Making Shifts Happen, with Neighbors, Politics

Originally published as “Mediation Mindset…” Jan. 27, 2019 in Lancaster Newspaper (LNP).

“The shift” is often imperceptible in mediation. What starts out as a heated and contentious business negotiation suddenly turns to a rational exchange with voices even and tempers cooled. Soon after, folks in the room are finding their own way toward an agreement, generating their own solutions, testing them and finding resolution.

It’s a process we see every week at Advoz, a Lancaster nonprofit that offers mediation and restorative justice services. And it’s a process for which we can see a real need in our current national political struggle.

But how do we get there? How can we make the shift happen in America?

President Donald Trump announced Friday afternoon that a deal had been reached to reopen the federal government. The partial federal government shutdown had lasted 35 days — the longest in U.S. history. Congress and the White House now have until Feb. 15 to negotiate a deal involving the thorny issues of immigration and border security. As a mediator, I see this as a clear opportunity.

The pain of the shutdown was not felt equally. The pain of federal workers, contractors and their families is what we honor in asking the question: How can we, the American people, help to avoid another such impasse?

It would be easy to suggest mediation tools for lawmakers to find common ground and make the big “shift” happen. But the opportunity before us is not just a political one, it’s a cultural one. If we citizens can’t talk to our neighbors about divisive issues, how can we expect our representatives to do that?

So what follows are a few ideas, many of which were articulated in the best-selling book, “Getting to Yes” (Fisher & Ury, 1981), for how to approach the current moment as an opportunity — for our elected representatives and for ourselves:

  • Separate the person from the problem: What do you deeply want in our national political debate? What does that look like in your life, day to day? How can you talk about that in terms of your own story (rather than blaming or comparing)? What does your neighbor, your representative deeply want for themselves and our shared community? Can you ask them?
  • Explore underlying interests and needs below publicly stated positions: Your neighbor may say they want “border security” or “border freedom” but there may be deeper interests. What might they be for you? For your neighbor? Can you ask your neighbor about his or her deep needs and concerns? Can you model courageous vulnerability to share your needs and concerns? Can you listen without judging, advising and assuming, and stay curious?
  • Make an offer: As you struggle in a difficult conversation, you might find an opportunity to contribute something constructive. The shift happens, in part, because one person has the courage to recognize or appreciate the other, to create or suggest something new, to contribute positively despite feeling threatened.
  • Perhaps ask: “I wonder what it would like if our kids … .”

What can you offer to move the situation forward one step? Voicing this once is not a guarantee, but it is at times a surprising antidote to a cycle of critical one-upmanship, blame and defensiveness.

Conversation starters

Need a few one-liners? These could be used in many conflictive situations — or with your elected representatives — to shift a conversation toward breakthrough:

  • “How were you personally affected by the government shutdown?”
  • “Could you tell me more about that?”
  • “What do you hope for our community and our country?”
  • “What values do you think that we share as a community? As a country, even across party lines?”
  • “Could you imagine a positive path forward toward our shared values?”
  • “What can you offer to move this situation forward just one step?”
  • “Here’s what I can offer.”

Finding common ground

In 1995, I landed in Northern Ireland to study what had been a 25-year run of seemingly endless violence, division, discrimination and political impasse among the Roman Catholics and Protestants there.

But working amid the din of bombings and political bombast were Catholic and Protestant clergy, lay leaders and politicians in quiet conversations with paramilitary leaders. Those secret conversations, some lasting nearly 10 years, led to a permanent ceasefire of the major paramilitary organizations, followed by a long series of political discussions and agreements. Everyone I met on the street seemed to still be in a state of disbelief, asking the question, “How could such a shift just suddenly happen?”

As members of the greater Lancaster County community, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed, helpless and disempowered in the face of seemingly intractable national conflicts. But we live in a diverse community right next to people who share very different positions with equally passionate conviction.

In our own backyard, we have an opportunity to apply the lessons of mediation, to find our own common ground through quiet conversation. If we can do that, we can join Northern Ireland and hundreds of other unsung peace processes around the world, leading our representatives to sit down — out of the glare of media cameras — and look each other in the eye, and hear each other in a new way.

That’s the kind of leadership that can make America’s big shift happen, not just in the weeks ahead, but during the many inevitable challenges — and opportunities — to come.

Christopher Fitz is executive director of community engagement at Lancaster-based Advoz: Mediation & Restorative Practices, which was created by the merger of Conflict Resolution Services and the Center for Community Peacemaking. Mila Pilz, executive director of program operations at Advoz, contributed to this column.

This article appeared on the Lancaster Newspaper Op-Ed section on January 27, 2019.

We Are No Longer Alone: My Introduction to Restorative Justice

In November 2014, I began an exciting tenure as executive director for the Center for Community Peacemaking (CCP) in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. CCP has a very active restorative justice program addressing the harm for crime victims, especially crimes committed by youth.  As I began there, I realized that I’d already had an experience of restorative justice as an eight year-old child, unrefined as it was. That experience and the conciliatory attitude of my parents no doubt played a crucial role in my subsequent life path.  The following reflection appeared in CCP’s December newsletter, Making Things Right.

It was a mild Sunday night in September. I was an adventurous eight year-old, expecting to go to school the next day. Instead, I was awakened by shouts of panic from my parents.

An eerie glow and strange roar filled the bedroom windows. Our barn was engulfed in
flames. It would be my first experience with restorative justice.

That night two young men had been out driving around; their car ran out of gas more than a mile away. After walking for some time, one of them, Myrick,* tried to siphon gas from the tank of our family’s utility truck parked in the barn. In order to see, he used a cigarette lighter. The predictable result exploded in his face and lit up the hay stacked nearby. While he was able to run for safety, our barn was soon a pile of charred timber and melted aluminum roofing.  It soon became clear that Myrick was responsible for our barn burning down. Yet my parents made an unusual request to the district attorney: Could Myrick receive a minimal sentence in exchange for help rebuilding?

Restorative justice began in the 1970s as far as Western civilization is concerned as a compliment or alternative to traditional punitive sentencing. The core process, often called “victim offender conferencing,” uses this facilitated encounter to address the harm and needs that a crime victim might have and allow the offender(s) to take responsibility for their actions. But in the early 1980s when this happened, still almost no one practiced this direct form of justice and conflict resolution in the US outside traditional indigenous forums.

My parents’ request for Myrick’s work on the farm was partially granted. He was released the next year and began helping amidst the barn ruins. Our eyes were opened to the different world in which he lived, one of acute dysfunction, abuse and poverty. He was polite if also visibly uncomfortable around us. But he seemed happy to do something to right the wrong he’d committed.

At that time, Pennsylvania had no victim-offender conferencing, no skilled coordinators, advocates or facilitators to advise them on alternatives to putting Myrick behind bars. As a result, my parents struggled with a legal system that embraced expensive and punitive solutions. After Myrick was released, they also struggled to work out a clear agreement for him to repair the harm he’d caused, something a more formalized victim-offender process would have supported.

Now in 2014, it is clear. Lancaster County and South Central Pennsylvania has a unique and powerful resource for restorative justice. While most Pennsylvania counties still lack any resources to “make things right” directly between people like my parents and Myrick, the CCP has a host of volunteers and staff with a range of expertise in restorative justice. In the last ten years alone CCP has handled more than five thousand cases.

The fact that the Center for Peacemaking not only exists but thrives is testament to people who support the organization financially and as volunteers. They understand that our community’s wholeness—and our personal wholeness—is dependent on a direct, empowered participation in addressing grievances. CCP’s success also owes much to the leadership of its board of directors and former director Jon Singer, for creating an efficient organization through which so many criminal cases have been transformed into mutual understanding.

And we have still much to learn. How do we expand restorative justice processes beyond the youth cases that form the bulk of our work? How do we better account for the trauma, bullying and violence that are operative if also hidden in so many situations? How do we
address the context of poverty, discrimination and abuse at the root of so much crime?

We can’t solve every problem, but one thing is for sure. Unlike my parents, who struggled to advocate alternatives to the punishment meted out to Myrick, we are no longer alone. A movement of restorative justice—and a stellar twenty-year track record right here in Lancaster—now supports anyone seeking to take hold of the justice owed to them, to make right relationships and to understand, “why?”

I am humbled and excited to step into and nurture this life-changing work. It meets a need not met anywhere else in our society. But unlike my parents, I’m not alone. And together we can co-create a different world than the fiery one in which I awoke the night our barn burned down.

Christopher Fitz
Executive Director
Center for Community Peacemaking

* The name has been changed.