“Tell me what you believe!” a bearded man in jeans and windbreaker laughingly demanded. Standing in the too-cold rain, I wasn’t prepared to tell him what I believed about the issue at hand. One, I wasn’t sure. Two, I wasn’t there to give my opinion. I was there to be omni-partial.
April 9th probably doesn’t ring any bells to most people. In Gettysburg, PA, however, it is notably the anniversary of Lee’s surrender to Grant in 1865. In 2021, it was also the day that a small group of devoted believers chose to hold a protest on the Gettysburg battlefield. According to event organizer Beth Farnham, “Denouncing Confederate Monuments” is working to “Condemn Confederate monuments which glorify the murderous, enslaving, and treasonous Confederacy and call for their legal removal by Congress.”
I serve on the board of Mediation Services of Adams County, but this protest was a new forum for me. When I lived in New York, I was a mediator for the Child Court Improvement Project, The Peacemaker Program Inc., and an arbitrator for the Unified Court System of New York State. I have mediated or arbitrated hundreds of cases concerning divorce, child support and visitation, child permanency, police/citizen interactions, and small claims court.
I have a lot of experience in a controlled environment around a table, but nothing could prepare me for being a community mediator in the middle of a hotbed issue like the removal of statues from a beloved battlefield. I stepped in, however, knowing that someone needed to help people who care so deeply about this issue feel heard. I wasn’t alone, and I wasn’t untrained.
Some of the experienced mediators at MSAC are training with an international group called the Trust Network. We have been listening to people from around the globe discuss how local people with connections to each other, and ears to the ground, can step in and help calm conflict when outsiders or governments don’t seem to be effective.
We were contacted by the National Association for Community Mediation and the Trust Network specifically because we live in Gettysburg, famously a town of many divided emotions. Our goal is to listen to people in town, to find out what’s going on around us, and to be available in times of conflict, such as this protest, to listen and de-escalate.
A community mediator isn’t a traditional mediator, who is a neutral third party who listens to stories and helps people settle disagreements. As a community mediator, we step in, rather than sitting back. We approach disputes, rather than waiting our turn. We practice bravery in the face of conflict. We don’t take sides. We are omni-partial. We care about our community. We want everyone to win.
When my partner, Janet Powers, and I arrived at the scene that day, in the pouring rain, wearing our bright green “Trust Network Mediator” vests, we didn’t know what to expect. Both sides of the argument are 100% sure they are right, and that history is on their side. Additionally, both sides are willing to act on their convictions in bold ways.
When we arrived, we could see the protest was underway. As we walked up a hill toward the small but heartfelt group, we were approached by some people from the opposing side. They inquired about our vests and what we were attempting to do. After explaining ourselves the best we could, I invited the soon-to-be hecklers to join us at the protest. “You get a chance to be heard too.” I said, and gave them the international sign for come along.
Big, shocked eyes of disbelief soon softened, and the green-vested ladies led them, Pied Piper-style up to the action. I had to encourage them to proceed a few times, it seemed they weren’t sure whether we could be trusted. Some took the time to thank us for leading them up, and for taking the time to let them know they mattered.
We got to the protest and the anti-protestors stayed just close enough so they could make their remarks, as it is their right. They were mostly respectful, and certainly not violent. We noticed that many had weapons, but that is also their right in Pennsylvania.
And then we watched. We watched for conflict, heated discussion or agitation. When there was any, we walked toward it. People seemed to relax because of us, as if we had some kind of power. At one point, a protestor reacted strongly to a comment someone made about her daughter and the other protestors handled it instantly. “They are not our fight. Don’t lose sight of why we are here.”
As the event ended, many of the protestors and onlookers thanked us for being there and said our presence helped them feel safe. To be thanked by both sides of a conflict is the best result community mediators can hope for. It means we have done our job, and that both sides go away knowing that their community cares enough for them to be present in their heightened emotional times. That we don’t back away because there is turmoil, frustration or anger. Facing it together is our goal.
I think Janet and I nailed it. As we walked away, we said to each other, “Why the hell are we doing this?” But we both knew why; this is how community is done.
Patti Robinson moved from Utica, NY to Gettysburg, PA six years ago. She has a degree in psychology from SUNY Polytechnic Institute and has worked as an in home autism therapist and in the Hamilton College Psychology Department as an editorial assistant of a super geeky journal. She has worked as a mediator for the Unified court system, Child Court Improvement Project, The Peacemaker Program Inc and she serves on the board of Mediation Services of Adams County. Patti is certified in many types of mediation including; divorce, child permanency, police/citizen, small claims, landlord/tenant and is currently working as a community mediator. She and her husband Doug live just south of town on a 22 Acre registered wetland with their three tiny and two giant dogs and two normal sized swans.