What happens when you introduce restorative Circles at the American Evaluation Association Conference?
On November 10 at the AEA Conference in Washington DC, I conducted a 90-minute experiential session that allowed evaluators to explore how restorative, or peacemaking, Circles could fit into program evaluation in a variety of contexts.
Sixteen women participated in the session (where were the men?). They came with open minds and open hearts. Two were very familiar with restorative practices, several came because I invited them, and some came out of intrigue. One woman said at the beginning that just based on the title of the session, she knew this would be the highlight of her conference.
After introducing the group to the basic concepts of Circle processes, we participated in a variety of Circles – all very short as we just wanted to get a taste for how Circles could work in different situations and contexts. First, we did a values Circle, which produced a familiar list of values (openness, vulnerability, respect, etc.) but also some like meeting people where they are at, equity, constant learning, playfulness, and curiosity.
Then, Circle members got to participate in some role plays, including one on how to replace traditional focus groups with Circles. After each short role play, we talked as a group about what we saw and experienced. Everyone’s voice was heard, and people could really see how Circles could be used in their own work. We discussed where or when they would not be appropriate as well. Here is a list of some of the things we learned from and with each other during this experiential workshop:
Given what we learned and the positive response to this approach, I’ll be writing more articles, conducting workshops, and even developing an online course to help evaluators learn more about the Circle process. Follow the development of this new “thing” at www.rjaeconsulting.com. But for now, let me leave you with the words of Leah Goldstein Moses, Founder & CEO of The Improve Group, who emailed me a few days after the session (printed with her permission):
I am so pleased to have been at your session. I left with a greater sense of peace and connection. An unintended consequence of the session was that I left with a renewed commitment to connect with other evaluators as people, not just professionals. Thank you!
I am so grateful to those who participated and I look forward to working with everyone who is exploring how to make program evaluation truly just and equitable work.
As the restorative justice movement grows in the US and Canada, more coalitions and associations are forming at the local, state, and provincial levels. These organizations seek to bring practitioners, researchers, advocates and others together and often provide training workshops or even host regional conferences or gatherings.
In many cases, especially during the start-up phase, the people doing the work of establishing the RJ association are volunteers. But sometimes, the way in which organizations come to fruition and the way they behave after are not always congruent with restorative values. It is the nature of organizations to be hierarchical, having boards, executive directors, officers and differing levels of membership. If the association files as a non-profit, it must have this hierarchical structure in place. This creates a challenge for RJ associations and coalitions to act restoratively, given how power is distributed in the organizational structure and how power is redistributed in restorative processes, like Circles. Associations tend to be triangular and exclusive, while restorative processes are circular and inclusive. Hence the opportunity for conflicting priorities, values, and behaviors, and the reason this blog takes an ontological approach to addressing this problem.
How, then, can an RJ association, organization or coalition be restorative in nature when the legal structuring of organizations perpetuates the traditional hierarchical power imbalances? To understand this, we must look at what being restorative means. It means that restorative values not only ground everything we do, but that restorative values are obvious and evident in everything we do. When it comes to RJ, this means we must ask the question: “Are relationships at the heart of what we are about and what we do?” “Are we inviting and inclusive?” “Are we open and honest about how and why our organization came into being?” “Is our approach to growing expansive or exclusive?” “Are we honoring all the people involved in our word, actions, and processes?”
RJ is about more than repairing harm and broken relationships – it is also about establishing and maintaining them. This is a difficult task in Western society which has prioritized competition, separation, punishment, meritocracy, materialism, and wealth over well-being, health, and equality. Relationships have been pushed aside and trampled in the name of “progress” and “justice” and as a result, we are a hurting people. When we turn to RJ, we are turning back to our true nature as interrelated beings. This runs counter to Western culture and is why it is so easy to try to do RJ and have it instead replicate the same power imbalances and injustices that we seek to transform.
I’d like to give you some examples. I am a member of two very young and forming RJ associations in two states. In State A, I was somehow “put” into the association without my joining voluntarily. Still, I offered to do some volunteer work for the new association: my work was at first accepted then rejected – the explanation being that “the board” decided to do something different. Then, for the next year, I was removed from the membership list for some reason unknown to me. While attending the NACRJ conference, I met folks from State A’s association, and learned that a new executive director was now in place and the person had me put back on “the list.” There appears to be a lack of input and transparency in the processes; decisions are made without input from members; and the self-appointed leadership team is driving the agenda without member input. It’s a top-down, hierarchical, exclusive, and closed association.
Then there is State B. There, a group of RJ people found each other organically and decided to form a state RJ association – slowly. They gathered together to build relationships and get to know each other. The first few monthly meetings were held in Circle, and the purpose of those meetings was to build community, generate connections, see who wanted to do what and attempt to find out who was doing what and where RJ was happening. Then, they held a Values Circle to determine the values the association would uphold. People who could not attend in person (it’s a big state) could Skype into the Circle and participate virtually. Every effort was made to hold meetings at central or convenient locations, with members often opening up their homes for the gatherings. Once the values were determined, those values were sent out via email to the rest of the group for comment and additions, and the process of establishing values is continuing still. The team currently leading the formation of this association is open to input from interested parties and are working on the next steps of organization building. They do nothing without asking the members first, and as a group, we share ideas and suggest next steps. At some point, official leaders and positions will be decided, and I am confident that process will be transparent, fair, and done by consensus.
When you compare State A with State B, you see that people in State A decided to start a state-wide association and did it – putting all of their own people in leadership positions and ignoring the process for establishing values. In State B, the “active founding” group is deliberately taking the time to set organizational values and decide HOW they want to move forward. State B’s process is slower, but is firmly grounded in restorative values. Inclusivity. Openness. Dialogue. Community. Relationships.
How we build this movement is important. Restorative values must define us and our every action. This does not come natural to us when operating within organizational structures, but if we are creating a paradigm shift, then the processes by which we organize and govern ourselves must also be examined and transformed. Organizations and programs do not change people: relationships change people. Therefore, we, as restorative people, must place relationships at the center of our organizations and associations.
The dilemma here is that relationship building takes time, and we feel like we don’t have the time to do that work because every second that ticks by lands another human being in the corrections system. I get that. I struggle with finding the balance as well, knowing full well how many lives are at stake in the work that we do. But if we lose our focus on relationships and interconnectedness, we lose RJ. RJ is not a thing that we do – it is what and who we are. We define ourselves by our values, not by our processes. And if that is not the case, then it is time we stop, reflect, and adjust. And if people within an RJ organization are not treating each other restoratively – including handling conflict and disagreements restoratively, then that is a red flag indicating that people must Circle up and refocus on relationships.
It has taken me years to appreciate the distinction between doing RJ and being restorative. I’m still nascent in my understanding. Denise Breton is the editor of my upcoming book, Creating Restorative Schools, and Kay Pranis is my Senior Editor. These two women live restorative values – and they moved me much deeper into the paradigm shift by keeping restorative values front and center in my book and in how we worked through tensions, stresses, and differing opinions. I understand now that this paradigm shift takes TIME – and TIME is something we don’t feel we have much of when trying to keep people out of prison or keep kids in school. But it’s time upfront instead time after the fact – and we know that is how RJ works. I am calling on the RJ community to form associations and organizations in a restorative, values-based manner – so there is always something to stand on and hold members accountable to. Otherwise, we set ourselves up from the outset to be co-opted by traditional Western values and procedures. RJ that is done is not RJ. RJ that is lived is RJ. So the question is, can our associations and organizations live RJ in ways that inspire others to live it too?
Do Circles promote social and emotional learning? Yeah. Youbetcha.
I use restorative pedagogy in my college classroom. By restorative pedagogy, I mean that we spend time in Circle. During our first class, we spend about an hour building relationships and learning about each other. Then we move into course content: how do you feel about this course? What do you think about standardized testing? What are the qualities of a good teacher? We then do other activities, including some lecture, some videos, class discussion, and then end class in Circle again, with questions like: What’s confusing for you? (Circle as formative assessment) How are you feeling right now? (emotional literacy) What are you plans for getting everything done by the next time we meet (life skill/time management). By using Circle pedagogy, I show students that I care, that I listen to and am interested in what they have to say, and that what they are thinking and feeling matters. I also teach them – through experiential learning – how they can keep Circle when they become teachers. On my course evaluations, students often write that the best part of my class were the Circles.
I am writing a book on restorative justice in education (check out Creating Restorative Schools from Living Justice Press, early 2018). I know that Circle pedagogy is good teaching. I know the theories behind it and how Circles help students develop social and emotional competencies. I know that students with disabilities benefit from being in Circle. I know all that. In my head.
Last summer, all of my head knowledge was put to a test when I had a very unique student in my summer fast track course. I’ll call her Sally. Sally contacted me via email three weeks before the course started to tell me she was a student with disabilities and wanted me to have an understanding of some of her issues. I appreciated that. Sally was extremely intelligent (possibly off the charts), diligent, and very communicative – both verbally and in writing. But she was “different” and she knew it. One day in Circle she cried as she told stories of being bullied and having to drop out of school because kids had made school a living hell for her…She also shared information with the class about her specific disability. This helped us all to understand her better.
Now, I am not going to lie because Sally – for all of her brilliance – was hard to deal with. Part of her disability was that she processed everything out loud…what she needed to do, when she was going to do it, how she was going to do it – and then repeat that about four times. In class during lecture she seem compelled to comment on her processing after every slide, slowing down the pace and dominating the conversation so that other students didn’t feel like they could chime in or ask questions. It was trying. For all of us.
But here’s why Circle pedagogy works. First, because we built relationships with each other, we all treated her with respect and compassion – not out of pity, but because we had spent time in Circle together as a class building community. Sally was part of the mojo and personality of this class. It was helpful for me to see how other, more patient students, would look at her with love and compassion – they modeled for me what I needed to be. That was SEL for all of us.
Secondly, Sally changed when we were in Circle. She was much more capable of regulating her outbursts and comments when the talking piece was in play. The talking piece was a helpful tool for her. And when she chimed in out of turn, all I had to do was say “talking piece” and she immediately understood. In fact, it got a little bit hilarious sometimes because if she was really excited about something, she would put her hands over her mouth so that she wouldn’t speak while waiting for the talking piece to come to her. She was really trying, and Circle helped her learn to listen to others, to wait for her time to speak, and to control herself.
Where restorative pedagogy really came into play was in the relationship I developed with Sally. I found myself acting as an encouraging coach (“you’re smart – you totally got this!”) and a behavioral coach (“Sally, do you think you can work on not calling out so much so others have a chance to speak?” or “You’re having an anxiety attack – just take a few deep breaths and it’s all going to be ok”). Sally always responded positively, and soon I could just give her a nod or slight hand motion and that was all the reminder she needed.
I remember visiting a school in the UK that used restorative justice with severely emotionally challenged kids. One girl I met had no impulse control, and the headmaster explained to me that due to severe abuse and trauma as an infant, she never would have it. But when they adopted restorative justice, they stopped punishing her for not being able to control herself. I thought of her when Sally became my student. I realized that Sally’s brain worked certain ways and she couldn’t control that. But I also saw how the Circle and talking piece helped her control her outbursts. That is Circle pedagogy and SEL in action. That’s evidence, folks. That’s the stuff we talk about and write about in our books. And it’s real.
When the course was over, Sally had one of 2 As in the class. Her work was absolutely outstanding. She grew more confident about her abilities as I called attention to her many successes and things she did right. It is highly unlikely in this cruel world we live in that Sally will ever be hired to teach in a school, and I could see that. But Sally has a good grasp of technology and is a wonderful communicator in writing. So one day before class, I asked her if she ever considered teaching online. No one had ever mentioned that to her and she had never considered it an option. She was upfront about her anxiety around working in a school, especially since she dropped out. I don’t think we could have had that before-class conversation had we not spent time in Circle, and time exchanging a multitude of emails, where we built a relationship with each other. And I even told her I was thinking about blogging about her transformation in Circle and she gave me permission (and was quite flattered!)
Dorothy Vaandering recently shared her mantra with me: she asks herself many times a day, “How am I honoring this student and not measuring them?” There is no better way we can honor our student than by sitting in Circle with them, building safe and respectful classrooms, and cultivating trusting relationships that aid us when we sometimes have to have those difficult conversations. I couldn’t measure Sally. She was her own person. But I could honor her for who she was and help her find her strengths so she might obsess less about her disabilities.
So I ask my restorative justice in education community: Why do we spend so much time doing professional development workshops that focus on changing behavior, and not on Circle pedagogy that builds relationships and promotes self-regulation and other social and emotional competencies? Belinda Hopkins taught me that if you do the relationship building, the behavior problems take care of themselves. The summer course with Sally proved this true for me. Sally was a gift.
Un-standard Deviation: Swapping Circles for the Syllabus
Martha A. Brown, Ph.D.
Founder and President, RJAE Consulting, Intl.
As an adjunct professor, I teach a course in Educational Measurement and Assessment to pre-service, undergraduate teachers. I am also a consultant and restorative justice teacher who does not consider herself a practitioner. On the two days following the election, our syllabus stated that we were to learn about the standard deviation. However, at the time I could not have cared less about it. I was traumatized, wounded, afraid, and frankly, could not stop crying. How could I teach? How could I expect my students – most of whom were people of color- to learn a statistical concept after the tragedy our nation just experienced? I knew I was being called to push myself out of my comfort zone of research and teaching to hold Circle.
I drew my courage from the words of a teacher in Oakland, CA who had told me that “sometimes you just have to have a talk day.” I told my students that as well. I started by telling them that as teachers, they would have to make decisions about how to care for their students in the event of a gang war, a drunk driving accident on prom night, domestic violence, a fight, or worse, a mass shooting. Their program does not teach them about trauma-informed practices. I drew upon everything I knew about Circles, restorative justice in education, social emotional learning, and trauma and gave them a short talk about trauma as a biological response, emphasizing that when a person is in a state of fight, flight, or freeze, they cannot learn (or in my case, teach.)
By that point in the semester, my students were used to sitting in Circle to discuss topics related to our lessons. But that week, we held a real healing Circle, complete with centerpiece, flowers, a box of tissues, and subdued lighting. Using my Tibetan chimes and a script for a “Responding to Community Trauma Circle” I brought 30 students in 2 classes into a place of safety, expression, and support.
Deciding to hold a healing Circle in class was a tough call for me. Although I have held a few Circles in my lifetime, I had never done anything this intense. But it was time to walk the talk, even though I was afraid that I would not do it “right.” Not only that, I am a strong person and a tough professor, and I was about to let my students see the real me, the vulnerable, hurt me. How would that change us as a class? How would we move forward after something like this? I would find out later.
So during our Circles, they saw me cry and grieve. They also saw each other struggle, cry, hold hands, or sit in numbed silence. While holding true to the principle that what is said in Circle stays in Circle, I will try to describe what happened during those Circles on the days immediately following the announcement that Donald Trump was the president-elect.
In the first round, I asked students to say how they were feeling. A few students tried to get out of their heads, talking about what they “think” yet talking with great emotion. Latino students openly cried as they told stories of the children in their lives asking them if they would be taken away from their parents and families. A gay student told of bullying as a child and his fears about having Mike Pence as the vice-president. The devout Christian woman next to him held him as he sobbed. Students honored the talking piece and rushed tissues to those in tears. One African American woman confessed that she had been missing class because she felt like she was having a nervous breakdown as she started coming to grips with the hatred of Black people in this country. I wept uncontrollably as I shared the shame I carried for being a White person, and how disgusted I was with “my people.” I also came out to my students and shared my fears about losing my civil rights as a gay woman – and I did that intentionally so my gay student would not feel alone.
Conversely, I was shocked to hear that many of them did not pay attention to the election at all, and thought Donald Trump was just a joke. Students repeatedly said that they could not believe what they saw when they woke up in the morning, and so they were not yet at a place where reality had sunk in. This told me that they also did not vote, something that was difficult for me to hear, considering everyone was in a teacher education program. I had to honor the process and bite my tongue, knowing that my civic responsibility lecture would have to wait for another time (it came the following week).
The few White students and Trump supporters were clearly uncomfortable with what they were hearing and seeing. Given the rhetoric and behavior of Trump supporters throughout the campaign, this may have been the first time they actually heard and listened to the concerns of those on the “other side,” which was the majority of Circle members. One White woman came from a family of police officers, and she was upset about police being shot. Her White privilege was evident to everyone. She spoke her mind freely, but squirmed when other students talked about racism and police brutality. Again, I trusted the process, hoping that hearing others’ stories would open her eyes just a bit and her heart even more.
After several rounds, those who were initially silent began to share – even just to say a few words. I then asked them how they planned to take care of themselves during this stressful time. Many of them simply said, “Pray.” They would turn to their families for support. They would cling to hope that things will be alright. Almost everybody said they would stay away from FaceBook.
During the next round, I asked them what gifts they felt they had that could help bring people together, or how they thought they could contribute to healing our divided country. This was a difficult question to ask a group of people whom I knew were not very civic-minded. Many in the group did not vote and were now regretting it. That said, they placed their faith above all else, and reinforced that they would pray, hope, and love. When the Talking Piece came to me, I told them that I was going to stand up. Stand up for injustice everywhere, and stand up for them.
The mood of the Circle had changed. The heavy cloud of gloom, fear, and despair that covered us had been lifted. The tension was gone. There was a calm feeling of togetherness, of community, of safety. It was time to close Circle with a reading from Circle Forward called “Considering the interests of others is the best form of self-interest.” It was written by the Dalia Lama. Students were riveted by his words, listening intently, even as I choked up while reading it to them.
After the Wednesday Circle, which was far more intense than the Circle on Thursday, the strong, Jamaican Christian woman said, “Professor. Can we all please just hug?” And every single person in the class hugged every single other person. We did not stop hugging until we had all reached every person. There was nothing but love in that university classroom.
What happened next? We still had about 45 minutes of class left. With clear hearts and heads, we learned about standard deviation after all.
Did my students become closer? Absolutely. They are now working together on projects, exchanging phone numbers, meeting on weekends, and helping each other. They rely less on me and more on each other. Some send me funny emails to make me laugh during the week. We laugh together more in class, and it seems they even pay attention a little more – even on boring topics like percentiles and stanines. I think they have a deeper understanding of the kinds of power they will have when they become teachers, and how to use that power for good. Of course, I hope they have a deep desire to learn more about restorative practices so they can use them in their classrooms.
What about my relationship with my students? Do they respect me less because they saw my heart (and tears)? I think not. To them, I am not just another professor. I am their professor. The one who cares about them. That – along with hope, love, and prayer - will help us all heal. After all, we are stronger together.
 See Brown, M. A. (in press). Creating restorative schools: Mapping a way through the educational landscape. Living Justice Press, St. Paul MN.
 Boyes-Watson, C. & Pranis, K. (2015). Circle forward: Building a restorative school community. Living Justice Press: St. Paul, MN.