In Search of My Mother’s Garden

Abstract: Alice Walker is a Pulitzer Prize winner who has written several best-selling novels and has had her works inspire popular movies. In the work “In Search of My Mother’s Garden”, Walker (1983) explores the lived experience of her own mother through the perspective of African-American women both in the past and present. The words of Walker include the excluded and give a voice to Black women. This article will analyze how Black women used their voices to express their creativity. The article will first explore how Walker used her unique writing style and methodology to shine light on the creative spirit of Black women and how it was expressed in the face of daily discrimination, abuse and violence. The article will explore the various ways Black women demonstrated their creativity. The article will also compare the lives of creative white women and Black women to illustrate the differences in the origin and expressions of creativity. The article will next talk about the idolization of Black women as “saints” and if that perspective is warranted. The article makes use of the words of Walker herself and the author’s personal narratives as examples of the resilient creativity of Black women in support of Walker’s perspective.


Introduction

My mother’s name was Ora Mai. “Ms. Reese,” as we affectionally called her, birthed and raised eight children, four boys, and four girls, and was a domestic abuse survivor. She supported herself and her children by working as a food service supervisor on the Fort Campbell Army Base in Kentucky for thirty years. My mother had a massive heart attack due to a life of imbalance and working much more than she played. Mom survived a myocardial infarction, but her life changed when she was declared disabled. Her medical condition forced Ora Mai to retire abruptly at the age of forty-nine. For the last twenty years of her life, she was active in her church and passed the time by planting a beautiful vegetable garden. My maternal grandmother Hattie raised fourteen children, nine girls, and five boys. “Mama” Hattie never worked outside of her home. Her husband Peter died early, and she never remarried. Mama Hattie also planted a beautiful garden, which helped to support her family. In the midst of unimaginable challenges they faced daily, both women chose to plant gardens, and I always wondered why.

In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens

Alice Walker’s famous work “In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens” enlightened me when she wrote about Black women like my mother and grandmother. Walker wrote about black mothers and grandmothers throughout the past hundred years or more and portrayed them as hidden artists. Walker explains, “For these grandmothers and mothers of ours were not saints, but artists; driven to a numb and bleeding madness by the springs of creativity in them for which there was no release” (230-231). The black woman was subject to the most humiliating and degrading existence possible. They were treated as sexual objects by the men in their lives, which included their owners, their lovers, or whoever took an interest at the moment. These women were not saints as Walker notes but were made into saints because of the pejorative treatment they received at the hands of others. Walker’s work also paraphrased Okot p’Bitek’s great poem when she wrote, “O, my clanswomen let us cry together!  Let us mourn the death of our mother, the death of a queen…the creator of our stool is lost! And all the young women have perished in the wilderness” (Walker 231). The tone of the poem is beyond melancholic; it is hopeless. The mothers and grandmothers of centuries past endured a midnight that never gave the promise of a new day.

Nevertheless, they found reasons to live where no reason existed. Alice Walker helped me see the gardens of Ora Mai and “Mama” Hattie in a new light. Walker helped me see that the gardens they worked on every day meant more than the food it produced.

The Garden Metaphor

The metaphor of a garden used by Alice Walker can take on different meanings for different persons in different settings. Walker chose to use the metaphor of a garden to represent the fact that every person lives life in search of a garden. In her work, Walker portrays the garden as a space of peace and “somebodiness” where the gardener’s life means something. In the African American experience, the search for a garden space requires a fight from the day they are born against racism and systemic disenfranchisement because of their skin color. The most current example of the fight African Americans are facing every day is the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic. It has again revealed the precariousness of the African American family in this nation. In the beginning, COVID-19 did not appear to discriminate as it spread. However, as collected data has revealed, COVID-19 disproportionately affects African Americans because of the health disparities between whites and people of color (Godoy). The data shows that African Americans become sicker at a higher rate, are hospitalized longer, and die more frequently than white persons. COVID-19 has proved the adage “when a white person catches a cold, a black person gets pneumonia.”

The Hidden Artist in the Garden

The “artist” in African American women cannot be easily identified. Walker identified artistry as expressed in their spirituality, which is defined as a deep belief in the unseen world independent of religious affiliation. African American women have drawn strength from attending and singing in the church (235). Their active participation in the church was a conflation of church and lived experience that gave rise to creativity that seemed to keep life’s madness and frustration under control.

Walker illustrated the hidden artistry of African American women when she juxtaposed author Virginia Woolf’s life with that of author Phyllis Wheatley. Walker points to the classic work of Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own, and commends Woolf because, “in order for a woman to write fiction she must have two things, a room of her own and money to support herself” (232). Walker points this out to acknowledge the difficulty of all women to be taken seriously as artists and creators in the early 1900s. Walker affirms the difficulty of even white women to express their artistry. However, Walker does point out that because Woolf was white, she could write and use her earnings to rent her own room and make enough money to support herself. Woolf’s life ended when she committed suicide. Walker described the end of Woolf’s life by writing, “any woman born with a great gift would have ended her days… having been hindered or thwarted by contrary instincts that she would most certainly lose her health or sanity” (232). Walker acknowledged both that Woolf’s artistry contributed to her death and that she made a choice in the midst of mental illness to end her life and did not die at the hands of others who hated her.

In contrast, Phyllis Wheatley, a fellow author, battled poor health throughout her life yet managed to create meaning for her life when others saw her as meaningless. The “contrary instincts” Woolf experienced in her life was also the lived experience of Wheatley. She was captured as a slave at seven and forced to work for a cruel master. She lived the entirety of her life, wasting away in loveless relationships while raising children and writing poetry. Wheatley was still able to create great works of art in spite (or some would argue because of) the pain and anguish she experienced daily. The level of creativity she demonstrated was only limited by her circumstances. Unlike her white counterpart Woolf, Wheatley did not choose to die, but, like Woolf, she found a way to overcome her circumstances to express her creativity through her writing.

African American women artists like Phyllis Wheatley lived with two inhumane realities. The first reality was that they were forced to live life in a proverbial waiting room. They had to wait to see if their children would be sold away from their loving arms. They had to wait to see if the man who sired the child would play the role of a guest or a husband, or perhaps would be sold and not have any options. They would often wait a long time hoping for a good outcome for African American women, only to be perpetually disappointed. The other reality is that these artists were forced to live in anonymity. They were unknown and dismissed, except for the few people within their family circle. The gifts of poetry, singing, writing, politics, and architecture went unacknowledged and unexpressed because there was no public outlet for them, and their gifts died with them. Even when these artistic, talented women had the opportunity to make something beautiful out of nothing, their contributions would often be stolen and go unattributed. Walker described one example in the following story, “In the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C, there hangs a quilt unlike any other in the world. In fanciful, inspired, and yet simple and identifiable figures. It is made of pieces of worthless rags that tell the story of the Crucifixion. The art is priceless. There is a note that says by an anonymous black woman in Alabama” (236).

How Artistry Survived in the Garden

Walker asks her readers to consider the following question: What has kept the artistry and genius within these mothers and grandmothers alive century after century despite their circumstances? Poet Jean Toomer took a tour of the Southern states and referred to the African American women he observed: “as mules of the world” (Walker 230). His description denied them of a title that may have afforded them any semblance of humanity. Walker characterized Toomer’s observations in the following way: “These crazy saints stared out at the world like lunatics, or quietly like suicides; and the ‘God that was in their gaze was as mute as a stone’’ (230). In his opinion, African American women lived lives of mundanity and dreamed dreams that no one knew, including themselves. Walker sought to answer several questions about how African American women were able to achieve the impossible. How did these mothers and grandmothers maintain their sanity? How did they not only survive but thrive? How did they continue to create as they performed demeaning tasks like cooking, cleaning, and caring for the children of people who hated them? The author’s own admission took her several years to come upon the answer, but she finally found it in her mother’s flower garden. Walker described her revelation in the following way: “She grew more than fifty varieties of flowers. People would stop by her house and ask permission to walk the sacred space. My mother adorned whatever shabby house we lived in with flowers. Before she left home for the fields, she watered her flowers, chopped up the grass and laid out new beds” (237).

Walker said that when her mother was in her garden, her face was radiant and there was a peacefulness in her soul. It seems that her mother’s garden was an outdoor cathedral whose members were this variety of flowers. The music was provided by the sounds of the wind. Whatever she planted grew as if by magic. Walker’s description shows that her mother found her connection with spirituality not in a Holy Book nor in a preacher spewing out platitudes that offered no real comfort for everyday struggles. Walker’s mother’s garden was her place of refuge and meaning that had been used by generations of women before her. 

African American women found their voices in their gardens. Their voices were muted by law, tradition, and kin, yet they found their creative expression in small plots of land that they did not own on paper but worked and cared for with their souls. These artists found in their gardens a homegrown hope. The lashes of an angry master could not kill their creativity when they were working in the garden. The mutilations carved into their flesh by men and childbirth would not diminish their inner joy. Walker mused over how African American women’s souls would have been robbed of amazing works of creativity if the world had successfully muted the artistic genius of artists like Phyllis Wheatley, Lucy Terry, Zora Hurston, Nella Larsen, Bessie Smith, Elizabeth Catlett or Katherine Dunham (235).

Portraits of Artistry in the Gardens

This picture is of Rosa Dale, taken in 1925. “Mama” Rosa is the grandmother of Fred Dale, who married my oldest sister Margaret in 1966. The picture shows the land and home where she gardened and that she could own from “providential” means that were never fully known. “Mama” Rosa is the quintessential artist that Walker is celebrating. Rosa Dale had ten siblings and was born on a plantation that is now Camden, Alabama. During the slavery era, the land was owned by the Dale and McReynolds families. A split between the families occurred, and the land was divided between the two families. Their slaves were also divided, and their families retained either the McReynolds or Dale’s last name. “Mama” Rosa never learned to read or write, but she would use her garden’s harvest to provide for her family. Despite her circumstances and limitations, this artist motivated her children and grandchildren to become physicians, educators, engineers, attorneys, and business owners. None of that would have happened without the provisions of “Mama” Rosa’s garden.

In this picture is my Cousin Naomi. She is the widow of a pastor. Naomi planted a garden that produced the fruit and vegetables in the photograph. All of the produce was given away to persons in the community at no charge. After her husband died in 2012, she continued to grow the fruit and vegetables that supplements her meager pension. Cousin Naomi has received numerous commendations for her produce quality in local newspaper articles, and she shares her gift teaching gardening to other seniors. Naomi is well into her 80s and is still gardening.

“Mama” Rosa and Cousin Naomi are the epitomai of the “head ragged generals” that paved the way for their children and their children’s children (Walker 238). Despite being denied the opportunities to participate fully in society, they found outlets for their creativity in their gardens that provided for their families. They ended up making long-lasting contributions to their communities, even in the midst of their circumstances. These women prove Walker’s point that the artistry they expressed within their homes’ confines allowed them to find meaning for themselves despite the constraint society placed upon them.

Conclusion

Alice Walker’s work In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens is a literary masterpiece that provides a rare portrayal of African American women’s resilience as expressed by their gardens. She takes readers on a trip back through time to experience the struggles of African Americans during slavery with her detailed descriptions of the cotton fields, the harsh overseers, the auction blocks, and other atrocities. Walker’s discovery of the garden as the outlet for creativity and a space of refuge in her work provides a great insight into how common people could survive generation after generation of struggling while still maintaining their dignity and self-respect.  My mother, Ora Mai, grew a remarkable garden for the last twenty-two years of her life. Although she has been away from me physically for twenty-five years, I can still remember seeing the faraway look in her eyes that had nothing to do with seeds and weeds. It never dawned on me before reading Walker’s work that the plot of the ground meant so much to her. Alice Walker gave me a portrait of my mom that no camera can capture. I found peace and wept tears of gratitude for what the garden meant to her. There is a dire need for more gardens in America that can eventually grow seeds of peace for our black mothers and women, leading to the systemic change we need to see in our society.

Works Cited

Godoy, Maria. “What Do Coronavirus Racial Disparities Look Like State By State?”. NPR.com. https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2020/05/30/865413079/what-do-coronavirus-racial-disparities-look-like-state-by-state. Accessed 30 May 2020.

Walker, Alice. In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens: Womanist Prose. Harvest Harcourt, 1983.

Engaging in Difference Using Restorative Practices

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Six hundred people from diverse backgrounds were seated in a hotel listening to a panel discussing the impact of Restorative Practices in schools. A director and a White woman shared the promising results of a randomized control study; elementary schools implementing Restorative Practices had decreased suspensions (Augustine et al. 1). Even more encouraging, this was the first time a disciplinary intervention had significantly reduced the racial disparities of school suspensions in this large urban district. Throughout the district, staff reported stronger relationships, and surveys indicated a more positive school climate when implementing Restorative Practices(Augustine et al. 2). Also on the panel was another school’s Chief Officer, an African American man, who spoke about the racial disparity within school districts. He challenged the audience of restorative practitioners, stating that before we begin the work of Restorative Practices, we must first address the inherent bias in our schools. He criticized the prominence of White administrators and teachers instructing Black and Brown children, stating children need to see more people like them in positions of authority. Calling for more equity, he stated that White people will need to make space for emerging leaders of color. When asked what he meant, he took a breath and clarified that this applied to some of the White people here at the conference today; White people will need to step aside to make space for minorities. Met with some applause, there was also a tension in the room. After the panel members spoke, the microphone became available to take questions from the audience. A White man, who identified himself as a retired teacher, congratulated the panel on addressing bias. Trying to signal his own repugnance towards racism, he continued “we are colorblind here” and went on to talk about diversity while members of the audience murmured.

While one panelist is seeing data that shows progress in achieving racial equity, another panelist reads the data as addressing only a symptom. I recognized the familiar arguments of Critical Race Theory. The slow pace of racial justice has created a phenomenon termed, “a contradiction-closing case” (Delgado and Stefanic 38). There is a perception gap; one person sees the changes, the other sees the hindrances. To unconsciously defend the gap between ideal and practice, we simplify the narrative to demonstrate incremental progress and point to a reduction in suspension in these piloted elementary schools. The Chief Officer saw the suspensions of Black and Brown children part of a larger systemic racial problem, one of bias in the classroom, that is exacerbated when people of color are denied authority to lead our school systems and educate marginalized children.

As a restorative practitioner, I felt proud of the research making a dent in discipline inequity. And yet, I felt a moment of shame when I looked around the room and noticed the prominence of Whites, like myself, in leadership positions. Were the White leaders blocking progress by taking seats away from others?

Where I work, I feel pride that women are well represented in leadership. However, I cannot help but notice that though we employ people of color, fewer minorities participate at the leadership level. Perhaps I am too quick to embrace incremental gender diversity while overlooking the Whiteness of leadership. While Restorative Practices is about sharing power and authority, it is scary to think that my White colleagues would need to step aside to make jobs for others. I would like to think we could make space by widening our circles. Rather than perpetuate hierarchies, Restorative Practices can provide examples where widening the circle of participation distributes power. Perhaps by understanding race, and looking to other examples such as workplaces, social services, and courts, we can glean lessons to understand how Restorative Practices might help create more just systems.

Roots of Restorative Practices

Restorative Practices is an emerging field focused on improving relationships building social capital and relational networks through participatory learning and decision making (Wachtel, Defining Restorative 1). The fundamental hypothesis of Restorative Practices is “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” (Wachtel Defining Restorative 3). At its core, it affirms people’s dignity, needing to feel a sense of belonging, and have more voice and choice in decisions that impact them (Bailie 11). Beyond interpersonal interactions, to impact civil society we must examine normative assumptions that shape society. Naturally, through evolution we tend towards tribalism;

This bias is to favor those that are closer to us in general- it influences who we readily empathize with, but it also influences who we like, who we tend to care for, who we will affiliate with, who we will punish, and so on. (Bloom 95)

The dialogue processes inherent in Restorative Practices prompt empathetic conversation to help people recognize the humanity in one another, thus combating the tribalism instinct. My experience in the field has allowed me to work with people across the globe, of many backgrounds, that all shared a value of honoring the dignity of others and wanting to create more empowering relationships. Specific elements of Restorative Practices are built on community-based justice; having dialogue in circles and honoring the primary influence of family over larger governing systems trace back to many indigenous models of community building (Mattaini and Holtschneider 130; Hopkins 21). When applied in schools, as was being discussed at the panel, this dialogue process brings a struggling student together with peers, teachers, and administrators to engage in effective communication. Facilitators pose questions and people respond with an emotional tenor that encourages empathy that brings the participants closer together. Rather than expel a student as punishment, the student is held accountable for poor behavior and attempts to repair the harm caused. In the circle process, cognitive empathy strengthens social connections and builds more resilient relationships that can counter natural biases.

Restorative Practices builds upon Jürgen Habermas’ Theory of Communicative Action in which dialogues within communities can create new shared understandings (Finlayson 57). Habermas explains, there exists a modern discord between the life-world, in which community and family are connected through networked relationships, and the system-world, in which institutions and paid professionals networks have authority in law, economy, and social structures. In modern society, “the colonization of the life-world” prevents the effectiveness of interpersonal communication (Finlayson 56). Similarly, Nils Christie perceived that when lawyers escalate crime into the state’s justice system they “steal” the conflict from the community and take away the “potential for activity, for participation itself”’(Christie 7). The question of who owns these conflicts in our schools, and who is best suited to address the racial inequity, persists. Howard Zehr saw wrongdoing as a violation of people and their relationships (183). By changing the lens to focus on relationships, there is a path forward towards healing. Through dialogue, people can identify the needs caused by misbehaviors and the obligations in these relationships. Inclusive dialogue and mutual agreement could then heal and restore relationships.

Restorative Practices has been used to address issues caused by individual and structural racism. For example, in 1979, a Truth and Reconciliation committee was established after five people were murdered by the Ku Klux Klan in Greensboro, North Carolina (Beck 395). To tackle systemic racism, in 1995, the government of South Africa used restorative justice to convene a Truth and Reconciliation Committee that offered amnesty to perpetrators of crimes during the era of apartheid in exchange for taking accountability for the harms they caused (Tutu 45). The government selected restorative justice, as opposed to traditional public trials, with the intent of creating a shared understanding of the impact of racist policies. Participants hoped that by creating a shared understanding and reminding the public of the humanity of the perpetrators as well as the victims, they could restore a divided country and build a new national identity.

Since race itself is a social construct, Whiteness is best understood and defined as a “constellation of processes and practices rather than a discrete identity” (DiAngelo 56). Race is based in a historic, political, economic, and social position that places Whiteness in a place of privileged cultural normativity. The effects marginalize and silence other perspectives and allow public narratives around race to be constructed by those in positions of power (Delgado and Stefanic 9). At the panel, it was possible to overlook the absence of people of color in positions of authority because it was what White leaders have been used to doing and have come to accept as normal. It was not until the Chief Officer challenged the assumption that the current education leaders assume a universality, having an unracialized identity, that we can explore how others see themselves as outsiders, defining themselves and their culture. Recently, as part of conference proceedings, Tim Chapman posed that practitioners’ focus on harm has diverted us from the critical work of undoing injustice (The future of Restorative Practices – Big questions for the 21st century). Perhaps while school administrators were focused on diverting students from punitive measures, they overlooked the deeper structural racist systems that favor Whiteness for employment and economic justice.

Displays of White Fragility

In the United States, following the Black Freedom Movement, there was a sense of national progress as constitutional amendments and state laws sought to remedy the marginalization of African American citizens (Eisenberg). However, these social interventions failed to achieve real equality in schools, workplaces, and at the voting booths, resulting in new cultural myths that “the real thing holding people of color back – especially black folks – is not racism, but rather their own behavioral pathologies, personal choices, and dysfunctional cultural values” (Wise 40). This was constructed as a narrative in which America had just displayed valiant leadership to overcome racism, that in our country people should be able to work hard to overcome barriers based on merit (Sue 38). Harking back to our racist past would only keep minorities in a victim mentality.

Probably the myth of merit is most played out in our segregated neighborhoods where the loss of people of color and access to good education goes unnoticed (DiAngelo 58). Schools that serve African American students employ teachers with less experience, have fewer advanced courses and are “also more than ten times as likely to be in places of concentrated poverty” (Wise 33). Segregation creates a coded language that hides race;

White people are taught not to feel any loss over the absence of people of color in their lives and in fact, this absence is what defines their schools and neighborhoods as “good”; Whites come to understand that a “good school” or “good neighborhood” is coded language for “White.”(Johnson and Shapiro qtd in DiAngelo 58)

When the White man stepped to the microphone at the hotel, I imagine, like me, he might be uncomfortable that the Black man had pointed out that he was a White man with more access to power. It is a challenge to the very socialized codes we practice, directly addressing individuals by their racialized identity (DiAngelo 57; Delgado and Stefanic 8). White people are not used to the moment of racial discomfort, yet for most minorities, it is a daily occurrence. The very construct of Whiteness has allowed us, White people, to be unracialized, while people of color are the ones described as “the Black man” (DiAngelo 60). The White man at the microphone wanted to deny his place in this reality. But as Myles Horton notes, when confronted about his place as a White man amidst the Black Freedom Movement, “when acting out of guilt, you’re trying to get rid of guilt, that means you’re trying to serve yourself, not the other people. That’s never constructive” (Horton 197).

When the man at the microphone stated the familiar microaggression; “we are colorblind” his intent was to show solidarity, but instead, he dismissed the Chief Officer’s concern about a lack of minority role models in our school. The microaggression disregarded the evidence of racial bias that impacts the daily lives of people of color and makes a hurtful denial of their reality (Sue 32). Because people fear appearing racist, we sometimes keep our mouth shuts. Sometimes are words belie our intent. The Chief Officer did not criticize this man’s words, he patiently tried to listen for the speaker’s intent.

But as a White woman in the room, I am left thinking about White privilege, the advantages afforded to people perceived as White. I may feel “other” at times based on my gender or religion, but I am still part of the White identity. Judith Butler notes the institutionalized separatism pits forms of oppression in competition with one another rather than uniting for social progress (Butler 21). As restorative practitioners, we might become defensive because we, White restorative practitioners, can see ourselves working to empower others. Rather than becoming defensive, what might we do? Exercises that look inward help us understand the intersectionality of our identity and how that affords us privileges and power (Delgado and Stefanic 58). Fania Davis suggests that before trying to implement restorative justice in schools, it is critical to couple bias training, especially Whiteness trainings, in order to dismantle the prevalent racism in our educational system (55). Restorative Practices demands we reflect on our willingness to share our privileged power. White people sitting in positions of authority can question the narrative that we got here solely on our merit and look at our own individual bias, face the norms of Whiteness and the resulting practices and policies. Fortunately, there are some good examples around the world that show how implementing restorative practices can create redistribute power.

Examples of Inclusive Restorative Practices

There are lessons we can learn from restorative practitioners applying specific processes in workplaces, criminal justice, and communities. First, in the United States, Black Lives Matter has called for restorative justice and urges workplaces to look beyond individual offenses to lead restorative conferencing processes that create a safe place to discuss various perspectives to understand impacts of bias (Opie and Roberts 711). Second, in Canada, the National Truth and Reconciliation Commission paired with the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous People has funded their own court systems (National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation). Lastly, in the Netherlands, laws have been developed in accord with principles of the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF et al. 9) to ensure the rights of children to participate in family group conferencing ensuring their voice in decisions that impact them whenever possible. Each of these examples points to intentional changes made by people in positions of authority to widen their circle to share their power.

In the United States, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 aimed to create fair and equal workplaces but never truly addressed Martin Luther King Jr.’s call for economic justice and failed to protect basic human rights (Honey 7). Whiteness was no longer a privileged legal category to be protected, it simply transformed into a social norm (Bhandaru 233). This caused subtle forms of bias to become more difficult to prove in the court. If an employee fails to prove overt racism and harm, a manager can easily ignore the dynamics that led to the racism. Even if proven, managers might attempt to individualize any action and try to weed out one offending coworker rather than look at the hostile work climate. Similar to how we address the individual suspension rather than the racial bias in the schools, in a workplace a manager can disregard the climate in the workplace that caused “institutional and cultural dynamics that reproduce patterns of under participation and exclusion” (Eisenberg, Sources of workplace inequalities).

Discrimination, like microaggressions, attacks one’s sense of self; “Violations of identity are like gunshot wounds to our heart” (Hicks 38). Instinct might have the hurt person try to exert more power to control the situation and sometimes this can cause more retaliation in the workplace. Therefore, the acknowledgment of harm is critical to healing and stemming further harm. Rather than have a cross-examination, a restorative conference can create a structured, and dignified dialogue. “When dignity is engaged, it is assumed that both parties are in need of understanding – that both contributed to the breakdown of the relationship, that both played a role, though perhaps not an equal role” (Hicks 191).

Restorative conferencing provides an alternative mechanism to address bias in the workplace. Increasing the interaction between races through dialogue provides an opportunity to gain perspectives of different races is and is critical to improving workplace climate (Opie and Roberts 711). Restorative conferences do not focus on determining intent and then assigning blame for bad motives or declaring a singular truth from the point of authority. Because conferencing’s aim is not to dispute facts, there is an opportunity to develop a shared understanding of how harm occurred. Instead, as Habermas explains, using the power of relationships, social order gets constructed based on creating a shared meaning through dialogue (Finlayson 43). It is about pulling in multiple truths, taking turns in a dialogue, and then through hearing perspectives, turning together to a new understanding. Instead of asking the offender why he did something, the dialogue is based around questions of; what happened, what were you thinking at the time, what have you thought about since the incident (Wachtel et al. 166). This leaves room to discuss unrecognized bias; what one was thinking at the time of the incident might evolve based on hearing other perspectives. The person harmed gets to share his perspective responding to what happened, what was his reaction, what has he you about since, and most importantly, what was the hardest part (Wachtel et al. 166). Further, because it is not punitive, it is a safer place to begin to explore and learn about difference and create a new shared understanding. Using a restorative conference, the dialogue focuses on hearing perspectives from people in their own words. People who are witnesses, or even silent bystanders, have a voice to share their perspectives. Together they take responsibility for their actions and identify harms that were caused. Together they discuss what needs to happen to make things right and ensure that people are reintegrated back into prosocial norms of the workplace. By hearing from those involved restorative conferences create a learning environment and also build stronger social networks (Eisenberg). Facilitating opportunities for diverse groups to participate in sharing perspectives has been shown to reduce prejudice (Opie and Roberts 712).

Another example of how people of color successfully challenged White authority using Restorative Practices can be found in Canada’s justice system. Following Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation process exploring harms against indigenous people, new court systems were created by First Nation, Inuit and Métis people. Unlike the United States, where Lady Justice appears blindfolded atop many court buildings, the 1999 Gladue ruling mandated Canadian courts to consider the indigenous background to culturally relevant sentencing in the justice system and consider restorative justice principals (Nicholls). According to Don Nicholls, Director of the Department of Justice and Corrections in the Cree nation, restructuring the shape of courtrooms into circles allowed all people to see and be seen, offenders and prosecutors all sat on the same level, and the inclusive nature of the circle that ensured “no issue gets trapped in the corner” (Nicholls). Conducting dialogues in circles is a symbolic way to show equality and non-domination (Pranis 34). Members of the Cree community now attend court administered by the Cree, not by the Quebecois justice system, and ascribe to their own definitions and deliberations. This ensures people are having court proceedings governed by their peers, with outcomes deliberated by their peers, to support community reintegration. For example, in the Cree system, a youth offender can be as old as thirty years of age. Instead of thinking that a nineteen-year-old boy struggling in school has the cognition to control impulsive behaviors, the indigenous way recognizes that even in their twenties an individual is deeply dependent upon community connections to develop sound judgment. If they are a danger to the public and need to be incarcerated, they remain in local confinement, so their families can visit and participate in rehabilitative services. But often youth may be diverted from prisons to receive social services improving physical and emotional health, to attend summer camps building a positive sense of community, or to engage with elders identifying ways to offer material and symbolic reparations for their harms.

As a final example, in the Netherlands, the restorative circle process has been used to ensure families, rather than government systems, are empowered to make decisions for their children with the intent of keeping families intact whenever possible (van Pagée). Family Group Conferences are circle processes that protect the rights of children by creating space for them to learn, speak and participate in decisions impacting them. Before a child is removed from any home, the child’s support is widened by pulling in not just immediate family members, but extended members of the family, and people who are in their circle of care. Following Christie’s observation, when the family conflict is not pulled out of the family into the government’s welfare system, power remains within the family. In the Netherlands, EigenKracht, a social service organization, has successfully trained more than 800 volunteers who speak dozens of languages to facilitate circles to help families make plans to help themselves (van Pagée). Instead of relying on social workers employed by local municipalities, they train community volunteers. National law mandates volunteers are to be used as facilitators, and while professionals can offer knowledge of resources they are mandated to allow private time for families to meet and decide what is best for them (Wachtel, “Restorative Practices and the Life‑World Implications of a New Social Science.”). What would it look like in our schools if instead of a White professional deciding what was best for a Black child, they provided resources and trusted children and their families to decide what to do to support the struggling child? The rights of children to have Family Group Conferences have been formalized into national legislation in the Netherlands based on data-driven studies of the successful results of this restorative process (van Pagée).

Continuing My Journey

One of the most compelling challenges of the Black Freedom Movement was how leaders could marry the principles and practices of nonviolence to achieve social change. Today, we still must attend to the alignment of our principles and practices to advance social justice. The assumptions of Restorative Practices are based on creating participatory and empathetic dialogue processes. But how we express ourselves is bound by culture. A reliance on restorative circles tries to create nonhierarchical communication mechanisms speaking sequentially and listening to others. While a White normative view might agree that giving everyone chance to speak without interruption distributes power, some studies have shown that positive interruptions actually encourage African American women to speak up and persist in being heard (Mendelberg et al. 27). African American girls are tone-shamed and their questioning in school can be read as confrontational rather than as curiosity (Morris). Recent research examining bias in Restorative Practices warns that basing communication on verbal expressions favors those that work in the service-economy confident in their “people skills” to express themselves (Willis 12). This can adversely affect people who feel inadequate expressing themselves in front of others. It is, of course, possible to sit in a circle, hear others, and remain closed-down to your own social reflection and social responsibility. With this in mind, we must keep our field focused on community dynamics, not just prescriptive processes.

So we require a sensitivity to others and the willingness to discover and confront our own biases. In examining my own racism, the hardest part for me to decipher is my own sense of individualism. As a White American, I was raised thinking of myself as having agency and seeing my parenting and social success as earned by my intellect and hard work, not as the benefits afforded a girl with access to a solid education, born into a family where I did not have to worry about affording my time to study, nor having to fear about being treated with dignity as I traveled between communities. Unlike some mothers, I never had to miss time from work because my daughter was seen as a troublemaker because of how she was asking questions at school, and I never worried about my son’s physical safety when he was stopped by the police. As I have grown to have more power and authority, perhaps now I must stand as an agitator, challenging the institutionalized patterns of oppression where I’ve been privileged.

Engaging with others is one of the best ways to ensure that my sense of the world is not based on any singular story but creates a diverse and interwoven tapestry of connections. We would benefit hearing more stories and developing more sensitivities to other’s stories. Like the comments at the panel, the truth was not either or, it was both opinions and truths, even the perspectives that are hard to hear. Storytelling prompts self-reflection, and in a group environment, listening will create an opportunity for dialogue and true reconciliation (Fellegi 213). We must create a space where it is safe to have difficult conversations. It is sometimes hard to be honest, sometimes our words fail us, but we need to hear each other’s intents and aspirations. How we move forward matters, we must focus on our goals as well as the dignity of one another.

Participation, reparation, and reintegration are fundamental ideals of Restorative Practices. It is not something one just learns. It is something one must practice in the lived interactions of day to day life. In my family, in my studies, in my work, and in my community, I must be vigilant not just to my own bias, as the Chief Officer asked. In addition to looking out to others, I need to be mindful of the structures that sustain my privilege and be willing to challenge them. Only then will we make bigger steps to a more inclusive civil society.

 

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