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Community Dispute Resolution Programs:Loved To Pieces?

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.

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

  • Do not require artificial academic
    and professional credentials for

  • Are directly accessible to the

  • Address broad, societal conflict

  • Vigorously educate their

  • Strive for early-stage

  • 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

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

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

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

There are antidotes to the concerns raised

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

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

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

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


Christopher Sheesley

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… MORE >

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