When the ugly weed of hate and division sprouted at the Bloomington farmers’ market last summer, it highlighted deeper conflicts in the college town and launched a community-wide mediation to address longstanding issues of discrimination and bigotry.
The trouble began when the owners of Schooner Creek Farm, one of the vendors at the farmers’ market, were accused of being white supremacists. As the uproar worsened and created disruptions at the popular gathering spot, Bloomington Mayor John Hamilton contacted representatives of the Bridge Initiative for help.
“We requested the expert assistance of (the Divided Community Project’s) Bridge Initiative to create an arena in which all stakeholders can peacefully and productively share concerns and contribute to meaningful change,” Hamilton said in a press release announcing the launch of the program in Bloomington.
The Bridge Initiative is a new program run through the Divided Community Project based at The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law. When a community experiences civil unrest or tensions, the Bridge Initiative will provide mediators, at no cost, to start conversations among the residents in the town or city. In addition, the initiative offers training to local community members and technical assistance to continuing the inclusive engagement.
Liz Grenat, executive director of the Community Justice and Mediation Center in Bloomington, felt it was helpful to have mediators from the Bridge Initiative who were not from the Bloomington community. They were able to create a neutral space to conduct their work, and to make assessments of the issues, that may have been difficult for local mediators to do.
“The farmer’s market is a treasured community gathering space for many, and this conflict shocked our community on many levels. We tend to think of Bloomington as an inclusive, progressive community where all are welcome,” Grenat said. “I think it was important to have an outside neutral organization helping to identify and frame the broad range of issues that the conflict encompassed. It is now up to our community to search for ways to move forward.”
The Bridge Initiative identified the controversy at the farmers’ market as being a manifestation of deeper, systemic issues of racism and bigotry in the community. In its report summarizing its work in Bloomington, the initiative pointed out while the conflict at the market may have brought these issues to light for a majority of the community members, “people of color, religious minorities, and other marginalized communities in Bloomington have been confronting these realities for generations.”
Becky Monroe, director of the Divided Community Project, could not be reached for comment.
From its work, the initiative recommended Bloomington convene a task force, with as many different voices as possible, to continue talking and working through disagreements to find consensus. CJAM was identified as an organization that could continue facilitating meetings between community leaders.
The nonprofit has worked with groups, primarily to mediate disagreements between individual members. And it did start some initiation discussion after the strife at the farmers’ market.
“We believe everyone has the skills to figure out how to solve the issue on their own with guidance and help,” Grenat said.
Representing the Bridge Initiative, William Johnson, former mayor of Rochester, New York, and former president and CEO of the Urban League of Rochester, visited Bloomington three times in the fall of 2019 to meet with city employees and community leaders. He had conversations with a variety organizations affiliated with different groups in Bloomington and he sought out “nontraditional leaders” who had good ideas but are not usually invited to participate.
A key to successful community mediation, Grenat said, is to bring many different people to the table to share their views and concerns. The participants must focus on the issue as opposed to just venting about a problem and “truly listen and consider” the input of the others.
“People have to be ready and willing to participate,” Grenat said.
She explained the process is interesting to watch because at a certain point, people realize unless they get past what they see as really important, the conflict will continue. So part of what happens is people grapple with the issue and as the dialogue continues, “they begin to see things differently. Many figure out, they will be better to give up some ground and get something in return rather than staying stuck and getting nothing.”
The farmers’ market was not the only conflict the Bloomington community has sought to resolve through mediation.
In 2016, aggressive panhandling and homelessness in and around downtown had become so prevalent that residents, employees, business owners and customers were concerned about their personal safety. The problems included open drug use, discarded syringes, human waste in public spaces, fighting and break-ins of vehicles and residences.
Again, Hamilton launched an initiative to address the issues in the downtown and tapped CJAM to develop a public deliberation process. The center developed the Downtown Safety, Civility and Justice Project which was a three-stage process where community members and stakeholders were brought together to identify the areas of concern and possible solutions.
CJAM started by facilitating small group discussions with people from community organizations, businesses, government, police and service groups. This first stage used the participants’ perceptions, experiences and observations to give a broad overview of the situation and highlight issues that needed further research. In the second stage, CJAM took selected individuals who had participated in the first stage and had them continue the dialogue. In this second stage, the smaller group brainstormed and prioritized ideas for action.
Finally, the general public was invited to review and respond to the comments and ideas from the first two stages. Community members were able to participate in discussion circles focusing on issues such as mental health, employment opportunities, affordable housing and building public bathrooms.
The Rev. Virginia Hall, a member of the steering committee for the project, advocated that homeless people be provided the opportunity to participate in the process. The Episcopal clergywoman was well acquainted with the disenfranchised from her time at the Shalom Community Center as a street outreach worker to the homeless.
She walked the Bloomington streets every day, talking to homeless people and trying to get them connected to services. Hall was sympathetic to the problems they faced with addiction, unemployment and discrimination, but she also understood the public’s frustration that panhandling and disruptive behavior was ruining the downtown.
Having the homeless be part of the project was important, Hall said, because the community needed to hear their stories.
“When homeless people tell their stories, you see them differently,” Hall said, adding often they are struggling with addiction, mental health issues and abuse. “When you hear their stories, you understand why they are where they are. Hopefully that brings compassion.”
In addition to the homeless sharing their perspective, Hall also wanted them to hear the stories of the people who worked downtown. Those living on the street gained an understanding of the trouble business owners experienced when they had to pay for costly repairs to their restrooms. They also learned the fears of the librarians who worried about being harassed while they walked to their cars after work at night.
Still, the project ignited dissent.
When community members began discussion, members of a group called The Equity Collective briefly interrupted the event. They read a statement criticizing the public deliberation process but then several members left while a few remained and participated in the conversations.
Hall described the community mediation as fascinating and believes it provided a benefit to Bloomington. “At least it brought an awareness of the connectedness with all of us,” she said.•