By Tammie S. Haynes
On a beautiful autumn day, I walked into the redbrick Montgomery County Courthouse annex to a nondescript back hallway. Halfway down a line of chairs along the wall, a lone man sat with his hands clasped, elbows resting on his knees, his head bowed. On a door, a plaque read “Dispute Resolution Center, Helping People Have Difficult Conversations Since 1988.” I entered a small room where three people waited, sitting with legs and arms crossed, defensive body language at odds with three joyful bookmarks displayed on a large white board. “Avoid conflict,” “Make peace,” and “We should all get along” were written in various childish scripts along with drawings of dogs, stick figures, and a bunny.
Beyond the waiting room, the first door opens to the office of Elaine Roberts, the executive director of the Dispute Resolution Center of Montgomery County, or the DRC, one of many similar organizations in Texas that provide reduced-fee mediation services and conflict resolution training. As a volunteer mediator, I usually head into a conference room to mediate a case. On this visit, I sat down across from Elaine at her large desk. Framed diplomas and court admittances, including for the United States Supreme Court, hang on the wall.
Elaine has led the DRC for more than three years with minimal help—a paid administrative staff of two, and around 50 volunteer mediators. Providing over 1,000 mediations a year, the DRC functions as a clearing house for the local courts, sends mediators to the Justice of the Peace courts, and conducts community outreach and conflict resolution training.
A trial attorney who handled discrimination cases, Elaine was one of the first volunteers to train as a mediator in Houston. She became a member of the Dispute Resolution Center of Harris County Board of Directors. And after some time leading Texas’ disability rights legal services—she was responsible for 14 offices across the state—and a stint living with her husband in Australia, Elaine settled in Montgomery County while working in the Houston Mayor’s Office. Then the DRC position became available.
“The best thing about running the DRC has been the quality of the people I work with every day. We have volunteers with integrity and intelligence,” Elaine said. Her small staff does a great job, using limited funding efficiently and social media effectively. Last year, she set up an art contest to promote peaceful conflict resolution among school children. The goal was to teach kids alternatives to using violence or other destructive means to resolve conflict. Judges and other local dignitaries sifted through creative entries to choose the winners, and the top designs were made into bookmarks and distributed at no cost. With over 2,000 entries last year, the contest was a success.
Elaine wants the program to reach all ethnic and minority groups by offering mediation in different languages and in locations accessible to citizens with limited transportation. “The mediators need to be relatable to the changing demographics of Montgomery County.”
I asked her opinion on the biggest misconception about mediation. She identified two, “In our area, some people look at mediation as a way to strong arm parties into doing what the attorneys want them to do. I think it is to let the parties make their own agreements or not and to give them the forum to talk about their dispute.” As for the second, Elaine believes some attorneys think facilitative mediation isn’t effective. In her opinion, that comes from a lack of understanding of the different purposes of the types of mediation. As she elaborated, “When parties have an ongoing relationship, such as co-parenting a child, they need a process to re-establish communication to work together in the best interest of the child, even if they don’t like each other. Mediation can do that while going to trial doesn’t.”
Elaine has advice for starting a volunteer mediation center. There is a practical need to convince county officials that mediation is effective and saves taxpayer money. She recommends using available studies and polling the various Texas centers on how they got started—what worked and what didn’t. “Even if elected officials don’t understand mediation, they do understand taxpayer savings and making government, including courts, more efficient.” Elaine may spend her days promoting nonviolent cooperation but it’s clear she advocates vigorously for accessible conflict resolution for everyone in the community.
Tammie S. Haynes is an attorney and credentialed advanced mediator living in the northern suburbs of Houston. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org