Ritual and Community Building in the NZ Pop-Up Sauna

During the month of July, I spent a great deal of time at the NZ Pop-Up Sauna on the Wellington waterfront. The first day we arrived in Wellington, my partner, Sam, fell in love with the waterfront area. As he began looking for jobs during our first weeks here, he decided he wanted to create his own work, setting up a pop-up sauna on the Wellington waterfront. This is something I really love and admire about Sam. The Wellington harbour is perhaps the most prized real estate in New Zealand’s capital city and we had been in the country less than a month, but he knew he had a great idea and set about making it happen. It turns out, the Wellington City Council was just as excited about the idea as we were and on July 1st, less than 7 months after we arrived in the country, the NZ Pop-Up Sauna opened its doors.

sauna photo

The NZ Pop-Up Sauna has been every bit as fun as we expected, but the piece I didn’t see coming is what an amazing community builder the sauna would be. Day after day, friendships were formed in the sauna, regulars kept coming back, and a community began to grow.

In my research here, I am looking at the ritual properties of Restorative Justice Conferences that contribute to their effectiveness as a transformational space and their ability to build positive communities. The more I witnessed the power of the sauna, the more I saw those same ritual properties building connection and feelings of belonging among the sauna-goers.

I did two short writings to reflect on the sauna as a community builder. The first is a free-flow creative writing reflection. The second draws on Victor Turner’s theory of ritual to help understand the experience taking place.

In Restorative Practices, we talk a lot about relationship building and how it is the foundation of Restorative Communities. The question is how do we build relationships with the same qualities (equality, openness, creativity) we see emerging in restorative justice conferences? The common ritual properties seem to be at the base of what forms these profound experiences of connection and offer a theoretical framework from which we can draw practical tools to build restorative communities.

You can find more information about the NZ Pop-Up Sauna on facebook or the website.

 

When you enter the NZ Pop-Up Sauna…

When you enter the NZ Pop-Up Sauna, you are entering a different sort of space, a space apart from your normal life.

Shedding you winter layers, you don your swimsuit, wrestled out from the back of your drawer where it has been hibernating since summer. Tip toeing across the cold pavement, cold Welly wind on your skin, you step in through the sliding door and start to feel the warmth of the place.

Behind a solid cedar door, dimly-lit wooden benches invite you. The weight of the heat may silence you for a moment, but soon you’ll look around and begin to reach out to your sauna companions.

Sweat is a great equalizer.

What you do, what you wear, who you talk to outside of the sauna all melts away and leaves behind salty, sweaty, water-guzzling common humanity. There is connection. You belong here. Maybe you and your new friends will get up the gumption to take a leap into the ocean. You will dare each other and cheer each other on. In that moment when your warm skin hits the icy waves, you’ll feel awake and alive. You’ll hurry together back into the warmth of the sauna and laugh about the belly flop or your crazy sea hair.

Finally, you will feel your body is satiated by the heat. Walking flat footed and up-right on the cool pavement this time, you will find yourself back in the changing rooms, pulling on your winter layers, wringing out your swimsuit.

You are going back to your normal life, but your hair still smells like sweat and sea and your lips still feel like smiling.

 

The NZ Pop-Up Sauna Understood through the Lens of Victor Turner’s Theory of Ritual

During the month of July, we have seen the NZ Pop-Up Sauna form an incredible little waterfront community. Each day, we watch people enter as strangers and emerge laughing together, ready to take a leap into the ocean, exchanging phone numbers and high-fives. Fun and different experiences have a way of forming friendships, but the sauna is also drawing on ritual properties that serve to bring people together in a profound way. Out of this ritual state, deep feelings of belonging and connection emerge. These are the feelings human beings crave and they keep people coming back again and again.

Victor Turner has identified three phases of the ritual process: separation, limen, and reaggregation. During separation, the ritual participants are symbolically detached from everyday life and enter a consecrated space. At the NZ Pop-Up Sauna, guests first enter the changing room and bravely strip off their warm winter layers to put on a bathing suit and towel. Clothing and signifiers of roles and social groupings are literally stripped away and the sauna-goers are equalized through their scarce apparel. Entering through cedar door, there is dim, warm lighting and an immediate heavy warmth. The noise of the waterfront is muffled and everything slows down. The guests take a seat on the wooden benches and have entered the ritual space.

Next, sauna guests enter the limen phase of ritual. Liminality is characterized by radical equality. As they sweat together, thoughts turn to unifying human experiences and characteristics, rather than those that divide us. Communitas emerges out of liminality. Turner describes communitas as a recognition of a generalized social bond. Sauna goers experience being one interconnected community, and a sense of their own belonging in that community.

When it is time to leave the sauna, the guests go through the third phase of the ritual process, reaggregation, and reenter the structures of society in a transformed way. The winter clothes are donned again and the cell phones click back on, but the experience of connection from the sauna has transformed the individual. More often than not, guests will be back soon to experience that connection again.

This individual transformation and experience of connection ultimately impacts the on-going life of the greater community as more and more people begin to act in accordance with the sensation of belonging and connection they have experienced. This is the key to healthy, safe communities: fostering a space where people can connect on an equal plane and experience the emotional energy of that connection. We all crave that experience. It is why many of us go out drinking. Alcohol has its own way of subverting normal social roles and rules and equalizing and connecting us. Unfortunately, alcohol also has negative impacts from health to social interactions. It is our responsibility to be more creative in generating this deeply important human experience. The NZ Pop-Up Sauna is a shining example of the creative connection spaces we must build.

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Understanding Transformational Space: An Analysis of Restorative Justice Conferences through Religious Studies Theoretical Lenses

An article I wrote titled “Understanding transformational space: an analysis of restorative justice conferences through religious studies theoretical lenses” has been published in the latest issue of Restorative Justice: An International Journal.

You can access a copy of the article here. This link will provide free access for the first 50 people. If the link is no longer working, send me an email and I will be happy to email you a pdf of the article.

ABSTRACT

Implemented after a crime occurs, restorative justice conferences create a transformational space where victim and offender can move from feelings of enmity towards reconciliation and healing, and where the community can be repaired. This paper is an analysis of restorative justice conferences through the theoretical lenses of religious studies, in an endeavour to better understand the transformational space created by these conferences. Mircea Eliade’s comparative approach allows for a comparison between the transformative space of restorative justice conferences and processes and structures yielding similar space. An analysis through Victor Turner’s theoretical lens reveals the way in which restorative justice conferences closely resemble religious ritual through the presence of liminality and communitas. The utilisation of the Emile Durkheim functionalist lens allows for the functional similarities of restorative justice conferences to religious ritual to be highlighted.

Invisibilia: “Flip the Script”

This episode of the podcast Invisibilia, “Flip the Script,” is well worth a listen. The first two stories are about the power of responding to violence and hostility with love. The first story is about an attempted robbery at a dinner party and the second story is about how a Danish town helped young, frustrated Muslims turn away from ISIS. Both stories speak to the human need for belonging and offer a way for us to respond to wrongdoings not by punishing or causing further harm, but rather by embracing the wrongdoer and working towards the best outcome for everyone. This shift, this flip in the script, is at the root of Restorative Justice and is the most powerful and transformative tool available to our human community.

Listen to the podcast here.

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The “One Stop Shop” Model for Youth Support

Earlier this week, I visited Kapiti Youth Support (KYS) in Paraparaumu, about an hour north of Wellington. Kapiti Youth Support is what New Zealand calls a “One Stop Shop” for youth ages 10-24 in the community. Their services include a medical clinic with doctors and nurses, counselors and psychologists, addiction support, mentoring, family support services, youth development, education resources, and therapeutic groups. To top it all off, one of their programs called Stepping Stones, which is a program for youth showing signs of problematic behavior, has begun using restorative practices.

All of this is under one roof and provided for free for all youth in the community!

KYS employees emphasize the importance building relationship with the young people they serve and offering a holistic model of care that sees all of the areas of a person’s life as connected. It is important for the support providers to be fully integrated and working together in order to provide the best quality care. Their physical proximity assists in this goal. The KYS space is beautiful with big sunny windows and a courtyard with a garden. The walls are decorated with cool art and the kitchen is full of colorful mugs. In the clinic area, there was a table with a basket of free scones and pieces of fruit.

I visited KYS because I met Christina, the director of Stepping Stones, at a meeting for people in the Wellington area who are working to integrate the restorative circle practice (sometimes called a Connection Circle or a Peacemaking Circle) into their various professional contexts. Christina is Canadian, so we were excited to hear each other’s North American accents and started talking after the meeting. She explained the transformation they have seen in Stepping Stones since beginning to use the circle process last year. Each meeting of a Stepping Stones group has a theme (such as beliefs, anger management, identity and belonging, or family) and the circle is used as a way to get the participants to start talking about their experiences and relating to each other. Christina said that with the circle practice, they are now getting to the depth of sharing and understanding during the first session that they normally would have gotten to in the third or even fifth session.

During the first group meeting, the facilitator guides the participants in establishing shared values and ground rules for the circle process. After that, the group is able to settle into the circle easily and trust that it is a safe space to share.

All of this has gotten Christina really excited about the idea of offering restorative justice services for youth that do get in trouble in the community. KYS has a good relationship with local police who already occasionally offer attending Stepping Stones as an alternative to charging youth, so there would be good support for this extended service. Because the circle process and the skills that accompany it (deep listening, open and honest sharing, equal voice, reflection) are already in place at KYS, it would be a smooth transition into using this model and philosophy to address harms from wrong-doings as well.

To my knowledge, nothing like KYS exists in the United States. As I toured the different areas and saw all of the services being provided, I reflected on one of the foundational beliefs of Restorative Justice, which is that all behaviors communicate needs. When a person is exhibiting a problematic behavior, if you can have a conversation with the person and identify the need at the root of the behavior, you can help find a more pro-social way for that need to be met. While working for a restorative justice non-profit in Colorado, I would occasionally receive cases where the offender or victim’s needs included support that our small program could not supply. We were sometimes able to route the case through diversion so that a diversion officer could require that the offender see a counselor or a doctor or participate in classes or drug tests. The diversion officer would continue to meet with the offender, which was helpful, but the officer still always had to refer the young person out to different services. There was minimal communication between the various service providers and it was up to the youth to find his or her way to another area of town and engage with a stranger to get it done.

How helpful it would be to have all of these services under one roof working together! Not only would it save resources, it would improve the quality of care through increased communication between service providers and increase the likelihood that the youth will follow-through on getting the support needed. After all, the counselor would be just across the hall!

This is a model we need to be replicating in the United States.

KYS also has a very impressive evaluation system (The Outcomes Measurement Model- TOMM) for the youth they work with that allows staff to track individuals’ progress in a wide range of areas from peer relationships to alcohol use to mental health to hope and values. It offers a holistic picture of the young person and the areas he/she is growing or struggling. Improvement can also be tracked over time and the system allows KYS to pull reports looking at specific demographics in the community as well. In a grant culture that is currently obsessed with evidence-based practice, this reporting system is a powerful tool. It allows KYS to turn that deeper transformation they see occurring in their clients into data points on a graph that can support grant applications and progress reports submitted to the Ministry of Social Development. Non-profits restorative justice providers in the US tend to report on statistics including decreased recidivism, decreased cost, victim and offender satisfaction with the process, and numbers of cases completed. However, these number leave out something big, the deeper transformation that occurs in people through the process. We have tried to cover that ground through providing case studies and quotes and encouraging people to participate in a process to see the work in action. Still, there is a desire to see that good work communicated through numbers and graphs, and that is what KYS has found a way to do!

If you’re interested in learning more about KYS, check out their website.

How Effective is Restorative Justice When Followed by a Punitive Sentence?

When I first arrived in Wellington, everyone was discussing a (then un-named) university employee who had stolen almost $500,000 from the university through submitting invoices for a fake company that she had created and then awarded contracts. The company had a fake email address and payment information routed to her personal account.

Here is a news article about the case that was published near the beginning of my time in New Zealand.

When the case went to court, the offender (Rebekah) pleaded guilty and was offered the option to participate in a restorative justice conference with 11 of her previous co-workers from the university, the most impacted parties. I was not part of the restorative justice conference, but from what I’ve been told, it was an emotionally intense, but ultimately successful conference in which Rebekah heard how her co-workers had been impacted and expressed her deep remorse and apologized for the harms she had caused.

In order to understand this case, you need to understand how restorative justice works in New Zealand. If this case were handled by a restorative justice service provider in the United States, like the non-profit I worked with in Colorado, the restorative justice conference would culminate in a contract, outlining what Rebekah agreed to do to repair the harms to the victims, the community, her family and herself. The group would establish a deadline and specific items for Rebekah to complete. Likely, this would include re-paying the money to the university or the insurance company, doing something to improve the reputation of the university and mend the trust that had been broken among employees, and something to repair the harm that was caused to her husband and children. If she completed all of the items by the deadline, the case would be considered closed and no further sentencing would take place.

In New Zealand, restorative justice is far more integrated with the court system. Offenders first go to court where they plead guilty and then may be offered restorative justice if the case is a good fit. In New Zealand, having a criminal conviction on your record isn’t as big of a deterrent (for finding jobs, housing, accessing financial aid for education, etc.) as it is in the US, so pleading guilty doesn’t have to be avoided and is a good way to clearly assess whether an offender is taking responsibility. During the restorative justice conference, the impacts are discussed as well as what needs to happen next to move forward, however, the group is not required to agree on a formal contract stating what specifically the offender will do to repair the harms. This is because sentencing is still handled through the court rather than restoratively. As a result, the restorative justice conferences mostly focus on the emotional impacts and can be very healing. However, afterwards, offender and victim are thrust back into the adversarial court structure, where the offender sits in an isolated box and receives a punitive sentence. This integration with the court system allows New Zealand to offer restorative justice for more serious cases than restorative justice is currently regularly offered for in the US (cases including death by accident or murder, sexual assault, other violent assaults, etc.) and is a good opportunity to offer an experience of healing to more people. The number and magnitude of cases that go through restorative justice in New Zealand is very impressive and I hope something the US can emulate. However, through Rebekah’s case, I have begun to doubt how effective restorative justice can really be when the sentence outcome is still punitive.

Yesterday, the case went back to court for Rebekah to receive her sentence. Rebekah entered the court room with her family who sat down in the gallery while Rebekah went alone to the box, walled off by glass, where she would stand silently with a police officer by her side for the entire sentencing. When the judge entered, we all stood up and he took his place on an elevated platform behind a large desk. Each time an attorney would enter or leave the room, he or she would bow to the judge.

The defense attorney spoke about the remorse Rebekah had shown and her bravery in attending the restorative justice conference. He explained how Rebekah and her husband had sold their house and car, liquidizing all of their assets, and that between the money from these sales and their savings of $12,000, they would be immediately paying back close to $350,000. He shared that there was also a plan in place to pay back the remaining money through a portion of Rebekah’s pay check each month once she was able to secure a job. Rebekah had gotten two well-paying jobs since leaving the university, but in both cases, an anonymous phone call to her employer sharing the details of her offense at the university had resulted in her being fired.

The defense attorney also shared the details of Rebekah’s life leading up to the offense. She was the primary provider for her family, making 80% of the household income through her job. When the fraud began, she had just found out she was unexpectedly pregnant and worried about the impact her pregnancy and the birth of her second child would have on her ability to provide for her family. She was also struggling with un-diagnosed depression. The money she stole was spent on groceries, home renovations, a second-hand car and other household items. Rebekah continued stealing money from the university for two years before being caught. Her two children are now ages 2 and 5.

Probation had assessed that Rebekah did not present a serious risk of re-offense and the defense attorney asked the judge to please consider the negative impact on Rebekah’s two children if now, after losing their home and sense of security, they were also to lose their primary provider and the physical presence of their mother. For all of these reasons, the defense attorney requested home detention in lieu of prison.

When it came time for the judge to announce Rebekah’s sentence, he referenced the fact that Rebekah had taken responsibility through pleading guilty, had shown remorse through restorative justice, and was working to repay the insurance company that had covered the university’s losses. For each of these items, he gave a discount to her sentence. Still, after all of the discounts were tallied, Rebekah was left facing 2 years and 5 months in prison.

I watched Rebekah as she was escorted by a police officer from the box where the offender stands for sentencing through a door to the cells where she would await transport to prison. She did not have a chance to say goodbye to her parents, husband, and friends who were watching from the gallery. Outside the door of the court room, I watched her family cry and embrace each other. I wondered what she had said to her children when she left that morning. Did she say goodbye? When would they see her next? My heart broke picturing her children seeing her surrounded by the stigmatizing symbols of incarceration: the bars, the uniforms, the guards. I thought of all she would miss in the next two and a half years, the daily joys and challenges of young children. I worried about how her kids would manage financially now, how this would impact their future opportunities.

All of these thoughts that swirled through my head are further harms that will occur because of this prison sentence. These further harms are not inherent in the offense, they are a direct result of how the crime is being handled by a justice system that was formed by humans and can be changed by humans.

The word “penitentiary” comes from penance. Prison was originally a legalized and institutionalized repentance ritual that afforded offenders the opportunity to sit in solitude and reflect on their sins. It doesn’t take a deep dive into the reality of prisons today to realize that isn’t what is going on there. Prisons are crowded, sad, dangerous places that usually bring out the worst in people.

Beyond the penance argument for incarceration, there have historically been two arguments used to justify punishment. The first is the “retributivist” argument which sees punishment as good for punishment’s sake. This is the eye for an eye way of thinking. If you cause suffering, you should experience suffering. When we are experiencing hurt, this argument rings true for a lot of us. Often the first instinct is to lash back. However, again and again, the great thinkers and leaders among us have shown that imposing retributive suffering does not solve anything and only leads to spirals of violence.

The second is the consequentialist argument which asserts that punishment is only good because of its ability to create a future happier state by lowering crime and promoting safety. This can be accomplished directly by incarcerating someone who has committed a violent crime in order to incapacitate him/her and assure that he/she does not hurt anyone else. This is the one use of incarceration that I see as legitimate. Occasionally, it may be necessary to remove someone who is violently harming others from society. However, when that person is removed, it should not be to a place that necessitates violence as a means of survival (as is often the case in our current prison system), it should be to a place that is truly rehabilitative and provides the mental health, community, and educational resources necessary to work swiftly towards reintegration of the offender. If we were using our resources more effectively and not incarcerating non-violent offenders, we could provide a truly rehabilitative prison experience in non-crowded, well-resourced, and individually-responsive facilities.

The consequentialist argument also supports punishment that deters future crime through creating a fear of punishment for the offender and other people in the community. This is the argument the judge referenced in his sentence. He said he hoped that the prison sentence would discourage Rebekah and others from committing crime in the future. The issue with this argument is that studies have repeatedly shown that more harsh sentences do not lead to a decrease in crime. When a person commits a crime, they are not weighing their decision against a possible punishment outcome. In the majority of instances, the person committing the crime is thinking only about the need they are attempting to fill through the criminal behavior. This was the case for Rebekah, who thought not about possible punishment, but about financial stress and her baby on the way.

It isn’t fear of punishment that stops people from committing crimes, it is the development of empathy. It is the ability to put yourself in other peoples’ shoes and understand the impact of your actions on others. The wonderful thing is that empathy is something that can be taught and developed in people of all ages and restorative justice and restorative practices are playing an important role in that development of empathy in our communities. However, that positive impact is obstructed when the process is followed by a punitive sentence that only increases the harms. As we work towards further integration of restorative justice in the United States, this case holds an important lesson. We can’t let the restorative power of restorative justice, the focus on repairing harms rather than creating new ones, be lost through institutionalization. If a system still results in two children being left without their mother for over two years after a non-violent offense, it isn’t good enough.

Here is a news article explaining the outcome of sentencing for this case.