The Meeting Place: Marissa Wertheimer

At our basic trainings, we are often asked “how do I start mediating?” or “how can I shift my work in a different direction?”  So we are offering a new feature in our newsletter, where we interview former Center participants/students who have integrated the Understanding model into their work or career, sometimes in unexpected or unpredictable ways.  (We appreciate any suggestions for people you want to recommend for future interviews.)

Our first interview is with Marissa Wertheimer, a mediator and Restorative Justice trainer in the San Francisco Bay Area.

How did you first become interested in mediation?

Whenever I tell the story of my professional journey, I always start with my first training with Gary Friedman in 2002 at the Center for Understanding in Conflict, which changed my life.  The “aha” moment for me was learning about looping for understanding.  I immediately started using it and was blown away by the positive outcome of giving people your undivided attention, particularly my spouse and children.  It was so powerful when people knew that they had been heard that it changed how I related and connected to other people.  From that moment, I continued to use it and integrate it into my life and work.

Although I was very attached to the Understanding Based model, I also took other mediation trainings as well as continuing to take advanced trainings at the Center.  I learned to appreciate how Gary and Jack had so carefully and rigorously deconstructed what Gary was doing when he mediated so I could learn from the pedagogy that was developed to teach the model.

How did you start mediating professionally?

In 2003, I started volunteering at Marin Mediation Services (“MMS”), which was a community mediation organization.  A year later, I was offered a position conducting both victim offender and community mediations.  I feel lucky that I was there when the job became available.

There was an element of timing, but it also sounds like your focus on becoming well educated, your volunteer work, and your passion was the foundation for being invited to walk through the door when it became open.  What happened next?

I continued to work at MMS.  A few years later, I attended a presentation during Dominic Barter’s first visit to the United States to spread the word about Restorative Circles, a specific process grounded in the philosophy of Restorative Justice initially developed in Brazil. There is a lot of overlap between the concepts and techniques underlying the Understanding Based model that I had been using and the Restorative Circles model.  It made sense to me immediately and was a path that paralleled with the work I had been doing in victim offender mediations.  I could see that when people articulated what someone else had been saying, it led to transformational outcomes from conflict.  Barter’s work with youth in the justice system, continually developing and broadening the theoretical underpinnings to support the practice, was very inspiring to me. I went back to MMS knowing I wanted to try this approach and was able to help build the Restorative Circles practice we use now. We started with juvenile cases and occasionally included young adults while continuing to also do community mediations.

Did that change at some point?

Yes, in 2010, the community mediation services were eliminated.  I continued to work for the County of Marin but only in Restorative Justice.  This past year I had an opportunity to collaborate with several RJ advocates in the Marin County Justice system to launch a RJ Pilot Program in the Adult system.  Additionally, I became a Commissioner on the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Commission and with other Commissioners and community partners, we were able to advocate for widening restorative practices from that platform.

Even though I was only working in Restorative Justice, I continued to help with teaching mediation at the Center for Understanding in Conflict and attending advanced programs such as SCPI (Self-Reflection for Conflict Professionals Intensive) because I wanted to stay connected to mediation and the Center’s community.

What are you doing now?

I recently left my employment at the County of Marin while continuing to work on the Restorative Justice pilot program for adults.  Although I loved my work there, I also knew I needed a change.  SEEDS Community Resolution Center in Berkeley has been developing a Restorative Justice program for several years.  I knew the program coordinator from my work on the ADRNC board and when she was going on maternity leave, I was invited to temporarily fill in for her. I am also starting to build a private mediation practice and working on everything involving in starting up a business, including developing a website and marketing.

Tell me more about your work on the board of ADRNC.

I wanted to support and be involved in the dynamic programming opportunities they were offering members so I joined the board.  It was a wonderful opportunity to connect with mediators from different parts of the Bay Area and to get a landscape view of the mediation community and who was doing what. I was encouraged to think about what was needed for mediation as a profession, how I could contribute, and further refine my own interests and career path.

What else are you doing?

I am a trainer for the IIRP (The International Institute for Restorative Practices) conducting trainings around the country.  Sometimes, a specific group such as a school district will bring us in to train their whole staff.  Other trainings are open to people from different occupations who are interested in learning about restorative practices.  One of the things I love is to work on co-designing a program that will meet the participants’ needs.  The first thing I do is to stay grounded in the present, listen and loop them to make sure we are on the same page, which is huge when you are contracting with someone to provide them with services.

What do you do for fun?

I love bowling, stand-up paddleboarding, cycling, hearing the amazing music available in the Bay Area, attending theater, and spending time with my partner, his son and my 3 adult children.

Thanks Marissa for your time.  We appreciate your dedication and hard work which benefits all of us.