Meeting the Moment


Frances Henderson

Many of you may have been at our wine party at Glasshalfull last November, celebrating DSC’s forty years. Wine, laughs, food, prizes – and togetherness.

Last year before everything stopped, DSC raised nearly $200,000, added staff and a new Dialogues Program, and assisted over 2300 people. Then boom, it was March 13 and we shuttered our busy downtown Carrboro practice to go home and learn mediation via Zoom.

A projected one-third of nonprofits will close due to COVID.

We find ourselves in overlapping catastrophes of COVID suffering, rough economy, and shocking racial disparities in incarceration, health, wealth and education. A staff member said to me recently, “I was here during the Great Recession, and DSC came out of it stronger.” For those who don’t know, DSC lost its state funding in 2010 and had to shutter its court program for a year. As a team, we figured out where our ethics stood, solved the funding issue and got back in court.

Racial reckoning is on everyone’s minds. Over time, we’ve done better and worse with race, age, gender, and professional diversity, on the board and on the staff. Orange County is 78% white, 14% Black, and 3-4% each Latinx and Asian and our staff and board do not reflect that.  Among those we serve, 61% are white, 25% Black, 11 % Latinx and 3% other. Interestingly, 16% of people in Orange County speak a language other than English at home.

What role can DSC play in this racial reckoning, and in supporting the changes that need to happen? Something that has sustained us over time is our carefulness with mission, and our boundaries as process people, not advocates. We aren’t ideologues. The community counts on us for that.

But we must be bold in facing this future. A story about our founder: Charlotte Adams, a white woman, died 20 years ago at 102. In the hot summer of 1940, the Black author Richard Wright visited Chapel Hill to work with the white playwright Paul Green on adapting Native Son to the stage.

Richard Wright, author (1939). Photo by Carl Van Vechten

Jim Crow segregation meant that Wright was not allowed to stay at the Carolina Inn, nor eat in any local restaurants. I understand he stayed at a boardinghouse in Carrboro. The degradation to Wright is unimaginable to me. Charlotte Adams had Richard Wright to her home for tea, knowing that the KKK was watching everything. She received death threats. That was bold white lady behavior.

It was also bold to found a community mediation center in the 1970s, following what was arguably an even more divisive period than what we have now. Our founders thought the criminal justice system at the local level could be more humane and more empowering to individuals. Bold.

DSC works with the justice system and law enforcement but we are not “of them.” We are careful to say we work with people referred from court, rather than “we serve the courts.” In a time of bold calls for changing the roles of the police, Prison Abolition, and removing SROs from schools, what does that mean for DSC? We are neutrals, but how can we play a positive role in movements to make our country more just? I believe that our neutral position in the community means that we can help with difficult conversations. I am also aware that we must respond to the increased and appropriate scrutiny applied to white-dominated organizations that they be reflective and responsive to the whole community.

In doing this, I believe we can use the things that we tell our clients in mediation:

  • Refer to the past as needed, but focus on the future.
  • Assume good faith in your partners and associates.
  • Don’t expect perfect outcomes, but know what is important or nonnegotiable to you.
  • Get creative.
  • Seek outside content help if you need to.
  • Be clear with any agreements.

As mediators, we first seek to do no harm. We will not waste anyone’s time if there is nothing to mediate. We will not set a harmfully unbalanced mediation table. We would not ask anyone to mediate about their essential human rights.  Our mediators and facilitators are here if you need us.