MVMP offers amicable alternatives to conflict resolution

Martha’s Vineyard Mediation Program provides outreach, facilitation, and conflict coaching for Islanders who need support.

The M.V. Mediation Program is looking to support Islanders with conflict coaching, mediation, and other services during the pandemic.

The Martha’s Vineyard Mediation Program (MVMP) is continuing its mission to support Islanders in all aspects of conflict resolution.

Sara Barnes, executive director of MVMP, said the program has deepened its mission since the outset of the pandemic, and has been able to expand the reach of services they offer related to housing conflicts.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has created more conflict, and has isolated people from the processes they would have normally used to resolve those conflicts,” Barnes explained.

When businesses and organizations began being forced to shutter their in-person operations due to health restrictions, Barnes said, MVMP realized that the three classes they were running, the approximately 15 ongoing mediations they were helping with, and their work in the court would all “come to a grinding halt” unless the organization could shift its approach. “We quickly pivoted and moved onto Zoom,” Barnes said.

Mediators used telephones and devices to interact with people, and MVMP was able to continue all three of its classes “with really not much of a hitch,” Barnes said, although people did have to learn how to use the technology.

As individuals were isolated in their homes worrying about unresolved issues, Barnes said, the work of the mediation program became “even more important.”

Many of the conflicts that MVMP helps resolve are the same now as they were before the pandemic, but with peoples’ finances being so heavily affected, some of those struggles have been exacerbated. “We are seeing many of the same conflicts come across our desk as before: neighbor disputes, business-consumer disputes, family disputes,” Barnes said. “Issues that would have been brought to court that people are hoping we would help them with, such as small claims cases.”

Barnes said there has been an increase in interest for the two coaching programs MVMP offers — conflict coaching and financial conflict coaching.

Conflict, according to Barnes, is a one-on-one process where people work with a trained conflict coach to take a look at their approach to conflict, and gain some new tools, ultimately moving ahead with a self-determined plan.

FInancial conflict coaching is when people are noting that their financial situation is leading to conflicts and they have goals they need help with, such as tracking their daily expenses or income, planning for a particular purchase, and dealing with credit issues. 

“We have coaches who can help come up with a plan and give support as they work to achieve those goals,” Barnes said.

MVMP has also seen a rise in interpersonal conflicts, with COVID, lockdown, and the current political climate being major stressors.

Recently, the program released a series of 40 columns regarding conflict resolution while working from home, which offered things individuals can do in their day-to-day lives to avoid and remediate conflict.

“Sometimes it’s people who are in the same space as each other for longer than they are used to, and trying to figure out how to have these conversations that lead to positive outcomes,” Barnes said.

The main goal of MVMP goes beyond just helping people through conflicts — they want to provide the tools and knowledge to bolster independent conflict-resolution proficiency.

COVID has forced many families to reshuffle their financial situations, and for those who are divorced or separated, renegotiating child support arrangements and other agreements can be daunting. But with the proper support, Barnes said, those difficult conversations can often lead to an amicable agreement between both parties.

The second largest body of cases MVMP is working on currently are homeowner, contractor, and service provider cases, relating to payments not being made, or customers who are dissatisfied with a service or product that a provider is contracted for.

“Sorting out those contracts, helping people figure out payment plans, things like that. To leave with an agreement that can be enforced, and is durable, and can be supported by both sides,” Barnes said. “We open up a space for people to actually brainstorm with each other, create a solution, and sometimes something nobody would have imagined at the outset can happen.”

According to Barnes, many people have never engaged in mediation, and there is a certain stigma associated with the word. But she clarified that mediation is different from arbitration, in that a mediator is confidential, neutral, and works with the client to establish a self-determined process by facilitating conversation. 

As more Islanders become familiar with what mediation actually is, Barnes said, she hopes they will see it as a pleasant and effective alternative to arbitration. “It can actually be quite illuminating to hear someone else’s perspective, and then creatively work together as partners to come up with a good solution,” she added.

Housing on Martha’s Vineyard has always been an issue, and the pandemic has only made it harder on landlords and tenants alike.

Gov. Charlie Baker established the Eviction Diversion Initiative (EDI) to support landlords and tenants until COVID-related evictions were sufficiently addressed, even after the pause on evictions and foreclosures expired in mid-October of last year.

When the state moratorium expired, a federal moratorium established by the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control (CDC) became effective, and will continue through the end of March. 

The EDI has solidified the relationships between housing agencies in Massachusetts, such as the Housing Assistance Corporation of Cape Cod, which serves the Cape and Islands.

Those agencies come to MVMP with referrals for cases that cannot be resolved through the maximum financial award provided by the state Residential Assistance for Families in Transition (RAFT) program. 

For any case relating to more than $10,000 owed, Barnes said, MVMP works with tenants and landlords to find alternative solutions.

Many landlords, according to Barnes, have been waiting for rent for months, and it’s helpful for people to be aware of state funding awards that are available.

When asked about the new Coalition to Create the Martha’s Vineyard Housing Bank, Barnes said MVMP supports any efforts on-Island to improve the housing situation, but said the organization steers clear of advocacy in order to remain wholly neutral and unbiased during their cases.

A course on conflict resolution fundamentals will be offered in the near future, which Barnes said is a precursor to becoming a mediator or conflict coach.

Barnes said becoming a mediator is “very fulfilling,” and the work they do is essential to the community. “We find people say that becoming a mediator, conflict coach, or facilitator has helped them in their own lives — to have a purpose and give back to the community,” Barnes said.

She noted that MVMP is expanding its youth programming at the charter and high schools, with the hopes that people might gain interest in the role, along with a deeper understanding of what mediation means. “We think that is really the place where these ideas will grow,” Barnes said. “You don’t have to fight, you don’t have to argue; there are other tools to handle conflict.”