Are Restorative Justice Organizations Always Restorative?

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?”

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.

Un-standard Deviation: Swapping Circles for the Syllabus

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.”[1] 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”[2]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.

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.