The Restorative Justice Paradigm Shift

 What is “justice”?

Take a few moments to think about that question. It is a word we use a lot. “Demand justice.” “Seek justice.” “Justice has been done.”

But what do we really mean when we use the word “justice”?

Often times, justice is understood as retributive harming: an eye for an eye. In the justice system, schools, workplaces, and internationally, we look to punish those who have violated rules or laws. Punishment involves responding to harm by causing reciprocal harm. This is often justified through the reasoning that it will deter future negative behavior. However, what researchers have found is that punishment, regardless of the context, often results in feelings of stigmatizing shame on the part of those punished. This experience of shame leads those who have been punished to reject their rejecter (those in authority) and the rules of their rejecter’s system. Through this dynamic of shame, punishment actually often leads to an increase in future harmful behavior and an adversarial relationship between those who have caused harm and the people and system responsible for “doing justice.”

Restorative justice offers a shift in how we understand justice and the pursuit of justice. Rather than retribution, justice is understood as healing and the pursuit of respectful social relationships. Central to the restorative approach to justice making is the questions, “How can we respond to harm without causing further harm?” Restorative justice seeks to put things right for all involved.

One of the best ways to understand this restorative shift in the concept and implementation of justice is too look at the questions asked. Whereas the punitive concept of justice focuses on violations of laws and appropriate punishment, restorative justice focuses on how the people involved have been affected and what can be done to make things right.

The Restorative Shift

Punitive Justice Questions Restorative Justice Questions
1. What rule/law was broken? 1. What happened?
2. Who did it? 2. Who was affected?
3. How should he/she be punished? 3. What can be done to repair the harm and make things right?

Bring to mind a situation in your life where you have experienced an injustice. First, try applying the punitive justice questions. What are the outcomes? How are the relationships impacted? Next, try applying the restorative justice questions to the same situation. How did this shift in the questions you asked and the concept of justice you pursued change the situation? As you go through your day, try the same exercise with stories in the news and problems you encounter with your family, friends and colleagues. You will be amazed by the difference this shift can make!


Be Real, Love, Empathize: Insights for Facilitators from Carl Rogers

While restorative justice is not therapy, it often has therapeutic outcomes for participants. Particularly at the pre-conference stage, the facilitator’s role can feel akin to that of a therapist, helping to guide and support clients on their own journey towards healing, learning and growth.

This week, I have been reading some of Carl Rogers’ work in which he seeks to identify what elements or conditions are necessary in order for the client to experience positive therapeutic movement. Some of Rogers’ assertion deal with the necessary conditions of a therapist in order to facilitative positive change in a client. I find these necessary conditions highly applicable to the role of facilitators throughout the restorative justice process.

Specifically, Rogers identifies three conditions which when they occur in a therapist and are to some degree perceived by the client, will lead to progress and growth for the client. Each of these conditions is similarly an essential condition for restorative justice facilitators.

1. Congruence (“Be Real”)

“The therapist should be, within the confines of that relationship, a congruent, genuine, integrated person. It means that within the relationship he is freely and deeply himself, with his actual experience accurately represented by his awareness of himself. It is the opposite of presenting a façade, either knowingly or unknowingly. It is not necessary (nor is it possible) that the therapist be a paragon who exhibits this degree of integration, of wholeness, in every aspect of his life. It is sufficient that he is accurately himself in this hour of this relationship, that in this basic sense he is what he actually is, in this moment of time.” [1]

A facilitator, like a therapist, must “Be Real.” We all know from experience that there is nothing more off-putting than interacting with someone who you can sense is putting on a show, or is acting in a way that doesn’t align with their inner self. Maybe it is a false-sounding tone of voice or statements and gestures that feel more like a performance, those moments of un-realness can be unsettling and discourage the development of trust. Naturally, as a facilitator, there will be moment where something comes up and you have to keep calm on the outside while inside your wheels are turning to figure out what to do next, but I think there is still a way to manage that necessity while being real. A lot of this comes down to taking time before a pre-conference or conference to center yourself, to focus inward and notice your feeling and thoughts as they come up. Breathe deeply and connect with that inner most version of self where your wisdom and intuition reside. Then go into the process with that most genuine self in full expression rather than trying to act in a way you think you should or have seen others act. Come to the process with your real, true self shinning!

This also points to the importance of an ongoing practice of personal growth and discovery for all people, but especially for those in helping professions. As many wise teachers throughout the ages have explained, the cultivation of inner peace is an essential part of building peace in the world around us. For a beautiful account of the importance of this inner work in the peace builder’s journey, I recommend my friend Kathleen McGoey’s book. 

I appreciate that Rogers notes that it is impossible to be in this state of congruence at all times or in every aspect of our lives. It is a life-long journey to learn how to live more and more in authenticity. However, when you have the honor of facilitating a deeply transformative and healing process for clients, it is so important to take the time to bring yourself to that place. When facilitating conferences, I generally schedule myself at least 45 minutes prior to the beginning of the conference in which I have nothing else to do. This allows me time to arrive early, set up the space, and also take some time in meditation, focusing on my breath and checking in with my thoughts and energy, centering myself for the process ahead.

2. Unconditional Positive Regard (“Love”)

“When the therapist is experiencing a warm, positive and acceptant attitude toward what is in the client, this facilitates change. It involves the therapist’s genuine willingness for the client to be whatever feeling is going on in him at that moment, – fear, confusion, pain, pride, anger, hatred, love, courage, or awe. It means that the therapist cares for the client, in a non-possessive way. It means that he prizes the client in a total rather than a conditional way.  By this I mean that he does not simply accept the client when he is behaving in certain ways, and disapprove of him when he behaves in other ways. It means an outgoing positive feeling without reservation, without evaluations.” [2]

At a restorative justice conference a few years ago, I saw Dr. Cornel West speak and at the center of his speech was this wonderful explanation: “Justice is what love looks like in public.” In order to help people, we must love them. People are more likely to change for the better when they sense that they are loved and accepted no matter what. The behavior may be seen as bad, but the person is still innately good and accepted.

This point relates closely to the dynamic of shame in the restorative justice process. As we know, offenders are often vilified and face what legal scholar John Braithwaite termed “stigmatizing shame.”[3] When an offender is degraded through shame, it poses a threat to his or her identity. The offender is likely to respond by rejecting the rejector (mainstream society) and the rules valued by the rejector (the law). A solution to this isolation is to turn to criminal subcultures, which provide a culture of pride in delinquency, as well as personal connections and resources. In this way, stigmatization of offenders perpetuates criminal behavior and ultimately makes communities less safe.

The only way to stop this destructive cycle of shame, is to learn to love the person who caused harm unconditionally, separating the person from the behavior. Learning to love those who have caused harm I feel is one of the greatest human lessons, and it is certainly not easy. It is a lesson put into practice by many of the most powerful leaders throughout human history including Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi, and Jesus. It is a difficult practice to learn to meet clients and hear their stories while holding this unconditional positive regard, and to learn how to not try to use your approval or disapproval to shape their behavior, but it is so necessary for effective facilitation. It is also in alignment with a restorative worldview, which sees all people as innately good and unconditionally worthy of love.

3. Empathetic Understanding (“Empathize”)

“When the therapist is sensing the feelings and personal meanings which the client is experiencing in each moment, when he can perceive these from ‘inside,’ as they seem to the client, and when he can successfully communicate something of that understanding to his client, then this third condition is fulfilled.” [4]

The final condition that Rogers emphasizes is empathy. This also relates to the dynamics of shame within the restorative justice process. Another of my favorite thinkers, Dr. Brené Brown, has said, “Shame cannot survive being spoken. It cannot survive empathy.” When we are able to genuinely feel and express empathy to victim, offender, and communities of care, it helps to transform that shame into healing and a motivation to work towards making things right.

In my experience, the more you facilitate and the more you have the opportunity to practice putting yourself in the shoes of each participant in a restorative justice process and really feeling what they feel, the easier this becomes. It is something that must be practiced, and a skill that I hope that schools will emphasize to a greater degree in the future, because I see it as one of the most essential skills to being human.

There are, of course, other important skills, understandings, and abilities that contribute to good restorative justice facilitation. However, the three conditions outlined by Rogers seem like a powerful starting point. If we can learn to be real, to love, and to empathize with the people we work with, we are at a powerful starting point for facilitating positive transformation.


[1] Carl Rogers, “The Necessary and Sufficient Conditions of Therapeutic Personality Change,” Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology 60, no. 6 (1992): 828.

[2] On Becoming a Person: A Therapist’s View of Psychotherapy (London: Constable & Company Ltd. , 1961), 62.

[3] John Braithwaite, Crime, Shame and Reintegration (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989).

[4] Rogers, 62.

Video: Mock Restorative Justice Process

In preparation for Victoria University’s EdX course on Restorative Justice, I was asked to facilitate a mock restorative justice process to be used as an example throughout the course. If you are curious to see an example of what a restorative justice process looks like, this is a great resource!

Please note that both the pre-conference and the conference processes are significantly shorter than they would be in real life. In real life, each meeting is generally at least twice as long as shown, giving the opportunity to ask additional questions to dive deeper into the incident, impacts and needs. In real life, participants would also likely have a support person present.

Victim Post-Incident Interview:

Offender Post-Incident Interview:

Pre-Conference Meeting with Offender:

Restorative Justice Conference:

“Living Restoratively” by Victoria University of Wellington

Victoria University of Wellington recently featured an article about the work Haley and I are doing at the university and beyond. Check it out at the link below!

Living restoratively

Two Victoria University researchers are using their unique skill sets to support the restorative justice efforts at the University. Read more here.

Haley Farrar and Lindsey Pointer

“If we can get people to sit down together and have a space where respectful conversation can unfold, then empathy is going to follow. It gives people a chance to understand the need and the story behind what happened,” Lindsey says.

“The empathy goes both ways—the person who caused the harm develops an understanding of the impacts that were felt by others, and those who were impacted learn to see the person who caused the harm as a person, not just as one bad thing that happened. They get a chance to encounter each other’s humanness.”

Restorative Justice Education in Prison Reflection 1: Understanding the Web

In March, my partner, Sam Seiniger, and I had the opportunity to deliver two introductions to restorative justice workshops at Manawatu Prison to small groups of inmates. Both sessions produced really fascinating conversations and left us all with something to think about. One of the participants even asked if he could take an extra worksheet with the three restorative questions to hang on his wall to continue reflecting on what he had learned. Similarly, I was left with a lot to think about, which I hope to process in a series of posts here.

The first story I would like to share is about a spider web.


In restorative practices, we often use the image of a web to describe community. The community is a web of relationships, we are all connected to each other, and all that we do impacts the other people in our community. When an incident of harm (like a crime or also often the act of imprisoning someone) occurs, relationships are harmed and the web is damaged. When the web is damaged, it needs to be repaired, and that is what the restorative justice process seeks to accomplish. This metaphor can be illustrated in a number of different ways including arranging pieces of string in a web connecting training participants across a circle that can be cut and re-tied, photos of webs, and drawings. For this workshop, I had drawn a web on the whiteboard. When I mentioned the incident of harm, I erased one of the connecting strands of the web and pointed to how the strength of the entire web would be weakened by losing that connection. When I talked about repair, I re-drew that portion of the web, making it complete again.

During the course of the conversation about the web, one of the participants raised his hand. He said he liked the image, but that he has a pet spider in his cell that he watches a lot and his web doesn’t look anything like that. He described the complete mess of a web his spider lives in and said there is no way it could ever be repaired. He said that is how his community feels too; the web is broken in a million different places. There’s nothing you could really do to repair it.


The conversation continued and we talked a bit about how even in a terribly broken web, a response to harm (or “justice”) could still strive to repair and heal rather than further fracture. That is one thing that sets restorative justice apart from the conventional system: it strives to do no further harm to the victim, offender or the community. Still, this image of his spider’s irreversibly broken web, of the community full of holes and hurt, stuck with me. It is an important reminder for restorative practitioners that as we work with people to repair harm after a specific incident, we are always working within the context of pre-existing harms. These harms may be interpersonal, institutional, structural, or historical. Each person we work will has a lived experience in which they have both harmed and been harmed. So often, the root of the behaviors we seek to address are grounded in that larger broken web.

This is something I hope that I personally and the restorative justice movement as a whole will come to understand more deeply. Already, we see the expansion of focus in the movement from restorative justice as a response to crime to the use of restorative philosophy and practices towards creating more just communities. This means addressing institutional, structural and historical harms with an aim to create equal voice where it has been absent before and to fully explore and seek to repair the harms that have been caused. It also means re-imaging the structures of our societies in a way that encourages greater awareness of our innate connection, a way that breeds empathy. One place to start would be with reconsidering the way that prisons are run.  That is the topic I will address in my next reflection post.

Learning to Work “With” (The Social Discipline Window)


“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.”

– Ted Wachtel

The Social Discipline Window describes four basic approaches to addressing behavior that needs to be changed. Restorative practitioners use this tool to gauge the best response to a specific incident or ongoing issue. The four strategies are represented as different combinations of high or low control and high or low support. The word “control” never seems like quite the right fit to me, so I instead use “expectations of behavior” or “accountability.” The restorative domain combines high expectations of behavior and high support and is characterized by doing things with people, rather than to them or for them. A restorative approach allows us to address the problematic behavior, while also practicing empathy and maintaining a strong relationship.

Take, for example, a student who is repeatedly disruptive in class, speaking over the teacher and making loud comments and jokes.

The Neglectful strategy is to not do anything, to hope that the student will just eventually stop.

The Punitive strategy is punishment, doing something to the person who is misbehaving. The teacher might give the student detention or remove privileges like being able to come on a field trip. The strategy holds the student to a high expectation of behavior, but has very little support. This strategy may result in animosity between the teacher and student, and will not address the core issues or needs contributing to the problematic behavior.

The Permissive strategy is when we do things for someone. We accept their excuses or make excuses for them. The teacher might tell herself that the student is just trying to be liked by the other students because he has been having trouble making friends, or that his unrestrained enthusiasm is a sign that he is enjoying the class. A possible outcome is that other students, seeing that a high expectation of behavior is not upheld, will similarly begin to speak out of turn, and the teacher will slowly lose the respect of the class and the ability to facilitate an effective learning space.

The Restorative strategy is when we work with the person to resolve the issue. The teacher would speak with the disruptive student one-on-one, explain the impacts his disruptive behavior, and respectfully ask the student about his experience and what is going on. This keeps communication open and allows the teacher to find out what needs are contributing to the student’s misbehavior. Is the student having trouble making friends? Are there troubles at home that are impacting the student’s behavior at school? Are there other more productive ways that the student would like to be an outgoing leader in the classroom? Does the student need additional material to challenge him and keep him on task? The teacher and student would work together to understand what are the barriers to meeting the behavior expectations and how can those barriers be addressed.

What strikes me about the restorative strategy for addressing behavior issues is the humility it requires on the part of the teacher, facilitator, parent or other person of authority. Rather than thinking that we know best and approaching the problem with an already formed answer (as is the case in both the punitive and the permissive strategies), the restorative strategy approaches the issue by asking questions, with a humble and compassionate desire to better understand. It is the only strategy that allows us to actually get to the core of the issue.

There are a few strategies you can use to address conflicts and issues in your own life restoratively.

  1. Ask questions! Don’t assume that you know why a person is doing something, what their needs are, or the best strategy for making things right. Remember to make questions open-ended (so they can’t be answered with a simple “yes” or “no”) and to use a tone of respect and non-judgment.
  2. In approaching an issue, follow the framework of the three central restorative questions.
    1. What happened?
    2. Who was affected and how?
    3. What is needed to repair the harms and make things right?
  1. Commit some time to self-reflection and identify which strategy in the Social Discipline Window is your default response. Are you prone to avoiding conflict and doing nothing, to jumping straight to punishment, or to making or accepting excuses for poor behavior? Knowing this about yourself will help you to know which direction you need to push yourself. Do you need to remind yourself to hold high expectations of behavior with the people in your life or do you need to remember to take a step back and show support?

In each of the communities and interactions that make up our lives, the Social Discipline Window offers us a tool for thinking about how to approach issues and conflicts more restoratively.

Peace in the Soil

I recently heard Siddhartha Mukherjee speak on an episode of Ted Radio Hour titled Rethinking Medicine. In his talk, Mukherjee notes that the prevailing medical approach (in the western medicine tradition) to this point has been to “have disease, take pill, kill something.” Mukherjee traces the prevalence of this approach to the antibiotic revolution, which fueled a perception of medical treatment as being primarily about administering pills that would seek out and destroy an illness.

In this “search and destroy” approach, the question being asked is, “What can I take to kill my illness?” This approach has led to advancements, but it is also a very limiting question that does not consider the body as a holistic system. The question Mukherjee says we should be asking is, “What is the environment that is allowing the illness to grow? What is it about the body and the environment as a holistic system that needs to be healed?” He uses the metaphor of soil; healthy soil grows seeds of health, unhealthy soil grows seeds of illness. In the next phase of medicine, we must shift our thinking from killing the illness, to treating the soil so that health, and not illness, thrives.

What Mukherjee is talking about is perceptual shift, a new metaphor. Instead of talking about “killing” something, we should be talking about “growing” something.

There are clear parallels in this proposed perceptual shift in the medical field to the peacemaking field. One must only consider the approach the US has taken to terrorism to see our fixation on finding and destroying the sprouting seeds of violence, while ignoring the soil that is allowing them to take root and flourish. In our violent attempts to uproot the manifestations of terrorism we see, we do nothing to heal the soil, to improve relations, goodwill or understanding, so that seeds of peace will grow. Instead, we often only harm more people, and further fuel the growth of terrorism.

Even beyond the use of the military or other violent attempts to get rid of violent people or ideas, other approaches to peace building also often fall into the perceptual framework of looking for the one “magic pill” that will fix the problem. We look for the new policy or compromise or formal apology that will lead to the cessation of violence. But peace isn’t just the absence of violence (like health isn’t just the absence of illness). Violence cannot just be cut out or destroyed. Peace is about the cultivation of spaces that generate peace. Peace is about the soil.

We can employ a similar metaphor when thinking about crime and the people who commit crimes. How can we change the soil that gives rise to criminal behavior?

There are a few obvious unmet needs that lead people to commit crimes such as food, shelter, safety, health, education and opportunity. In a holistic approach to addressing criminality, we have to find ways as a society to first meet these needs. The first ingredient to peace soil is ensuring a good livelihood for all.

Beyond meeting those basic needs though, there is also something deeper at work in peace soil. When we proactively support the growth of peace, it involves generating experiences of connection and belonging that fuel empathy and kindness.

In my research, one of my central questions is “How does the restorative justice process create a transformational experience for participants?” In the restorative justice field, a lot of research has been done to show that restorative justice works, that it shifts emotions and relationships from enmity towards reconciliation and reduces recidivism. Less work has been done to understand how the process functions to make those positive outcomes possible.

I am drawing on Victor Turner’s theory of ritual in order to understand the transformative capacity of restorative justice. Turner describes a ritual phase called liminality. Liminality is an in-between state, where normal social roles and rules are suspended and participant experience absolute equality. Out of liminality, communitas, or a revelation of our inherent connection, arises. This realization that we are all connected leads to an impulse towards human kindness and greater empathy. These phases and feature of a transformative ritual are all present in a successful restorative justice process. The experience of liminality and communitas are the soil for the growth of peace between participants.

Often, following an experience of restorative justice, participants or facilitators are left with a craving to be in that sort of space again, a space where there is equality, open communication, and a deep feeling of connection. Circles, which are a restorative practices often used to build and strengthen community, can provide an experience of being in that liminal space again. The proactive use of circles can increase feelings of belonging, empathy, quality of communication, and ability to handle conflict in a community.

Returning now to the big question: what are the essential ingredients to peace soil? What is the fertilizer that helps peace seeds grow? I think that experiences of liminality have a large role to play. When we have an opportunity to enter an intentional space together, to put aside our differences and our social roles and rules of interaction, to speak honestly and openly, to share vulnerability and listen with compassion, and to reconnect with our deep state of connection to one another, that experience is the crucial nutrient in the soil that grows peace. Restorative practices create spaces for that experience to unfold.


The koru is a spiral shape based on the shape of a new unfurling silver fern. It is a Māori symbol for new life, growth, strength and peace.

The Power of the Talking Piece

During the recent government shut down, a bipartisan group of roughly two-dozen senators helped craft the funding deal to re-open the government. The group used a “talking stick” as a tool to facilitate their meeting, only allowing the senator with the stick to speak in an effort to cut down on interruptions.

The use of the “talking stick” originated in Indigenous North American customs and is today also commonly used in restorative practices such as the circle, a process used to build connections and resolve disputes in community. Sometimes the “talking stick” is replaced by another sort of “talking piece,” an object that has special significance to the group or facilitator using it. For example, I have heard a story of a group of construction workers having a difficult conversation about workplace safety using the hard hat of a deceased workmate as a talking piece to pass around in the circle.

Regardless of the specific object used, the talking piece fulfills the important function of ensuring equal voice and respectful communication. However, in order for the talking piece to function effectively, it must hold meaning for the group or be imbued with meaning by a skilled facilitator.

One of the criticisms I often hear about the talking stick is that it feels like kindergarten and that adults shouldn’t need a physical object to remind them to listen and not interrupt each other. However, that just isn’t the reality of most adult interactions, with women especially being interrupted constantly, particularly in the workplace. There are a few things that facilitators can do to make the talking piece feel less like a kindergarten throw-back and more like a meaningful and unifying symbol of the group and what is being discussed.

One strategy is to choose an object that is meaningful to the group you are facilitating for. One facilitator I spoke with for my research described his strategy for making a talking piece relevant.

I have used it [a talking piece] in quite macho environments. If you take something that is of significance to them, people get it. I’m imaging sitting down with the All Blacks and actually saying this is the cap that one of the great All Black wore, it is part of our legacy and we are going to use that. If we get to the heart of what a talking piece is about and make it significant and right for them, I don’t think we have a problem. (Facilitator 4)

In the case of the Senate, perhaps there is an object with a tie specifically to American history of the history or procedures of the Senate that could be used. If the object feels sacred or treasured to the people in the room, it is more likely to be respected and honored.

If as a facilitator you are using a talking piece that does not have a special meaning to the group, it is best to use an object that does have special meaning to you that you are able to explain to the group, thus imbuing the object with significance in the minds of participants. One talking piece I have used before is a small stick from a cotton wood tree with a star on the inside that my dad found and gave me. At first glance, it just looks like a small twig with no real significance, but in introducing it, I talk about how we used to search for the star sticks when I was a child and about the connections to nature and traditions that make a place feel like home. Because I have expressed how important the talking piece is to me and have tied it to a greater universal theme, it is respected by the others in the group. The stick has been imbued with meaning.

In reading the account of the Senate’s use of the talking stick, I was struck[1] by the description of a senator throwing the stick after being interrupted. It would be interesting to know how the talking stick was introduced by Senator Susan Collins. Did she explain the ties to Native American customs or that it was a personal gift she received, or was it introduced more casually or perhaps in a self-deprecating way? Regardless, I commend her for her bravery in introducing something so “out there” for the Senate that could be a real tool in equalizing the voices heard in groups of leaders (most especially, I hope, the voices of women and other marginalized groups). Still, I wonder if a more intentional introduction of the talking piece could lead to an even better outcome.

I would also like to know if the ball the group later switched to using as a talking piece now holds some special meaning for the group. If it is used again in the future, will it be more easily and automatically respected in its function of ensuring equal voice and respectful communication? I hope that there are more government experiments in respectful communication strategies to come!

[1] No pun intended! 🙂

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.