Offering Solid Alternatives Despite Financial Obstacles

July 20th, 2015

David Saunier

David Saunier, MA ’04, directs Central Virginia Restorative Justice, which largely handles court-referred juvenile delinquency cases in Charlottesville.

In the coming 2016 fiscal year, Central Virginia Restorative Justice (CVRJ) in Charlottesville will take funding cuts from two local governments totaling about $15,000. For this small group that exclusively does restorative justice work, that’s a huge bite out of its operating budget. Director David Saunier, MA ’04 (conflict transformation), is going to have to get creative yet again.

“It’s always a challenge to be able to cobble enough money to keep it going,” said Saunier, CVRJ’s only paid staffer, who largely handles court-referred juvenile delinquency cases with the help of three volunteers. “It’s a battle every year.”

That’s a common experience for organizations across the state offering restorative justice or mediation services, according to Christine Poulson, MA ’98 (conflict transformation). The headwinds are particularly strong for 2015-16.

“I’d say that right now, centers are really, really struggling,” said Poulson, executive director of the Virginia Association for Community Conflict Resolution (VACCR).

Alternative dispute resolution isn’t as hot a topic as it once was for big funders, who are now more focused on basic needs such as education, healthcare and job training, she said. Additionally, state and local governments aren’t generally in a position to offer generous support.

VACCR represents nine mediation centers throughout the state (Saunier’s CVRJ is not a mediation center and therefore is not among them) and focuses on big-picture initiatives to support community-based mediation work that member organizations – often scrambling simply to keep the doors open and fulfill their missions – can rarely devote time to. It’s a feeling she knows well, having previously helped start a mediation center in Blacksburg before spending about eight years as director of the Conflict Resolution Center in Roanoke, Virginia.

Dove license plate

Among Poulson’s major goals with VACCR is developing long-term, dependable funding streams for mediation organizations in the state. Toward that end, in 2005 she led a successful effort for Virginia to give vehicle owners the option of buying a Community Peacebuilding license plate decorated with a dove. About 3,000 cars in Virginia now have these peacebuilding license plates, generating about $45,000 per year to support VACCR (info at

Poulson is also working to collect more data to quantify the value of mediation centers to communities. She hopes to raise the centers’ profiles and encourage more people to consider bringing their disputes and problems to their local mediation centers instead of the police or courts.

Christine Poulson

Christine Poulson, MA ’98, is executive director of the Virginia Association for Community Conflict Resolution, regrouping nine mediation centers.

Harrisonburg boasts the first mediation center in the state, the Fairfield Center founded in 1982. The center does non-stop fundraising to maintain itself, though it is a partner agency of both the United Way of Harrisonburg and Rockingham County and the United Way of Greater Augusta.

Local vineyards, restaurants and churches have co-sponsored “Pass the Peace” community meals to raise money for Fairfield; the Shenandoah Valley Airport has hosted a “plane pull” competition (which garnered $8,000 in 2014). But despite long-standing, deep roots in its community, the Fairfield Center had to walk away from its plans in 2014 to renovate a warehouse in Harrisonburg to house its offices and those of compatible nonprofits.

Fairfield paid $630,000 in 2011 for the building, but had to sell it “as is” for $625,000 in March 2014, as reported by local TV station WHSV. Fairfield Center executive director Tim Ruebke ’92, MA ’99 (conflict transformation), said the situation changed in those three years, ending the dream and contributing to the $5,000 loss.

“Unfortunately it didn’t work out, with the slow recovery [from the global recession] and fewer grant monies available and increasing costs – we just decided as a board that it became too risky,” Ruebke told WHSV four months after the sale.

“We are very careful with our costs and our results show significant impact in the community,” he recently told Crossroads. “We just need people to become more aware of what we do.”

In Richmond, long-term financial stability also looms large in the mind of Judy Clarke, MA ’11 (conflict transformation), founding director of the Virginia Center for Restorative Justice. The organization teaches restorative justice in eight state prisons and two juvenile detention centers. Clarke hopes to be eventually working in every prison in the state.

“We have to make a living”

“You [have] to think strategically about your work,” Clarke said. “You don’t just think ‘I’m going to help people.’ It’s laudatory … but the fact remains, people who do this kind of work have to make a living.”

To that end, she has convened a working group of state officials, practitioners and others to study the creation of an office of restorative justice that would support and fund programs across the state.

“If we could get this set up, then there would be sustainability for restorative justice in Virginia,” she said. “And that would just be awesome. That’s the reason I wake up in the morning.”

For now, Clarke’s primary source of funding for the Virginia Center for Restorative Justice comes through a U.S. Department of Labor grant to provide restorative justice training for staff of Big Brothers Big Sisters in high-poverty or high-crime neighborhoods across the country. Her organization is also supported by individuals and congregations.

Back in Charlottesville, Saunier plans to make up CVRJ’s funding gap by soliciting donations from people within the community. After 13 years in the job, Saunier said he’s learned that simply having a good reputation isn’t enough.

“You’ve got to sell [your work],” he said. “You’ve got to really consciously develop relationships and make your case. I’ve been hesitant to do that because it seemed like to go out and ‘sell’ was somewhat unseemly, but it’s not. You’re promoting something that’s meaningful and that can make real change.”

At times, he acknowledges, it can feel frustrating to constantly be working on an unpredictable shoestring budget. But for now, that’s life, and frustration doesn’t change that.

“You can rail against the wind or you can get to work,” he said. “And I’m getting to work.”

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