By Alice B
This piece was hard to write, and not only because this organization is overflowing with people who seem to never stop eloquently writing their opinions, while I write rarely. It was hard because I want you to read it and think mediation sounds good. I want you to want to use it, and I want you to be as hopeful as I am that it can work. I want us to be inspired to be good to each other.
“Knowledge emerges only through invention and re-invention, through the restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry human beings pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other.”
— Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed
The Mediation Collective is a new team of NYC-DSA members who are working to formalize and nurture an organizational culture that can productively address interpersonal conflict between members, one not based on the punitive nature of our carceral justice system, but conducive to a healthy community and aimed at the possibility of transformation and care.
Grievance vs. Mediation
You may be thinking, “don’t we already have a thing like that…?” The Mediation Collective is new, but we do have a Grievance Committee which has been operating for a little over a year. You can read more about the grievance process here. The introduction of the Mediation Collective does not mean the grievance process is no longer an option. A functional and consequential grievance structure is necessary for our organization, but it’s not the right solution for every situation. Both grievance and mediation are tools. In mediation, two people work together, with structure and guidance from the mediation team, to move past a conflict on to something new. We are implementing the process of mediation to move toward and model a framework of transformative justice.
What is transformative justice?
When we take the time to examine them, we see that many of the issues that interrupt our interactions with comrades (and people in general) reflect the ways capitalism pits us against one another. In a retributive justice system, like the carceral regime of the capitalist state, all focus is placed on punishing the “perpetrator,” while little to no attention is paid to repairing harm, whether to the people involved or to the community. Nor is any care given to true rehabilitation — changing destructive behaviors or the societal structures that engendered or enabled harm.
Our mission is to transform the world. When we choose a transformative justice approach to addressing conflict — from the seemingly trivial to the acutely painful — we attune our minds to how those conflicts are symptoms of the larger problems in our society. When we choose to see on a micro scale the macro problems our interpersonal conflicts derive from, many of which we are in this organization to change, we can gain perspective on how our world affects us and how we can affect our world.
Before we arrive at mediation as an essential strategy we need to recognize some less productive routes personal conflict has a tendency to take. This analysis is not meant to apply to every conflict, to any specific conflict, nor to responses to threats to personal safety.
Suppressing: When it's “not that big a deal”
If you are upset about a situation with another member and it’s affecting you, your participation in DSA or your organizing work, but you think it doesn’t seem like a big deal or have found yourself thinking “oh it’s not that bad, I’ll get over it,” or “it’s not worth filing a grievance,” that’s a perfect time to consider requesting mediation. Requesting, or accepting an invitation to mediation It isn’t an admission of guilt or a judgment on the gravity of a conflict, it’s a conversation — hopefully, a very good, generative conversation. Addressing a conflict when it arises can not only prevent it from getting worse, it can actually strengthen a relationship. Taking the time to sit down with someone you’re not working well with, someone who has hurt you, or someone you’ve harmed — facing each other and facing the conflict — can build both your camaraderie and the communication skills vital to working with people, which is what we do! Going through mediation is an opportunity to grow.
Redirecting, Type 1: Talking Sh*t
Without community support for healthy and healing interactions and relationships, our movement will not succeed. Often we turn to friends to vent in times of conflict, and while personal friendships are important and necessary for emotional support, they are not always the best places to find a path forward. A thorough understanding of a conflict or failure in communication can’t happen in a vacuum. Talking about it exclusively to other people, not the person involved, can exacerbate the problem. Each time we tell the same half of a story, that version hardens until our narrative simplifies and solidifies, making it even harder to address the original events.
In such a tight-knit organization, a conflict between two can quickly seep into our organizational tissue, infecting larger spaces with low-(or high)-level turmoil. A small problem, when not adequately addressed, can and will become a big problem. Interpersonal conflict affects not only the people immediately involved, but the health of the entire community.
Redirect, Type 2: Why you shouldn’t just leave
Our organization exists for the purpose of making a better, more equitable and compassionate world — for improving our collective existence and deciding how to do so democratically. Democracy requires the that each person affected by a decision should have a say in that decision.
Sometimes when people are in conflict, one person will decide to leave a space because they don’t feel comfortable or safe, and it often ends up being the person who has more social capital or is more entrenched who gets to stay. That doesn't mean the other person has less of a right to be there and contribute. Leaving a space with no attempt at mediation is often a missed opportunity to build. Leaving can mean passing up on knowledge, on how to work better with other people. The inverse of this is ostracisation, where instead of taking the opportunity to build and grow, you could be passing along insensitivity or destructive behavior to another space. (All this being said, there will likely times when people do need to leave a space, but we hope to lessen this need by making available as many alternatives as possible, always prioritizing harm reduction.)
How our mediation process works:
There aren’t many restrictions on what issues mediation can be applied to, but the main requirement is willingness. Both people involved must be present to contribute to an examination of that conflict. The process can only succeed if each is willing to consider another perspective and open to re-examining their own. A mediation could address anything from a tough conversation that someone just wants a little extra support for, to a seemingly insurmountable personal disagreement. There are some cases which are not suitable for mediation; for example, the process would not be appropriate for cases of intimate partner violence.
If you’ve been in conflict with another member, you may have ignored the bad feelings in hopes they’d disappear. You may have tried avoiding someone by leaving organizing spaces, or by not having any interaction at all, online or offline. You might have tried talking to other people to get your feelings heard. If these modes of facing conflict did not work for you, you’re not alone!
Mediation isn't something anyone would ever be forced to do; it's always a choice. If you’re interested in setting up a conversation, you reach out to the team, and one of us will contact the other person. If they agree to participate, we’ll find a time that works for both people. We will try to pair you with a mediator who doesn't have a prior relationship with either person. That may not always be possible, as we work so closely with each other, but your mediators will always be someone that both parties agree to. All Mediators are local chapter members, spread out through all our branches, who have been through transformative justice mediator training.
A mediation happens only between the people in conflict with each other; it’s not a place for discussing other people. For now, our team is equipped to do two-person sessions, though we intend to expand to larger group circles in the future.
But it's hard!
Yes, it’s hard. But you’ve got it! You take some of that enormous energy you use for your DSA work, and channel it instead into working to listen to each other, address the feelings that you have and try to work it out. To do that, you both need to be willing to examine your own behaviors and actions and reactions, which absolutely, inarguably, is difficult. That’s why there’s a mediator there to help — by keeping conversation on topic, paying attention to how everyone is feeling, and making sure people are hearing each other. If you’ve ever seen a good facilitator or debate moderator, this may sound similar, but mediation is not a place for political debate. It is a place for growth as an organizer, and it is vital to the success of our movement.
Two people who have had a conflict and have taken the time to listen to each other and rebuild trust often have a stronger relationship than people who have never been in a conflict. Working through conflict is like building a bridge between yourself and another person. Sometimes the space between two people starts out just empty space with no way to cross, sometimes it starts out easy to cross, like a sturdy wood bridge. A wooden bridge can snap and break. But when both people participate in building, they can work together to come up with a plan for a new bridge that is built with knowledge of the particularities of either end. A mediator has an even view of both banks and can help coordinate the construction. Bridging that space is a critical skill for organizers.
The purpose of mediation is to come to a resolution for how to move forward. If someone caused another person harm and they want to do what they can to repair, this might mean coming up with a plan for restitution. It might mean a new understanding of a miscommunication or assumption. Mediation is about opening ourselves up to the possibility that perspectives, relationships, individual behaviors and social structures are not fixed. Each of us has a choice in how we choose to view and respond to conflict.
People are not past events. We aren’t static, or unchangeable; we grow and evolve in response to the world around us. Mediation can reveal the possibility for, and manifest the reality of, meaningful social change. Our political work hinges on that possibility.
To contact the Mediation Group, email email@example.com