Interview with Executive Director, Jill Cheeks and Director of Mediation Services & Volunteers, Lee Robbins, with the Mediation Center of the Coastal Empire in Savannah

Michelle Barclay:  We are in year 2 of these pandemic times, how are you holding up personally and professionally?  

Lee Robbins: Personally, I am taking the time to focus on other things than news or work. I am getting to spend more time with my wife and my young children who are just learning to walk and talk so I cherish this time with my family.  I also listen to a lot of music now.  And I’m eating better and exercising more to keep up my health.  Professionally, I’m staying focused on what’s in front of me every day, creating a priority list and asking for help from my teammates more (something I did not do pre-pandemic).  We are good team with good relationships.  We work hard to communicate well so everyone can handle life and work right now.   

Jill Cheeks: Personally, I am spending more time outside and I am working to create more meaningful moments with my children. I have a 14 and a 17-year-old and it will not be long before they might leave.  The quality and quantity of time together have increased over the last couple of years.  We have been able to make some memorable moments and I’m grateful for those moments.  The same is true for work.  We are working to be better communication and have more intentional conversations with each other.  We are normally a team of 14.  Right now, we also have two AmeriCorps VISTAs with us, so we are team of 16. In the past five years, we’ve grown from five to 16.  To be able to grow in staff, but also continue with good service delivery, it is critical that we grow our culture too.  I feel like we have been able to do that in a good way, a better way, partly because of COVID.  It has impacted us so personally and it forced us to show up to our workplace by creating flexible environments where we depend on each other more.  I feel like we have responded in a meaningful way that put forth our value of each individual as well as the team. 

Michelle Barclay:  Anything more to say about the mediation center itself and how things have changed during the covid years? 

Jill Cheeks:  We’re extremely grateful to all our local mediators. They were confronted with the learning curve of a new virtual world and surpassed all expectations of building rapport online with parties, helping us meet our commitment to the Courts for total number of cases mediated, and agreement rates.  We have also received incredible support from volunteers across the state.  We put out a call for help and interest in volunteering with the mediation center.  Over 110 mediators responded saying they would help, from all over Georgia.   Now it is our job to make those volunteers feel welcome and get them on board.  We’ve created many ways, dependent upon the registration category, to get them signed up with us.  We don’t want the potential volunteers to be discouraged so we need to move quickly.  We hold a monthly Information session called Mediation Matters and then we hold information sessions just for civil mediation or just for youth mediation programs or domestic.  We also work to sign them up to observe mediations.  

We just had a domestic introduction call today at noon and we are asking questions….name, where are you calling from?, why did you volunteer?   We heard all kinds of reasons but mostly, “I want to give back” or “I heard your mediators have fatigue” which is true.  We lost some mediators for many reasons this past two years, including the quick pivot to technology.  I’m feeling really hopeful about all of these new potential volunteers at the moment.  All of these meetings are 100% virtual.  Almost everything we do right now is 100% virtual.    

Michelle Barclay:  Was virtual a big change for you?  Were you doing virtual classes and mediations pre-pandemic?  

Jill Cheeks: Yes, virtual is a big change.  Going virtual was how we coped with the pandemic.  We were really innovative. We weren’t doing anything virtually, before the pandemic, and we took a couple of weeks, where we didn’t mediate anything.  But then we came up with new processes from the time a case is ordered to mediation to the resolution or completion of a case.   We had to learn how can we do our work in the most secure new way, keeping in mind our community members and realizing conflict has not stopped because of a pandemic.  Some reports even say that domestic violence has increased.  So we adapted.    

Michelle Barclay:  I heard from Tracy Johnson that Savannah is providing a lot of innovative mediation services.  Can you tell us what you are doing? 

Jill Cheeks: Our mission statement talks about: 

  • Conflict Prevention 
  • Conflict Resolution 
  • Increasing Access to Justice 
  • Changing the Culture to Eliminate Violence 

We put a lot of effort into those four areas.   In our conflict resolution area, we have the ADR methods, so we have mediation.   We also practice restorative conferencing.  

To prevent conflict we provide classes.  We just obtained a contract with Chatham County who obtained a grant to train police officers on mediation skills. We’ll also be with the officers in parallel, thus, we’ll be training community members on community mediation.  If there is a call for a conflict in the neighborhood, the officer and the community member can help mediate the conflict.  The earlier we can get to the conflict with these skills, the less escalation happens, the less things become violent, the less that incident gets to a courtroom or jail.  These police officers will be specially trained on how to make that decision to call for more mediation help. If a mediator can be useful, a decision tree will make the call, and we will have someone available for this pilot program.    

We also provide classes for the other three items in our mission statement with some overlap.  An example is our 4 hour Legitimation class, for fathers.   In that class, we spend time explaining what a parenting plan looks like, how to engage the other parent, how to have conversations about the parenting plan before filing a petition.  We also have a class called Children First, for high conflict parents.  Judges can order this class.  It is a 4 week class where one parent meets in the morning, the other parent meets in the afternoon with a group, so two hours each week, and we talk about the impacts of conflict on your children, but also to talk about parallel parenting, because they’re having trouble co parenting.   

Lee Robbins:  We have a brand new program starting after we applied for and received a federal grant from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, opportunity number DHS-21-TTP-132-00-01. This program will do preventative work to keep individuals from making that leap into extremist organizations and potentially turning to violence.  Our goal is to reach those individuals on the fringes of society, who have no support systems, or ways of dealing with certain emotions, or conflict, who then turn to those organizations or groups of individuals that are going to indoctrinate them and use violence as a way of getting what they want or need.  At the moment, we are working on a  curriculum to do a ‘train the trainer’ class.   We are working with community members on how to identify those individuals, and then pull them in and give them the resources that they need to they don’t get pulled in the wrong direction and ended up doing something that causes harm in the community.  We are experimenting with this program to reduce mass shootings.  We don’t want our community members to be afraid to go to school, to church, or to a grocery store.  This will be a hard project but we are eager to get started on this preventive work.  Our referrals for this work will come from the community.   

Jill Cheeks:  We are a member of NAFCM (National Association for Community Mediation-a great source of grants) which provided us one of 2 grants, which we have named as the Ambassadors of Peace program.  The grant is funded through the JAMS Foundation and the Association for Conflict Pesolution.  The program is provide conflict resolution education for vulnerable youth.   We have defined vulnerable youth have lived or are living currently in a youth shelter, or a youth group home or in foster care.  We are providing a 12 hour conflict resolution education, which can give them both skills to be able to internally manage the conflict that they’re feeling or self management of their emotions.   But will also give them communication skills when they are in those difficult situations or in an environment that is difficult or chaotic.   We are providing this training to the youth, but then also to the shelter/homes.  We have had great reception so far.  There’s been a lot of great interest from the group homes that we’ve contacted.  We are creating a program which is self-sustaining and youth-led.   

We are also approved community trainers with NAFCM (only 6 in the nation) for emerging Community Mediation Centers.  We just had a cohort of graduates, one in South Fulton and one in Macon so we are hopeful that South Fulton and Macon will have a community mediation center soon.  I feel that we’re helping create that infrastructure of community mediation centers to grow and evolve around the state and we stand ready to assist with that effort.   

Michelle Barclay:  Final question, why are you both in this sort of work? 

Lee Robbins:   I learn something new about people every day.  We communicate and connect on just different levels.  This work gives me that opportunity to understand that communication and connection. Everybody gets into conflict.  Everybody handles conflict differently.  We are all mediators who get to help individuals during difficult times to  get conflict resolved.  Then those people can move on and do the things that they love to do and focus on the things that makes them happy.  For me, that’s what’s exciting. There’s always something to do, plus we have so many new projects.  

Jill Cheeks: I believe in the unlimited potential of each of us. When conflict happens, it can be the worst day of someone’s life, and they just not have the skills to be able to move forward.  We create that not only safe space, but that brave space, to help people in that moment by facilitating the conversation. We can be better practitioners by preventing conflict in the future when we are able to facilitate that space.  Our team has grown and that is what we can do more in prevention because we work to become better practitioners by using our skills.   It is always a journey because we’re always meeting people where they are.   This work provides continuous learning and then figuring out and supporting, which results in passion and purpose for mediation. 

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