Last November, The Fixer and Justin Feldman submitted a formal request to the county government to help solve the gridlock the area had become known for. The Fixer’s client, Travis Stapp, says the county took four months to send the request, so they challenged the process with an appeal, filing an equal process claim.
Washtenaw County’s Human Rights Division granted the request in January, awarding a grant that would have the office provide a community mediation process in a voluntary process. A community-mediation team that included a team from the DC office of Human Rights and a team from the Washington Mayor’s Office of Human Rights would meet with community partners in Washington, Ann Arbor, Oakland County, MI, and Birmingham, AL.
After almost 12 months of discussions and community engagement, the city of Ann Arbor and Washtenaw County announced on Tuesday that they have reached an agreement on an agreement that brings an end to the community mediation process. The parties have agreed to immediately take steps to include any Ann Arbor residents who have signed up in the process so they too can obtain a mediation session with a representative from the county. To qualify, residents will need to sign up in Ann Arbor. From there, the office will begin an effort to send out small team letters, and eventually let the community know about the process they’re offering in case they feel that its quality is not up to par.
Under the agreement, Washtenaw County will continue to provide community-mediation grants and work with Washington to incorporate Washington residents in the process. However, Ann Arbor is the only part of Washtenaw County that agreed to make their protocol similar to the one they started using a year ago, when one of the founders of the city of Ann Arbor had arranged for the two offices to work together to resolve work site conflicts.
David Smith is the director of Washtenaw County’s Human Rights Department and has been the leader of the office for the past three years. He says the county has focused on one goal since the inception of the grant program: “[to] develop a process whereby the most prevalent areas of human rights violations in Washtenaw County could be resolved in a way that would represent a meaningful partnership, as opposed to just a funding vehicle for the office to do another assignment.”
The grant funding from the county allows them to continue services and expand them. Their main involvement in community-mediation has already been with mediation sessions, but Smith says they’re now going to get more involved with school districts to encourage conflict resolution. They’re also collaborating with the international legal group, the United Nations, to develop training for their staff.
Erica Debrash, staff attorney at the Human Rights Project of the DC office of Human Rights, says it’s important for the office to work closely with all communities on a case-by-case basis. “You can’t be a good advocate for everybody. To be able to truly continue to represent vulnerable people without having to subvert our mission, that’s what makes the job so meaningful,” she says.
In the city of Ann Arbor, a greater emphasis was placed on engaging the community before moving forward with mediation in general, which took some time, says Cindy Masterson, director of Ann Arbor’s Office of Human Rights. But in the last year, Ann Arbor has had a lot of success, including taking down a billboard that referred to LGBTQ people as “special interest.” “That awareness and increased community discourse, along with concrete experiences from people who had been victimized – each of those kinds of things, when you put them all together, make for a really wonderful place,” she says.
This article is written by Alexa Maki for The Washington Post.