Needs Assessment TIG Week: Assessing Access to Justice Needs and Assets through Community Mediation in Massachusetts from a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) Lens by Madhawa “Mads” Palihapitiya

Hi! My name is Madhawa “Mads” Palihapitiya. I am an evaluator, researcher and teacher at UMass Boston. I am the Principal Investigator on a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) needs assessment and asset mapping project to help increase dispute resolution services to ethnically diverse, and often undocumented/unserved/marginalized populations in Massachusetts.

Lesson Learned:

Since DEI is so vast, I educated myself on all of the different approaches available before engaging in the assessment. We applied a cultural humility approach as opposed to cultural competence approach after careful consideration. Unlike cultural competency, cultural humility acknowledges the individual limitations in knowledge, recognizes the existing power imbalances and that working with cultural differences is a lifelong and ongoing process, and acknowledges multi-dimensional cultural identities (Tervalon & Murray-Garcia, 1998).

UMass Boston launched this project to identify gaps in the delivery of justice to diverse populations in Massachusetts through publicly funded dispute resolution mechanisms such as community mediation centers (CMCs). Although CMCs have the potential for increasing access to justice for diverse communities, it remains racially and culturally homogeneous. The assessment examined the needs of traditionally marginalized populations’ as well as existing assets for increasing access to justice for these populations.

Rad Resource:

Interested in community based participatory research (CBPR)? Click to learn more about CBPR.

From January 2021 through August 2021, we were able to organize community listening sessions with target communities in Cambridge, Framingham, Lowell, Lynn, Martha’s Vineyard, Greenfield, and Leominster. The target communities included Brazilian Portuguese, Latinx, African American, youth (particularly with minority backgrounds) and the Cambodian community in Massachusetts.

Hot Tip:

Combine needs assessments with asset mapping for better, more implementable results.

Needs and Assets Maps
Fig 1: A map of needs
Fig 2: A map of assets
Key Takeaways

Distrust of formal justice mechanisms: Many undocumented and traditionally underrepresented/unserved communities distrust formal mechanisms of justice like the courts and may be better served by community-based mechanisms like CMCs.

Building trust: The level of trust required to engage marginalized communities/populations is high, and an enormous amount of effort is needed to develop the trust to successfully connect with these communities.

Structural barriers: Structural barriers negatively impact marginalized populations’ access to and utilization of formal and/or community-based justice mechanisms due to (1) lower economic status; (2) gender-based marginalization; (3) legal status (undocumented); and (4) lack of transportation options.

Unique needs: Diverse and marginalized/unserved/underserved populations have acutely diverse and hidden needs. Due to structural inequalities like undocumented status, inability to secure a driver’s license and/or not having paid leave, domestic workers, construction workers, and restaurant employees from such communities do not have time to seek assistance from formal and/or less formal justice mechanisms, which help they badly need.

Assets: Many marginalized populations can be served through trusted intermediaries and insider partials. These diverse populations also have organic processes of dispute resolution like informal negotiations and honor systems that formal justice mechanisms can help leverage to increase access to justice for such communities.

Rad Resource:

Interested in learning how to combine needs assessment with asset mapping? Read more here.


The American Evaluation Association is hosting Needs Assessment (NA) TIG Week with our colleagues in the Needs Assessment Topical Interest Group. The contributions all this week to AEA365 come from our NA TIG members. Do you have questions, concerns, kudos, or content to extend this AEA365 contribution? Please add them in the comments section for this post on the AEA365 webpage so that we may enrich our community of practice. Would you like to submit an AEA365 Tip? Please send a note of interest to AEA365@eval.org. AEA365 is sponsored by the American Evaluation Association and provides a Tip-a-Day by and for evaluators. The views and opinions expressed on the AEA365 blog are solely those of the original authors and other contributors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the American Evaluation Association, and/or any/all contributors to this site.

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