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Washtenaw United: The power of listening at the Dispute Resolution Center

The Dispute Resolution Center executive director Belinda Dulin
The Dispute Resolution Center
The Dispute Resolution Center executive director Belinda Dulin

WEMU has partnered with the United Way of Washtenaw Countyto explore the people, organizations, and institutions creating opportunity and equity in our area. And, as part of this ongoing series, you’ll also hear from the people benefiting and growing from the investments being made in the areas of our community where there are gaps in available services. It is a community voice. It is 'Washtenaw United.'


Belinda began working with the DRC in the spring of 2003 as a case coordinator.  She accepted the position of executive director in 2007.  Belinda has created a variety of mediation program civil and family conflict and established relationships with the local courts, institutions and community organizations.  Most recently, the DRC partnered with the Washtenaw County Prosecutor’s Office and co-created a restorative justice program to repair harm for survivors and deflect or divert community members from the criminal system.  This program is survivor-centered and aims to provide a constructive and healing space to address harm between those who have been survived harmed with the person who harmed them.


David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU, and welcome to another edition of our weekly conversation series, Washtenaw United. It's our opportunity to continue bringing you the voices working toward equity and opportunity in our community. I'm David Fair, and this time around, we're going to explore conflict resolution and restorative justice. Our guest is executive director of the Dispute Resolution Center, Belinda Dulin, who served in that capacity since 2007 and, in her tenure, has created a variety of mediation programs in the areas of family and civil conflict and has worked with the trial courts in Washtenaw County on such matters. Belinda also co-created a Restorative Justice program with the Washtenaw County Prosecuting Attorney's Office. And thank you so much for making time for us today.

Belinda Dulin: Thank you for having me, David.

David Fair: What role does the work at the center play in creating more equity in the community?

Belinda Dulin: Oh, that's a great question. We believe that our role is very specific, but also very impactful. When we think about restorative justice and being able to work with our criminal legal system, the DRC's role is to bring those who have been harmed and the person who did the harm together to talk about what happened, its impact, and how they wish to move forward. I think that we believe that that does align with equity in that we give the power back to the persons who are most impacted by the incident that occurred, as well as by the criminal legal system. So, if you can imagine a person who has survived a crime and the need to feel some sense of power, equity plays a role in that. The feeling that you can be empowered and have a voice in resolving the matter that occurred to you and the person who did the harm--the person who created that incident--also has a sense of power and that they can respond to the needs of the individual whom they've hurt, as well as be creative and how they can give that resolvde. So, we believe that equity plays a big role in that.

David Fair: What about the process that you go through with people helps bridge the gap in a system where many people of color and those in the lower economic strata feel the system is weighted against them?

Belinda Dulin: Absolutely. I think one of the big draws to this work is that statement you just made, David. When we think about the disproportionality of Black and Brown people and poor people who get stuck and locked in a system that they can't disentangle themselves from, Restorative Justice gives them an opportunity to resolve those issues and be diverted from that system. We know that people sit in jail. We know that people are criminalized over very often minor things. And they can't seem to move forward with their lives. They may lose jobs, may not have other job opportunities, or become underemployed, if not unemployed. Housing is already a critical issue, and it becomes even more--affordability of housing--becomes even a more a bigger critical issue. So, Restorative Justice allows people to resolve their harm in a private and confidential way and avoid getting stuck in that criminal system. As this program expands and gets built out, we're hoping to see those numbers change. We're seeing fewer and fewer Black and Brown and poor people stuck in the system and moving forward with their lives in a productive and meaningful way.

David Fair: WEMU's Washtenaw United and our conversation with Belinda Dulin continues. She is executive director of the Ann Arbor-based Dispute Resolution Center. In your work with the courts, as busy as their dockets are, I would assume you found a warm reception to these alternative models of resolution.

Belinda Dulin: Absolutely. We actually launched our first formal court program back in 2004 or 5. It was one of the district courts. The chief judge at that time was Judge Cedric Simpson, and he welcomed mediation to address small claims matters. And that was the start of the ripple effect. Over a short period of time, just a matter of a few years, all of the district courts in Washtenaw County began to use our services, specifically mediation services, for small claims matters, lower level general civil matters. And now, we're branching into the criminal legal system in partnership with the prosecutor.

David Fair: So, do people seek out this service from the center, or are you directed by the prosecutor's office or courts that perhaps those who have been harmed are willing to explore this particular avenue?

Belinda Dulin: We are an independent nonprofit, so I want to make that clear. We're not working on behalf or with any court or the legal system at all. These are partnerships that get created because we share values, we want to see something happen differently in our system, and we want to empower people to make decisions that they can live with. Having said that, the partnerships that we have with the court, and I should mention we have a strong partnership with the trial court, specifically with the peacemaking court as well. So, these partnerships allow individuals to have an option to work with the DRC, use our services, or to move forward with the traditional path of the legal system. So, we're never removing that option from them. However, the partnerships with those systems allow people to have an option that did not exist before.

David Fair: So, take me inside the room for a moment. How does it work so that a victim or survivor can meet with the person who caused the harm and still feel as though they are safe?

Belinda Dulin: Absolutely. So, when something happens in the community between individuals and the police are called, a report is sent to the prosecutor's office, and the prosecutor gets to make the decision, if they, at this point, if they want to deflect that matter from the court system in its entirety. Deflection is a little different from diversion. Deflection means that before moving any further with the court system, we will give an opportunity to the person who survived the harm a chance to say, "I'd like to work this out without going to court." And if both parties agree, meaning that the person who survived that harm wants to have a Restorative Justice circle as well as the person who did the harm, and that is critically important. We never want to use the circle as a method to cause more harm. We do not want a person to come to the circle and say, "Hey, I didn't do it. You're mistaken. You know, you have a problem. It's not me." That is not what we want. So, the person who hurt someone else or who did that harm must be willing to take responsibility for his or her actions and be willing to be accountable for that meaning that they must say, "Yes, I want to fix this." And then they go into that circle. So, both parties are always in agreement to go to the circle. We do not make them go. We do not impose that on them. Assuming that they want to move to the circle, we have trained facilitators that we work with. We provide training annually, and we've worked with many of our facilitators for several years. We assign them to the case, and they are willing to work with that case for up to 18 months. We give people a chance not only to talk about what happened, why it happened, how it's impacting them, and how to fix it. We also have continuing circles to talk about is the repair working. So, if we decided to do action X, we want to make sure that action X was implemented, and it's actually working for the parties at hand. Another important thing about the restorative circle is that when people have experienced harm and they go through the traditional court system, research has found that they become silent. They are a witness to their own case. So, the questions that they have, typically, are not addressed in a traditional trial. People who have experienced harm often want to know why them. Why was I picked? Was there something that I did? Did I say something? Have you been watching me? Following me? Whatever. Folks have questions that they cannot get answers to in the court proceeding. But in a restorative circle, they can. They can ask those questions and get answers to those questions. So, on the front end of the circle, the DRC works very intently with the persons involved in the circle to make sure that they feel prepared and ready to go into that space and have that conversation, feeling a sense of safety and bravery as they move through it.

David Fair: WEMU's Washtenaw United and our conversation with Belinda Dulin continues. She is executive director of the Ann Arbor-based Dispute Resolution Center. Is there a particular encounter that stands out to you--without naming names--as exemplary and serving the mission of what the program is designed to be?

Belinda Dulin: Yes. And I will be very careful because I don't want to share any identifying information to preserve the confidentiality and privacy of our consumers. But there was an incident that occurred in the community between individuals who are relatives, and those relatives called the police. The police showed up. A report was presented. And in the restorative circle, they were able to talk about not only the incident at hand and how to fix it, but they also talked about the why, what was underneath the anger, the resentment, and the behavior that precipitated that police call. And getting answers to that and understanding the impact of what all of that meant in their relational dynamic, they were able to fix the problem in a way that worked for them. I think what was so warm and comforting as a facilitator--and I happened to facilitate that case myself--was that these relatives were very angry. There was a lot of animosity. I really didn't think they would get to the circle. There was some back-and-forth between the parties. "I might do it. I don't want to do it. Maybe I will" kind of thing. But once we got into the circle and we set the tone for what that conversation would be, we ended the circle making plans to spend time together and to move forward, not just as two people who had an incident, but as family members again. So, the relationship was also repaired in that particular case.

David Fair: I've heard you say that our society is listening less and reacting more. So, when the principles of listening are applied in conflict resolution and restorative justice, it seems to truly create opportunity for a better future for all parties involved.

Belinda Dulin: Absolutely. The biggest job of a facilitator, we call it, holding that space. We're with those who are having a crisis, having a very unpleasant moment or have had an unpleasant moment. And our job is to listen intently to all parties and to all communication. We're listening to the words that they say, their physical reactions, behavior, the expressions on their face. We're listening to the emotions that are expressed when they talk. And we also get a chance to restate that in a way that the other party can hear it. So, we move conversations from acute anger to maybe unpleasant to maybe misunderstanding just by listening. And we also help the parties listen to each other. So, once we can get beyond the emotionality of that or de-escalate that a bit, they begin to listen to each other differently. And for many of the people that the DRC services, they're hearing each other for the very first time.

David Fair: Well, I'd like to thank you for your time today and for the conversation and insights. Much appreciated.

Belinda Dulin: Thank you so much.

David Fair: That is Belinda Dulin, the executive director of the Dispute Resolution Center in Washtenaw County and our guest on Washtenaw United. For more information on Belinda, the Center, and our discussion today, I encourage you to visit our web site at WEMU dot org. Washtenaw United is produced in partnership with the United Way of Washtenaw County, and you hear it every Monday. I'm David Fair, and this is your community NPR station, 89 one WEMU FM Ypsilanti.


The Dispute Resolution Center

The Dispute Resolution Center on Facebook

The Dispute Resolution Center Impact Page

Washtenaw County Restorative Justice Policy

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Contact David: dfair@emich.edu
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