New York Peace Institute’s CEO, Brad Heckman, gives Peace Is Sexy the run down on how peace is possible in New York City, a city with more diversity than there are aspiring stars on Broadway.
What’s New York Peace Institute’s mission?
Our mission is to build peace in New York City – and beyond. We do this through providing free, confidential mediation services to thousands of New Yorkers every year, at our Brooklyn and Manhattan Centers and in various venues throughout the city. With a staff of 15 and more than 200 highly trained mediators, we like to think of ourselves as the largest civilian peacebuilding force in New York City.
We also train and credential mediators, and host all kinds of free events called “PeaceTalks” designed to raise awareness of peaceful and creative ways to resolve conflict.
New York Peace Institute is a paradox. We’re old and young – a 30-year old initiative as a program of Safe Horizon (a leading New York victims services agency), and since 2011, a fully independent, non-profit organization. And, while we embody the spirit of a small, community-based organization, we are proudly one of the largest mediation initiatives nationwide.
What kinds of conflicts you handle?
Oh, you name it. People come to us with family, business, neighbor, school, interpersonal, cross-cultural and other disputes. New York City is a fascinating place – the number of conflicts here at any given time is roughly equivalent to the number of New Yorkers. On a given New York block, we can have dozens of languages, cultures, ethnicities, professions, religions, and orientations – often separated by a mere inch of drywall – and for the most part, this mosaic is peacefully caulked together. We’re part of that caulking.
Our cases can run the range of two neighbors arguing over noise, to thirty people meeting to figure out how to move forward when an act of violence has impacted their community. And everything in-between.
What is mediation anyway?
Simply put, mediation is a safe space for a difficult conversation.
There are many people in our lives who give advice or tell us what to do — doctors, teachers, parents, lawyers, judges, counselors, friends, etc. Mediators don’t take sides or offer opinions. They provide an opportunity for parties to express themselves, listen to each other, and come up with their own solutions. Mediation is confidential, free, and fast. If you go to court, you can be in the system for months – even years – before your case is resolved. With mediation, we can usually schedule a case within a couple of weeks, and a typical session last about two hours.
It’s remarkable – time after time, in a couple of hours, we see agreements reached, understanding increased, and relationships healed. You really can’t underestimate the impact of people having a chance to express their concerns, feelings, and needs in a safe environment. The overwhelming majority of our clients feel better off after mediation – and most of them come to either an agreement or a better understanding of each other.
How do your clients find you?
We aspire to be woven into the fabric of the city, so we partner with community-based organizations, faith-based groups, city agencies, and social service organizations that refer clients to us. We also have mediators based in various courts. For example, if you have a case in Manhattan or Brooklyn civil court, the judge may recommend that you give mediation a shot – and we have mediators sitting at the ready in the jury box. Many clients find us online, and we have a handy referral form.
Who are your mediators?
Our mediators represent all walks of life, and reflect the diversity of our communities. Among the day jobs our mediators have are animal trainer, hostage negotiator, homemaker, teacher, flight attendant, Broadway producer, and performance artist. And, of course the usual suspects like lawyers and social workers.
I’m often asked which profession makes the best mediator. I honestly have no idea — I have yet to see a correlation between one’s education or professional background and mediation skills – it’s about one’s desire to engage with empathy and understanding, to listen without judging, to encourage parties’ creativity, and to trust in their ability to come up with their own solutions.
The best part is that our mediators, 200 strong, are volunteers – people who dedicate their time, energy, and passion to be community peacebuilders. In short, they’re heroes.
Who are your clients?
They’re also heroes! I think it takes lots of courage for our clients to sit down with your adversary and a total stranger and work through difficult, personal issues that have often been plaguing them for years. They show the courage to assertively confront the other party, to listen, to generate unbelievably creative options for moving forward.
One of the most gratifying things about the mediation field is seeing people transform their relationships in the space of a couple of hours. Our mediators are their guides, but it’s the clients who are doing the heavy lifting.
Who funds the New York Peace Institute?
New York State’s Unified Court System and the Office of the Mayor provide much of our core funding. New York actually has a statute that mandates the provision of and funding for free or low cost mediation services in every county in the state. We also exist thanks to the generosity of people who see the value promoting peace in their community through our services.
What are PeaceTalks?
PeaceTalks are free, informal get-togethers that we host once or twice per month in order to raise awareness of innovative peacebuilding ideas and initiatives from all over the world. In the past year or so, we’ve had guests speak about conflict resolution in Iraq, Hungary, Brazil, Israel, Yemen, Jordan, Turkey, and Lebanon. PeaceTalks are also film screenings, skill-building workshops, and roundtable discussions about building peace in our city.
How did you get involved in mediation?
I had the opportunity of living and working in Poland during the peaceful revolutions in 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell. Living through a period of incredible change through facilitated dialogue profoundly influenced my belief in peaceful conflict transformation. I did my masters work in International Relations at Johns Hopkins in order to get a better theoretical grasp on how it all works, and then spent nearly 10 years helping set up the first mediation centers throughout the former Soviet Bloc and the Balkans, as International Director of Partners for Democratic Change. And then I thought it was about time I served my own community, so for the past 7 years I’ve been committed to building peace here in New York City.
How can I get involved?
Lots of ways! Here are a few:
- Use our free services! If you are involved in any kind of dispute, try mediation. It’s free, fast, and confidential. You have nothing to lose (except a couple hours of your time), and chances are you’ll benefit from the process.
- If you know someone in conflict, feel free to send them our way. We’ll be happy to set up a mediation session, or just talk through their options.
- Become a mediator, by going through our intensive training and apprenticeship. In a nutshell – it’s a life-changing experience that’s somewhere between bootcamp and bandcamp.
- Come to our PeaceTalks, and learn more about the mediation field – and meet fascinating folks from the peacebuilding community.