The Jamaican who ran the auto repair shop spoke calmly, and with confidence. His voice was deep and had a rolling and slightly rough quality to it. “He bring me the car, mon. He tell me I got to replace the carburetor and give him a tune-up.” He eyes his former customer, seated about eight feet away, with a scowl, and then looks back at me and my co-mediator, his expression neutral. “New spark plugs and points and a carburetor. That’s all he needs. That’s what he tell me. I put the engine up on the lift, mon.” Now he’s leaning forward toward the desk at which we are seated, turning his head from side to side and scowling again. “The whole thing be fallin’ apart. Fuel line be leaking. Fuel filter useless as a kernel of corn in a bean field. Distributor melted from overheat. He don’t need a tune-up, mon. He need a whole engine rebuilt.”
I found myself talking during naptime one day to Rosita, the Urban Court staffer whose job was to conduct outreach for the new program. I started asking her a lot of questions and soon found myself recruited to the training.
The Haitian car owner, the one-time customer, is no less sure of himself. He parses his words more slowly, spacing them far apart, not because English is his second language and he lacks confidence in his words, it seems, but because he has the passion of his convictions. There is a breathiness, almost a whisper, to his vocal quality. He pronounces short-i sounds as if they are long-e’s, and his r’s have the guttural quality of the French or creole that is his first language. “In my country, do you see? If a man bring his car to the shop? And he tell what he needs for the car?” Now he is the one shaking his head side to side, saying “no” with his body language. He alternates between looking down at his shoes and looking directly at us. “In my country, a man do the work like you ask him. You do not imagine to come back and find you must pay for a new engine in your car.“
Seeing it was his turn again, the Jamaican set his lips together and then spoke. “The car,” he paused, “was crap.” He paused again. “He tell me he want the car runnin’. He need it for work. Tell me he has no phone, mon. He want to come back and pick up the car on Tuesday, mon.“
The Haitian stared back as if coming out of a bad dream. “In my country!” He looked around the room as if picturing himself somewhere else. “In my country, we make promise and we keep it! I bring him my car for tune-up, for points and spark plug only. And carburetor. Not for rebuild the car.”
“He want the car running. Tell me he need it for work. I cannot call him. His car ready on Tuesday, mon, just like I promised.”
How did I come to be sitting in on this fascinating conflict? I was a volunteer community mediator in the mid- to late-1970s in Dorchester, a section of Boston encompassing numerous low-income and working-class neighborhoods. I was also renting an apartment and working there. The purpose of this narrative is not do demonstrate how much I contributed to others through my volunteering but to illustrate how I have received a lifetime of benefit from the learning I acquired in becoming a mediator.
The Urban Court Program in which I participated was a nonprofit organization that received public financing to generate alternative approaches to address conflicts in community with an abundance of law enforcement challenges. The Mediation program was one element of the program, and it was designed to resolve disputes that arose between family members, customers and merchants, or landlords and tenants. The common thread that ran through these disputes was that the parties were likely to continue to encounter one another regardless of the outcome. Going to court was a win/lose proposition: if one party won and the other lost, that would do nothing to repair a damaged relationship. We mediators were there to attempt to bring about a resolution that would allow both parties to coexist, with a reduced chance that their conflict would spin further out of control.
In most mediation cases, at least one of the parties had been arrested for a crime or summoned to court for civil litigation. They found out about the mediation option when they went to court. Participation in mediation was entirely voluntary, and if they were not satisfied with the direction a potential resolution was taking, they could walk out any time and face the options or consequences the court had waiting for them. That put a big responsibility on us, right from the opening moments of meeting any disputant–to put them at ease, build trust, and begin to convince them that the forum we were offering them might be worthy of their time. This required us to be conscious of eye contact, word choices, posture, our proximity to the parties, and how close we seated the disputants to each other.
In order to keep the volunteer mediators from developing a bias, we were not briefed on which party had been arrested or sued, and in the case of an arrest, we did not know what crime was charged, About all we were briefed on by the program administrator prior to a mediation session was the nature of their relationship to each other (e.g., ex-spouses, current boyfriend/girlfriend, merchant and customer) and the date they were due back In court if they failed to reach an agreement under our guidance. We were also assured that parties arrested for violent crimes would not get a referral to our program. However, there must have been a fuzzy boundary line, because some disputants did give us details of their legal situation; I can recall a disputant telling us the other party had raped her, and I can recall a disputant in a different case stating he had been charged with assault with a deadly weapon.
The mediators worked in teams of two. As often as possible, the project director scheduled a male and a female mediator together, to maximize the possibility that every disputant would find someone to whom they felt comfortable telling their story. Accordingly the program recruited volunteers to create a gender-balanced pool from which to draw.
My own recruitment to the program came by happenstance, as the Urban Court Program rented office space in a Lutheran church that was the site of the day care classroom in which I worked full-time as a head teacher. Our classroom, filled with18 four- and five-year-olds, was a satellite of a center with three other classrooms that operated out of a Methodist church in a different section of Dorchester. I found myself talking during naptime one day to Rosita, the Urban Court staffer whose job was to conduct outreach for the new program. I started asking her a lot of questions and soon found myself recruited to the training.
The training was extensive and impressive, about 25 to 30 hours over the course of two weeks. The volunteers were not only balanced by gender but included different generations, divergent levels of educational background, and many ethnicities. The leaders of the agency brought in staff from the Center for Conflict Resolution and Mediation, based in Harlem, to conduct the training for the first two cohorts (I was in the second one). After that, we had enough locally experienced volunteers to conduct the training ourselves, and I sometimes participated in leading it.
The highlight of the training was watching a role play of an entire mediation carried out by experienced staff or volunteers, which would take 90 min to two hours, and then each and every trainee had to participate in a similar role-play, either as a disputant or as one of the co-mediators. These were completely unscripted and very realistic. (The dialogue with which I introduced this narrative—in case any reader wonders–was approximated from an actual mediation, not from a role play.)
The training and my efforts at mediation over the next few years had a significant impact on my way of thinking about conflict and conflict resolution in any personal or professional space, and also influenced the way I communicate. To be very concrete and specific, I learned that people do not want to be told they have a problem. We were told the use of that word could erode trust and bring the chance of a successful mediation to a halt. We learned never to say, “let’s find out more about your problem,” or “let’s delve into the problem that has brought you here today.” Instead: “we are going to discuss the situation as you see it,” or “the situation that brought you here today.” I have continued that practice in dealing with colleagues, my undergraduate and graduate students, my son, and my spouse. None of them has ever had a problem; just, from time to time, perhaps,a situation. I had a faculty chair who once asked me what was my problem: I sure did not appreciate it and was wishing she had had the mediation training!
Another important learning was that as mediators, we were not seeking the fairest resolution to a situation, nor even necessarily one that was fair at all. As we oriented disputants during the introductory session of the mediation and gave them their first chance to offer some thoughts about the situation, many of them clearly expressed that someone had done something unfair to them,(Think of the auto repairman and the customer; the former hadn’t received a dime for all that repair work, while the latter had no car, as he wouldn’t pay the bill. Each saw himself as the victim of an unfair action.)
After hearing the opening salvoes of any set of disputants (sometimes one “party” consisted of two or three people), we would thank them for sharing that background information and then one of us would explain that, “as mediators, we aren’t trained to determine what’s fair. We aren’t judges.” Pause to make sure they are paying close attention. Then continue: “Our job is to find out if there is a solution that you can live with. Nothing more or less than that–regardless of whether someone might say it’s fair. We will be giving each of you a chance to meet with us separately, We will be asking you: what do you want from the other person? What solution would allow you to go forward? If you can find a solution here, that both parties can live with, then we will write it up and have you sign it, and our project director will meet you in court on the day that you’re due back there, and show it to the judge. If there’s no agreement, you will go back to court and the judge will take it out of your hands and make the decision for you.”
The understanding that a “livable solution” may sometimes be a better alternative than a “fair solution” has also served me well in other arenas. A student had done very few of the assignments for one of my courses, and was planning to drop out of the teacher licensure program. Still, she didn’t want to fail the course, and asked if I would let her turn in a bunch of late assignments as the semester was winding down. What would have been “fair”? To hold her accountable for the same assignments as all the other students in the class. To set up a schedule of deadlines for the assignments she had missed, with a certain portion of grade points deducted for tardiness. But was “fairness” the right guiding concept? She had spoken of a brother near her age who had gone through the special education system back in her home town. I asked her if it would be meaningful for her to write a paper based on interviewing her brother, her mother, and an educator from her brother’s high school. The outcome would be to tell the story of one person’s journey as a child and adolescent through the special education system and to reflect on a series of questions that I would provide. This assignment bore no relation to any of the missed assignments, but I said it would replace all of them. She agreed this would be meaningful to her, and when she turned in her paper, I saw that she had placed it in a binder, given it a title, and written an acknowledgement to thank the people whom she had interviewed, including her brother. It was longer and more elaborate than I had anticipated, and it was the first piece of work I had seen from her all semester that was carefully edited. This compensatory assignment wasn’t fair but it was meaningful, and we both could live with it.
Once a mediation session was completed—either with or without an agreement—we said good-by to the disputants and then the volunteer mediators stayed behind to fill out some documentation and a self-evaluation. We had been trained in a list of DO’s and DON’Ts and the part of the evaluation that sticks in my mind is where we were asked to check off whether we had indeed used any of the (good) DO’s, and also whether we had used any of the (bad) DON’Ts.
The DON’Ts—this might surprise some readers–included “social working” and “counseling.” These terms were defined in our training to mean offering disputants the opportunity to get their feelings out to us and/or to express their emotions (anger, sadness, etc.) to the other party. We were explicitly instructed that we were not to encourage disputants to treat us as if we were part of the mental health or behavioral health field. First of all, a disputant may have their own positive or negative experiences with counselors, therapists, and social workers. Secondly, we were not trained to support emotional growth or mental health and we should not pretend to have skills in that area.
If someone began crying or expressing powerful feelings, we did not try to cut them off or respond harshly. Instead, we learned to give them a couple of minutes to share their story, offer them tissues, ask if they were all right, and ask if they had someone to talk to about it. Only then would we tell them sympathetically but straightforwardly that mediation was a place where they could look for an agreement relating to a specific set of circumstances. It was not a forum to address unresolved feelings or issues that might go back a long way or go well beyond this particular situation. There were many such instances and I don’t remember anyone ever being alienated by this message. Instead, they were reassured by our clarity about what we could do for them and what we could not.
This practice too—of talking to students respectfully but without “social working” or “counseling”– was useful in my career as a college faculty member. A student in my children’s literature class came into my office and explained that she was slow in auditory and cognitive processing due to having been stomped on the head by her fiancé at the time. She had dropped out of college for two years, and was back now, but with limitations.
I could have turned the session into an opportunity for her to share more of her story and of her emotions. It was clear that she trusted me sufficiently to let it all come pouring out, and perhaps that was what she was expecting. But relying on my mediation background, I asked myself what kinds of support I was prepared to offer this young woman that would be in keeping with my role as her professor. Together, we agreed that she would come by my office as needed right after class any Thursday–which happened to coincide with my office hours anyway. She could ask me about any points of discussion where she felt she had gotten lost or confused. I had addressed her situation as an educator–without counseling or social working.
Not every volunteer gig could yield a lifetime of benefits comparable to my involvement with the Urban Court Program. I have only touched the surface. Not only are there additional skills I could have highlighted, but it was also a rare opportunity in my lifetime to work in a multi-racial environment under the guidance of mostly African-American leadership.
The Jamaican repairman and the Haitian customer did not come to an agreement, in spite of the earnest efforts my co-mediator and I put forth. I never felt that I had failed as a mediator just because the disputants did not resolve their situation. So long as we had followed the procedures properly, listened well, and given each party a chance to articulate the situation as they saw it and think about what they needed from the other party, I felt it was a success. Some disputants simply felt too aggrieved and really wanted their chance to prove to a judge that they were in the right. That was the case with the disputant I mentioned who had been raped, and that seemed to be the case with the auto shop owner and the customer.
I never found out what happened when they got back to court. In my own imagination, neither ever relented, and the dispute never died. Eventually, they were borne to heaven on a golden chariot and given a special room with celestial accoutrements. There they carry on their eloquent and linguistically distinctive tete-a-tete in perpetuity. They don’t age and they don’t lose their confidence or their passion.
Dale Borman Fink retired in 2020 from Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts in North Adams, MA, where he taught courses related to research methods, early childhood education, special education, and children’s literature. Prior to that he was involved in childcare, after-school care, and support for the families of children with disabilities. Among his books are Making a Place for Kids with Disabilities (2000) Control the Climate, Not the Children: Discipline in School Age Care (1995), and a children’s book, Mr. Silver and Mrs. Gold (1980). In 2018, he edited a volume of his father's recollections, called SHOPKEEPER'S SON.