The New York Peace Institute
To bring peace to New York. This is not a drill.
Brad Heckman is the CEO of the New York Peace Institute – a mediation centre with offices in Brooklyn and Manhattan. Mediation is a process where an independent and impartial third party facilitates the resolution of a conflict and the Institute provides this service free to New Yorkers for problems that range from neighbourhood disputes to the breakdown of families.
Why? An Adjunct Professor at New York University, Brad began his career setting up mediation centres in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and across the Balkans and Caucuses. He has a strong understanding of what divides communities and wants to provide New Yorkers with the tools to creatively and constructively resolve their disputes. In a city where multiple languages are spoken and citizens from all corners of the globe are sharing their lives, knowing how to manage conflict without resorting to violence or expensive legal processes is vital.
A scroll through Brad’s blog the hecklist shows that he brings a playful and positive approach to the work that he does. This is also evident in his drawings which are pictured throughout this story. He describes these as mnemonics for mediators to remember different strategies or approaches to resolving a dispute. They are explained in his hilarious TED talk which I recommend watching, especially if ewe like a pun. It was after watching this talk that I got in touch with Brad to find out more.
Where did the idea come from to start the New York Peace Institute?
We were around for many years as a program of Safe Horizon – a wonderful organization that supports victims of domestic violence, human trafficking, child abuse, and sexual assault. I was a Vice President of Safe Horizon, and its mediation service was one of the programs I worked with. About four years ago, we went through a strategic planning process, and we decided to spin off the mediation program into an independent organisation that focused exclusively on community peacebuilding.
I had the honour of leading the spin-off and becoming CEO of what’s now the New York Peace Institute. My teammates and I also wanted to focus on restorative justice initiatives, providing peacebuilding skills to the New York Police Department (NYPD) and other agencies dealing with conflict, and raising the profile of mediation in the public consciousness.
Why are you using mediation as your tool for community peacebuilding?
There’s an African proverb, which I’ll happily misquote: The spiders united can trap the lion. Every mediation, every use of mediation skills, helps us weave a web of peace. For far too long, mediation has been unheard of or under-valued. In his book Elusive Peace, Doug Noll makes the case that international diplomats should be trained in basic mediation skills, and I heartily agree. We aim to raise awareness of mediation as a service to our communities – and also as a go-to process on a global scale. Our work with the NYPD, the United Nations, the International Rescue Committee, NASA, and others is, I hope, a step in that direction.
How do you convince people to participate in the process?
Sometimes mediation sells itself – it’s confidential, efficient, and highly successful. However, it’s still not a household word so our team does an amazing job of appealing to clients’ self-interest to participate in mediation and other processes that we offer. Sometimes helping clients understand that they have nothing to lose by coming to mediation – it’s free, they can opt out at any time, and it doesn’t prevent them from taking legal action – does the trick. Ultimately, it’s our clients’ choice to participate – so it’s less about convincing than it is about listening with compassion and explaining the process, while meeting clients where they’re at mentally.
Your TED talk extracted some of the key elements of mediation in a very useful way. In your role at New York University how do teach students of dispute resolution what to do when they are trying to resolve a conflict and things just aren't working?
Part of it is defining what we mean by what is or isn’t “working”.
Our job is not to suppress conflict or calm people down – it’s to give them a safe space for a difficult conversation. A successful mediation, in our view, isn’t defined by reaching agreement. It’s an opportunity for people in conflict to say what they need to say and perhaps come to understand their own perspective better, as well as that of the other party’s. When we take the pressure off of ourselves to be fixers and problem solvers it is a relief to honour our clients’ creativity to come up with their own solutions through our gentle guidance.
In terms of interventions that may flop, well, mediation is a forgiving process. You can ask the perfectly crafted open-ended question, and it could elicit a less-than-positive response. And that might be just fine – it can give you a real sense of where the client’s at, and help you course-correct for your next intervention.
Can you give me an example?
One of my colleagues mediated a case in which, by her estimation, the problems were escalated at the end of the session than when the mediation started. She felt as if she’d conducted an anti-mediation. And yet the next day, one of the clients called to express her gratitude. The mediation had, unbeknownst to us, softened them – loosened the pickle jar – allowing them to resolve things on their own. So, sometimes we don’t know what works.
Who are your mediators?
Our 400+ mediators come from all walks of life – teachers, actors, lawyers, social workers, homemakers, United Nations diplomats, cops, artists – you name it. We strive to build a mediation pool as diverse as New York City itself.
Do they ever struggle with impartiality and how do you manage it personally in order to stay professional?
For sure. I have lots of opinions about things. I find it helpful to embrace the idea of multi-partiality. I’m on everyone’s side, in their right to have the conversation they need to have.
To keep my opinions at bay, it also helps to recognise that the dispute at hand is not my problem to solve. And I don’t mean that in a dismissive way – I mean it as a statement of humility. Whatever the discussion, it’s not about me. This requires constant mindfulness, and acceptance that at some point I, the mediator, may have to recuse ourselves from a case if it hits too close to home and we can’t stay professional.
How has being a mediator, and learning to sit with two opposing views, affected the way you see the world?
F. Scott Fitzgerald said that the sign of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still maintain the ability to function. I lack a first-rate intelligence - especially when it comes to math - but mediation has absolutely increased my comfort with ambiguity and paradox. While I have strong views about a number of things, being in the mediation field has helped me strive to understand others’ ideas and interests.
I've heard you say that you jump at the chance to incorporate any sort of visual or performing arts into dispute resolution - in what ways have you used this before and how has it helped?
I do this mainly in training – in an effort to appeal to different learning styles, and working under the assumption that others may have attention spans as short as mine. So I make a point to use my drawings as mnemonic devices, and I also use tactics from improv comedy in practicing mediation or kinaesthetic activities like creating human sculptures, and more. I also encourage mediators to work with clients to literally draw pictures of their situation – whether it’s a drawing of the layout of their neighbouring apartments, or of how the envision their relationship.
Speaking of visual art, I loved the drawings in your loved your Ted talk - did you do the these yourself?
Thanks so much, and yep, I did the drawings - they’re just marker on flip chart paper. I’m working on an illustrated book chapter now, and feel incredibly lucky to be able to draw and colour as part of my job. But I don’t envision anyone hanging my drawings over their sofas anytime soon, so I’m happy to stick with my day job.
All drawings by Brad Heckman
The institute is currently funded by the NYC state court system, the Mayor’s office and through various foundations and donors. The Institute also undertakes various training and consulting contracts, and hosts comedy shows and concerts to raise resources and funds.