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Girl of the 'Hood

Brooke Hadwen sweats the small stuff so Burlington police don't have to


Published August 11, 2004 at 6:12 p.m.

In his poem "Mending Wall," Robert Frost declared, "Good fences make good neighbors." Maybe problems are still that easily solved in rural parts of the state. But in Vermont's largest city, where people live closer -- sometimes much, much closer -- together, a fence just won't cut it. When neighbors have a problem with each other in Burlington, they call the cops.

Police can issue tickets and make arrests if someone commits a crime, but they can't force people to talk to one another or to get along. That's where Brooke Hadwen comes in.

Hadwen works at the Burlington Police station, but she's not an officer of the law. The petite, bespectacled 47-year-old is a mediator. She's the sole employee of the Commun-ity Support Project, a program of the Community and Econ-omic Development Office (CEDO) with a budget of roughly $50,000 a year. "I am way less expensive than a police officer and a police cruiser going out to deal with low-level conflicts," she says.

A Bennington native who has lived in Burlington for more than 20 years, Hadwen once owned a retail store on Church Street. She sold HowdyWear in 1999 and enrolled in a one-year course in mediation and conflict management at Montpelier's Woodbury College. She joined the Com-munity Support Project in September 2000. Now she's part social worker, part referee and part Town Mom. She intervenes in neighborhood disputes -- listening to gripes about everything from dog poop to smelly garbage to late-night noise -- and helps bring neighbors together to keep their own peace.

"In Burlington, we're talking about two or five unrelated people living in the same house," the soft-spoken mediator says over coffee at a local cafe. "You can hear the TV in the next apartment. It's close living."

Hadwen says she talks with people to figure out what will motivate them to resolve their disputes, but sometimes all she has to do is lend an ear. "People love to talk," she says. "They just want someone to hear about their situation."

The Community Support Project, founded with grant money in 1996 under the aegis of the Burlington Police Department, is one of a few such programs in the country. Though mediation and conflict resolution are increasingly popular alternatives to police intervention, cities apparently have been slow to add public mediators to the payroll.

Since 2002, Burlington's CSP has been budget-funded by CEDO, and is one of a number of grassroots-focused initiatives designed to make the Queen City more livable. Older efforts include Neighborhood Planning Assemblies -- citizen groups that act as liaisons between residents and city government -- and restorative justice panels, which help victims and perpetrators repair the harm done by nonviolent criminals.

Hadwen's boss, CEDO Assistant Director Yiota Ahladas, explains these programs are part of a holistic approach. "We're breaking away from the paradigm that government or anyone else is going to fix the problem," she says.

In fact, government often can't fix the nuanced problems that arise between neighbors, yet solving these issues is crucial to protecting the health of the community. "It's the little conflicts in neighborhoods that tear at the fabric of community," Ahladas says.

The conflicts are often absurdly small. "I've dealt with, 'Their trash can is located in a bad place and the smell comes in my window,'" says Hadwen, mimicking the whiny falsetto of a tattletale.

If left unchecked, these disputes can have disproportionately huge consequences. One fight in which Hadwen intervened began over a bike. A child had damaged a bike belonging to another kid, and their mothers, who had been friends, traded insults.

Then their husbands got involved, and the stakes went up. "They were threatening each other's automobiles with baseball bats and golf clubs," remembers Hadwen. Someone called the police, but there was nothing they could do. "If you don't actually harm the car," she notes, "it's not a crime."

The police referred the matter to Hadwen, who stopped by and started some one-on-one conversations. Eventually, she brought both parties together around a kitchen table and they talked it out, with Hadwen acting as an impartial referee. Hadwen says she never felt endangered. Her work can be tense, but to defuse tempers, she typically speaks in a calm voice -- her usual tone -- and tries to remain dispassionate.

Hadwen does admit to feeling threatened once, by an "incredibly hostile" woman in the South End. "There was an easy solution to her problem," Hadwen recalls, "but she was attacking me, and City Hall, and everything that had ever gone wrong for her. She railed on me for a while. I said, 'You don't have to talk to me.'"

In the bicycle case, though, she says both parties had a good discussion. "They established how they wanted to talk with each other in the future," she says, "and it was over. And it was great."

The two women haven't reported problems since. And one of them now calls up Hadwen with information about other conflicts in the neighborhood, a public housing development. She refers her friends, too, who call Hadwen with their own dilemmas.

Referrals often come from police and former clients, but housing agencies such as the Burlington Community Land Trust and the Burlington Housing Authority also send complaints Hadwen's way. Last year she worked on 128 cases. This year, she predicts, the number will be higher.

Charles Halstead, a property manager who oversees 256 apartments for the Burlington Housing Authority, suggests Hadwen's rising caseload reflects a change in the population seeking public-financed affordable housing. "We're drawing from a much different pool of applicants than in the past," says Halstead. "We're seeing more problems, bigger problems than in the past. It's in the nature of this city to be so giving -- it attracts people who can't get help anywhere else... As you lower the standard, you're going to buy into more problems."

Halstead says Hadwen's services are invaluable to his agency and their clients, some of whom struggle with mental illness, addiction issues and histories of physical abuse. "She's very genuine," he says. "I think she's really interested in helping people." He says Hadwen "keeps a lid on things," and helps anticipate problems before they start by gathering good information about what's really going on.

"People sometimes look at me like the police, or 'The Man,'" Halstead says. "But even though Brooke actually works at the police station, the nature of her personality makes people open up to her faster than they would open up to me."

It's easy to see what he means -- Hadwen's a natural listener, if somewhat tight-lipped about herself; she's used to posing the questions, not answering them. Asked why she left a successful children's clothing business to listen to people complain, Hadwen hesitates a moment to gather her thoughts, and shyly asks not to be quoted right away. Eventually, she explains that she had a desire to do something more meaningful. "I was feeling like it wasn't how much money you made in life, but your ability to create relationships that's more valuable. It's rewarding, working with underserved populations -- with people who have fewer resources to help themselves. It's also frustrating."

She quickly learned not to be offended by potty mouths. "Some people, their normal mode of conversation everything is a swear." But instead of reacting to heated language and anger, Hadwen tries to interpret what they're saying. That calms them down. "Then you can figure out what their needs are," she says.

She thinks that not having any actual authority helps her do the job. "People will share a lot more information with me," she says. "They're not afraid of me." She also emphasizes that she doesn't just solve conflicts in the Old North End. "I've been everywhere in the city," Hadwen says.

Not surprisingly, she spends a good deal of time on town-gown altercations -- and has a strong relationship with the University of Vermont's Conflict Resolution Office. Together, they disseminate information -- including a flyer about the city's noise ordinance -- to discourage students from pissing off their neighbors.

It took more than prevention measures to help "Barbara," a Burlington homeowner who requested anonymity. For years she lived alongside "a fraternity-athletic party zone." "It literally ruined our quality of life, living next to them," she says, "It was pretty stressful."

Despite countless calls to the police, Barbara says her noisy neighbors frequently hosted loud gatherings and parked their cars on her lawn. The students, and their landlord, repeatedly ignored the pleas of frustrated neighbors. "I went to the city and got nowhere," Barbara recalls. "I went in front of the city council, spilled my guts, and got nothing."

Finally, someone put her in touch with Hadwen. In this case, getting the neighbors and the landlord together took years. Barbara admits that she could see why the landlord would not want to meet with her and her neighbors. "We would just as soon have lynched him," she says. "He had burned his bridges."

With Hadwen's prudent facilitation, the adversaries actually made progress. "She kept the meeting calm," Barbara recalls. "Nobody got hot." Hadwen brought up concerns such as noise and parking in a non-threatening way.

That meeting was the beginning of a real working relationship, and Barbara's stance toward the landlord has since softened. "I don't think he really realized the impact his house and his students played in our neighborhood," she says. "I can now speak to the owner and the students who live there. I could never have thought that I would be able to have a conversation on the phone with this man." She calls Hadwen "my saving angel."

Hadwen cites Barbara's story as a CSP success -- the police haven't been called to the house since she intervened. And the BPD is grateful.

"I don't know what we'd do without her," says Lieutenant Jennifer Morrison. "She can reframe things to make people see the bigger picture. Everybody's so self-absorbed, they don't see how their actions affect everyone else."

Morrison, who used to supervise Hadwen's program, says she'd love to see it grow. "We could use more of her," she says. "If we could clone her, that would be dynamite." After all, Morrison asks, "Who wants the cops on their doorstep, right?"