Community Boards

Ray Schonholtz

Director, Partners for Democratic Change

Interviewed by Julian Portilla, 2003

This rough transcript provides a text alternative to audio. We apologize for occasional errors and unintelligible sections (which are marked with ???).

There had been some recent research, quite compelling research, that young people who had contacts in the juvenile justice system ended up having more contacts. So, in other words, the idea being basically that if you entered the system, the chances of getting out were going to be slimmer the more times you were entered in the system. So the notion was that if you wanted to keep people out of the juvenile justice system, you needed to find a way so they didn't enter it to begin with. That was basically the essence of that.

We looked at different programs around the United States and in Europe that were keeping young people out of the system but not through a diversion process. This normally meant you would enter the system, your case would be evaluated, and you'd be diverted. Rather, the intent was to create a prophylactic in front of the justice system, and police officers and other people who had a way of finding, through different mechanisms, ways that you didn't enter the juvenile justice system at all. One of the interesting models was one in King County were they had these kind of citizen review panels, where officers or school people could refer a case. You were required to go if you were a minor.

There was a program in Scotland somewhat similar to that, a little more peer-oriented for young people. At the end of the legislative period when the legislative work was done I started to teach at USF law school and kept thinking about the idea, what if you created panels in neighborhoods where people could hear disputes and resolve them without cases going to court? That was earlier on. Then I wrote some papers around that and circulated it in the city of San Francisco, started to hold meetings with church groups and community organizations and different organizations in different parts of the city.


People in neighborhoods, we found, were attracted to the idea of being trained to help neighbors resolve disputes. Probably the most interesting thing was that people who had disputes would come to a panel. That was, of course, the key of the whole process, would people who had disputes come to a panel? And if so, why would they come? What would motivate them? It turns out people will come to panels, as we now know, and they come for a whole set of different reasons. Middle class people come when they have juvenile issues because they don't want records on their kids. The middle-class professional people are very sensitive about that. People in different communities and barrios are very sensitive about police, so they're motivated to find more social orientation.

Hispanic communities, generally, and Asian communities have a very strong interest in social processes over institutional processes. By that I mean they have more interest in seeing social and peer pressure, and social and normative values being applied, than institutional pressure and law enforcement being applied. So, although the program started with a youth orientation, it quickly became clear that there was no reason to limit it to that. So if adults had a dispute, or neighbors had a dispute, or merchants had a dispute with consumers and vice versa, there was no reason not to take the case. Quickly the panels, neighborhood boards became open to anybody who wanted to voluntarily step forward with a dispute.


We did mass trainings. By 1980 we were training 125-150 people at a time, very large mass training program. The trainings were done usually in schools, over a 40-hour training program. It might start with like Friday evening, Saturday, part of Sunday, Tuesday evening, Thursday evening, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday you graduated. Because of working class neighborhoods, and basically you could only do it in the evenings or on weekends because they were not professional people that could just take off work. These were free trainings; that was an inducement. Part of the strategy of building a community base was to do mass training. We saw this as a way not only of creating an awareness about the program, but also disseminating skills that people could use in their homes and worksites, social settings, not just on panels. We would do them four or five times a year, so we were training five to six hundred people a year. At the height of it we were probably training fifteen to eighteen hundred people a year. When we were really going we were doing it every other month.

The word spread in San Francisco that this is a great training, and you can use it in a lot of different ways. Disputants were often our strongest advocates. Disputants became often our best panelists. We actively drew from the disputant pool, of people who'd gone through it, who wanted to be on a panel. Over time it became clear that you could do the outreach functions by training community volunteers to do it. The outreach function became a community function, and staff merely were coordinating community members who had learned how to do outreach in their neighborhoods. Then we learned the casework you could do, so we made that a community function, getting people to come to a panel, and setting up a case for a panel. Finally all the training work and some of the training for trainer work were community functions. Community boards, by the early mid-eighties, were almost complete volunteer service delivery systems. The staff was merely coordinating the people who were doing the work, but the staff wasn't doing the work themselves.


It was attractive to funders as well because it had a very new and innovative model for social service delivery.

Social justice was primarily delivered by people in neighborhoods, who didn't have a state power, but provided a forum for people who wanted to talk through the differences they had with the person that had a dispute. I think its strength remains that these are entities that don't need state authority that should never have state authority. So my own bias is these should not be diversion programs for institutional structures. They should be separate systems at neighborhood level. It's a civic orientation. It's a civic system that is operating and people use it because it's in their self-interest to use it. They're motivated to use it because they want something out of it.

Generally they want to tell the other side what a terrible person they are. They want to moan and groan and they want to say really and truly what an S.O.B. you are, and what a terrible neighbor you've been, or what a dishonest person you are. They want to have an opportunity to talk directly with the other person. I think one of the great strengths of these conciliating models is that they give a forum for direct expression of hostility and issues. The emotive quality of a dispute drops dramatically if a person can talk directly to the other person in a relatively safe environment, and that's what the panels offer, that kind of environment.

Even though I think it's very important that the panels be trained well, candidly I think that's a second consideration to creating an environment where people can communicate with one another, even if they're very emotional about it. Once they've done that the tensions and hostilities in the dispute then generally have a tendency to diminish. There's just so much moaning and groaning human beings can do about an issue if they have an honest forum to talk.

It's when we don't give a forum or provide an opportunity to interact directly with the person you're most concerned with or have the issue with, that's when I think disputes have a tendency to become violent. The vast majority of disputes in the United States that go violent are precisely between people who know one another, not between strangers. There are very, very few stranger hostilities, really. Generally they're in one of three categories of disputes that go hostile or disputes even before they go hostile that are between ex-lovers, ex-roommates, and ex-business partners. Those are the three categories that we know of that are prone A) to generate disputes and B) to generate violence if you don't deal with those disputes at an appropriate level. I think what community boards and programs like that provide is an early intervention or prevention model, because the reality is that institutional justice is always after the fact. You simply can't get into a court system. You simply can't get a police officer to arrest somebody unless there is some violence, some riot, some trespass, some burglary, and some property damaged or stolen.

In other words, unless you can prove or allege that the act has taken place that you are most concerned about not taking place, unless you can allege it, you can't get into the system. So the reality is, all justice in America is after the fact. There's no prevention or intervention in it all. It has no capacity for that, nor is it intended and designed to be that way. It's an after-the-fact-oriented justice model to basically weigh evidence and decide guilt and innocence. That model is not designed to as a community model to reduce tensions and hostilities between disputing parties, even when the police know there's tension and hostility between disputing parties.

Every police department in the country has station houses that will tell you they've been to family homes and they've been to places numerous times and that they know there is family violence at those homes. We know there's spousal abuse here, but nobody makes a complaint, so they have no ability to do anything. On the other hand a neighbor, a parishioner or a person in a social club can make an intervention. They certainly can knock on the door of a neighborhood person, precisely because they don't have state authority. The moment these panels or people have state authority, they can't do that.

Q: So people don't come to the board with a problem?

A: They do. Generally the problems are generated out of the neighborhoods because people call the panel, call the office.

Q: The disputants or the neighbors of the disputants?

A: It could be either, but generally of course, the only people who'd come to a panel, and be encouraged to come to a panel, would be the disputants. Now the disputants may bring family members, and somebody may bring their next-door neighbor. Our general sense has always been that's fine. Bring as many people as you want because the more likely the disputants will behave better if the wife is there, if the husband is there, if the kids are there, if the uncle or aunt or mother is there, if the neighbor is there. In other words, you'll get better performance. Those are the people who've heard the story ten million times anyway, and they're not real parties, but they're biased kind of cheerleaders of the disputants, so you might as well have them there In other words, you'll get better performance.

The very first hearing Community Boards did was in 1977 and it involved six teenage girls. Almost 30 people were at the hearing. It was high school girls and they all had been very close. The case was referred the board by the school. Everybody was kind of freaked because there were 30 people in the room on the very first case, you know? We decided to have five people on the panel. The disputants were mostly African American girls, except for one, and the panel was African American and Anglo. That's been a principle of community boards, that the panel should be diverse and reflect the neighborhood as much as possible. And the case was referred because one of the girls threw and hit another girl with a full Coke can, and hit her and injured her. Because these girls had been friends forever, the school decided not to call the police and referred it to Community boards. We had done a lot of outreach to the school because when they get cases like that, we would like to get them. So the school made the referral.

All of the kids were interviewed and they agreed to come, and their parents wanted to come, because they didn't understand how this fight had happened. As it turned out the girls, who'd all been friends, broke up over that one girl who was dating a boy who had broken up with that boy. All the girls were in the room, and the boy who was concerned, with his buddies, were outside the room. It turned out that the hearing was really a boy-girl event. The hostility between the girls exploded, and one just threw a can at the other one. The parents couldn't figure out what had happened because the girls had always been very close and very friendly. It only came out in the hearing that the boy was the problem, and that people were embarrassed.

The things that really generate most disputes between people who have ongoing relationships are embarrassment, loss of face, pride, injury, personal, not physical injury, but injury of the spirit, anger. These are often the ingredients that make people divide up that have ongoing relationships. They don't speak about it and they divide up with their friends, and of course it escalates. That's all. Disputes take on a life of their own. They have their own life. This got out of control, and as we peeled the onion back and looked at the genesis of the conflict, they realized what had gone on. So they made some accommodations with each other and some apologies. The girls asked for the boy to be invited into the room and the boy and his buddies came into the room, so now it was 35 people. The parents of course were just totally amazed that this whole thing had gotten so out of hand. They just were amazed. The boys indicated, particularly this one boy, that yes this had happened and et cetera.

I'm only going into detail about it to say that, generally speaking, most people view these situations in neighborhood programs as petty offenses. My experience has been that there is no such thing as a petty dispute. The animal does not exist. To the people involved in a dispute, it is the most serious, most relevant, pressing issue in their life. They wake up with it, they think about it in the morning, they go to sleep with it, they aggravate over it, they get upset over it, they bring their family into it. These killings that have taken place over the last several years at post offices and jobs that we know of start off with the most incredibly "petty" issue between the people: miscommunication, feeling that somebody got an office and someone else didn't, somebody got a job that they should have had, somebody should have been promoted, the supervisor didn't give a fair review, on and on. The reality is did the action that take place, and was it out of proportion to the incident? To any objective observer, absolutely yes. To the person who's experiencing the anger and the hostility and has just spent weeks or months living with it, no. So it's in whose shoes do you stand when you ask the question? That's why I think that neighborhood programs are essential in a democratic society.

In a democratic society I think what you're looking to do all the time is create mechanisms for the management of conflict and disputes. What you want to do is transform every conflict that has the potential to be violent into a dispute-management system that gives people an opportunity to communicate, a venue for the expression of differences. In that context, citizens in a democratic society are as safe as they possibly can be and the social structures are as constructive towards the management of differences as possible. Democratic society creates lots of conflicts, and you need to create management systems for those conflicts and make them legitimate disputes then citizens in a democratic society are definitely in danger.

We know this from looking at labor issues in the United States. We have a terribly violent labor history in this country. Now there are really and truly no labor conflicts. There are labor disputes, but you're expected to manage them through collective bargaining processes, negotiation processes, contract processes. You can't just willy-nilly strike in this country. You're going to have to go through a whole process. That's because we've taken the violence out of it and we've transformed issues that could otherwise be conflictual into disputes that can be managed in a recognized manner.

If you go out of those systems you'll be arrested and the state will appear. Otherwise the state doesn't appear at all. So what we want to do in institutional structures in democratic societies is to create as many venues and pathways that legitimate concerns that people have. We ought to say there's nothing wrong with a conflict, as long as it's peacefully expressed and peacefully resolved, and it's managed through dispute settlement mechanisms.

If one doesn't exist, it's the obligation of citizens and democratic governments to create those mechanisms. I think that's a democratic obligation. Community Boards is a vehicle and models like it at the neighborhood level of just creating venues and forums for the early expression and management of differences. It doesn't mean and it doesn't require state authority to do it. And I think we should do more of them. We should have them in schools, we should have them at churches and synagogues and mosques, and we ought to promote the civic nature of dispute management, make it a civic function, not an institutional function exclusively.

Q: You said the justice system is an after-the-fact model. How are the community boards different?

A: Because they get their cases before they come into the system.

Q: Before they go into the justice system?

A: Yeah.

Q: But it's still after the fact, right.

A: Yes, it can be. It can be you can have some issues take place obviously between people. You know the first step always is to encourage people to communicate directly with one another. Neighbors who have complaints with one another should knock on the doors, "Hi, I'm Ray, lets have a conversation. I have a concern." A lot of neighbors are afraid to do that, either because the person looks different from them, they're shy, their cultural background doesn't allow them to communicate that way, they feel it's a loss of faith, they might be embarrassed, they might be rebuffed, and they have fear.

A lot of Americans don't know their neighbors anymore. So the first time to see your neighbor, to make a complaint for a lot of people is very, very uncomfortable. So you're looking for a third party. Now if you go to the same church you might use a priest or a minister or a rabbi. In more cohesive communities you would find a third party. In San Francisco, maybe 20-30 years ago, if you were Chinese you'd go to the Chinese Family Association. It's very interesting if you look at court records from the turn of the century into the 1900s and throughout the 20th century and earlier, you don't see Chinese or Japanese in American courts in San Francisco. You just don't see them. And the reason you don't see them is not because they don't have disputes. Obviously they have disputes. They just used mechanisms that were culturally normative-value based; they used the Chinese Family Association, Japanese Community Association.

In other words, they took their disputes because they had a homogeneous community. The only time you really see it is when one of the parties is not Chinese, and generally somebody's brought a Chinese to court, not the other way around, a fairly foreign mechanism. So you start looking at urban areas with highly diverse cultural groups, more likely than not the cultural groups will be living close to one another. They will create their own mechanisms for dispute management. If you look at it closely, generally it's a third party -something- family associations, respected elders, and bankers. Some person or group that the two parties will appear before, talk, or who will use shuttle diplomacy, do some mediating between, or who's legitimate. This is very, very common.

It's when these mechanisms break down that we have a big gap between the institutional structure and everything else. So you need to create, really and truly, some mechanism in front of the institutional structure. The other thing too that hasn't been explored well in this country, and is deserving to be explored, is that not only is formal justice after the fact is the most violent, in the sense that violence obviously takes place before you enter it, but so are social services after the fact.

So all social services in the United States, for the most part, come through deviant channels. You can't get social services unless you're on probation or you've gone through a court system and you've been ordered to do psychiatric care, social something, you're a deviant through school systems because you didn't show up in school. You know, your parents abandoned you and you're a welfare recipient and you're getting something. In other words, unless you come through a deviancy channel, it's very hard to get social services in the United States. Only the worst cases are the ones who get the services, so there's very little service orientation for prevention and early intervention.

One of the reasons the system is so bloody expensive is that we get people very, very late who are in the most dire straits. If you put social services next to early intervention/prevention programs, or you say to the Chinese Family Association, "Hey, have you got a kid who's on dope, and needs to get cleaned up, or have you got someone on heroin or alcohol?" You don't have to make a record. You can openly refer them and the state will pay for it. That is closer to California's new policies. Now you're talking about resuscitating civic life because then people have another reason to create these systems because you can see quickly who's in need of help. It would be voluntary and it wouldn't be state mandated, but not everybody needs to be state mandated. It would use more peer and social pressure than it would use institutional pressure - record-keeping and all that. It isn't a panacea and it isn't something for everybody, but for early intervention/prevention, it would pick up a lot of people and situations early on, as opposed to waiting as we do so late. So there's another whole dimension to this that's worth certainly exploring. Next the Community Boards received Ford Foundation grants, and we did what we called Planning and Development Institutes around the United States. We were training people in the Planning and Development Institutes how to create a community board or a school-based mediation program. The school board program is everywhere. It's just literally everywhere. It's probably most successful beyond the neighborhood program. It's international. I think we've totally lost count of where this program shows up these days. It's taken on a huge life of its own. It has definitely gone global. It's a recognition of the importance of training young people and educating young people how to listen, how to communicate, how to negotiate, how not to be afraid of a conflict.

These are skills that you have to teach, and they have to be learned skills. It is not the case that just because you grow up and you're an adult you have them. Everybody has ears, but very, very few people really listen. You have to train people to listen. I think the earlier we do it at schools, the more likely that we're going to have people who can talk and communicate with one another and not feel so frightened about it and have ways and skills to do it. The school program is probably one of the great successes of Community Boards. Everyone has really been pushing the school program, and everybody's been very proud of it. I think now it's something that's taken for granted, when in the early days when this was all like putting on scenes on granite, but it's not any longer as obvious today.