Strengthening Communities: Mediation in Crown Heights
The Brooklyn neighborhood of Crown Heights is home to an Orthodox Jews, African-Americans, and Caribbean-Americans. Unfortunately, these communities have not always co-existed peacefully. In addition to occasional misunderstandings among residents, the community endured several days of well-documented unrest in the early 1990s. Since then, Crown Heights has become a national symbol of a community struggling with issues of cultural diversity.
In an effort to create a lasting infrastructure for resolving neighborhood conflicts, the City of New York asked the Center for Court Innovation to create the Crown Heights Community Mediation Center. “Community members didn’t want to be force-fed co-existence,” said James Kornbluh, a member of the Center for Court Innovation’s planning team. Instead, they were looking for something more concrete and more modest—something that would address their pressing everyday concerns and disputes. The result was the Crown Heights Community Mediation Center, which opened its doors in 1998.
Why Mediation in Crown Heights?
The Crown Heights Community Mediation Center follows a model of community-based mediation and uses it to address community conflict in Crown Heights. “Having a forum where [community members] can go to air their differences can relieve a lot of the tension that might otherwise build up,” Maureen O’Connor, a volunteer mediator, explained. “Even when the mediation session doesn’t end in a reconciliation, … it can diffuse a lot of antagonism.”
In community-based mediation, community volunteers help parties in dispute reach mutually acceptable agreements. The entire process is voluntary; both parties must agree to meet and one party cannot compel the other to come. Accepting an agreement is also voluntary. The mediator has no authority to enforce an agreement or to impose sanctions. For individuals that don’t want to go to the court or the police, mediation offers a viable alternative. “Mediation is much more inviting [because] there are no guards and no officials,” Kornbluh explained. “Because there is no coercion involved, many people who might otherwise never seek outside intervention are open to the idea of mediation.”
A mediation session typically involves one or two mediators. Paper and pencils are available for parties to take notes, although no record of the mediation is kept for confidentiality reasons. The mediator begins by explaining her role and reminding the parties that the entire process is both voluntary and confidential. Parties are then asked to respect each person’s turn in speaking and not to interrupt. The party that brought the dispute to mediation goes first, and the respondent goes second. After that, the mediator acts as a facilitator. If she feels it necessary, she may pull aside individuals to have one-on-one private discussions during the session. The goal is to have both sides come up with an agreement. It may include specific tasks, like paying a set sum of money or returning a borrowed good, or it may include more intangible resolutions, like promising to communicate more often. A typical session lasts about two hours, and a dispute may take several sessions to be resolved.
An early case in Crown Heights involving three households that shared a common landing demonstrates how mediation can relieve tensions. An African-American woman was complaining that the children of her two Jewish neighbors had been littering and making noise while playing on the landing. Meanwhile, her Jewish neighbors accused her of insulting them and using “unfortunate” language during the Passover holiday. With tensions mounting, the three heads of households decided to give mediation a try.
At the mediation session, the two sides were able to identify the core issues and talk more openly about their feelings. When the African-American woman revealed that her children played on the landing as well, the mediator was able to shift the focus of the conversation from noise and litter to the children of the three families. The woman mentioned that sometimes she felt hurt by the fact that her neighbors would not let their children play with hers. It was clear that the issue was not so much about noise as it was about kids playing together, and once the parents began to understand that the children were at the heart of their dispute, the dynamic of the conversation changed. “It was a cathartic moment,” says Chris Watler, who mediated the dispute. “Everyone started saying, ‘You know, we can do things differently,’ and they started making proposals.” In the end, the three families agreed to supervise their children more closely and to consult each other on an ongoing basis about problems.
Most of the cases at the Crown Heights Community Mediation Center do not involve cross-cultural disputes, however. When a 10-year-old boy started skipping school and acting out, for example, his mother arranged for a mediation session. At the mediation, the boy expressed frustration at the fact that his father was incarcerated. His mother, in turn, admitted that she sometimes scolded him unfairly. Through mediation, the mother and son were able to reach a new level of understanding. In the end, they agreed to communicate more often and even commit to having Sunday morning breakfasts together.
Those most familiar with the Crown Heights Community Mediation Center—the volunteer mediators—say it is a great alternative to turning to the police for help. “Calling 911 can be a long process,” Jackie Drayton, a volunteer mediator, explains. “[With mediation], I can help solve a problem. [We] sit down and talk about it. … There are no guns, no arrests, no jail.”
Since 1998, the Mediation Center has handled more than 2,000 mediation cases. Over 1,500 youth and adults have received conflict resolution training from the Mediation Center, including over 150 residents trained to be community mediators. Over 20,000 people have been served through the Mediation Center’s services, including a free summer recreation program for neighborhood youth, in-school leadership programs, resource referrals and mediation services.