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Longtime villager Luciana Lieff, left, is replacing a retiring John Gudgel as coordinator of the Village Mediation Program. The program has offered free conflict resolution services to village and township residents for over 30 years. (Photos by Jessica Thomas)

A new face for Village Mediation

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By Jessica Thomas

For over 30 years, the Village of Yellow Springs has prided itself on its Village Mediation Program, whose goal is helping residents of the village and Miami Township transform conflict into understanding. This year, the program will continue serving the community under new leadership.

Now at the helm is Luciana Lieff, who is filling the coordinator position held by John Gudgel, who is stepping down after 11 years.

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The Village Mediation program will formally welcome Lieff and thank Gudgel at a reception on Wednesday, June 30, from 5:30 to 7 p.m., in Rooms A & B of the John Bryan Center. All are welcome to attend.

Lieff, a 20-year resident of Yellow Springs, graduated from Antioch Midwest with a bachelor’s of arts in liberal studies with a concentration in conflict studies. She has also served the Village in several roles such as police officer, member of the Economic Sustainability Commission, substitute teacher and freelance photographer for the Yellow Springs News. 

Drawn to mediation while working in the Yellow Springs Police Department, Lieff remembers often suggesting mediation on calls for disputes between neighbors and family members.

“Police work kept bringing me back to mediation,” Lieff said. “I wanted to help make sure people knew that mediation was an option.”

Finding herself adjacent to the local program, Lieff decided to leave the department to pursue a degree in conflict resolution and a career as a mediator. Prior to applying for the local coordinator position, Lieff worked with the Dayton Mediation Center, where she underwent training and learned the methodology of transformative mediation. She helped mediate conflicts between neighbors, family members and co-workers in the Dayton area.

New to the group of mediators in Yellow Springs, Lieff hopes to continue increasing the program’s public visibility by offering additional training and working with other village entities to spread the word about the mediation program; in short, she wants to continue the program’s legacy of promoting peace and harmony in the village. Like her predecessor, Gudgel, Lieff will focus on recruiting new mediators to join the 10 current members, and expanding the scope of the program.

“I really want to work on outreach, working with the schools, the mayor and the police department,” Lieff said. “I would like to form a relationship between Village Mediation and the juvenile courts in order to give juveniles the option to go to mediation.”

Currently, the Village Mediation Program is available for any resident of the Village of Yellow Springs and Miami Township. Though agreements made in mediation are not legally binding when sought by residents, participants are encouraged to follow through on agreements made during mediation. Officers on the YSPD are also encouraged to recommend mediation, and do so as an alternative to residents filing legal complaints.

Gudgel, who has worked with the program as a mediator, trainer and coordinator since 2010, said he was drawn to the work because mediation is so often used in school settings. At the same time he accepted a position as a guidance counselor at Mills Lawn, he pursued the coordinator position as well, and has expanded the program in the schools, working with mediators, administrators and teachers to provide training for students.

“That’s been a big win,” Gudgel said. “By giving students the freedom to resolve conflict with mediation instruction, we’ve noticed that our students have gotten pretty good at resolving conflicts on their own.”

Asked about balancing the workload, Gudgel remarked that “the people who have developed and helped maintain the program are still currently engaged. It made my job easier because I could reach out to people who understood the history and the complexities of the program.”

According to prior News articles, the program started in 1987. Based on the vision of villager Bruce Heckman, the Mediation Program seeks to provide peaceful and productive methods for addressing conflict. People use mediation to solve disputes about property lines, problems with family members and tenants’ disputes with landlords. The mediators train with the Dayton Mediation Center and work in pairs to help disputants find common ground. With the goal of instilling a transformative mindset in disputants, mediators encourage active listening and understanding the concerns of their opposition.

“What we really do is help people listen to each other,” Lieff said. “People often realize that they have more common ground once they take the time to hear complaints through mediation.”

In addition to mediating conflicts, the program offers facilitation, consultation, and training. In recent years, Village Mediation facilitated community forums on topics ranging from removing the Yellow Springs Police Department from the ACE Task Force and meeting candidates for the Police Chief position to facilitating a “Fiber Forum” to gather citizen input about a community fiber project. In April, Village Mediation hosted a workshop called “Got Conflict,” facilitated by Jay Rothman and Sarah Wallis. After introducing participants to mediation, the workshop provided participants with an app to help guide them through the steps of a mediation.

Additionally, individuals, businesses, organizations, and Village officials call on Village Mediation when they are unsure of the services that the program provides. Members of the Village Mediation Program consult with callers in order to help them decide what services they actually need, whether it be training, facilitation or mediation.

The consultation and training work has led Yellow Springs’ mediation program to become a model for other communities of similar size. According to Gudgel, groups from Oberlin and Fairborn have reached out for consultations in order to start their own mediation programs.

“For a long time, this program was unique among villages of our size,” Gudgel said. “The fact that others have reached out to us to see how we’ve modeled our program is heartwarming.”

Despite being a model for other communities, the Yellow Springs Mediation program has had some difficulties with underutilization of the program overall, and enticing younger, more diverse mediators.

“When you set up a mediation, you have to be very sensitive to the makeup of the disputants,” Gudgel explained. “These disputants are pouring out their hearts and souls, and sometimes it’s human nature to feel comfortable with someone who looks like you.”

After recently taking over the coordinator position, Lieff began working to find ways to make sure the community knows about the program.

“I’ve made fliers and business cards. If Village officials and volunteers have friends going through a dispute, they can disperse contact information,” Lieff said.

Like the rest of the world, the program was affected by the onset of COVID-19. While other mediation programs shut their doors, Yellow Springs Mediation found a way to continue meeting the needs of the community.

“We had to do some Zoom mediations, which in my opinion, aren’t as effective as face to face,” Gudgel said. “We also take for granted that everyone has access to a computer and Wi-Fi. The lack of access creates another barrier.”

Fortunately, the program’s dedicated group of volunteers were able to continue the service, even conducting an outdoor, socially distanced, masked mediation. Another challenge has been the rise in social media use.

“The issues on social media are leading to disputes, and it is difficult to mediate social media conflicts. It’s uncharted territory,” said Gudgel.

Despite these challenges, Gudgel is happy with the ways that Village Mediation has been able to serve the community during his time as coordinator, helping to find solutions to problems that include damage from trees that cross property lines, disputes about fireplace smoke that bothers neighbors with asthma, or mediation to avoid a costly judgment at Mayor’s Court.

After his years of coordinating the program, Gudgel is happy to take a step back and spend a little more time at home.

“It’s been a joy and a thrill, but this year has taught me that I need to spend more time with my wife, Kathy, and our children and grandchildren,” Gudgel said.

That said, this step back does not mean that Gudgel will completely remove himself from the program. He still plans to help wherever necessary and will still be active in mediation in his role as a Mills Lawn guidance counselor. As for the Village Mediation Program, Leiff is excited to begin her role, looking forward to collaborating with mediators, villagers and other entities to help empower village and township residents by giving them the tools to peacefully resolve conflicts.

“We want our village to coexist peacefully; that’s our goal.”

*Thomas is a freelance reporter for the Yellow Springs News, mother, and master of arts candidate at Wright State University. She lives in the village with her husband, Matt, and their daughter, Calliope. She can be reached at jessicathomasraska@gmail.com.

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