Off beat: Vancouver mediators’ careful listening part of Ground Zero healing

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As the nation marked another 9/11 anniversary this weekend, Debbie Nelson was remembering the role six Vancouver mediators played in New York City’s healing process eight years ago.

“I was thinking about that the other day,” Nelson said. “We were honored to be part of it.”

Nelson is a member of the city’s Community Mediation Services. Her work typically involves helping people deal with neighborhood disputes.

In July 2002, Nelson and five other Vancouver-area volunteers answered New York City’s request for facilitators.

“You wanted to help, and didn’t know how,” Nelson said, summarizing the national mood after Sept. 11, 2001. The session about 10 months later to discuss the future of Ground Zero “was an opportunity for us to use our skills and be of assistance,” Nelson said.

Almost 5,000 people participated, split up among 500 tables. Each table had a volunteer facilitator who forwarded suggestions to a central team.

“It was so incredibly emotional — thousands of people, all working together,” Nelson recalled. “They were so varied. They spoke different languages. They came in with diagrams they had drawn, or with pictures of loved ones they had lost.

“There were different things people were worried about,” she said, including some practical issues involving skyscrapers. The discussion included how to escape from burning buildings.

“Some people wanted escape hatches,” she said. “That was part of the visioning and healing and dealing with the fear.”

There has been some healing since then, she said, remembering her initial look at Ground Zero during her 2002 visit.

“At first, it was a gaping wound. It looked like it was bleeding,” Nelson said. When she went back three years ago, “There was a lot of work and activity.”

But it’s still a work in progress.

“I’ve watched over the years as they’ve tried to rebuild Ground Zero, and they have not reached consensus,” she said.

Nelson feels that the public conversation has deteriorated since the big mediation session in 2002.

“I don’t think there is a good process for people to be heard, and they wind up screaming.”

Clearing the air

It doesn’t take a date on the calendar, by the way, to call up echoes of 9/11.

“I went for a walk. … I saw planes overhead,” Nelson said. “I remembered when there were no planes in the air.”

Off Beat lets members of The Columbian news team step back from our newspaper beats to write the story behind the story, fill in the story or just tell a story.