Common ground

Director of Mediation Center helps clients resolve conflict

By Sheila Pursglove
Legal News

Unresolved conflict is the source of a lot of pain and sadness, according to Bern Dempsey, chief executive of the Wayne Mediation Center and an adjunct professor at the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law.

The key to mediation’s success, Dempsey explains, is having a neutral third party the participants can trust to help them work through their conflict.

“Although the court process is an important decider of rights and responsibilities when disagreements occur, it’s not equipped to provide resolution of many of the real issues that cause conflict,” he says. “The mediation process brings people together and provides a chance to solve their conflicts in a way that empowers them and allows them to bring real closure to their disagreements.”

The Wayne Mediation Center, a community based nonprofit providing mediation training and services to courts and schools throughout metropolitan Detroit and Wayne County, has its origins back in 1987 as the “Southwest Detroit Neighborhood Reconciliation Center,” founded to provide peaceful dispute resolution for residents of the 3rd and 4th police precincts.

In 2011, the Center provided conflict resolution services in over 2,100 conflicts, the great majority of them referred by local courts and schools. As a non-profit receiving funding from a variety of sources, and benefiting from the use of many dedicated volunteers, the Center is able to keep client costs very affordable, charging for services based upon an individual’s ability to pay.

In one particularly memorable case for Dempsey, a grieving extended family was in great distress after the death of their sister left her two sons in the custody of the children’s father, who to that point had not been a stable presence in the children’s lives.

“Although the boys’ father and the extended family initially had much distrust and resentment between them, they came to realize during the mediation that the important task of shaping the lives of the two boys depended upon them working together as a team,” Dempsey says.

After much discussion, both sides reached a detailed agreement together regarding the role of respectful communication and the logistics of providing the boys a stable home.    

Dempsey, who is approved by the State Court Administrative Office to teach the 40-hour General Civil Mediation training, offers the training to the public — with the next session starting in March — and to UDM law students twice a year. A 40-hour Domestic Mediation Training program will launch in January, and the center also provides individuals who have taken the trainings a mediation internship.

Dempsey teaches trainings at the Center’s Dearborn office as well as at UDM.

“I greatly enjoy watching mediation training students develop the skills to effectively mediate and knowing that many of the skills they learn will benefit them in many other aspects of their lives,” he says.

The Center, offering program initiatives in special education mediation, truancy and permanent placement for children who are victims of abuse and neglect, has expanded its services. In the last school year, it began providing Restorative Practices programs in six schools — a program that brings together students
facing challenges and conflict and seeks to rebuild the community and relationships that are suffering. 

“Although still very new, these programs show tremendous potential to significantly improve the climate of the schools where we are present,” Dempsey says.
The Center is a member of the Michigan Community Dispute Resolution Program Centers’ Association, formed in February by 19 nonprofit community dispute resolution centers, covering every county in Michigan, that receive filing fees from the State Court Administrative Office. The Association’s stated mission is to “benefit and strengthen, with a unifying voice, Michigan’s Community Dispute Resolution Program Centers through strategic advocacy, collaboration and innovation.”

“We’re now starting to undertake a number of exciting initiatives to improve our services,” says Dempsey, who serves as co-president.

A Philadelphia native, Dempsey earned his undergrad degree at Trinity College, and his J.D. at Emory University School of Law, drawn to law by his interest in public policy and commitment to equal justice. Prior to becoming Executive Director at the WMC, he taught a law school clinic on landlord/tenant and unemployment law at John Marshall Law School in Atlanta; represented low-income individuals in civil legal disputes and managed legal aid offices or programs for more than 15 years.

“I enjoy the challenge of working with people and trying to build and improve things, and using my skills to make things a little fairer and hopefully to help improve people’s lives,” he says.

Dempsey and his wife live in Ann Arbor with five children and two dogs — “to ensure our lives never have any dull moments,” he says with a smile. While most of his free time is spent with his family, his other main other outside interest is learning about public policy issues and politics; and he also occasionally volunteer sin the kitchen at a local homeless shelter.

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