by Emily Landes
There is always a box of tissues on the conference room table at the Community Boards office—a wise precaution given the emotional subjects often being discussed there. From pets to parking, noise to nuisance, over the past 30 years, the staff and volunteers at this no- to low-cost mediation nonprofit have heard it all.
The mediation process sounds simple enough: Several aggrieved parties come to Community Boards and sit before a two- or three-person panel of volunteer mediators. First, the parties speak to the mediators about the issues they are having. Then, each party speaks to the other. Finally, they try to hammer out a solution and write it down. But a simple process is very quickly complicated by feelings of anger, resentment and defensiveness, which may have been building for years before the mediation, says Community Boards Bay Area Resources Manager Donna Salazar. “Frequently what they want to talk about is not really what they come to talk about. They come to talk about the fence or the dog, but really it’s what happened five years ago when somebody yelled at somebody else’s kid,” she explains.
Most of the time, even the most seemingly overwhelming interpersonal problem can be solved through the mediation process. Community Boards Communications Manager Jim Garrison sites data that shows about one-third of the calls the organization receives can be solved when just one party in the dispute gets advice from a Community Boards staff member. One-third of calls require active mediation between both parties, who almost always resolve some, if not all, of their problems in just one session. (The remaining calls, like those regarding domestic violence, are not suitable for mediation and are referred to other agencies.)
Surprisingly, it’s not the mediators who do the problem solving. “We don’t provide them with solutions. We just provide them with a place to talk,” Salazar says. “If there’s a resolution, its theirs.” She sites one example of innovative problem solving that occurred when an elderly couple complained about the noise being caused by the young family above them. At the end of the three-hour mediation, and with their landlord’s blessing, they decided to switch apartments.
Oftentimes, the mediations serve as a forum for the feuding parties to share information they might not have otherwise. Once, a few property owners on the same street brought their neighbor to Community Boards because he had suddenly started leaving his dog tied up in his backyard all day and parking his oil-leaking car on the sidewalk. During the mediation, the man revealed that he had cancer and thus did not have the energy to walk his dog or park even a few blocks from home. With this information in hand, not only did the neighbors solve their disputes, but they also began to walk the man’s dog for him, get him groceries and otherwise help him through his treatment.
That mediation came as the result of a police referral, and in fact the San Francisco Police Department is the number-one source of referrals for Community Boards. Salazar speaks to every class at the San Francisco Police Academy and officers keep the organization’s referral cards with them whenever they are on duty. In fact, when Community Boards ran out of cards recently, they got a donation from the Fraternal Order of Police to print more. Salazar says it’s easy to see why the police support the mediation service: “There’s real crime going on out there. They don’t need to deal with the lady who called them last night and the night before to say the neighbor’s stereo is too loud or the dog is barking.”
Another source of referrals is apartment house owners. “You’d be surprised how many times we get landlords calling because they are sick and tired of having their tenants complain to them,” Salazar says. The group also provides mediations for landlord-tenant disputes, and Salazar believes security deposits are most often the cause of problems in these cases. Property owners may also want to try the Community Boards for-fee mediation service when trying to resolve business disputes. The group charges $125 an hour to solve problems between owners and contractors, and real-estate agents and clients—just a few of the many business-to-business mediation services they offer. Garrison contends that if you can keep the issue out of the legal system, you can save thousands of dollars a day. “If you are debating small claims court, consider us a low-cost way to solve your problem and help a community group at the same time,” he implores.
In addition to free and for-fee mediation services, Community Boards also runs several conflict-resolution training programs for kids as young as eight. After completing these training programs, Salazar crows, kids can solve a problem on the playground in five minutes, whereas adults usually take about three hours. “It’s a whole process of trying to instill respect in youth early on and teach them how to avoid conflict,” she contends.
Garrison points out that the school program has been so successful locally, the organization now gets calls from schools all over the country that want to institute it in their classrooms. Some are a little nervous about bringing in a program from “evil” San Francisco, he says, but in the end they are usually won over by the bipartisan results. “It’s conservative and liberal at the same time. Liberals like to give kids the skills to learn, listen and be proactive. Traditionalists don’t want secular humanism, but they do want traditional values of respect and empathy,” he comments. “These skills meet at Community Boards.”
Of course, the organization also trains adults—these 30-to-40-hour training courses, held once or twice a year, are the sources of most of their mediation volunteers. The classes used to be free, but in the last few years they began charging $400, a bargain considering the personal, work and relationship skills learned, says Garrison, who adds that studies have shown that mediators get as much out of mediation as the people in the disputes. Salazar agrees that there is a definite “mediation high” that comes after a great session. “It’s just a feeling you have when you feel like, ‘Boy, did I do good,’” she says.
One of the Community Boards goals is to teach people that good feelings are not the only feelings they will have, nor should they. Hurt, anger and frustration—the feelings that people often have when they walk into the Community Boards conference room at the start of a mediation—aren’t necessarily “bad” feelings. They are normal and even appropriate, given the situation. The key is not to let those feelings stop people from resolving the real problems in their lives in the civil and straightforward manner promoted at Community Boards. “Being angry is part of everyday life,” counsels Garrison. “It’s what you do when you’re angry that matters.”
For more information on Community Boards, please visit www.communityboards.org or call 415-920-3820, Tuesday through Friday, to speak with a staff member.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the viewpoint of SFAA or SF Apartment Magazine. Emily Landes is the managing editor of San Francisco Apartment Magazine and Rental Housing. Copyright © 2006 by SF Apartment Magazine. All rights reserved.