues and develop a solution that isn't win-lose, but "one that [all] people are okay with. It may not have been what they would have designed on their own, but they can live with it. And that's the standard we use. Can you live with it?" If they can't, they keep talking. If they can, then that's the policy that will be adopted, knowing that it can be improved in the future.
When we asked D.G. about hyper-polarization, he observed that there has always been polarization in this country—that's not new. "What I think has happened, he said,
is that polarization has now come to the doorstep of people that have access to communication protocols, that have access to political power, and therefore they're able to say, wow, there's this polarization. As long as it remained in those communities that didn't have that type of access, it was very easy to say it wasn't there. And so, my challenge to people is when they say the world's polarized, I say “welcome to our world. Let's sit with it and figure out how we want to work with it. It is what it is."
The way to work with it, he said, is getting people to move from positions to interests. "When they move to their interests, then that frees them up to see maybe we're not as polarized as we thought we were. Keeping them in their positions allows the polarization to continue. So, the question I pose to you and those who may listen to this, who benefits from allowing and encouraging people to stay in those positions? Because those are the systems that need to be changed."
But right now that seems to be very difficult to do, as so many factors are reinforcing our positions and our distrust of people who are different from ourselves, and many systems exist to keep that distrust in place. To many people, undoing that seems to be impossible, and many people are just resigned to continued polarization, political stalemate, and disfunction.
Yet community mediation centers are getting people to understand each other better and work together effectively all the time. When we asked D.G. to tell us a few stories that exhibit this (our line was "doing the seemingly impossible") , he demurred, suggesting that we talk to people from those centers directly. But he did say that
We want people to know that these centers aren't doing the impossible, they're helping people do what is possible. People, themselves, have disempowered themselves by thinking "I can't do it." They can. The only reason why people can't solve problems is because they are telling themselves, whether it's the voices in their heads, past experiences, or past traumas that tells them "you can't." And we're saying, "yes, you can."
Our job is to help people enhance those skills. Our vision is that community mediation is community mobilization. The reason why we exist is, so that you won't need us. You will learn these skills. They have to fit with your own family [or your own community]. So, when a conflict bubbles up, you go, “hey, remember when we had that mediation? Remember when we were in that circle? Remember when we were being coached by so-and-so, let's try that one again and see if it works.”
And it does work! So actually, what our centers do, is help people embrace the possibility [of engaging in conflict constructively] and not be afraid of it. Because sometimes it is easy to say “it's impossible," so I don't have to own my accountability for why it's still impossible.”
We very much agree with the message D.G. was imparting here. We, too, believe that people usually can work through their problems together, if they try to do so, if they listen to the legitimate needs and concerns of the other side, and if they work with others to find common ground (which usually exists). When talking about the school board conflicts, for example, D.G. observed, "at the end of they day, people want their kids to get an education, and they truly do want their children to be safe. And so, if you stay focused on those values, folks can work things out." We have personally experienced many such occurrences—not just about kids and schools, but about environmental and other public policy issues. We have heard about and read about many more. Empathic listening combined with collaborative problem solving does work. But it has to be tried in good faith.
And while D.G. is right that polarization has been a fixture of democracy since the beginning, we (Guy and Heidi) believe that social media is making it much worse than it used to be. It isn't just that it wasn't noticed before, we don't think. Rather, it is being accelerated and intensified now in ways that didn't happen before, and that makes it much more dangerous.
But it seems very clear that one answer to this problem is something like the community mediation model, where people come together locally to solve local problems. It is a bottom-up approach, not top-down, and it is one that is much more likely to be seen as legitimate. And the solutions developed are more likely to be broadly accepted, because they were created by the involved people themselves. We look forward to talking to some of the local community mediators D.G. talked about to get their stories and share them here, as part of our effort to illustrate the power of "massively parallel peacebuilding" to solve problems, reduce polarization, strengthen relationships, communities, and democracy.
For more on these and related topics, watch or read the full interview.
1Here we are quoting him talking about the Act, not the Act itself.
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