Peninsula Peacemaker

Words by Sharon McDonnell

Photos by Annie Barnett

Words by Sharon McDonnell

Woodside’s Rhonda Brofman Gessow is a peacemaker. “Let’s find a common thread,” she espouses. “Let’s find something that benefits both parties.” A retired criminal defense attorney who practiced in Atlanta for 12 years, Rhonda always knew she wasn’t cut out to be a prosecutor. “I never wanted to have a negative impact on someone’s life,” she explains. “I wanted to help the person who needs to be lifted up, and ensure they received their rights under the Constitution.”

A New York City native, Rhonda attended Emory University Law School and recalls being assigned to support the prosecution in a case involving a teenage shoplifter. “I felt so bad for the girl and for how the community failed her,” she says. “I didn’t want to add anything bad to the trajectory of her life.”

Over the course of her legal career in Atlanta, Rhonda went on to become a partner at Kadish, Davis & Brofman, the editor of The Georgia Defender and co-author of a criminal law book. She also met her husband, Jody—and when Jody’s job in real estate development moved them to the Peninsula in 1989, the couple embraced Woodside’s rural culture. “I love walking out the door and hiking for miles,” says Rhonda, whose favorite spots are Wunderlich and Huddart Parks.

Shifting focus, the active mom paused her career to raise three kids and support the local community as a Woodside school volunteer. Her own favorite book as a child? To Kill a Mockingbird. “I loved Atticus Finch,” she says, “and named my son Jeremy after his son—the idealistic and protective older brother who must cope with injustices of the court system.”

Tapping into that early inspiration, Rhonda seized the opportunity to apply her legal expertise and passion for restorative justice by earning a certificate in mediation. According to Rhonda, criminal defense law is “exciting and interesting,” but she describes mediation as a more natural calling. “It fits my skills and is open-ended,” she says. “Law is more about winning, and mediation is more about finding common interests and viable outcomes that may work better for both parties.”

For 15 years now, the former defense attorney has worked as a volunteer mediator for the San Mateo Juvenile Mediation Program—an initiative that brings crime victims and offenders together to discuss how to make things right. To date, Rhonda has spoken to over 1,000 young offenders and mediated hundreds of cases from theft to sexual assault in a program that serves as an alternative or supplement to juvenile detention.

While meetings are confidential, Rhonda describes a typical scenario. A teenager breaks into a car and damages it. Through the mediation process, the teen may learn that its owner had to take public transportation until the car was fixed, adding extra hours to his commute, and spent hard-earned money to repair the car, which possessed major sentimental value, and the two may agree on restitution.

“The person harmed is able to express his or her feelings, learn more about the motive behind the offense, get directly involved in the justice process and sometimes receive monetary compensation for damages,” she summarizes. “The teen hears that his or her actions have significant consequences and hopefully gets a better understanding of how the other person was affected.” Rhonda relays that anything both parties agree to is possible. “In some instances, they’ve even exchanged contact info and the teen landed a mentor,” she adds.

Given her peacemaker nature, it’s no surprise that Rhonda has also volunteered for 15 years for the San Mateo-based Peninsula Conflict Resolution Center, where she mediates disputes among adults, and more recently for Creating Friendships for Peace, an organization that promotes understanding between teens from divided communities.

“It’s important for individuals to not only listen to others, but to also use active listening skills to make sure the other person knows he/she is being heard,” she notes. “I also help them identify how they usually deal with conflict: Some of us avoid it, some compromise, some are more forceful in their positions. It’s helpful to be self-aware of your conflict style.”

In addition to being a peacemaker, Rhonda strives for periodic resets in her life. “I have taken on a big new challenge every 15 years,” she shares. “It keeps things interesting.” Drawn to music, Rhonda always enjoyed writing lyrics to popular song tunes for loved ones’ birthdays. With extra downtime in the pandemic, she applied herself to composing original songs on her guitar—from studying music theory to writing melodies and chord progressions. As it turns out, some aspects were surprisingly relatable. “Writing lyrics is not that different from writing a legal brief,” she smiles. “In a song, you have a hook you’re writing to and everything leads up to that.”

The newbie songwriter is already drawing attention. Her songs, “Wild, Wild Best” (a country song about getting out of a rut and looking for new excitement in life) and “Weight of the Ink” (about how to find comfort when a loved one is in harm’s way), won 2021 and 2022 Great American Song Contest awards in the lyrics category. Her first song, “You Are the Star,” is a tribute to military families whose children endure holidays, birthdays and milestones without the parent who is serving our country. Its touching words reflect her own experience: her son has served in the military for 12 years. Rhonda produced the video, which can be seen on YouTube.

As Rhonda balances her volunteer work and time with her growing family that includes three grandkids, the question is, “What will she write about next?” Given her reflective and thoughtful nature—which serves her in both mediation and songwriting—the lyrics are sure to resonate.