Creating pathways from conflict to healing and restorative justice, the Dispute Resolution Center

Serving Washtenaw and Livingston Counties, the Dispute Resolution Center (DRC) is one of 17 nonprofits that provide conflict resolution services throughout the state. We were founded in the 1980s, because our state legislature wanted to provide an alternative approach to solving problems in communities. DRC was a pilot site to demonstrate the efficacy of having a community center. We passed the test, and have established a long history in this community. Our center falls under the umbrella of our State Court Administrative Office, an arm of the Michigan Supreme Court, yet, we function independently.

The legislation requires we work with community members, training them to be mediators. Now,  we’re training folks to be restorative circle facilitators, as well. More than 100 members of the community donate their time to work with our cases. Most of our volunteers are retired, or gradually retiring individuals, who come from many different professions. Some have volunteered with us for over 20 years. We respect their feedback, and provide them with a level of individual agency, as they work to listen, and help people navigate their conflict.

Our mission at DRC is to offer affordable, constructive, restorative, and healing approaches to conflict resolution. We don't just want to give people a process of reaching an agreement. We want the experience to help them move towards healing. Conflict and trauma are very destructive, and people need healing.

We work with a wide variety of issues. We do small lawsuits and small claims court, neighbor disputes, aka “ugly fence” cases, as well as landlords and tenants. We work with families who are separating, or divorcing, or have done these already. We help people navigate custody, financial issues, or struggles in caring for a loved one. Some of our cases involve educational disputes—special education, specifically—but it might be between parents and educators, or student-to-student.

Our mediators are trained according to a state standard, using a curriculum we've developed. At the end of the day, we're helping people have a conversation they haven’t been able to have on their own. We help them think through, and take ownership of the issue that’s concerning them, and navigate the emotional pieces so they can reach a resolution. One of our philosophies at the DRC is that, it's your problem when you come to us, and it can be your solution when you leave us. We do not tell people what to do. If folks can’t reach a resolution, they can go back to court with clarity in the legal positions they have.

During COVID-19, we’ve developed an important partnership with the Washtenaw County Prosecutor. In September of 2021, we co-launched a program to bring about restorative justice in our community. This borrows many values and principles from North American Indigenous tribal communities as a way of problem-solving, also known as peace keeping. If the survivor of a crime wants to enter into a dialogue with the person who harmed them, and if the would-be defendant acknowledges and takes responsibility for that harm, our volunteer facilitators help navigate a restorative circle to bring about wholeness and healing. These cases, in which the prosecutor’s office “holds” criminal charges while an accountability plan is created, have an 18-month window. This is long-term work, not a Band-Aid solution. 

We're very fortunate in Washtenaw County that many of our judges do favor mediation and restorative justice. The peacemaking court here is one of only a few in the country. We’re fortunate to have these partnerships, and an understanding within our criminal legal system of a more healing way of resolving conflict. Nationally, restorative justice has shown to cut recidivism rates by half. It’s extremely successful because we get to the root of the trauma, or suffering, that brought everybody to that moment. The process goes deep, to consider how this harm impacts both individuals' lives. This is heart work, not head work.

All of our center’s work has shifted online since COVID-19. We weren't sure it would even work to have these personal dialogues about tough issues in a virtual space. As a staff, we were learning and, essentially, re-training our volunteers at the same time. But our strong community showed up for us. They took the risk, they dealt with their own fears, and anxieties, and hit the link to join Zoom. Many of them had never done that before. Some of our volunteers have decided they want to pause until we can do this work again in-person. We understand. Mediation generally works well online, but there’s a lot of symbolism and emotional exchange to our restorative justice circles that can’t be captured in the same way. Longer cases also create Zoom fatigue, so we’re having to make adjustments for that in our programming.

Though it's not the state’s choice model, as staff, we've had to regularly take on cases ourselves. We need more volunteers to work virtually. Shifting online, we’ve seen our volunteer pool diversify in geography, age, race and ethnicity. At least 80% of those in our current training session are people of color, or under the age of 40. Younger people are comfortable in this virtual space, and interested in the work we do. It speaks to their values, as it relates to the social unrest we're experiencing in this country.

It’s encouraging to us that restorative justice has a place in the narrative of justice reform, in dealing with the harms of our society. What we see on the national level trickles down to the local community. We don't want people to think it's just on TV, or “over there,” or with the protesters. That civil unrest, that tension, is happening with individual people, and is showing up in our cases. We’re navigating that space pretty well right now, which is cause for hope.

As leaders of our organization, we’re concerned with the casual openness around COVID-19 safety, especially as cases rise. The health and safety of everyone we work with is our highest priority. We're carefully assessing the future of in-person services, the space needed, and safety protocols. This continues to be a huge responsibility. We don’t want anyone to become ill with this virus because they were doing the good work of the DRC.


Belinda Dulin and Germaine Smith co-authored this piece. Dulin is the executive director of the Dispute Resolution Center.  Smith is the DRC’s assistant director. This entry is part of our Nonprofit Journal Project, an initiative inviting nonprofit leaders across Metro Detroit to contribute their thoughts via journal entries on how COVID-19, a heightened awareness of racial injustice and inequality, issues of climate change and more are affecting their work--and how they are responding. This series is made possible with the generous support of our partners, the Michigan Nonprofit Association and Co.act Detroit.