Building a Network of Community Mediators

KT Wiley
By KT Wiley

What does it mean to listen? Too often, we catch the words but not the story, not the underlying meaning. This October, twenty residents came together for the third annual Social Justice Mediation Institute, a 40-hour training led by Leah Wing and Deepika Marya, to learn a new way to listen. 

The SJMI class of 2016 came together from a range of relevant experiences including after-school programs, child support courts, and advocacy work. Some came to promote social justice in addition to peace, while others wanted to improve the communities where they live and to increase their effectiveness at work.

SJMI approached conflict resolution with a lens that considered possible power dynamics at play. Wing and Marya emphasized the importance of recognizing the master narrative (the story of the powerful in society) and bringing up the counter narratives (those stories which differ). In order to honor a person’s story, we need to reflect back, focus on what is important to them, and allow for the time the speaker needs. We need to acknowledge who is believed less in society in order to intentionally create a space where power does not determine outcomes. Mediators serve as a bridge between both people and perspectives, distancing hostility to allow for the passage of story.

The first three days were spent thinking about our own identities and how we interact with different power dynamics. We considered the structure of the mediation process, trying to recognize our own biases and the counter narratives at play. The last two days were spent practicing mediation through role play. First, the mediators gathered stories from the people on both sides of the conflict. They transmitted these stories from one person to the other based on what was important to each person. The mediators met with both parties several times, sharing not only specific details directly applicable to the conflict at hand, but also some of the background that shaped each person’s point of view. Sometimes, the parties were able to reach an agreement. Other times, they recognized that their conflict needed to be further explored outside of mediation. The Social Justice Mediation process is unique in that it acknowledges that sometimes conflicts need further exploration beyond mediation.

Following the training, participants rated their confidence in abilities such as “serving as an advocate for family, friends, and neighbors” and “using mediation to solve problems.” On average, the mediators felt more confident in each of these abilities (pictured below).

Participants noted several changes they would make following the training regarding how they interact with children. Common themes include understanding power dynamics and recognizing the stories below the line

Looking forward, the mediators plan to use mediation not only to navigate difficult conversations in their own lives, but also during their work and in their communities. The class approaches mediation with compassion, reflection, and a fire to serve as change-makers, seeking to see beyond the master narrative.  

The mediators have already begun to refine their skills in mediator refresher sessions, facilitated by Dominique Graham (a 2015 graduate of the SJMI program) and Myles Green (a student in the UMass Conflict Resolution and Mediation program). The mediators practice using role play scenarios, mentored by Graham and Green. These sessions will continue through the year, developing skills and seeking ways to use them within our communities.

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Posted In: Peer to Peer Advocacy