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A Perspective on the Growth and Evolution of the Field of Mediation

As someone who was present at and an active participant in the beginning of the modern development of mediation in the early 80’s I would urge that we maintain a perspective on the growth and evolution of this field in the past 25 years. This does not in any way mean we should be any less committed and active in our promotion of this paradigm for conflict resolution. We should be careful to channel our passion into strategic action rather than anger.

I have simultaneously worked privately as a divorce mediator while developing an agency which in 1995 became a funded community mediation center using primarily volunteers. I have seen the natural development of this profession similar to social work which shifted society’s response to the poor from the use of debtor’s prison to a more supportive and empowering approach. Don’t forget that the social work profession still suffers somewhat from their initial manifestation as religious volunteers.

Having had both perspectives I want to add a couple of insights as to the value of both. First and foremost the community mediation movement is premised upon the empowerment of the people in a community. It seeks to have the means of dispute settlement mirror the values they wish to promote among themselves. It substitutes respectful communication and thoughtful problem solving for the power, inefficiency and costliness of the legal system and offers a seamless connection between the best values in the disputants and the healthiest response to conflict. These ideals represent the very best in this movement and community mediation has cultivated and nurtured these values to this date.

The private mediation movement has been a vanguard in directly challenging the legal system. It has struggled mightily to inject this approach into the institutions that deal with conflict. It also is driven, of necessity, by an economic system based upon outcomes and profit. While the values inherent in mediation are not incompatible with the free enterprise system it is easily tainted by it. It is easy to substitute expediency and outcomes for the values of empowerment and an enhanced relationship. Even the “most successful” programs establishing mediation in conjunction with courts across the country still struggle with standards of practice and maintenance of clear values within the models utilized.

Unlike the social work profession of the early 1900’s we have the advantage of the media, the support of many people in the legal and court communities, academics and a great deal of research that recognizes not only the efficiency but the superiority of dealing with disputants using collaborative approaches. Our strategies should be thoughtful, consistent and dynamic. We should focus on presenting a united front in furthering the development of this approach throughout society. We have a mission to shift this culture from ‘me’ towards ‘us’. These approaches to conflicts promote understanding and heal rifts in the community. This counteracts the fears that drive the idealization of the individual to the exclusion of the community.

Private mediation needs to continue the fight for recognition carving out a place in the public’s mind that their services are valuable. Community mediation and all the voluntary programs are equally needed to promote important changes in people’s neighborhoods, families and social institutions like schools because here lays the critical mass of opinion that will result in change. But, make no mistake about it, from the beginning and into the future community mediation and the voluntary systems they create have been and will remain the rudder for adherence to the values and broad vision of this movement.

The private sector must value and continue to communicate with those of us who have the luxury of looking to our source of inspiration rather than our personal survival. Together we can keep to our principles while placing mediation in the forefront of the public and integrating it and other collaborative processes into the fabric of our society.

I have heard some private mediators say that so long as people are volunteering the service that it will not be valued sufficiently. My experience has been that payment for mediation that requires special training and background will be accepted and continue to grow, notwithstanding the article that precipitated this dialogue. Community mediation and its use of community volunteers are valuable to the health of the community as well as the health of the profession. It is also critical to mediation’s survival and integrity.


Mark Kleiman

Mark Kleiman is the founder and executive director of Community Mediation Services, Inc., which he incorporated over 20 years ago, in Jamaica, Queens. Beginning with a mentoring program designed to divert youth from the Family Court, it has grown to be a series of integrated programs with over 110 staff… MORE >

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