Barbara* thought she would never get peace and quiet. Her job as a baker requires that she wake up at 4 a.m. She had, on numerous occasions, called the police about the young men next door who revved their motorcycle right outside her bedroom window and yelled and played the drums late at night. The last time she asked them to lower the noise, they laughed at her. “They felt like they could do what they want and get away with it,” she said. “It’s an issue of respect and courtesy.”
After several rounds of phoning in complaints, Barbara was approached about the possibility of having a meeting with her neighbors and a mediator. She and her husband had some misgivings but were willing to try it, and to her surprise, so were her neighbors Jason and Carl.*
With the help of an impartial third party, Barbara and her neighbors were able to vent their frustrations. Jason and Carl began to see Barbara and her husband in a new light – not just as the cranky neighbors who called the police and yelled at them. The men agreed not to have friends gather in the front yard at night, and everyone agreed to talk to each other about issues in the future, without involving the police or midnight showdowns.
The National Association of Community Mediation defines mediation as “a process of dispute resolution in which one or more impartial third parties intervenes in a conflict with the consent of the participants and assists them in negotiating a consensual and informed agreement.” It provides a way for people to voluntarily address their conflicts in a neutral setting, such as a local library, place of worship or community center. Mediation doesn’t always bring peace, but post-mediation evaluations reveal that 80 percent of the parties are able to vent their frustrations, establish communication and resolve their problems.
During mediation, the disputing parties meet with trained mediators, who help them talk openly about their concerns and try to find solutions that will mutually benefit all involved. Often this is the first rational conversation that has taken place between the warring neighbors. The process slows down the conversation so people don’t talk over each other, and allows for misperceptions to be brought to light.
Bringing people together to talk out their issues can be a distinctly new role for CDCs – one that can complement the brick-and-mortar work for which they are more well known. Since its inception 12 years ago in Cleveland, OH, the Bellaire-Puritas Development Corporation (BPDC) has included free conflict management services to the 24,000 residents plus business owners in its service area – in addition to its work on new housing construction, home improvement programs, neighborhood safety and community organizing, youth and senior citizens programming, and employment assistance and computer training. Sister Noel Marra, one of the founders of Bellaire-Puritas, once taught alternatives to violence workshops and advocated mediation as a way to solve neighborhood problems.
One of the goals of the mediation program, in addition to teaching people new skills for handling conflict and solving problems themselves, is to build community stability so that residents don’t feel that they have to flee the neighborhood altogether when problems arise.
BPDC Executive Director Jay Gardner believes that “ultimately, quality-of-life issues determine whether residents and businesses leave, or stay and invest in a neighborhood.” Gardner says, “Civility is the underlying currency of neighborhood affiliation and loyalty. Once that is lost, life indeed becomes ‘solitary, nasty, brutish and short.’” He adds that for Bellaire-Puritas, “mediation has become more than simply a way to solve problems in a rational civil fashion. At its best, the process binds together residents…around a common-sense approach of how to solve the many problems of everyday life. By embracing this process, we have made it a core value for the agency.”
BPDC, with funding from a Community Development Block Grant (CDBG), employs one full-time mediation coordinator and ten volunteer mediators from the community. On average, they receive 20 calls and supervise four mediation sessions each month.
City Councilman Martin Sweeney, of Cleveland’s Ward 20 where BPDC serves, approved the CDBG dollars; he was initially skeptical that mediation could really make a difference. But he has seen how neighborhood conflict management can provide long-term solutions – even to the point of making his job easier. Of the nearly 50 calls that come in to his office each day, 60 percent of them involve some kind of quality-of-life complaint.
“If people are not talking to each other when there is a big conflict – it [becomes] a recipe for distress,” Sweeney says. “You have no positive change without dealing with the issue.” He adds, “Of all the block grant expenditures, this [mediation program] is in the top tier of most useful spending.”
Many of the calls to the mediation program at BPDC begin as Barbara’s did – with residents at their wits’ end. “I just want to be left alone.” “It may be time to pack up and leave.” “I don’t want four flat tires if I say something.” “We’ve lived here for 40 years and never had a problem until they moved in.” “You just can’t talk to them!” When this happens, BPDC’s staff mediator suggests mediation as an option. When the person calling is receptive to the idea, the mediator will contact the “offending party” to see if they are also willing to try mediation to resolve their problems.
Mediation is one of the few ways to rebuild relationships between neighbors and businesses that are embroiled in conflict. It has been used to combat neighbor-to-neighbor conflict in Cleveland since 1981, when neighborhood leaders formed the Cleveland Mediation Center (CMC), which became the first youth-focused, grassroots mediation program in the country. Several of the BPDC mediation volunteers were trained at CMC. More recently, on Cleveland’s east side, Thoughtful Mediation, Inc. has begun providing free mediation services to residents of several wards in the city.
Mediation offers an alternative to placing calls to the police and seeking prosecution or retaliation against neighbors. Residents learn to resolve their disputes in an assertive and nonviolent way, finding ways to address their differences without relying on law enforcement for help.
When mediation is used to manage neighbor or community conflicts, police are able to devote their attention to more pressing law enforcement matters. A 2001study by Dr. Lorig Charkoudian, “Economic Analysis of Interpersonal Conflict and Mediation,” looked at the Community Mediation Program of Baltimore and the Baltimore Police Department and found that mediation saved the police department time and money. Specifically, with mediation, the police department saved an average of nine calls and over four hours of patrol time within a six-month period.
Because of the burden that chronic conflict can put on a police department, some cities, such as Milwaukee and the Cleveland suburb of Shaker Heights, have even passed laws that allow the city to bill those residents to whom the police are repeatedly sent to investigate nuisance complaints.
Much like environmental awareness efforts in recent decades, even youths are now leading the charge toward learning the language of mediation. The Winning Against Violent Environments program trains students in Cleveland public schools in mediation – helping them to understand how conflicts can escalate and to learn to talk out their problems, instead of fighting. This is one of the most encouraging opportunities for increasing future social and human capital at the neighborhood level. Using mediation to resolve neighbor and community conflicts can help to enhance quality of life for residents of increasingly diverse neighborhoods of different ethnicities, cultures, ages, lifestyles and incomes. Although mediation won’t solve everyone’s problems, if your community development corporation wants to build a stronger neighborhood, it is an option worth considering.