Tonya Harris, executive director of Center for Mediation and Collaboration Rhode Island is a lifelong resident of Rhode Island who is certified as a nonviolence and conflict resolution trainer. She previously had served as a detective sergeant in the Providence Police Department and supervising officer of the School Resources Bureau. She also has worked at the Providence Black Repertory Company, OIC of Rhode Island and most recently as operations director of the YMCA of Rhode Island, where she served in senior management. She joined the center in October of 2013.
PBN: The mission of CMCRI is “to provide the state with a safe, accessible, and confidential environment where people and organizations can engage in constructive dialogue, effectively manage conflicts, and resolve disputes.” How and when did the center first get established?
HARRIS: CMCRI was born in 1996 when a committed group created a new forum to help people in conflict. It was then and is now the state’s only nonprofit mediation center. In 1999, CMCRI received funding from the Rhode Island Supreme Court to begin providing mediation services, with the assistance of trained volunteer mediators, in small claims courts across the state.
CMCRI continues to operate its Small Claims Court Mediation Program through a generous grant from the Rhode Island Supreme Court. In addition to affordable mediation and dispute resolution services to Rhode Island’s farming community, neighborhoods, community residents and organizations, CMCRI offers mediation and conflict resolution training, conflict coaching and facilitation and peer mediation training for youth in the school community.
We are full of a rich history and have provided exemplary services to Rhode Islanders. As the new executive director, it is my intention to enhance current programming and bring innovation and energy to our organization.
PBN: Why is there a need for this type of work in conflict resolution and mediation? How busy are you?
HARRIS: As a retired Providence police officer, I know first-hand, and all too painfully, how conflicts can easily escalate when individuals have no safe environment to work on a resolution. Conflicts that are ignored or mismanaged are more likely to get worse, not better. That’s why the mediation process – which allows individuals in conflict to participate in constructive dialogue, manage the conflict and resolve disputes, all with the help of a trained and impartial professional – is so meaningful. Conflict resolution and mediation offer opportunities for improved communication, listening and collaboration skills that can lead to improved personal and professional relationships.
CMCRI mediates an average of 16 court cases each month in the small claims court cases. We receive several calls every month from people interested in knowing more about the mediation process and inquiries about using the process to resolve their conflict(s), such as landlord - tenant issues, including eviction related issues and neighbor-to-neighbor issues. Our new location on Broad Street offers increased accessibility and visibility to the community, which has increased the number of walk-in clients who are learning how the mediation process can be helpful to them.
As CMCRI has only two staff members – an assistant and me – the ratio of clients to staff is very high.
In April, we will conduct peer mediation program with sixth graders at Woonsocket Middle School; they will then become peer mediators for their fellow students. We have also conducted three 30-hour Basic Mediation Training workshops during the past six months and we are gearing up for our next training, which will begin in our office on May 6; enrollment is still open.
Our upcoming annual fundraiser will be held on June 6, the official Rhode Island Mediation Day. Save the date and check our website for more information soon.
PBN: What is your primary role as executive director?
HARRIS: Since CMCRI is not as well known as it should be, I am committed to expanding Rhode Islanders’ awareness of what we do. In addition, I work to strengthen and solidify our existing partnerships and collaborations, identify new entities with which we can partner, and engage with community members on all levels. We want more people to recognize that mediation and conflict resolution services can be productive, cost-effective and efficient solutions.
I have been involved with community-based organizations for more than 25 years. I have always had a passion for providing services to those in need. CMCRI provides training and services that community members can take with them and use in their homes, neighborhoods and jobs to strengthen their relationships with and foster a deeper understanding of one other.
PBN: What types of clients dominate your list and what techniques have you developed to help resolve conflicts?
HARRIS: Historically, CMCRI clients have included small claims court cases; neighborhood, community and organizational disputes; agricultural related and land use issues. Since re-energizing the agency, we have continued training college students at Brown University and the University of Rhode Island to become mediators. We are seeking grant money to fund programs to teach peer mediation to middle and high school students in schools around the state once again, and to offer conflict resolution management skills to neighborhood organizations.
We offer ways for people to hear and understand each other, identify issues and options and come to agreements that work for them. Of the cases we mediate, 85 percent of them are successfully resolved. Even when no resolution or agreement is reached, we believe that everyone benefits when individuals meet, communicate and leave with a better understanding of one another’s perspective.
CMCRI’s training seminars and workshops for individuals and groups teach constructive dialogue and conflict management and resolution that can be applied in personal and professional settings and around personal, professional or civic issues.
Our workshops engage and educate participants in an interactive, safe environment. Experienced and skilled trainers teach principles and practical, useful tools that can be used immediately. We also offer custom-tailored programs to meet specific needs that may range from a few-hour session to multiple-day intensive programs.
PBN: You offer services in agricultural mediation. What is that about and why that specialty?
HARRIS: In 2005, CMCI obtained a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to operate and administer an agricultural mediation program in Rhode Island.
The main goal of the program, which is known as RIAMP (RI Agricultural Mediation Program), is to resolve agricultural-related disputes in a non-adversarial, safe and confidential environment. The mediation is conducted by qualified, trained mediators and is a time saving and low-cost option for the farming community. The mediation process offers an opportunity for participants to avoid the traditional process of litigation, appeals, bankruptcy and foreclosure.
We also provide conflict resolution workshops and mediation training for farmers and others engaged in agriculture.
Agriculture is one of the few growth sectors in Rhode Island's struggling economy. While this growth is positive, sustaining farms and farming has become increasingly difficult. Falling prices, bankruptcy, foreclosure and litigation issues concerning farmers and their creditors in Rhode Island are becoming increasingly complex and are among the types of conflict CMCRI can assist with through the mediation process. Offering mediation services and opportunities to our farming community and agricultural producers is one way that we can help minimize the farming community’s challenges.