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?”

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 Schoolsand 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 livedis RJ. So the question is, can our associations and organizations live RJ in ways that inspire others to live it too?