Mediator Moves On

by Paul Bass | April 27, 2009 4:05 PM | | Comments (13)

DSCN2849.JPGCharlie Pillsbury, who has helped end longstanding disputes as intractable as New Haven’s and East Haven’s airport stand-off, is stepping down from his peacemaking perch.

Pillsbury plans to retire in October as executive director of Community Mediation, Inc., which he has helped build into a force for resolving arguments not just between individual neighbors, but whole communities.

“I’ll have been here 20 years. And I turn 62,” Pillsbury said in a conversation inside his office overlooking Elm Street. “It was both time for a new challenge for me, and a good time to challenge the organization to make this transition.”

The October date gives Community Mediation six months to find a successor. It has launched a nationwide search. (Click here to read the job description.)

The agency faces a challenge common to not-for-profits: Maintaining and building on the work of a visionary leader who has come to define it over a long period of time.

“Pillsbury said his “model” for deciding to leave now was Chester Brodnicki. The Clifford Beers Clinic had time to find a strong new leader, Alice Forrester, and maintain continuity when Brodnicki left there after two decades of leadership.

“As much as I loved the man, I don’t want to be another Cornell Scott,” Pillsbury said. Scott built up the Health Center over 35 years, then had to leave because of an illness.

“Scotty stayed too long,” Pillsbury said. “It took the Hill Health Center three, four years [to make the transition]. Scotty couldn’t be part of it.”

Proactive Peace

DSCN2860.JPGCommunity Mediation began in Fair Haven with a grant (one of many to come) from the Community Foundation for Greater New Haven. It focused on resolving disputes between neighbors. It built into a trusted community institution under its first two directors, Carol Anastasio and Tina Burgett.

Pillsbury, an attorney and longtime social justice activist, took over in 1989. The agency had three staffers, one intern, and a $125,000 annual budget. Today it has 10 full-timers, a couple of part-timers, several interns, and an $850,000 budget.

And its mission has grown.

It continues to help neighbors settle disputes. It has trained more than 800 volunteer mediators to continue doing that work in the community.

Meanwhile, it has taken on larger issues pitting groups against each other, sometimes getting ahead of a problem before it grows larger. Pillsbury said some 500 volunteer “facilitators” have learned to foster “dialogues” among community groups.

“We have changed the culture of the city so both mediation and dialogue are becoming not alternatives, but the norm. I’d like to see that continue,” said Pillsbury, whose other accomplishments include running for Congress as a Green Party candidate in 2002 and serving as the model for his college roommate Garry Trudeau’s Mike Doonesbury.

The crowning achievement of his Community Mediation career came last month, when the mayors of East Haven and New Haven ended a 40-year feud over how to improve Tweed-New Haven Airport.

Pillsbury brought them together. He didn’t wait for the warring parties to come to him.

Last fall he read an article in the Register about a press conference in East Haven. Mayor April Capone Almon mentioned in passing that she’d be open to mediation on the issue.

Pillsbury phoned New Haven Mayor John DeStefano, whom he knows well. He asked if DeStefano was up for it.

Both sides agreed to meet.

“We told them, ‘You can’t come in with your entourages.’” Pillsbury and his associate director, Brenda Cavanaugh, arrived at East Haven Town Hall to meet with the two mayors and one chosen ally of each.

“Woody Allen used to say that 80 percent of life is showing up. In mediation it’s 98 percent. You’ve got to show up, or there’s no mediation,” Pillsbury observed.

“They agreed to meet a second time. They didn’t agree on anything else.”

Eventually Community Mediation worked with an ever-expanding roster from both sides in five meetings.

“If you can solve this, Charlie,” one veteran politician told Pillsbury, “we’re going to send you to the Middle East next.”

The five sessions weren’t moving the two towns closer to a deal. In January, in the conference room in the New Haven mayoral suite at City Hall, “the mayors decided they weren’t making progress with large groups.” DeStefano and Almon retired, alone, to DeStefano’s office. They determined how to proceed from there.

From then on they no longer needed Pillsbury. They directed their staffs the outlines of a deal, and by March they were able to seal it in Hartford, in time to ask the state legislature for emergency dough. East Haven dropped a court challenge to needed runway improvements. New Haven agreed to limit the runway length.

“The mediation process had helped them build a relationship. It wasn’t helping them solve the problem,” Pillsbury recalled. “We got them to the table.”

He and his staff have brought many other battling forces to the table over the past two decades.

They helped black students at Yale come to a compromise with the owners of then-Naples Pizza on Wall Street and end a boycott called over alleged mistreatment of African-American undergraduate customers.

With the help of the late Father Howard Nash and the Rev. Boise Kimber, Community Mediation and Interfaith Cooperative Ministries started a racial dialogue project in the wake of the 1997 shooting death of a black New Haven motorist by a white East Haven cop. That project helped ease tensions, and has grown into a continuing, broader “Dialogue Project.” It has most recently tackled the area’s divide over immigration.

Community Mediation stepped in when Dwight neighbors complained about people boozing up and people “pissing on lawns” while waiting between breakfast and lunch sessions at the Community Soup Kitchen, Pillsbury recalled. he and his staff brought in mediators from the Dwight Management Team to work with all parties. They succeeded in getting other churches in town to host breakfasts so no one spot would become an all-morning loitering spot.

Community Mediation was also a player in helping to create a juvenile review board in New Haven. (Read about that here and here.)

Next Steps

Looking ahead, Pillsbury said he’d like to see Community Mediation build on work it has begun with the public schools. A social development effort begun in the 1990s “faded away” amid the “focus on testing,” he said.

“Reading, writing, arithmetic are seen as ‘hard skills.’ Problem-solving, teamwork, resolving conflict — those are ‘soft skills.’ You can’t test for them. But these are all crucial life skills, work skills.”

With the support of schools chief Reggie Mayo, Community Mediation has begun training peer mediators, Pillsbury said. The next step is to involve principals and others in enlisting the trained students to solve conflicts.

As for personal plans after his October retirement, Pillsbury’s not sure yet. He’ll do some teaching on conflict resolution. He may hook up with a new international effort called Mediators Beyond Borders. Whatever the venue, he plans to continue making peace.

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Posted by: jeffreykerekes [TypeKey Profile Page] | April 27, 2009 5:22 PM

Charlie is a great New Haven resource and Community Mediation is a fantastic organization. I know I wish you the best as you move on to other projects. Thanks for all your hard work at Community Mediation!

Posted by: Vitar Simpson | April 27, 2009 8:45 PM

Good luck Charlie and thanks for all the great work you've done in New Haven. Mediators Beyond Borders can use your expertise.

Posted by: Patricia Kane | April 27, 2009 9:52 PM

Blessed are the peace makers.

Posted by: Nathan Karnes | April 27, 2009 11:37 PM

Thank you, congratulations and good luck to Charlie. I like the Mediators Without Borders idea.

Posted by: Ariel Martinez | April 28, 2009 8:42 AM

Way to go Charlie... nice to retire at such a young age. God bless you my friend as you continue your life time adventures.

Posted by: Steve Koch | April 28, 2009 8:51 PM

Thank you, Charlie, for all of your kind words, deeds, and actions within the New Haven community and beyond. My memories of Community Mediation shall always be fond, especially when I had the honor of being part of your staff. Best of luck in your future endeavors!

Shalom uv'racha (Peace & Blessings)

Steve Koch

Posted by: Lesley Mills | April 28, 2009 9:10 PM

Thank you Paul for a great spotlight on Charlie Pillsbury and the work he has done for us in New Haven. We're a better community for it!
Lesley Mills

Posted by: Joyce | April 29, 2009 11:12 AM

Thanks Charlie for all your great work for New Haven!

Posted by: cedarhillresident [TypeKey Profile Page] | April 29, 2009 4:41 PM

Good Luck Charlie!! And thank you!

Posted by: Laura Berry | April 29, 2009 4:57 PM

This is a fitting tribute to a person who has given so much to our community. Thank you Independent. Thank you Charlie. As usual there is a special grace that surrounds your work Charlie; not just what you do, but HOW you do it.

Posted by: Suzanne Miller | April 29, 2009 8:11 PM

Charlie, your unwavering integrity and commitment to peace and justice have been an inspiration to everyone whose path you have crossed. I am a better person for having known you. New Haven is a better city for all you have given. The world is a better place for the positive energy and influence you radiate.

Posted by: Willis Diggs | April 29, 2009 8:44 PM

Good luck in your new ventures, Charlie. You'll be missed!


Posted by: Chris Gray | April 29, 2009 10:43 PM

Even have a Community Mediation story, but we don't need it now! Besides, you're the one with a knack for continuity.


I'm sure New Haven hasn't heard the last of you.

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