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Helping our communities heal: The holistic value of mediation

Wasan Tita/Getty Images/iStockphoto

What if we could create more resilient communities, and engage with each other more civilly through intentional skill-building, connection, and communication?

That’s the groundbreaking idea being promoted by Susquehanna Valley Mediation, a
Selinsgrove, Pa.-based mediation organization that’s branching out beyond its legal
work to offer individuals, families, workplaces, schools, and organizations tools
needed to accomplish those objectives.

In the beginning

For nearly 15 years, Susquehanna Valley Mediation has offered low-cost mediation—sessions are $25 per party—as an alternative to court appearances for legal issues ranging from family conflict, child custody, and divorce to elder care, landlord/tenant issues, prison reentry, and employment. An outgrowth of the Arlin Adams Center for Law and Society on the campus of Susquehanna University in Selinsgrove, Susquehanna Valley (SV) Mediation was the brainchild of the late Allan Sobel, an attorney employed at the Adams Center.

“The idea [of the center] is to offer students opportunities to learn about the law as undergraduates,” explains Susan Jordan, Susquehanna Valley Mediation’s executive director. “When Al got sick [with cancer] in 2008, Susquehanna University decided to go in a different direction and disbanded [the mediation aspect of] the legal center. Al didn’t want the mediation component to die. [Before he passed] he brought together some of the early mediators—his wife Elayne, Maria Grossman, Steve Jacobson, Kim Kazakavage, Cindy Peltier, and others—and incorporated into a 501c3 nonprofit.”

Jordan, who has worked with SV Mediation for 12 years, 10 of them as executive director, was drawn to conflict resolution when she was homeschooling her children decades ago. She started out with the goal of improving her own ability to manage conflict and ultimately realized the importance of teaching her children the skill. This year, she is being honored with the Pennsylvania Council of Mediators’ 2024 Most Valuable Peacemaker Award.

“We started out reading some books about how to communicate in ways that are not violent,” she recalls. “It was very impactful to them when they went back to [the] school [district]. “They were learning how to have healthy conflict with their peers rather than some of the destructive things that happened in high school within social situations.”

What is mediation?

According to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, mediation involves the intervention of a third person, or mediator, into a dispute to assist the parties in negotiating a jointly acceptable resolution of issues in conflict. While mediation, as a means of solving conflict, has become widespread—playing out nationally in labor management disputes—access to it varies. In New York, for example, where there is a unified court system, every resident is entitled to state-funded mediation.

In Pennsylvania, Susquehanna Valley Mediation receives no state funds. It relies on fees for service, donations, fundraising, budget line items, including training personnel of other organizations, as well as funding from Snyder, Union, and Northumberland counties, its primary service area, to generate its $250,000 annual operating budget.

SV Mediation is just one of a handful of mediation centers in Pennsylvania located in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Lancaster, and near Gettysburg. “Every community needs a mediation center,” stresses Jordan.

Clients access the services of SV Mediation in a couple of ways. Mediation can be
court-ordered, as in the case of child custody cases, or it can be self-referred, as in divorce or elder care cases. In court-ordered situations, the first step is for clients to
meet with SV Mediation staff for an orientation, in which the process of mediation and its possible outcomes is explained. Most people—95 percent of SV Mediation’s nearly 200 annual cases, Jordan says—opt to try mediation as a means to address conflict.

“Our mediators help clients communicate and listen to each other,” said Jordan. “We help people get outside their own perspective and consider the perspective of the other person. Many people find common ground in mediation, and they’re able to work together and come up with their own solution they’re happy about.”

Who is a mediator?

Renee Sosland of Lewisburg is one of SV Mediation’s 30 volunteers, and in 2009 was one of the organization’s first volunteer mediators to be trained. At the time, she worked as a counselor at Susquehanna University. “People in conflict, people with problems have always been a part of what I’ve done,” she said.

Sosland sees mediation as a desirable way to resolve conflict, and free up the overloaded court system.

“Mediation is an opportunity for the parties to come together in a quiet, confidential, secure environment to see if they can work out their problems or at least talk about them and get more clarity. They don’t have to pay attorneys, and they don’t have the anxiety of going to court, standing before a judge, and perhaps not getting the outcome they want.”

Sosland underscores the value of mediation. “What’s most gratifying is to see people who come into a mediation who are confused, they’re upset, they’re angry,” she said. “And to see that kind of disappear and talk rationally and most important is take control of their lives, which is what we encourage.”

What mediation can do

The majority of cases seen by SV Mediation are court mandated and deal with child custody and visitation rights. An overarching goal is to try to keep children out of foster care. Childhood trauma resulting from stranger foster care leads to various mental and physical health outcomes, including heart disease, cancer, and suicide, says Jordan.

According to ScienceDirect.com, a database of peer- reviewed, full-text scientific, technical, and health literature, national estimates suggest that 28 percent of homeless individuals were once foster youth. Former foster youth have lower levels of employment and education, and greater rates of drug use and incarceration. Notable trends to achieve this goal include kinship foster care—placing foster children with extended family members, rather than strangers.

“It was a really a paradigm shift in philosophical approach,” explains Dr. Jenn Napp Evans, Psy.D., M.Ed., LBS., director of Snyder County Children and Youth Services, one of SV Mediation’s 20 partner organizations and the county's public agency mandated by state and federal law to protect children from abuse and neglect. “It was part of the federal government moving to Family First and the state government emphasizing the utilization of kinship care.”

The Family First Act is aimed at providing more federal resources to help families in crisis stay together. This improved strategy plays out at SV Mediation with Crisis Rapid Response family meetings, a core component of the statewide Family Engagement Initiative. Union County was one of the first adopters in the area, followed by Snyder and Northumberland counties. The goal of either a Crisis Response Family Meeting (within 24 hours of the emergency event) or Rapid Response Family Meeting (within 72 hours of the emergency event) is to address the immediate concern that is leading to the need to remove the child from his/her home. This inclusive, family approach is designed to not only give family a voice, but to actively involve family in decision making.

“It's about treating families the way they should always have been treated,” said Evans. “And now that we know better, we do better by our families and we do less reactionary stuff that causes more trauma and harm to families. [It’s] part of an amazing opportunity, with Susan and the mediators being willing to support our Family Engagement efforts and our Family Finding efforts—really treating families with increased respect and dignity as experts in themselves,” continued Evans. “[We’re] moving to a more preventative, more proactive approach with families.”

At the point of the emergency, the question is asked: who do you have in your life? Or who have you burned a bridge with that we can reach out to and fold into the conversation?

“The goal is to come up with a family plan,” said Jordan. “A lot of these families have generational trauma, generational poverty, generational violence. It’s called the Family Engagement Initiative because the purpose of the meeting is to increase engagement, to get people at the table. It’s how can we have a community that takes care of each other, and that feels responsible for each other, in whatever ways are appropriate.”

Statistics show the program is working.

“Just as an example, when I started here in Snyder County in September of 2017,
there were 49 kids in [foster] care, and currently there's one youth countywide in
foster care,” noted Evans.

An ancillary advantage of the program is the money it saves. The involvement of SV Mediation’s mediators has helped allow Snyder County Children and Youth Services to divert funds traditionally allocated to support foster care families to support families of those children instead, and to divert needed funds into the community.

“We’ve saved routinely between $1 million and $1.5 million a year,” said Evans. “My [Snyder County] commissioners have been a huge partnership with this and understanding if I can get more preventative, I can get more community safety. They've allowed me like $300,000 to $500,000 every year from what I've saved to double down and add new programs and services—more mentoring, Big Brothers, Big Sisters, and a truancy prevention program.”

Jordan says the Family Engagement Initiative has been important in her own growth as a mediator. “It’s some of my biggest learning, in terms of what’s possible in a community,” she said. “Some of these families have really been through a lot. But they can still show up for each other, and be family for each other.”

Communication-oriented programs

A more connected community is realizable through better communication, believes
Jordan, and has led her to take SV Mediation in a supplementary direction. She’s added new programs designed to address issues never before confronted, including working more with young people. Prior to Covid, Jordan’s team facilitated a peer mediation program in the Selinsgrove School District, where middle school students learn the same communication skills as adults. She’s eager to restart the program.

“It was incredible to see how quickly those kids got it,” she said. “Kids want to be listened to; they understand what it’s like when they’re silenced and they don’t have a voice. Kids help each other navigate through challenging social situations, and they learn how to look each other in the eye and listen to each other. That’s a skill, with cell phones, that is being lost.”

In conjunction with the Susquehanna Valley United Way, another partnering organization, SV Mediation embarked on a community mapping project to find out
where are the strengths in a community, and where are the places where people are

“Typically, this information is gleaned through focus groups and surveys,” said Jordan. “We wanted to try something different—to give people an experience of connection, belonging, and learning. We bring people together in a circle and let them talk among themselves about what’s important to them. We always start the Story Circles with, tell a story about a time you felt belonging. Sometimes people share stories about not feeling belonging.”

Story Circles have been undertaken with: students in area schools, including a girls’ empowerment night in Lewisburg; parents of students; a Silver Sneakers class at Selinsgrove Recreation center; parents of kids with disabilities; empty nesters; and people from various racial and ethnic backgrounds.

Jordan connects Story Circles to her organization’s mediation work through the shared goal of connection. “Our tagline is, The Power of Conversation,” she said.

“I look at our work as proactive and reactive. The reactive work is people have conflict and they call us. The proactive side has risen out of what we’ve seen on the reactive side, which is: people need to be in a relationship with each other, so that when a crisis comes, they have a support system.”

In the future, Jordan envisions more programs like Story Circle to help community members see the humanity in each other. “Destructive conflict can lead to demonization, dehumanization of folks,” she said. “That’s really where our work is– helping people have more humanizing, more constructive, more positive ways of relating to each other, whether or not they agree.”

Creating paths to move forward

Other programs address at-risk members of communities. The Prison Reentry Program, based on referrals from the Union County Probation Department, plays a critical role in bringing together and reestablishing connection between prisoners being released from jail and their families.

“Sometimes it’s to establish boundaries,” said Jordan. “Sometimes it’s to talk about past harm. Sometimes it’s just to make a plan for going forward of how are we going to live together.”

Most recently, SV Mediation has been working with Snyder and Union counties to
address an unserved need—families of people in recovery. The Families in Recovery program, announced in early February of this year, will be funded by money to be obtained from the nationwide financial settlement won from four major pharmaceutical companies as a result of the opioid epidemic. The goals of the program, according to Jordan, are to help people widen and engage their support networks, learn to communicate more effectively, and engage with the many services that exist in Union and Snyder counties.

Overall, Pennsylvania is receiving $1 billion from the trust fund set up following the opioid settlement. Snyder and Union counties will pool more than $200,000 they’ve received initially to help individuals in recovery and their families. Both Snyder and Union counties will receive about $1 million each over 18 years, to be spent on drug treatment and drug abuse prevention.

In a SV Mediation press release announcing the upcoming program, President Judge Lori Hackenberg, who oversees treatment court in Union and Snyder counties, said, “For successful addiction recovery, it is essential to offer comprehensive support and understanding, not only to individuals but also to their families. This initiative, combined with existing resources, aims to achieve that goal.”

How-to training

SV Mediation uses community volunteers as mediators and in other capacities, which requires relationship building and training. Typically, mediation training takes place over two weekends, for a total of 40 hours. Training is free to those who commit to serve as active SV Mediation volunteer mediators for at least two years. No prior experience is necessary, but Jordan says a lot of the training is about how to stay in your role as mediator.

“What makes a good mediator?” asks Jordan. “It’s someone who can be humble, who can be a good listener, who can put their own views aside, who’s eager to learn something new.”

Sosland concurs. “Our mantra is to meet people where they are,” she said. “What we cannot do is offer advice, or offer any kind of suggestions. We want to make sure that the parties feel they’ve been heard. We reflect what it is that they’re saying. In that way, we encourage them to talk further, to explain further, and give the parties an opportunity to respond to each other.”

Where do we go from here?

Mediation can play a role in a variety of settings, including workplaces, neighborhoods, schools, families, places of worship—anyplace people have conflict. In the future, Jordan envisions implementing communitywide workshops and training to help people build skills to manage conflict on their own.

“I’d like to live in a community where there’s a culture of people engaging with one another,” she said. “And when they’re struggling with conflict, they see value in engaging with each other and not walking away. That’s why the community work is so exciting to me,” continued Jordan. “How do we live in a community where we’re not all the same? I do feel like we’re in some ways losing capacity to do that. My vision for our community is that we can engage with each other across differences.”

Ultimately, Jordan sees mediation as playing a vital role in combatting polarization.

“People young and old are so hungry to be heard,” she said. “To have someone listen to them, to what they care about, what is hard, what they hope for. That’s being lost a little with social media noise, smartphones, the pandemic. The lack of listening is both a cause and impact of destructive polarization. If I get curious about you, and why you think the way you do, it might help me understand you better, find ways we can work together, or be better neighbors. It doesn’t mean we’ll see eye to eye, or agree, or change our minds. Listening is part of building that relational capacity to address issues when they come along, and have genuine influence on one another.”

If you’re interested in becoming a mediator…

Susan Jordan will facilitate a Susquehanna Valley Mediation training session for those wishing to become mediators. The 40-hour training, free for those who commit to serve as a SV Mediation volunteer mediator for two years, takes place Feb. 23-25 and March 8-10 at its office at 713 Bridge St., Selinsgrove.

For more information, call (570) 374-1718, email casecoordinator@svmediation.org, or visit svmediation.org/become-a-mediator.

Erica Shames is the emeritus founder and publisher of Susquehanna Life magazine, Central Pennsylvania’s original lifestyle publication.