Center targets root of violent conflict

Susan Miller
Susan Miller

Julia Vail

BREVARD, N.C. – It takes nothing more than a quick glance at a newspaper or television to be confronted with glaring examples of conflict, whether between world leaders, races or religious groups.

The Center for Dialogue in Brevard, N.C., aims to teach mediation skills on the local level, before conflicts become intense enough to reach the newspaper pages.

And considering the center’s 96 percent success rate, determined by return visits and follow-up evaluations, world leaders might do well to sit up and take notice.

“All of the things we do promote peaceful communities and positive change,” says Susan Miller, the center’s executive director.

The center, which in 2009 will celebrate its 20th year of mediating conflicts, was founded in May 1989 following the Brevard Friends Meeting, an organization of Quakers that aims to promote a more peaceful world.

In an effort to head off violent conflicts before they start, the center began to offer a nonpartisan forum where Transylvania county residents could air grievances and come to peaceful agreements.

“We don’t provide the solutions; that’s the beauty of it,” Miller says. “We help both parties come up with a solution they both can live with.”

The case load at the center, which has a $190,000 annual budget and three full-time staff members, increased to 757 last year from 74 in 1990.

Some of the center’s major funders include United Way of Transylvania County and the state and juvenile court systems.

In June, the center received a $7,000 grant from the Community Foundation of Western North Carolina to put a five-year strategic plan into effect.

As part of the plan, the center is revamping its marketing materials, publishing a community report and developing a computer system to keep track of its donors.

The center’s 35 volunteer mediators, many of them retired doctors and business owners in the community, help resolve more than 1,600 disputes a year.

Since its inception, the center has facilitated the resolution of about 16,000 conflicts.

Mediators at the center listen to arguments and ask open-ended questions to help both parties get at the root of conflicts.

The majority of disputes are resolved over the course of a two-hour session.

“People come in, and they’re mad; they want their pound of flesh,” Miller says. “We hope they take away skills of listening and acceptance of their role in the conflict, as well as a better understanding of the other person.”

The majority of disputes resolved at the center are between friends, neighbors and family members. Many involve parents and their adolescent children who are having trouble communicating.

“It’s really amazing to watch what happens when teens and their parents start talking without being angry,” Miller says.

Volunteers at the center undergo a rigorous training process, including 21 hours of classes and role playing, five conflict-resolution observations, and a year of working with experienced mediators.

An additional 18 to 20 hours of advanced training are required for mediating more complex issues, such as contractual disputes or landlord-tenant conflicts.

“These are areas where you need to be competent and understand where the red flags might come up and the mediation should be stopped,” Miller says.

Though the agreements reached at the center are not binding because the organization is prohibited from practicing law, many are submitted directly to courts for validation.

The Center for Dialogue also refers to courts or other centers any disputes that involve domestic abuse, substance abuse or anger-management problems.

“Mediators are not counselors,” she says. “We suggest resources if we perceive there is another problem they need to address.”

Along with its in-house conflict-mediation services, the center goes out into the community to provide its mediation skills to large-scale disagreements.

When the City of Brevard began to extend its planning jurisdiction one mile outside city limits, county residents feared that development would destroy the character of their neighborhoods.

“Zoning issues were splitting the community down the line,” Miller says.

The Center for Dialogue facilitated a joint study group that allowed city and county officials to voice their points of view.

The group came up with several recommendations to help the county address the city’s zoning concerns, including preserving scenic views and minimizing traffic.

The center also has a strong presence in local schools, where it teaches small groups of children and youth to communicate with others, accept responsibility for their actions, and resolve conflict in non-violent ways.

The center has offered guidance to 466 out of 3,000 local schoolchildren in the last year through its youth programs.

It also offers mediation training to schoolchildren who have had difficulty managing conflicts.

Fewer than six out of 100 students who participate in the program have disciplinary problems after they finish their training.

The center also organizes various events for youth, including trips to the community pool and the library, and offers academic-tutoring programs for children at housing-authority sites twice a week.

The center originally offered tutoring once a week, but expanded its services after the children asked volunteers to come back more often.

“Of course, we bring snacks,” Miller quips, “so there’s some incentive there too.”

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