Community Boards of San Francisco Stengthen "Civic Muscles" through Conflict Resolution
Believing that the community is where the responsibility for problem solving and conflict resolution should first fall, where the most effective prevention work can be done, and where meaningful lessons about conflict and its impact on friends, neighbors, and community can best be learned, the Community Board Program provides free community mediation services in San Francisco and offers conflict resolution-related program development and training assistance to schools, juvenile correctional facilities, and other agencies nationwide. Story and case study plus.
Story: Community Boards Teach and Practice Conflict Resolution
Case study plus: Strengthening Our Civic Muscles
Story: Community Boards of San Francisco Teach and Practice Conflict Resolution
Story written by Abigail Lawrence, a CPN editorial intern, using material provided by the Community Boards.
The community is where the responsibility for problem solving and conflict resolution should first fall, where the most effective prevention work can be done, and where meaningful lessons about conflict and its impact on friends, neighbors, and community can best be learned. Many disputes are tolerated because people perceive no effective and available mechanism for their resolution. Legal remedies may be expensive and time-consuming, or simply not appropriate. To use adversarial processes, or to simply turn the problem over to an agency, does little to prepare people for handling ongoing or future conflicts more effectively. Instead, the Community Board Program provides free community mediation services in San Francisco and offers conflict resolution-related program development and training assistance to schools, juvenile correctional facilities, and other agencies nationwide. A Vietnamese boy hits a Filipino boy over the head with a pipe in the school yard. A white youth sprays graffiti on a storefront near his school and gets into trouble with a Latino shopkeeper. An African-American girl is offended by remarks of a Korean classmate, and the incident escalates into name-calling and threats on both sides that spill into the neighborhood.
Encounters such as these between people of differing racial and ethnic backgrounds are on the rise, and are potentially explosive. Verbal insults or threats can rapidly escalate into physical attacks. Hate violence can kill.
This all-too-familiar cycle of prejudice and violence is being short-circuited by mediation, an approach to conflict resolution promoted in schools and urban neighborhoods by The Community Board Program, also known as Community Boards.
The purposes of the Community Board Program are to promote the theory and practice of conciliation and mediation as effective forms of dispute resolution, and to develop the capacity of neighborhoods, institutions, and other types of "communities" to express and resolve their own conflicts. There is an increasing programmatic emphasis on bringing such skills and processes to youth and families.
In San Francisco, nearly 300 Community Boards' volunteer mediators hear and help resolve a wide range of conflicts referred directly from the community as well as from Police, Juvenile Probation, Department of Social Services, Small Claims Court, and other city agencies and organizations. One-third of the mediators are people of color, and a growing number are young people, aged fifteen and older.
Terry Amsler, Executive Director of Community Boards, believes that youth conflict resolution in the schools is the key to peace in the neighborhoods. "The issues around youth violence have resulted in a greater awareness of the need for the mediation process," he said.
Rather than ending in tragedy or landing in court, disputes handled by conflict resolution can be resolved peaceably by youths and people of all ages trained in the skills of mediation. Disputants are brought face-to-face before neutral parties to tell their stories. The mediators don't decide who's right or wrong, but assist people in reaching their own agreement.
Infusing Conflict Resolution into Whole School Culture
Beginning in 1981, the Community Board Program began working with San Francisco schools, developing peer mediation (or "conflict managers") programs for elementary schools. This model was subsequently adapted for middle and high schools as well, and assistance is now provided to interested schools in the United States and Canada through national institutes, on-site trainings, and the dissemination of conflict manager curricula.
Additionally, elementary and secondary school classroom conflict resolution curricula have also been developed, field-tested and published for a national schools audience. It has been estimated that Community Boards' conflict manager programs and curricula are presently in use in more than 2,000 schools throughout North America.
Community Boards offers the following comprehensive services to K-12 schools:
- Scheduled national Institutes providing training in convlict resolution skills and implementation of student Conflict Manager programs for grades 3 to 12.
- On-site training and consulting designed to introduce and establish peer mediation programs.
- Classroom conflict resolution curricula (K-12) including skill building activities for effective communication and peaceful problem solving.
- Training for adults in conflict resolution skill building and mediation.
- Conflict Manager (peer mediation) training manuals and videos.
- Technical assistance for building culturally sensitive peer mediation programs.
- Consultation services to plan and implement district-wide conflict resolution programs.
Whole School Approach to Conflict Resolution
During the 15 years of experience working in the schools conflict resolution field, Community Boards' approach and philosophy has evolved. Through evaluation and follow-up analysis, we have learned that the effectiveness and longevity of peer mediation programs are greatly enhanced with a school-wide application of conflict resolution skills and principles involving all school constitutencies (teachers, administrators, parents, and students). Training and consultation for these "whole school" applications may include: combining peer mediation with conflict resolution classroom curricula; conflict resolution skills and processes for adults; building culturally sensitive peer mediation programs; and managing a range of adult and large group conflicts (i.e. among students, staff, and parents).
Conflict Resolution Programming for Juvenile Detention and Correctional Facilities
"Our wards are here in part because they have experienced conflict in their lives and did not know how to resolve it appropriately. Community Boards' Conflict Manager program teaches these young men the skills to approach a conflict in a mature manner and resolve it in a socially acceptable fashion."—John Cunningham, Superintendent, Harold Holden Ranch for Boys, Morgan Hill, California
In 1987, Community Boards, with the support of the California Office of Criminal Justice Planning, initiated work to develop a peer mediation model for juvenile correctional facilities. Self-sustaining programs have been initiated in the San Francisco Bay Area, and a statewide conference was held to introduce the peer mediation idea to other juvenile facilities throughout the State.
The goals of infusing conflict resolution into juvenile settings include:
- to improve communication and problem-solving skills among staff and youth;
- to enable youth to practice alternatives to violence in dealing with conflict;
- to empower youth to resolve appropriate conflicts at the facility through mediation;
- to reduce tension levels, promote safety, and improve staff/youth relationships;
- to reduce rule infractions and "add on" time for youth;
- to enhance leadership skills, self-esteem and academic achievement for youth;
- to improve communication between youth and their parents; and
- to supplement and complement other programs at the facility.
Conflict Resolution Skill-Building among Staff and Youth
Community Boards provides on-site training in communication, problem-solving, anger management, and other conflict resolution skills to facility staff and youth. By giving residents a model for the positive expression and resolution of problems, they can learn alternatives to violent and self-defeating behavior. In addition, Community Boards conflict resolution curricula can be taught in education programs or living units at the facilities. It has been shown that youth leaving the facility continue to apply these skills at home, at school, and in the community.
Youth-To-Youth Peer Mediation - Conflict Managers Program
Youth trained as Conflict Managers (peer mediators) help other young people resolve disputes that arise in the facility. Peer mediation can reduce the number and seriousness of conflicts and rule infractions, enhance resident and staff safety, and limit staff time spent on discipline. The mediation process is introduced not to replace, but to supplement existing disciplinary policies and procedures. Peer mediators are equipped to handle many of the day-to-day disputes that arise in a correctional setting. Beyond conflicts between individuals, this conflict management process has been successfully applied to groups or gangs of facility residents. Evaluations of peer mediation programs suggest a 37% decrease in disciplinary infractions. The peer mediators themselves develop leadership skills, improved self-esteem and academic achievement, as well as reduced recidivism rates.
In an effort to ease the transition of youth from the facility back to the home environment, parent/child mediation sessions are encouraged. The purpose of this mediation is to improve communication processes and negotiate agreements for day-to-day life upon the youth's return home. These mediation sessions can be conducted by community mediation programs serving the geographical area where the facility is located, or by a combination of specially trained facility staff and youth. Community Boards can assist in the development of trained community mediators where necessary.
Case Study: Strengthening Our Civic Muscles
by Terry Amsler
Community Board Program
Reprinted with permission from Lifelines, Summer 1996, a publication of the San Francisco Foundation. Copyright 1996 by the San Francisco Foundation.
Paul DuBois, the Co-director of the Center for Living Democracy has called Americans "political couch potatoes." He claims that there is a vast difference between our behavior and "what's really in the hearts, or troubling our minds." Harry Boyte, the Co-director of the Center for Democracy and Citizenship and another observer of the state of our communities, claims that we have let our "civic muscles" weaken.
Both comments go to the same questions that have prompted so much of the recent debate on the state of our civic well-being. These concerns touch on our capacity to participate in a shared public life, to act on behalf of a larger common good, to have trust in one another, and to engage in the "civil conversations" necessary to bridge the divisions that separate us. In simpler terms perhaps, there is a sense that we need more "good citizens," not in the legal or "rights" sense of the term, but as public problem solvers sharing in some sense of a common purpose.
The American Civic Forum's "Civic Declaration" suggests we need a society where "public problem solving takes the place of private complaint," and where "all give life to liberty, and rights are complemented by the responsibilities that make them real."
While any claims that community mediation makes for enhancing our civic life must be made humbly and kept in proper perspective, they are real nonetheless.
Conflict Resolution skills are the foundational skill for building civil society. The skills of effective speaking, listening, asking questions, collaboration and problem solving instill in individuals a willingness and ability to participate as problem-solving oriented members of the community. They make us better social listeners and learners.
Mediation process is a basic building block of an effective civic culture. The ongoing availability of free neighborhood forums where people can come together to discuss and problem solve is an indispensable vehicle for fortifying the civic infrastructure.
Community mediation programs, primarily through the use of volunteer mediators, promotes the principle of responsibility. By taking responsibility for paying attention in the disputing needs of the neighborhood, these programs are saying that this is not simply the work of the police, courts, etc.—this is the community's work.
Community mediation programs strengthen the notion of community service. Those who are helped to resolve conflicts obviously benefit, but so do those that provide the mediation. Helping others resolve disputes provides insightful information about one's community and offers the opportunity to work in common with others, perhaps with people quite different from yourself.
The nature of community service in conflict resolution is particularly empowering in both principle and in practice. And taking on such responsibility is exactly the sort of exercise which strengthens those "civic muscles" described by Harry Boyte.
A stronger civic culture and an enhanced capacity for civil conversation does not mean that we can ignore the necessary reforms of our political and economic systems. However as Ray Shonholtz, Director of Partners for Democratic Change, and founder of Community Boards, has said:
Building a primary justice system at the community level affects not only the conflicts that people have, but the community life of the neighborhood and the capacity of citizens to work together in common purposes. The vitality and essentiality of this civic exercise is a keystone to the success of the democratic experience.
Krista Timlin, Programs Coordinator
1540 Market Street, Suite 490
San Francisco, CA 94102
The San Francisco Foundation
The San Francisco Foundation is a regional community foundation serving donors and nonprofit organizations in the following California counties: Alameda, Contra Costa, Marin, San Francisco and San Mateo. With assets of more than $400 million, it is one of the largest community foundations in the United States. The Foundation is dedicated to improving the quality of life, promoting equality of opportunity, and assisting those in need or at risk. The Lifeline Initiative is a special five-year, $4 million effort to improve the well-being of poor and low-income children and their families residing in the cities of Oakland, Richmond and San Francisco. If you would like more information about the Initiative, please contact C.J. Callen, Lifeline Program Coordinator (email@example.com), to be put on the mailing list for the newsletter, Lifelines, please contact Kaari Martin, Program Assistant (firstname.lastname@example.org). Address: 685 Market Street Suite 910, San Francisco, CA 94105. Phone: (415) 495-3100. Fax: (415) 422-0495.
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