About / History

Community mediation offers constructive processes for resolving differences; and conflicts between individuals, groups, and organizations. It is an alternative to avoidance, destructive confrontation, prolonged litigation or violence. It gives people in conflict an opportunity to take responsibility for the resolution of their dispute and control of the outcome. Community mediation is designed to preserve individual interests while strengthening relationships and building connections between people and groups and create processes that make communities work for all of us.

In 1970 three women – Charlotte Adams, Beth Okun, and Ruth “Tan” Schwab — began monitoring the justice system, the district criminal court in particular, as a project of the Women’s Internal League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF). They attended district court regularly for seven years, primarily to observe whether black and ‘hippie’ defendants were getting unequal treatment, or more severe punishment, than others.

They also became aware that the local district court was not meeting the needs of people in continuing relationships [e.g. family members, co-workers, neighbors] because of the adversarial nature of court proceedings. In the summer of 1973, while attending a WILPF meeting in Boston, the three women heard about community mediation, in particular, a nearby center established in Roxbury by the American Arbitration Association (AAA). They then made contact with others in the US who were involved in community mediation and arranged for a speaker from AAA’s Washington, DC office to come to Chapel Hill and explain the concept.

For three years the women held countless meetings. While many liked the idea of locally trained volunteers becoming mediators and offering an alternative to court, no one was willing to turn the concept into reality. AAA speakers came to Chapel Hill in 1973 and again in 1976.

Finally, their persistence paid off. In 1976 the Orange County Board of Commissioners endorsed the proposal for a community mediation program, followed by the Chapel Hill and Carrboro Boards of Alderman in 1977. Wade Barber, District Attorney at that time, was enthusiastic and particularly helpful in organizing support in the legal community; his willingness to refer the case to the emerging center had a major impact on its credibility.

For the next year and a half, a planning group composed of a diverse group of individuals contributed many hours and personal finances to the organizing effort. Paul Wahrhaftig of the Conflict Resolution Center in Pittsburgh, who was a tireless promoter of community mediation nationally on behalf of the American Friends Service Committee, came to Chapel Hill in the spring of 1977 to share his ideas and expertise. In the fall of 1978, Marjorie Curet, an attorney with the Community Relations Service (CRS) of the US Department of Justice, provided free mediation training to a group of volunteers. These volunteer mediators became the Center’s first board of directors. Scott Bradley became the Center’s first (unpaid) Executive Director.

The DSC mediated its first case in the fall of 1978 in a room provided by the Newman Catholic Student Center in Chapel Hill. By the end of 1979, Bebe Danzinger, a local businesswomen, had donated use of a 3-room office in Chapel Hill; state representative Patricia Hunt had secured a State appropriation of $7,500; the local United Way provides an additional $4,500; and a paid, part-time Executive Director, Evelyn Smith, was hired.

The history and development of the first center in Chapel Hill were unique in its precedent, and it became the model for new centers across the state. But it was not unique in the combination of factors that led to its success in getting started. Other early centers had similar challenges and allies: hard work in countless meetings by committed community volunteers; beginning on a shoestring budget, often in donated space; progressive court and public officials willing to take a risk on a new concept; and, support from other community agencies, churches, local funders, and philanthropic foundations.

The Orange County DSC became a model, as well as a resource, for the development of new centers. Orange DSC board members and staff proselytized for community mediation across the state and assisted emerging centers with training and program development. In 1982 the Chatham County Dispute Settlement Program [at first under the non-profit umbrella of Orange] and DSC of Durham started, followed in 1983 by the Charlotte/Mecklenburg Community Relation Committee’s Dispute Settlement Program, Mediation Services of Guilford County, and the Neighborhood Justice Center of Winston-Salem [now Mediation Services of Forsyth County]. Three new centers formed in 1984: Alamance County DSC, The Mediation Center in Asheville, and Henderson County DSC.

In the fall of 1984, the directors of four centers met to explore the advisability of all nine centers joining together to develop a bill in the NC Legislature relating to dispute settlement centers. On November 19, 1984 all nine centers did meet to explore issues of confidentiality, legality of mediated agreements, training requirements, funding through State appropriations, fees for service, and a variety of issues concerning center autonomy, structure, and relations with courts.

In January 1985 the nine centers formed the NC Association of Community Mediation Programs; by the end of March Bylaws had been adopted. Mike Wendt, Director of the Dispute Settlement Center of Durham, served as Acting Chair until Alice Phalan, Director of the Chatham County Dispute Settlement Program was elected Chair. Others active in the formation of the Association included Barbara Davis (Asheville), Joan Gantz and Lee Dix Harrison (Guilford), Shirley Johnes (Henderson County), Lisa Menefee (Forsyth), and Claire Millar (Orange). Issues of primary concern to the new organization centered on legislation being sponsored by Senator Bill Martin (Guilford), concerns raised by the Coalition on Domestic Violence about mediation in the context of domestic violence, partnering with the Consumer Protection Division of the Attorney General’s Office to mediate consumer complaints, and developing the fledgling organization’s structure. The Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation, which had provided grants to many of the early centers, provided a grant of $25,000 to the Association. These funds allowed the Association to hire a part-time coordinator, Dee Reid, a freelance writer and editor and mediator at the Chatham center. Dee established an office for the Network in Pittsboro. In 1986 the Association changed its name to the Mediation Network of North Carolina and incorporated it as such the following year.

The establishment of an umbrella organization for NC’s community mediation centers nurtured unified efforts in several important areas: training standards; guidelines for ethical conduct of mediators; policies and guidelines regarding domestic violence issues and mediation; mediator evaluation guidelines; qualifications and standards for mediators; enforceability of mediated agreements; confidentiality and mediator privilege; and, state appropriations for centers.

Another significant event in support of the growth and development of community mediation centers was the publication of the report of the Task Force on Dispute Resolution. The Task Force, chaired by Pittsboro Attorney [and former DA for Orange and Chatham counties] Wade Barber, was sponsored by the NC Bar Foundation, with financial support from the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation and the National Institute for Dispute Resolution (NIDR). The Subcommittee on Community-Based Alternatives, chaired by Greensboro Attorney Larry Sitton, was unequivocal in its support of the 10 [at that time] community based mediation centers. The Report recommended that the NC Bar Association should actively encourage the growth and development of centers. Furthermore, the Task Force recommended (1) that attorneys support the work of the centers, in part by referring appropriate cases; (2) centers be assured of secure state funding while maintaining local initiative and community control, volunteer support, and local financial support; (3) the General Assembly enact legislation addressing several key issues, most of which has been covered by subsequent legislation; and, (4) centers become more active in resolving consumer-merchant disputes.

With the grant from Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation supporting permanent, part-time staff, in 1986 Mediation Network was able to support the growth of new centers, publish its first newsletter, The NC Mediator, and sponsor its first training, a ‘train-the-trainer’ workshop conducted by the Community Board Program of San Francisco.

Additional support came in 1987 with an award from the NC State Bar’s Interest on Lawyers’ Trust Accounts (IOLTA), beginning a long relationship of IOLTA’s financial support for centers as well as the Network. IOLTA permitted the Network Board to establish a formula for dispersing funds to member centers, which favored centers in their first two years of operation. Continuing grant support from IOLTA has been crucial to helping several new centers get operational and other centers develop new initiatives. More recently it has also been critical to the development of the Network core staff and office.

The Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation has also had a major influence on the growth and development of new centers, as well as programmatic expansion within existing centers. Since first granting the Orange County center $25,000 in 1981, the Foundation has provided approximately 75 grants to new centers and the Network for start-up and operational support, for program expansion into adjoining counties, and to implement innovative programs such as RESOLVE and other life skills training, peer mediation in schools, juvenile mediation programs, restorative justice, and prejudice reduction programs. These grants, ranging from $10-35,000 now total over $1.5 million. While visiting at a Network Board meeting in August 1997, Foundation Assistant Director Joseph Kilpatrick noted, that “NC’s community mediation centers are a private philanthropist’s dream come true with their small dedicated staffs and their spirit, flexibility, and innovation”.