Last month I was honored to join approximately 1,500 other restorative practitioners involved in K-12 education, higher education, justice, and community settings from all over the world in Denver, Colorado for the 7th National Association of Community and Restorative Justice conference. Restorative practices are largely conversation and relationship based, creating the space and opportunity for youth and adults to collaborate around resolving community issues and harms. The opportunity to learn about the impact these practices can have in our schools as we work with young people was an incredible experience.
The keynote addresses each morning were stimulating; if you get a chance, check out: Adam Foss, Edward Valandra, Jasmyn Story, and Christina Swarns. When we hear challenging critiques about our current state as a society, the likes of ‘any system forged in cruelty, must be maintained with cruelty,’ we are called to attention and action in our society. You will not regret learning more about the exciting work these leaders are up to in our world.
Of the many thought-provoking and exciting workshops I attended over the three-day conference, I found myself reflecting upon one in particular. The workshop, #MeToo: Transformative Justice for Gender Based Violence, was led by Stas Schmiedt and Lea Roth, two intersectional community organizers, storytellers and healers based in Miami, Florida. They are the co-founders of Spring Up, a social enterprise cultivating a culture of consent. The two have been part of the national conversation on solutions to sexual assault since their student activist days at Dartmouth College and facilitate trainings on consent, gender and power with justice-involved youth across the country. They advocate for non-carceral cultural solutions to sexual assault by raising awareness of the dangers of mandatory reporting and explaining why many survivors do not turn to either the legal or medical system for help.
I was drawn to this workshop and any other offering that delved into the use of restorative justice practices for sexual assault; all were higher-education oriented. I didn’t expect to find a K-12 offering in this area as the K-12 space appears to be an emerging edge of the restorative approaches field that merits further exploration. This is complicated, of course, by the fact that we are talking about minors in the legal sense. Nonetheless, it is worth exploring how restorative practices can be used at various stages with individuals and communities.
Most colleges and universities have procedures and adjudication processes that can add restorative options for addressing sexual misconduct — most primary and secondary schools have been found to have few or no procedures at all for sexual misconduct. As educators we must encourage victims of sexual harassment and assault by peers or school staff to share their experiences while they attend K-12 schools. We also must create places with spaces that encourage secondary victims—the victim’s friends, family, and allies—to share how sexual harassment negatively impacts students’ lives. Restorative Practices gives educators a comprehensive framework, a way of thinking and being, that facilitates the development of more connected, safer communities and enhances teaching and learning.
A key insight that I gained by attending all of the various workshops is, for those of us who have embraced a restorative framework, that staying in this mindset is demanding work, and operating restoratively requires high levels of self-awareness, emotional literacy and individual capacity. It is important to acknowledge that sometimes individuals don’t have the capacity at any given time to fully engage in relationships in a restorative manner. In these moments, the easy route is to turn a blind eye, to make excuses for others, or to punish and reprimand the behaviors to which we can easily default when the going gets tough. But, we can help prevent these slips from happening through six key behaviors:
- Learning about our triggers, biases, blind-spots and traumas
- Building capacity by developing our skills and making self-care a priority
- Reducing painful conflict through community building and value clarification
- Planning for rough times through explicit agreements, scripts, policies, i.e. make sure you plan for the rain while the sun is shining
- Practicing the address of small, sticky issues WITH others
- Borrowing functioning from restorative practices, like circles. You don’t have to take it all on yourself!
Early on in my restorative training, I learned from Ted Watchel that the fundamental underlying hypothesis of restorative practices is that “human beings are happier, more cooperative and productive, and more likely to make positive changes in their behavior when those in positions of authority do things with them, rather than to them or for them.” Working ‘with’ people is demanding — it takes emotional engagement, personal investment and a real commitment, but working ‘with’ others is truly rewarding, fulfilling and absolutely fundamental for any leader wishing to lead restoratively.