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 Natural Awakenings Lancaster-Berks

Advoz: Adding Voice to Dialogue Creates a Ripple Effect of Peace

Feb 25, 2017 09:07PM ● By Gisele Rinaldi Siebold

Mila Pilz & Chris Fitz

True healthy living encompasses the collective health of body, mind and spirit. Giving voice to all symbolizes true freedom and evokes feelings of belonging to something larger than oneself. Advoz is an organization that provides mediation and restorative practices, with a mission to transform conflict and build community through face-to-face dialogue programs, promoting peace and the development of positive self-worth through a dignified process.

Two long-serving Lancaster County organizations addressing conflict and crime are joining to form one comprehensive service with proven face-to-face dialogue programs. Conflict Resolution Services (CRS), formerly the Lancaster Mediation Center, and the Center for Community Peacemaking (CCP), formerly LAVORP, began with similar origins. The former, established in 1980, and the latter, established in 1994, both had backing from the Mennonite Central Committee, a locally-based international development agency, but they provided services in different realms. CRS has offered mediation as a meaningful, cost-effective alternative to conflicts and civil court proceedings. CCP has used mediation methods to repair harm for both victims and offenders of crime, especially in the juvenile justice system.

On February 16, the organizations joined together as Advoz. “The word comes from the Latin for ‘voice’ and inherently means, ‘adding voice to dialogue,’” says Chris Fitz, the new organization’s executive director of community engagement. “We are excited by what the merged organization can add to our community’s already-impressive peace-building work,” says Mila Pilz, the new executive director of program operations. The new organization’s board president is Miles Yoder, assistant superintendent at Lancaster Mennonite Schools. Vice president Ana Ayala is also a locally-based regional policy officer for the U.S. Department of State.

An immediate benefit of the merger is the ability to develop restorative practices in local schools, a win-win approach to discipline and community building, gaining steam nationwide as a correction to the harmful trends of “zero-tolerance” approaches. Thirty percent of juvenile justice cases referred to the organization came from schools in 2016. This new Restorative Schools project, already underway for nine months, has equipped staff at four middle schools in the School District of Lancaster.

Across all of Pennsylvania, Lancaster County has been unique in having two active services for mediation and restorative justice, using more than 60 trained volunteers to work with more than 750 people in conflict and crisis each year. While such services are legislated in other states because of their effectiveness and efficiency, Lancaster’s programs thrive on the cooperative relationship with local courts and the generous support of community contributions. Advoz now brings these services and teams of volunteers together with new outreach and efficiencies under a unified administration and board of directors.

Mediation and restorative justice services offer techniques that are practical, less expensive and morally compelling. Program facilitators and trained volunteers have an understanding of how to preserve the dignity of the process and seek an outcome where everyone leaves with an empowered voice, a sense of self-worth and respect for self and others.

Mediation services are techniques used with civil court cases, whereas restorative justice services are provided for criminal court cases. The process begins with a preparatory meeting to listen to the story unbiasedly, explain procedure and help individuals take responsibility.

In Lancaster County, juveniles who are receiving criminal court services are mandated to have the first meeting with restorative justice. Implementing the process is beneficial because three key challenges are especially well addressed. The first is social anxiety. Depending upon life experiences, children––and even adults––may not be used to talking face-to-face because they are in the habit of using electronic devices as a means of communication. Interactive, in-person dialogue has not been modeled for them, and thus they need support to engage in conversation.

The second crucial factor that is considered is a pattern of isolation. Young people seeking to belong may follow other kids who lack direction themselves, or they may choose to go off on their own, isolating themselves and turning to the media where they believe that what they see, and read about, are real. In certain locales, isolation happens because people live far apart and the rhythm and routine of slowing down to sit on a front porch and talk with neighbors has been replaced by fast-paced activities and solitary connections via mass communication.

“The common thread of school shootings and terrorism is isolation,” notes Fitz. “Viewing terrorism from a psychological lens that takes isolationism into account may provide key insights into discouraging violence as a choice for the pursuit of attention. Presenting other ways to have one’s voice heard is a contributing factor to a feeling of belonging.”

Reestablishing safety after experiencing trauma is the third important point in the restorative justice process. People who have been harmed need other people to affirm safe patterns and help them build patterns of safety. Empowerment is the issue in classic trauma cases that allows people to act after feeling frozen by fear. What the dialogue process encourages is the acknowledgement of the hurt and varying emotions that are experienced by someone who was harmed.

A conversation between someone who has been harmed and someone who has caused harm places the healing piece into the puzzle. When they come together, the person who has been harmed is able to see the harmer as a regular human being who made an undignified choice.

Justice is obvious because the offenders are meeting with people that they harmed, in a meeting that is not in the public arena, like in a courtroom. Being in court is akin to theater acting, because participants have a tendency to perform instead of acting genuine. When the process takes place around a table, in a room without cameras and microphones, the playing field is leveled and finding an agreeable solution puts all participants at an advantage.

“When we are in the presence of other human beings, we are neurologically wired to be empathetic,” explains Fitz. “As long as we are face to face, we cannot escape one another’s humanity. Gathering around the table unlocks the human capacity for benevolent feelings of compassion and tolerance.” Those who have experienced these services have a favorable attitude––with 80 to 90 percent satisfaction toward the other party––and would not only do it again, but would also recommend it to a friend.

So the work is how to get people around the same table. In Lancaster County, this has meant that the faith community has played a major role in supporting the organizations and the work of peacekeeping and conflict resolution. Faith encompasses the belief that all lives are worthy of honor and respect, and that genuine trust is built on giving confidence to the goodness of the human spirit. This is a rediscovery of something humans already know. Native communities in Canada and the U.S. have been using restorative circle processes, and New Zealand practices mediation and restorative justice in all cases. It simply makes sense to provide shared opportunities to voice a solution.

“The logic of the merger is that we can do it better together,” shares Fitz. Creating peace through dialogue is how small communities bring big change to the world.

Location: 53 N. Duke St., Ste. 303, Lancaster, with a second location in the Lancaster County Courthouse opposite at 50 N. Duke St. For more information, call 717-397-2404, email [email protected] or visit Advoz.org.

Gisele Rinaldi Siebold is a contributing writer to Natural Awakenings Lancaster-Berks edition. Connect with her at [email protected]

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