Study Sheds Light on Factors That Limit Access to Community Mediation, Recommends Key DEI Initiatives

Issue November/December 2023 November 2023 By Ursula Furi-Perry
Dispute Resolution Section Review
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Ursula Furi-Perry

Massachusetts is home to 12 community mediation centers that service all 14 counties, overseen by the statutory state office of dispute resolution, the Massachusetts Office of Public Collaboration (MOPC) at the University of Massachusetts Boston. These centers make a true difference: according to MOPC’s website,, “Data gathered during 2022 showed there were 5,277 people served through 2,499 new cases and 1,697 mediations took place with settlement rates of 72%.” 

Like many other entities in the field, community mediation centers continue to experience gaps and needs in their diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) services, according to an August 2023 report published by authors from MOPC. The report was based on qualitative research conducted through a series of community listening sessions, which were organized and facilitated by seven community mediation centers in 2021 and 2022. 

What Factors Limit Access To Community Mediation?

The study found various factors that can limit community members’ participation in and access to mediation, including the following:

Limited knowledge. Many community members have limited knowledge about mediation and the types of services offered by community mediation centers. Moreover, utilization of mediation may be affected by cultural conditions, whether that be fears of discussing personal matters with mediators who are deemed strangers, or the negative perception of neutral third-party intervention in some cultural contexts. 

Limited access. Community mediation centers have striven to be accessible and inclusive, and to reflect the communities they serve, with mixed results in attracting and serving non-white communities. Centers have implemented measures to recruit individuals from diverse communities, but have struggled with retaining such volunteer mediators, board members and staff. Community mediation continues to attract more privileged groups to volunteer because their economic, social and cultural resources enable them to engage in volunteering. 

Limited time and resources. Marginalized communities find it difficult to engage in activities outside of work, like community mediation, due to their limited resources. Participants indicated that they are unable to commit to mediation training (average of 32 hours in Massachusetts) due to economic and time constraints. 

Language and immigration status. Not surprisingly, language is a significant and structural barrier for certain marginalized communities’ participation in community mediation — services are delivered primarily in English, which discourages those who are not fluent in English from utilizing this service. Moreover, certain marginalized communities face structural inequalities due to their legal status, resulting in economic exploitation and further marginalization, and often affecting the economic status, gender and education of community members. Inter- and intra-group conflicts exist within immigrant communities in addition to general discrimination. Insufficient attention is paid to the voices of non-English speakers in the field of alternative dispute resolution, and without the presence of bilingual mediators or staff, these groups are not able to utilize community mediation services effectively. 

Gender. A male-dominated culture and gender divisions of labor limit women’s social and economic activities, including participation in community mediation. The situation seems far worse for undocumented women, who have even fewer choices, including when it comes to community mediation. 

What Can Be Done — And What Is Being Done At Massachusetts Community Mediation Centers — To Mitigate The Issue?

  1. Research on nonprofit organizations demonstrates the need to increase the diversity of nonprofit board membership, which in general is likely to be composed of wealthy older white adults whose social networks consist of white people, creating an issue of board diversity. Conversely, research also suggests that community mediation center board diversity can help centers develop diverse funding opportunities over time.

  2. DEI initiatives are crucial for combating social inequality and increasing the representation of historically disadvantaged groups in an organization, resulting in an increasing percentage of positions, resources and power distributed to members of disadvantaged groups.

  3. DEI initiatives extend outreach, create a healthier workplace and result in more qualified staff, which encourages nonprofit staff to build meaningful connections, achieve organizational goals and increase the impact on target communities and local partners.

  4. General needs identified in the study include access to health care, education, financial support, and information regarding where people can go for help. Community members voiced a wide range of community needs, such as child care services, housing assistance, utility/rent/unemployment assistance, access to technology, mental health support, support to resolve conflicts in schools, nutrition education for children, immigration assistance, and assistance to pay for funerals and for the care of the differently abled.

  5. Centers have various assets in the form of resources, knowledge and capacities that can be leveraged to address the gaps identified in the study. Centers involved in this study have also demonstrated that they have significant capacities to help their community members build, develop, improve and implement various conflict resolution programs and skills that are aligned with community needs.

  6. Establishing trust and forming relationships via partnerships with local organizations and word of mouth in communities can increase awareness of mediation. Local partner organizations like immigrant-focused organizations are asked by clients to help them resolve conflicts, and often they do intervene. 

What Recommendations Resulted From The Study?

The study lists several recommendations for community mediation centers to adopt, including: 
  • Developing a comprehensive set of written DEI policies that touch upon all aspects of their organization and operations, promoting DEI at all levels, and continuing to engage in self-reflection with an explicit, intentional commitment to advancing racial equity.

  • Adopting a theory of change, identifying key change agents, and developing a strategy for managing organizational change to ensure that their DEI work is impactful and sustainable.

  • Creating actionable DEI strategies that produce real results in communities, and that include clear, measurable, actionable, timebound and accountable steps.

  • Building new partnerships and continuing to strengthen existing community partnerships with local organizations serving unserved/underserved and marginalized groups.

  • Designing effective marketing strategies for reaching marginalized communities and increasing awareness of community mediation.

  • Building a strong online presence and ensuring that websites are easy to navigate, mobile friendly, and accessible.

  • Reexamining outreach materials and tools from a DEI lens to ensure that these are accessible and welcoming to all, such as providing information in ways that can be accessed by people with disabilities and/or in multiple languages.

  • Continuing to provide free services and training, but also increasing language diversity among staff, and working to build trust and form stronger relationships with the diverse populations in the communities they serve.

  • Developing and incorporating more culturally appropriate mediation practices and/or approaches to serve culturally diverse populations.

  • Leveraging continued funding and practical support from community mediation sponsors and funders to achieve strategic change and make training and services more accessible.

  • Employing a concerted effort to reach out to marginalized communities, amplify the voices of community members, and partner with other organizations.

  • Co-creating a vision of community mediation that centers the voices, needs and strengths of those most impacted by the services through a broad visioning process involving multiple stakeholder groups.

Ursula Furi-Perry, J.D., MBA, is a staff attorney at the Massachusetts Trial Court, Lowell Court Service Center, and the former executive director of the Middlesex Community College Law Center, which provides mediation and conciliation programs.