The Corner Forum
Friday, July 18, 2003
Issue #39

"Conferencing" May Help Community

Marc Borbely, 536 13th St. NE, spoke by phone today with Lauren Abramson of Baltimore, about a problem-solving method called Community Conferencing.

Can you tell us just a bit about who you are and what your qualifications are for talking about Community Conferencing?

Sure. My name is Lauren Abramson, and I'm the executive director of the Community Conferencing Center. I founded this program in Baltimore in 1995, and we've been using this social technology to deal with a lot of different kinds of conflicts.

Community Conferencing is basically a way for people in conflict to transform that conflict into cooperation. And it's based on native models of community justice from New Zealand, where we bring everybody together in a circle, and it's basically a structured conversation so that everybody participates, and everybody has a chance to tell their story. And then the group collectively decides, once they've heard from everybody, what can be done to make the situation better.

In our neighborhood, we have a block that many residents are concerned about. On this block, outside and across the street from a liquor store and a second grocery store that sells alcohol, teenagers often hang out, and some are very likely selling drugs.

Other people sometimes stand outside, drinking. There are residents who don't like the situation — some of them feel too uncomfortable to walk down that block, and avoid it when they can.

I'm wondering whether you think there's any chance Community Conferencing might be a positive thing for our community to try.

I really do. I think that it's always helpful when people come together collectively, and just have a chance to talk to each other.

Often what happens is that two or three people talk, and then a different two or three people talk, and there's a lot of misinformation that can happen that way. Also, if you can get everybody together — there truly is power in numbers.

You can get people there that you think might be helpful to do something about it. So if you feel like the police need to be there, you could have them there. If you feel like a D.C. Council person needs to be there, they can be there. Sometimes we can get the merchants there. People that you suspect are selling drugs, sometimes they'll attend. You can't make anybody come, but if you get everybody there together, you're more likely to come up with solutions that will actually have an impact.

Do you know of similar circumstances where this kind of problem has been addressed by your approach?

We've done so many kinds of neighborhood issues like this in Baltimore. And people really come up with very creative ways to make the situation better. A lot of times, when everybody bands together and is more of a collective, unified presence, it has a big impact on negative things that are going on.

Is your sense that talking to people who are selling drugs — does that do any good?

If they're willing to come. Some of the things that have happened is that the kids recognize that there are adults there that care about them, and a lot of times adults see that the kids have no positive alternatives, so a lot of times the adults, hearing what's going on with these young people, are willing to volunteer their time or find things that the young people can get involved in that they're interested in.

We've seen that over and over again. Younger and younger kids are getting involved in the drug trade, I think, just because there aren't reasonable and positive alternatives.

How would it work — what would people here have to do if they wanted to try this?

Well, we don't have a program in D.C. yet, but we have some contacts, and some people in D.C. who've taken our training. So somebody should contact our office, and we can see if we can get something going in D.C., either at no or pretty nominal cost to people. We have done a lot of cases around the activity around liquor stores. See what people say, and then get back in touch.

Okay, great. Thanks a lot.

Sure. §