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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