SPOTLIGHT: Mandell Gisnet Center for Conflict Management
The Neighbor Project helps squabbling parties find better ways to live side by side.
By Pam Marino
Attorney and volunteer mediator Brion Berkley sometimes has to serve as a kind of translator when he’s trying to get two angry neighbors to work out their differences. “I try and restate what one party is saying. A lot of times they just won’t listen because of whose mouth it’s coming out of,” he says. He’ll take someone’s heated declaration and voice a calmer—and sometimes cleaned-up, more G-rated—version so the opposing neighbor can hear and understand what’s bothering their neighbor, maybe for the first time after years of built-up resentment.
Berkley volunteers with the Mandell Gisnet Center for Conflict Management at the Monterey College of Law in Seaside. He began as a volunteer mediator while still enrolled in the law school before graduating in 2017. The center’s Big Idea for this year’s Monterey Gives! is support for its Neighbor Project, which during Covid-19 and shelter-in-place is seeing an uptick in demand for mediation.
“Right now people are home and they’re noticing things they didn’t notice while they were at work,” says Executive Director Jacqueline Pierce. People’s schedules have changed, they may be up late at night, barbecuing at all hours or smoking cannabis in the backyard. People are also more anxious because of the pandemic, job losses and the November election. “A lot of irritations are happening right now,” Pierce says. “A lot of perfectly nice people are getting into arguments instead
of letting it roll off their backs.”
At first, she says, aggravated neighbors might call police or code enforcement, but those agencies are limited in what they can do, since sometimes the perceived offenses don’t stack up as crimes or violations. When disagreements escalate, officers may suggest obtaining a civil restraining order, but even then the problem may not meet legal criteria. “It’s not a crime, it’s not a civil case, so they don’t really have any place to take their concerns. That’s where the Neighbor Project comes in,” Pierce says.
When civil actions between neighbors do go to Monterey County Superior Court, judges refer them to the Neighbor Project to try to work out differences through mediation. People also contact the center on their own. The service is free if referred by the court and $30 (per side) if self-referred. There’s also a sliding scale fee.
Mediation is a confidential process where trained mediators help people communicate. Pierce often finds the stated issue isn’t the real issue at all. Mediators help uncover the root source then help people craft solutions, with a written document that spells out the rules for each party to follow. And, Pierce adds, “If the wheels come off they can come back and see us again.”