Thinking outside of the box is how Jenn Williams, Executive Director of Mid Shore Community Mediation Center, wants the public to consider the services her organization can offer. “This is a really stressful time,” she says. “and during times of stress, conflict is often more toxic, more prevalent, and more intense.” This is why mediation, conflict resolution using a trained third person, may be a perfect solution you may not have thought about.
No situation is too big or too small to be handled by a trained mediator, she said, and when asked for examples, Williams mentions a few recent ones. These included an unsightly boat problem, property line disputes, barking dogs, custody and visitation plans, divorce asset division, and a new roommate agreement. They even had a situation with some trespassing chickens, where the humane society had been called, and they recommended that the neighbors come to mediation to have it resolved.
So, we wondered, what recommendation would a mediator give when dealing with neighborly disputes such as this?
That’s not quite how it works, Williams told us. “Our process is participant-driven, and the resolutions that are developed out of the mediation process are completely of the participant’s own imagining. Mediators don’t give advice or suggestions, nor do they get people to agree to things. Self-determination is the key, and no one’s ever forced to do or say or agree to anything they don’t want to. The outcome of every single mediation is different and unique to the people involved.”
There are other reasons why mediation works, besides that it’s customized to fit everyone’s unique lifestyles. Even ones that are court-ordered have a better compliance success rate.
After all, judges usually have 10-15 minutes per case, unlike mediators who have the time and qualifications to create a sustainable plan.
Each mediation session is typically two hours long, and Mid Shore Mediation will work with clients for as many sessions as needed. “For instance,” says Williams: “we have a family who first came to us when their children were very young. They’ve come back yearly to update and revise their parenting plan as their children’s and their family’s needs and circumstances change. We also work with our state’s attorney’s office on criminal misdemeanor cases such as trespassing. We’re mediating those cases in one or two sessions.”
Oh, and in case you’re wondering, mediation sessions are free. There is no income verification nor any paperwork that needs to be provided. The service wants to remove as many obstacles as possible.
As to why it’s free, Williams says they have a lot of really generous supporters. “We’re very fortunate that there’s a culture of collaboration as a priority in the Maryland judiciary. The Maryland Mediation and Conflict Resolution office, a branch of the judiciary, is our primary funder. The Department of Juvenile and Family Services also offers us a significant amount of funding to work with our family courts with children and adult guardianships. So elder care, adult guardianship mediations also fall under the Department of Juvenile and Family Services.”
Like everywhere else, COVID has impacted the types of conflict the Center is used to seeing. Courts are diverting eviction petitions to mediation to help landlords and tenants create arrangements that prevent homelessness. Family problem cases, drug use, suicides, and domestic violence are also on the rise.
Of course, the pandemic has affected how mediators do their work, as well. Since March, they’ve been using the Zoom platform to consult with clients, and despite concerns, it has been a successful experience, one they continue to encourage. Last week, they began to phase in in-person mediation, with lots of safety protocols and protective equipment, of course.
Another area being affected is the school programs. Mid Shore Mediation, which covers Talbot, Caroline, and Dorchester Counties, have mediators in these school systems working with students, teachers, and parents to reduce violence and resolve conflicts. To do that, they need to be physically in the buildings and working with them in real-time and face to face. COVID challenges that. “I have many volunteers who are completely uncomfortable with meeting in person, and I respect that entirely,” says Williams. “So, we’re identifying the folks who are comfortable and what kinds of things they need to be in place to feel safe. But we’re also watching the CDC for guidance.”
The school program is one that Williams knows a lot about. Williams, who grew up in Talbot County and received an undergraduate degree in philosophy from Hood College, went on to a conflict resolution graduate program at Salisbury University. She joined the Center in 2012, and after partnering with the Dorchester County Public School system, created the Peace Team, a nationally recognized school-based mediation program. Since 2019, Williams has served as the Center’s Executive Director.
Mediators who work for the Center are, for the most part, volunteers who have gone through an extensive 50 hours of basic mediation training through them. Thirty volunteers handle approximately 600 cases per year. As Williams indicated to us, becoming a mediator is a significant investment of time and requires a commitment to growth and development of those skills. “The work that we do is challenging, and in many ways, it’s controversial, and we need to know is this something that’s really going to work for you. Can you help a same-sex couple devise a plan about how they’re going to spend time with children without any bias coming through in that conversation? We do a lot of diversity training and cultural competency training, and we’re asking our mediators to reflect on themselves and their own biases so that they can better show up for our clients.”
Despite the focused training, no additional education is necessary for those interested in learning this skill. “You don’t need a high school diploma to become a volunteer mediator,” says Williams. “You can be a volunteer mediator even if you’ve experienced incarceration. We want community members with a variety of life experiences to be represented in our volunteer pool. Diversity is everything to us, and it’s not just diversity in terms of age, race, and gender; it’s diversity of life experience.”
It is this range of experience in the mediation team that Williams hopes translates to the statistics found on their website, which is 70% of conflicts achieved resolution through mediation. “We’re here for every stage of whatever conflict you have,’ she says, “and it is a completely private non-judgmental space to say what you need to say, to be heard, and make a plan that works for your life.”
Before we ended the interview, we just had to ask: Whatever happened to the chickens? “I wish I could tell you, I wasn’t the mediator in that case,” said Williams. “I do know that the neighbors had a couple of meetings with us, and they did reach an agreement.”
So, there you have it.
Mid Shore Community Mediation Center is located at 8626 Brooks Drive, Suite 204 in Easton. For more information contact them on their website (https://midshoremediation.org/) Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/midshoremediation) or call 410-820-5553