Rotary Global Grant Blog December 2017

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December has been full of beautiful weather and holiday celebration with kind and wonderful people!

The Rotary Club of Wellington invited me to their Christmas lunch, where we wore paper crowns from Christmas Crackers and sung Kiwi Christmas carols about sunny celebrations on the beach (see lyrics in photo above). It was a great time with a fantastic group of people!

Following weeks of unbelievably beautiful weather, Christmas day brought a big rainstorm. The cold stormy weather felt homey for me, but it was strange for my Kiwi friends. My partner and I spent the day with my advisor’s family, who warmly welcomed us to come eat food and play games with them, and then later we spent some time video chatting with our families. While it is difficult to be away from family during the holidays, I am grateful for technology that allows us to connect so often and in so many fun ways.

A great deal of the work I’ve done this month went into coding my interviews with restorative justice facilitators and participants in anticipation of upcoming writing deadlines. I wrote a blog post with some observations from the process of coding those interviews, which you can read here. I am excited, although somewhat daunted, by the chapter deadlines that loom in front of me in the coming months and am grateful for the many insights I gained through conversations with fellow facilitators as well as people who have been through the process.

I have also continued reading widely on restorative justice this month. One author I have particularly enjoyed this month is Jane Bolitho. For a taste of what I’m reading, check out this blog post on one of Bolitho’s recent works.

Earlier this year, I was appointed to the Advisory Council for that National Association of Community and Restorative Justice (NACRJ). We meet over Zoom every other month to discuss and collaborate on work related to NACRJ. I am a part of the committee responsible for contributing content to the Restorative Well, the newsletter for members of NACRJ. I wrote three pieces for the most recent Restorative Well, which you can read here.

With only a few days left in 2017, I am looking back at the year with immense gratitude for the great adventure of living here, for all that I am learning, for the mentors and friends I have gained here, as well as for the support of people at home in making all this possible. My family has a tradition on Christmas Eve of writing down what we are most grateful for in the past year and what we are looking forward to in the coming year. This year, I didn’t know where to start!





A Restorative Worldview

This week, I am busy coding my interviews with restorative justice facilitators and participants (victims an offenders), getting ready for months of major writing deadlines ahead.
One questions that I asked all interview participants is “How has being involved in restorative justice affirmed or changed your worldview?”
As I review the responses, I’m noticing a common thread that runs throughout. That common worldview is summarized in following three points. I think it is a beautiful and hopeful way to see the world, and one that certainly resonates with me.
1. People are good.
Again and again, the facilitators and participants I have spoken with have told me that being part of restorative justice processes either reminded them or showed them that all people are good at their core.
“If you just talk to someone and understand where they are coming from, most people really don’t mean to do bad things or didn’t mean to cause the harm they caused. There is something in everyone you can relate to. Everyone has a story, if you just take the time to listen to it, which normally you don’t get the opportunity to do in the normal world because a) they wouldn’t tell you or b) you wouldn’t ask, which is why people are so amazed when they get the opportunity.”
“I think it has confirmed a lot of my views about the world that people are inherently good and that there is always a bigger story behind behavior that we think is abhorrent. Just always.”
2. Hurt people hurt people.
People are good, but sometimes they do bad things. This is often because they have a need they are trying to fulfill, whether that is a base need like food, shelter, money, security, or a more complicated need like belonging, love, acceptance, control. Often, people exhibit behaviors that are harmful in an attempt to fulfill their needs. This is very often because they themselves are or have been victims and are hurting. When we hurt, we hurt others.
“In terms of the work I had done previously around supporting survivors of sexual assault, my work was solely with those who had been harmed. So working with perpetrators and getting to understand their worldview and their needs was a big change for me. And having that realization that people can be good people who do bad things. It sounds corny, but getting to see people’s depth. And yea, thinking a lot about how shame entrenches some people’s poor choices, so looking more broadly at what is driving harm, rather than a really shallow individual choice lens. It has confirmed my thinking that people ultimately want to do well in the world, want to do right by others, given the opportunity that is what people will choose most of the time. It has confirmed for me that kind of idealistic thing about people going towards kindness as a natural state. Because a lot of people who don’t do this line of work are like ‘Oh, you must see some stuff that really makes you horrified at humans’ or stuff like that. And it is so the opposite because of people’s capacity for relating to one another, people’s capacity for generosity.”
3. People can change. 
All of us are always capable of shifting our understanding and changing our behaviors. We are most likely to change when the people who help us are affirming of our positive qualities, supportive of us, and believe in our ability to change. Through restorative practices, we are able to create a safe space that values the individuals participating and creates an opportunity for understanding and commitment to concrete actions that exhibit and further positive change.
“[Being involved in restorative justice] has probably softened me a little bit. I’ve been working with challenging people and circumstances for 30 years or so. Sometimes you can get hardened by it or a little cynical. You can start to believe that some people are just like that forever and there is no way of changing them. This has reminded me and brought me back to that place of people can totally change, every situation needs to be honored and treated on its own merits and not on your history of experiences.”

What could a restorative approach to politics look like?

It has been a strange and despairing experience to watch the political journey of the United States from afar since moving to New Zealand to study restorative justice in early 2016. People often comment on how glad I must be to have escaped it all and how surely I’m in no rush to go back. I am certainly aware of the privilege of living in New Zealand through the safety I feel here, my affordable health care, affordable education, renewable energy, and relatively progressive policies across a wide range of issues. However, I think more than anything, the political strife at home has made me certain that I will go back. A friend and fellow expat living in New Zealand described it as like being away from a sick relative. You feel like you should be there just to be there, and to do the best you can to be helpful. That is the feeling I have now and as I look forward to the time after I finish my degree.

The most striking feature to me of the political climate at this moment and more generally is the degree of polarization, the adversarial nature. It is truly an “us versus them” construct with winners and losers and rampant dehumanization of the opposing side. In many ways, it resembles the mainstream criminal justice system in the way that it reinforces opposing sides, leans heavily on labels, and often makes things worse.

During a recent conversation with my partner and some friends, we began talking about whether a more “restorative” approach to the political system would be possible in the same way it has been possible in the criminal justice sphere. Could there be a way to move away from entrenched sides towards understanding the individual human stories and needs that drive our behaviors? Could we find creative policy solutions that meet the needs of all involved parties rather than leaving behind winners and losers? Is there a way to bring more open honest communication, empathy and compassion into the political process?

One specific issue we discussed during this conversation was the coal industry and renewable energy. We noted how, in many ways, the coal industry had been framed by the Democratic party as dirty, backwards, something bad that we needed to move away from. There is, of course, the possibility of financial insecurity faced by those working in the coal industry as politicians talk about transitioning to renewable energy sources, but there is also the issue of how the coal industry is framed and respected. Generations of families have worked in the coal industry and have played an important role in building the United States and getting our country to where it is today. If there were a space for us to discuss the importance of honoring that legacy and the importance of ongoing job security and the importance of developing and resourcing new energy technology for the health of the planet and humans, then would we be able to come up with some creative solutions that met all of those needs? Could there be guarantees that each person would have an equivalent job in the renewable energy market? Could we establish a national museum to recognize and remember the history of coal and the families who made the rapid growth of the United States possible?

What I know is that in restorative justice processes, when everyone has a chance to tell their story and express their needs and to hear each other in a respectful and safe space, phenomenally creative and collaborative outcomes almost always emerge.

Following this discussion, we of course wanted to test the idea. We were faced with the limitation of being a group of very liberal friends, all in our 20s and 30s, all white, all well educated and financially privileged enough to be on a weekend backpacking trip together. Therefore, I recognize the surface-level nature of the account that follows. I hope in the future to have the opportunity to trial this approach with a group that contains a wider range of voices.

After a bit of discussion, we decided that an issue we may have sufficient difference in opinion on is the issue of vegetarianism. In a group of six, there was one vegetarian, one vegan, and two previous vegetarians who had gone back to eating meat. It was quickly apparent once we began however that all six of us had thought about the impact of meat eating on the environment and public health, so again, it would have been better for the experiment to have greater divergence in opinions and personal histories. We assigned ourselves the mission of coming to consensus around a policy that we would like to implement.

We used the restorative circle format to have the conversation. I used my camping cooking pot as a talking piece and spoke about how food is an integral part of our personal histories and cultures and also represents a unifying human experience through eating together. For the first round, I asked each person to share his or her hopes for the conversation. For the second round, I asked each person to share his or her personal history in relation to meat eating or vegetarianism. It was interesting to notice myself relaxing during this round. Hearing where each person came from helped me to understand his or her position on the issue. It was also great to have the chance to share my own story of growing up vegetarian, of the disbelief I felt when I first saw the movie Bambi and found out that people eat meat, of the bullying I experienced in middle school because of being the only vegetarian, of my own transition from trying constantly to convince people to be vegetarian to deciding to just live my own life well, and finally the decision to become vegan. I felt like my own journey and position on the issue was heard and understood. After that, we transitioned into talking about needs moving forward and then into concrete ideas for policy that would address those needs. At this point, we suspended the structure of the circle and the use of the talking piece to have a more free-flowing conversation, but I noticed that the respect and equal voice remained. The solution we arrived at involved providing free vegetarian lunches at all schools in order to introduce children to delicious vegetarian food, promote public health, combat child hunger and as a result, improve learning and behavior and school. It is a solution that certainly reflects the liberal leaning of those present in the circle, but I do think that a circle with a wider range of voices would be able to come up with an even more creative solution that would address the needs brought to that circle. We closed with a final circle round offering an opportunity for a final word.

I recognize that there are certainly limitations to this political method. It is time consuming for one and it would never be possible to incorporate the voices of ALL people. Conversations would take place in smaller circles and then there would still need to be a way to transfer that learning about each other and the positive outcomes to the wider society. However, I think what we are desperately needing in this moment is a structure, a way to create a safe space that encourages respectful communication and listening that seeks to cultivate empathy and recognize the human across the divide. Restorative approaches such as the circle could be a helpful tool towards this end.

What makes a great Restorative Justice Facilitator?

“Good RJ facilitation is shaped by three main factors: (i) a set of core beliefs that form a particular worldview, (ii) specific knowledge and skills that develop with experience, and (iii) ‘synthesis’ which merges art with science so that facilitators can intuitively, consistently and knowingly shape the alchemy of RJ in real-time to successfully meet the needs of participants. Restorative justice programs are proliferating, yet it may be that few people have the requisite combination of traits and skills. Acknowledging that facilitation is work that may be complex and difficult bring credibility to this profession which is deserving of more status. But if ability to do this work resides on a spectrum that develops with learning and experience, then working within teams to enable progression from beginner to intermediate to advanced facilitator, peer mentoring and support, and commensurate resources for training and development are all necessary components of best practice.”

Jane Bolitho & Jasmine Bruce (2017) Science, Art and Alchemy: Best Practice in Facilitating Restorative Justice, Contemporary Justice Review, 20:3, 337.

At the recent Relate Resolve Restore Conflict Resolution Conference in Wellington, New Zealand, I saw Dr. Jane Bolitho speak about her study of best practice in restorative justice facilitation. Dr. Bolitho put forth the idea that great facilitators possess three main attributes: a personal belief, worldview and disposition that is in alignment with restorative practices, a set of core skills for working effectively with people in the restorative justice process, and the ability to respond intuitively in the moment to effectively use their attributes and skills to fulfill the needs of participants.

As a restorative justice facilitator myself and having been involved for several years now in training, coaching and mentoring new facilitators (both in a community program and in the university context), this description of a combination of three core attributes resonated with my experience. When we bring new people into the work of restorative justice, the first thing we look for is do they “get it?” Do they believe that people are innately good and capable of change? Do they understand the importance of belonging, community and communication? Do they see people as connected to each other? Are they willing to listen, to seek to understand the needs behind behavior and to create a safe space for healing? Simply put, do they have a belief in and a desire to create peace? Restorative justice has a wonderful way of drawing in people with these core convictions and a strong belief in restorative practices.

After that, we do our best to teach skills, while always continuing to learn ourselves. We run role plays and play skills games. We study and practice, we reflect on our facilitation roles, we offer feedback, we make lists of great questions. This process is ongoing for all facilitators. We continue to ask, how can we be better communicators? How can we cultivate empathy in ourselves and others? How can we create a safe space and ask questions that help participants get what they need out of a process?

The last piece of the puzzle is the most difficult to teach. I like Dr. Bolitho’s word of “alchemy” or “the art,” because in great facilitation, the way it all comes together can seem almost magical. It is the sensation of being in the flow. Reflecting on my own facilitation, there are moments when I ask a certain question, or leave space for a certain amount of silence, or turn to a person at just the right moment, that opens up the experience for participants in just the right way so that the the transformation occurs, understanding is achieved, peace is made. When you look back at it, you can’t remember a specific thought process that led to the decision, it is far better explained as an intuition (a well-prepared and practiced intuition).

Dr. Bolitho’s work offers a more concrete way to talk about this alchemy of restorative justice facilitation and I am very grateful to her for this important contribution to the field.

Jane Bolitho

From Science, Art and Alchemy: Best Practice in Facilitating Restorative Justice by Jane Bolitho and Jasmine Bruce