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<xTITLE>Community Dispute Resolution Programs:Loved To Pieces?</xTITLE>

Community Dispute Resolution Programs:Loved To Pieces?

by Christopher Sheesley

This article originally appeared in the April 1999 issue of Consensus, a newspaper published jointly by the Consensus Building Institute and the MIT-Harvard Public Disputes Program.

Christopher Sheesley
The meteoric rise of the community-based dispute resolution field has fueled on of its greatest challenges. Many enforcement institutions that have traditionally made referrals to mediation programs, such as local courts and police, are now embracing the product by developing internal alternative dispute resolution (ADR) processes. While this evolution affirms the community mediation message, it heightens the danger that community-based dispute resolution will be "loved to pieces" through this trend of specialized, in-house programs.

Why should we lament this threatened loss? Consider the attributes of community-based dispute resolution, many of which have been articulated by the National Association for Community Mediation. Such programs:

  • Are not-for-profit;

  • Provide services without regard to ability to pay;

  • Use highly trained, volunteer mediators;

  • Do not require artificial academic and professional credentials for practitioners;

  • Are directly accessible to the public;

  • Address broad, societal conflict issues;

  • Vigorously educate their communities;

  • Strive for early-stage intervention;

  • Provide an alternative to enforcement systems.

To this list I would add that community-based dispute resolution makes its great strides through the missionary zeal of its proponents. For confirmation of this, one need only consider the average salary of staff and the legions of volunteers.

With these as its underlying strengths, the movement has woven itself into many arenas of human conflict and produced innumerable innovations. While much of this work has been performed for and in cooperation with traditional enforcement agencies, our field has maintained an intentional distance from these agencies in order to preserve the principles outlined above.

But now, institutionalization is becoming part of the landscape:

The San Diego City Attorney runs a code enforcement mediation program. Code enforcement, a service of most local governments, uses ordinances to maintain basic heath, safety and aesthetic standards.

The court system in Massachusetts, operates small claims mediation diversion programs.

In my part of the Northwest, a local police department has established a neighbor mediation program using officers as mediators.

Institutionalization raises concerns

These trends present several practical concerns for community-based dispute resolution. For one, the trend may eliminate key referral sources as enforcement institutions develop their own internal capacities. The trend also splinters a given community's ADR effort into smaller programs, which then compete for clients, funding and volunteers. Another dilemma is that the community field may be stunted through the loss of potential "markets" or venues into which they can expand. This may relegate community programs to a perpetual fringe status.

A more subtle impact is that institutionalized ADR tends to emerge in response to the need to reduce congestion in the court system. As a result, ADR services become more settlement-driven and directive, which contradicts the holistic practices found in most community-based programs. This contrast waters down the "promise of mediation" and contributes to public confusion over different services. I know of several cases in which my community program has lost potential clients after they developed an aversion to mediation due to their negative experience with institutionalized, settlement-driven programs.

Finally, increasingly specialized ADR services add momentum to the drift towards qualifications and professionalization. This narrows the spectrum of cases in which community-based dispute resolution can be engaged. This is an ironic situation for community programs that act as incubators for so many ADR services and professionals. I have trained numerous mediators through community programs who have moved into ADR practices from which I am in fact barred because I lack the proper "credentials."

There are antidotes to the concerns raised above.

Community-based dispute resolution must celebrate its success and continually assert itself back into the center of the ADR discussion. Part of this assertion is that community-based dispute resolution serves as the soul and conscience of ADR. It should also be highlighted that the majority of conflict resolution services taking place throughout the country occur under the auspices of community programs.

With so many practices and practitioners emerging from this field, the broader ADR field is imprinted with the values of the community movement.

Must build coalitions

To respond to the concerns raised in this article, community dispute resolution must build coalitions with other social movements.

A perfect illustration is the community oriented policing (COPS) arena. A look at the COPA literature illustrate that much of what COPS aspires to be is mirrored in the work of community dispute resolution. We can benefit through linkages with this new way of policing. law enforcement is currently receiving billions of federal dollars to facilitate the community-oriented shift. The carpet has been unrolled for community-based dispute resolution to provide officer training, offer conflict resolution services or even place mediators in police precincts.

Rather than allow such movements in the enforcement community to co-opt the work of community conflict resolution programs, we should support these programs while retaining our own unique strengths and identities. Other areas ripe for collaboration include restorative justice, domestic mediation, school-based mediation, court diversion, and the increasing interest in government-based ADR.

Continuing to build programs that are strong, dynamic and diverse will help reduce the urge to create competing, enforcement-based programs.

On a national scale, the development of the National Association for Community Mediation, the Society of Professionals in Dispute Resolution's continuous efforts to include community programs and the US Department of Justice's decision to hire a Director of Community Dispute Resolution each lend greater clout and legitimacy.

The community field is rooted in a proven model of volunteerism, diversity, direct access and early intervention. The field is uniquely qualified to offer high quality, low-cost services through its expertise, training and innovation.

Community ADR will continue to prosper despite the ironic repercussions of its success. It is a field full of dynamic individuals and powerful ideas.


Chris Sheesley, MA and his team at In-Accord put derailed workplace relationships back on track. Leaders hire In-Accord when they recognize the need for experienced, objective facilitators to transform high-stakes or seemingly impossible internal disputes into cooperation and employee efficiency. Chris is among the most seasoned conflict management professionals in the Northwest having mediated over 2,000 cases since 1991 and built a client roster of hundreds of notable organizations. He has also amassed more than 5,000 hours of experience teaching dispute resolution and related skills grounded in his real-world experience.

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