Opportunity in Framingham

Opportunity in Framingham Sunday, November25, 2007
Rev. Dr. Deborah L. Clark, Framingham Metrowest Daily News
The Chinese character for "crisis" is formed from a combination of the characters for "danger" and "opportunity."  This ancient symbol points to the current situation in Framingham.  We are in a crisis.  This crisis has been brewing for several years, as discord and distrust have intensified, and has reached a boiling point with the recent lawsuit filed by SMOC.  Along with this crisis come danger and opportunity.

The dangers are apparent.  The most obvious is the danger that, between both sides, more than a million dollars could be spent on legal fees.  We need that money for other things, including strengthening our schools and libraries and supporting vulnerable members of our society.

More dangerous than the financial cost is the potential for even greater division in our town.  While a suit is in process, conversation is truncated and positions become hardened.  If the suit comes down to winners and losers, I fear the atmosphere will be poisoned for years to come, and the entire town will end up losing.

The opportunity hidden in this crisis may be more difficult to discover.  But it is there.  The lawsuit forces us to recognize that something has to change.  The opportunity comes in choosing to make that change a positive one.  The opportunity comes in working to reclaim the best of who we are as a town.

In recent weeks, a number of Framingham clergy have met to discuss how our town can seize the opportunity inherent in this crisis.  From our different faith traditions, we share a commitment to the well-being of our community and to the support of vulnerable members of our society.  After much discussion, we agreed the best opportunity for a positive solution is mediation.  We urge SMOC, our town officials, and the individuals named in the lawsuit to engage in a process of mediation, and we offer our support and assistance.  We are thrilled to learn that some discussion about mediation has already begun.

In order to understand the process, I contacted several mediators to find out what they do.  Here's what I learned: There are professionals who specialize in mediation processes for situations just like ours, which involve the intersection of public and private institutions and individual citizens.  Our situation is complicated and multi-layered; that's why we need professional expertise.

Mediation is a highly structured process with clear rules and expectations.  It is carefully designed to facilitate respectful dialogue and to ensure all voices are heard.  In recent years, there have been periodic attempts to hold forums and public hearings around volatile issues.  Right now the level of distrust is too high for unstructured conversation to be productive.  We need the structure a mediation process provides.

Mediation is not one-size-fits-all.  Mediators begin with an assessment phase, during which they meet individually with involved parties to uncover the central issues and the points of volatility.  If the assessment reveals that mediation is likely to be helpful, they design a process specific to the particular situation.

Mediation takes time and costs money.  But the cost is much less than a major lawsuit.

As discussion about mediation has continued in Framingham, a number of questions have been raised: Would mediation simply smooth things over without getting to the root of the problem?  Mediation processes are designed to go much deeper than seeking a truce.  I believe they have much more potential to address the root causes of the conflict than a lawsuit does.

Would mediation require participants to back away from their core beliefs?  No.  Mediation requires the choice to express those core beliefs around a table instead of in a courtroom.  Mediation may require a willingness to back away from - or at least suspend - one's assumptions about someone else's core beliefs.  Given the level of hurt and distrust in our community, that may be hard to do.  The mediator's role is to create a context of safety and respect so parties can risk suspending those assumptions.

Might mediation fail to hold parties accountable for hurtful statements or unjust actions?  Mediation is not about ignoring the past; instead it seeks to acknowledge the past, address it, and refuse to allow it to define the future.

Mediation is no panacea.  It is risky.  It challenges all parties to acknowledge other perspectives than their own.  It is hard work, and it is worth the risk.

Framingham is in a crisis.  In the face of danger, we can choose opportunity.  Call your Town Meeting member.  Write your selectman.  E-mail SMOC.  Tell them you support mediation.  Our town is worth it.

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