The Power of Restorative Justice Education

Learning about restorative justice changed my life. I remember vividly the first time I read The Little Book Restorative Justice when it was assigned in a Nonviolence class at Colorado College. I sat up in my dorm room bed underlining almost every line and drawing big stars in the margins. I was so excited to have found an alternative approach to justice that could work to create peace in the wake of harm in so many different contexts. It was the first time I had really asked myself, “What is justice? And how is it best achieved?” From that moment and the discussions in class that followed, my trajectory was set. I knew that I needed to do this work. I knew that I needed to be part of the restorative justice movement.

Restorative justice course offerings at universities are expanding, but not as quickly as they need to be. With each person who learns about restorative justice, we gain the insight of their unique life experiences and the creative applications of the restorative philosophy they may imagine.

Last month, I taught a Master’s level course on Restorative Justice at Boise State University. The students were all intelligent, compassionate individuals with backgrounds in mediation and conflict resolution. The class was a true pleasure to teach. This was the first time any of the students had engaged with restorative justice. To many, it was an entirely new concept. They were as excited as I was when I first learned about this powerful work.

Their primary assignment was to complete a reflection, applying the “Restorative Lens” to a situation in their lives. This could be an issue they were facing at work or in university, with family or friends, in a volunteer role, or anywhere else. They could also pick an issue from the news or a local problem. The students were asked to view the issue though the philosophical framework of restorative practices, focusing on the three restorative questions: 1) What happened? 2) Who was affected? 3) What is needed to repair the harm and make things right?

If possible/appropriate, in addition to thinking about the issue through a restorative lens, the students could also apply restorative practices to addressing the issue. I invited them to consider facilitating a Restorative Justice Conference or a Circle with the individuals involved.

In grading these assignments, it was wonderful to see how the students were applying restorative practices in their contexts and seeing great results. One of the students who works at a school was able to prevent a student from being suspended by offering a restorative process. Another student held a circle with two family members about a painful family matter and reflected that it was the first time she had really listened to her parent. One student who works at a homeless shelter was able to use the circle structure with residents at the shelter. Two people talked about using a restorative approach to resolving harms in their workplaces. The university ombudsman reflected on a past suspension of a student that still haunts him and imagined “What if?” restorative justice had been an option. He shared that this one course will change how he does his job.

Restorative justice education is powerful. When we share restorative justice with a group of passionate, driven, capable students in a way that is inspiring, interactive, and empowering, we begin a positive ripple of impact. In restorative justice, we talk a lot about the ripple of harm from an offense. In restorative justice education, we see a more positive and transformational ripple. In each person who learns about restorative practices, a seed in planted, and they carry the knowledge with them into all of their interactions and decisions in their work, personal life, and wider community. They become messengers, sharing restorative justice with more people. The ripples of restorative justice education are expansive and powerful.

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