How Can Circles Benefit Spiritual Communities?

About a month ago, a local church approached our team about how they could implement restorative practices in their community. They are a very diverse church with many English language learners who have recently moved to New Zealand from other countries. Especially because of these language and cultural barriers, it can be difficult for all 50+ members of the church to feel connected. Like any community, there is also sometimes conflict, and they were looking for tools to help them work through the issues that occasionally come up.

As a church committed to following the lived example of Jesus, they were also interested in the work of reconciliation and peacemaking, and wanted to be involved in that sacred work within their community.

They decided to do a four-week series on the theme of becoming a restorative church, and I was asked to come on week three to facilitate a circle experience. The idea was that we would give the community an experience of relationship-building circles, to strengthen their connections to each other and each member’s sense of belonging. Then, when issues come up in the future, there would already be familiarity and comfort with the circle process as a structure for holding those more difficult conversations.

I arrived an hour early to sit down with a group of five volunteer facilitators from the community who had been asked to take on the role because they were perceived as good listeners and natural, gentle leaders. I started by facilitating a circle with them, so that they could know what if feels like, and then we debriefed the experience and talked through the essential elements of facilitating and any questions they had. They had all been asked ahead of time to bring treasured objects to use as their talking pieces.

We also had four volunteer translators from the community, who were given the circle questions and an overview of the circle process ahead of time.

After the standard service, I gave a quick introduction to circles and then helped to divide the congregation into five circle groups, with a translator in each group that needed one. The facilitators then led their circles through the three rounds of questions (which you can see in the circle guide below).

I kept an eye on all five circles and then brought everyone back together at the end to talk about the experience. The community shared beautiful reflections about how it felt like a sacred space was created in the circle, like God was truly present. One newer member of the church said this was the first time he had really felt something in his heart since coming. The groups reflected on laughing and crying together and the beauty of being able to hear each other’s languages and connect with each other with the help of the translators.

Taking the time to connect with each other in a meaningful way is so life giving in a community. For me, circles are a place where the divine feels so tangible. If you are part of a spiritual community, offer to facilitate a circle process. You will be amazed by the outcome!


Circle Guide

  • Welcome
  • Purpose of the Connection Circle (to build connection and community, to get to know each other on a deeper level, to practice the circle structure)
  • Establish Group Rules
    • Please listen and speak with respect
    • Respect everyone’s privacy by not sharing what is said in the circle
    • Speak only when you have the talking piece and share time fairly
    • You may pass and we will come back to you
    • Practice patience
  • Introduce Talking Piece
    • Significance of object used
    • How it relates to the question
  • Question Round(s) (you may have time for 1, 2, or 3 rounds of questions)
    • Round 1: Please share your name and a story connected to your name (this could be what your name means, how your name was chosen, what you think of your name, or any other story related to your name).
    • Round 2: What do you feel grateful for this week?
    • Round 3: What experience in your life have you learned the most from? What did you learn?
  • Close the Circle
    • Thank everyone for participating
    • Reflection and tie it all together ending

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Sustained Restorative Dialogue – Understanding and Preventing Sexual Harm on Campus

Over the past two years, Victoria University of Wellington (VUW) has taken significant steps towards becoming a Restorative University. This has involved the use of restorative processes both in a reactive way, as a response to misconduct or incidents of harm, and a proactive way, in order to build community, enhance belonging and mutual responsibility, and identify shared community norms.

The “Sustained Restorative Dialogue” method was piloted in July 2018 as a proactive restorative process to hold difficult conversation about important community issues. The inaugural dialogue explored the issue of sexual harm and harassment on campus. It was a “sustained” dialogue in that it was run over four sessions with the same participants. It was a “restorative” dialogue in that the conversation moved in sequential sessions through the main steps of a restorative analysis – What is happening? What are the impacts? What is needed to make things right? The aim of the dialogue was to explore the broader climate that gives rise to sexual harm in the campus setting and beyond and to explore possible solutions.

The report below includes background information, the circle outlines for each session, feedback from participants, recruitment processes, and lessons learned. Please feel free to reach out if you have any questions!


In September 2018, the group met again to continue the discussion of what is needed to make things right in our university community, based on the depth of understanding gained through the dialogue process. A list of their recommendations were compiled in the document below and submitted to the university for consideration.

Recommendations for VUW from SRD

Can Restorative Justice Counter Harmful Narratives of Masculinity?

Type of process: Restorative Justice Conference

Conference Participants:

  • Impacted Party (Victim) – Peter
  • Responsibly Party (Offender) – Nathan
  • Friend – Jake
  • 2 Facilitators

Possible Criminal Charges: Sexual Assault

Referring agent: University counseling staff

Factual Synopsis: Nathan sexually assaulted Peter at a party.


Peter and Nathan had been friends for a long time. They grew up together and chose to live together for university. At a party one night, Nathan was very drunk and grabbed Peter’s butt a couple times. Peter told him to cut it out. Nathan then grabbed Peter’s penis under his pants. Peter walked away and was very upset and left the party.

Over the coming weeks, Peter was depressed. He said he had good days and bad days, but on the bad days he couldn’t do anything. He was also extremely angry with Nathan. At home, he mostly hid in his room so that he wouldn’t have to see him. He started seeing a counselor at the university to talk about what happened.

Peter told the counselor that he didn’t want to go to the police about the assault, but he did need something to happen. He couldn’t just forget it. The counselor told Peter about restorative justice and reached out to our office to see if we would be willing to facilitate a process.

We met with Peter for a pre-conference and he talked about how hard it had been for him. In addition to the broken trust with Nathan and all the emotional aftermath of the assault, Peter had also been dealing with issues with his friends. He said that Nathan had done the same thing to another guy in their friend group that night (Logan) and he hadn’t seemed to be affected by it. Peter said that his friend group seemed to think he was overreacting to what happened, that he should just let it go. He thought that they would likely not have the same response if the assault had happened to a female friend.

At the end of the pre-conference, Peter had decided that he did think the restorative justice process would be helpful to his healing journey and said that he would ask Nathan and their friend Jake (who is a ring leader within their group) to participate. My co-facilitator and I offered to help with these conversations, but Peter said he wanted to talk with them. This is a fairly unusual referral process, but because Peter was a self-referral, we were comfortable with him making the call on how to move forward.

Our pre-conference with Nathan was long and meaningful. He told us about his painful history with his dad and how it had come to a breaking point on the same day as the incident. He told us about how he drank to escape that pain and had realized that he had a problem with alcohol. He had been sober since that night and planned to continue not drinking. He said he didn’t remember the night, but that a couple weeks after it happened, when he still couldn’t figure out why Peter was so angry with him, a friend had told him the story of what he had done. When he said out loud to us that he had grabbed Peter’s penis he paused and said that it was the first time he had said out loud what he had done. It was a powerful moment of taking responsibility.

Our pre-conference with Jake was, in all honesty, a bit frustrating as a facilitator. Peter’s concern that his friends were not taking the incident seriously, likely in large part because he is a man, proved true in our conversation with Jake. We did our best to ask respectful and curious open-ended questions to encourage Jake to examine the sexist nature of his response. In retrospect, the co-facilitator and I both wished that we had scheduled one more pre-conference with Jake to dig deeper into those issues before moving forward with the process. However, we also knew that having the opportunity to hear Peter’s full story would impact him.

We met one more time with Peter for a second pre-conference before bringing everyone together in order to talk through exactly what he wanted to say to Nathan. Peter came to that meeting having written down everything he really wanted Nathan to hear. We went through it together to decide the questions I would ask him to help prompt him to share everything he needed to share. What was interesting was that the questions we arrived on from the process of him thinking through what he needed to say to Nathan matched exactly the questions we would normally ask the victim in a restorative justice process.

  • What happened?
  • How were you affected at the time?
  • How have you been impacted since?
  • How has this affected your relationship with friends and family?
  • What are the main issues for you?

The first part of the restorative justice process went beautifully. Nathan took responsibility for his actions and talked through some of the context of the issues with his dad, while explaining that he did not mean for that to be an excuse, just a part of the whole story. He talked about how terrible he felt when he heard what he did and how much Peter’s friendship meant to him. He talked about his decision to no longer drink and how helpful it had been. Nathan cried as Peter told his story and spoke about how it had affected him, both in the moment and the weeks since. Peter spoke about how angry he was with Nathan and about how at the root of that anger was the violation of trust by a long-time friend. They both had a chance to ask each other questions and Nathan made a genuine apology to Peter.

Peter also spoke about how feeling like his friends were judging his response was difficult and how he thought that they would have taken it more seriously if he were a woman. When it was Jake’s turn to speak, he talked about how he had thought through whether his reaction might be different if Peter were a female friend and said that he thought maybe it would be, and that he needed to look at that. In the next breath though, Jake talked about how, because the same thing hadn’t impacted Logan, it seemed like Peter had been overreacting. At this point, I had to interject as facilitator to remind Jake about the ground rule of respectful speech. I explained that part of respectful speech was not judging how other people respond to harmful events. He could speak about how he had been impacted, but could not pass judgment on how another person had been affected. Tone is particularly important in these moments of reinstating ground rules. This reminder was delivered in a gentle and non-judgmental tone. It was well received by Jake and he was able to reframe what he wanted to say to focus on impacts.

In the repairs phase, Peter and Nathan decided to spend some time together, but also to recognize that there will be good days and bad days and sometimes they may need some space. As a group, they also decided to have more sober events for the friend group to enjoy. By the end of the restorative justice process, each of the young men had expressed their gratitude to the others for the process and that it had been helpful. Nathan said that he originally had agreed to participate for Peter’s benefit, but that he had gotten a lot out of the experience himself. After we closed the circle, they all hugged and lingered around for a while talking before leaving the space together.

I worry that at the end of the process, Jake still didn’t fully get it. Masculinity narratives that tell Jake that Peter should just laugh it off, toughen up, and move on run deep, and caused further harm to Peter following the assault. Still, I saw that hearing the full, honest impact of the event straight from Peter helped to move this bias a bit. Beyond that, I think the simple act of sitting down together as three men to talk openly, honestly, and respectfully about what happened and the emotional impacts counters damaging narratives of masculinity in its own way. It was powerful to see these three young men being so open and vulnerable with each other. I hope that the very act of participating in the process itself will do its part to reinforce a masculinity that prizes open communication and emotional awareness.

Is Restorative Justice effective for Sexual Assault?

Type of process: Restorative Justice Conference

Conference Participants:

  • Impacted Party (Victim) – Cindy
  • Cindy’s Support Person- Amber
  • Responsibly Party (Offender) – Luke
  • Luke’s Support Person – Zane
  • Head of Hall – Ray
  • 2 Facilitators

Possible Criminal Charges: Sexual Assault

Referring agent: University Residential Life staff

Factual Synopsis: Luke sexually assaulted Cindy.


The use of restorative justice for cases of sexual assault has been an area of ongoing debate within the field. Some practitioners feel that the power difference present in cases of sexual violence mean that it is unfit for a restorative justice response. In New Zealand, Project Restore has made great strides in adapting the restorative justice process to make it safe for those who have experienced sexual harm. In the US, the Campus PRISM Project is also doing great work promoting restorative initiatives to address sexual misconduct on university campuses. The use of restorative justice for cases of sexual violence has shown positive results, aiding in the healing journey of victims, increasing offender understanding and accountability for wrongdoing, and preventing reoccurrence.

Sexual violence is devastatingly prevalent, and many victims choose not to report incidents of sexual harm because the investigation and court process can cause so much additional harm. Additionally, because it is often people known to the victim who commit sexual violence, some victims may be reluctant to report the crime. They often do not want to the offender to suffer the punitive consequences that may negatively impact the rest of his/her life. Particularly in the wake of the #MeToo movement, there is growing support for the option of restorative justice to be made available to victims of sexual violence. For some victims, what they really want after an experience of sexual assault is for the offender to know how they were affected and for it to never happen again to them or other women.

It was the second week of the university school year when Cindy came back to the residential hall from drinking with her friends. She did not want to go to sleep yet and her friend Luke invited her to come hang out in his room. They sat down on his bed. Luke was sober and Cindy was highly intoxicated. Eventually, Luke started touching Cindy underneath her underwear. Cindy said it took her a moment to realize what was happening, but once she did she got up and left the room. The next morning, Luke texted Cindy to say he was sorry if anything happened last night that she didn’t want to happen.

Cindy tried to put the incident out of her head over the coming weeks, but it weighed on her. She struggled with depression and self-harming and found it hard to focus. She had seen a counselor, but still was struggling to heal. She avoided Luke in the hall, but lived in fear of running into him. It was in conversation with a friend weeks later that she realized that what had happened to her was sexual assault. Her friend, Amber, encouraged her to tell the RA what happened. The RA then reported the incident to the Head of Hall, Ray.

When the Head of Hall met with Cindy, they talked through what happened and her options moving forward. They could contact the police and file charges against Luke for sexual assault. Cindy did not want to do that, she expressed that what she really wanted was for Luke to know how awful it had been for her and to make sure he never did it again. Ray explained the restorative justice option and Cindy said she would like to meet with the facilitators to learn more. Ray also met with Luke, who said he would be willing to participate in the restorative justice process. In the mean time, Ray moved Luke onto another far away floor so that Cindy wouldn’t have to worry about seeing him.

Cindy’s friend Amber came with her to meet with my co-facilitator and I. They told us the story of what happened and Cindy shook and cried, saying again that she just needed Luke to know how much what he had done had affected her. Amber was very angry with Luke and said she had often felt like hurting him when she saw him. More than anything, she wanted her friend to feel better. After hearing the story and the devastating effect the assault had on her life, we explained in detail what a restorative justice process would look like and answered Cindy’s questions. In the end, Cindy decided that she wanted to go forward with the process.

Luke came to the pre-conference with a new friend, Zane, as his support. Many of his friends from the first few weeks of the year had been unwilling to talk with him since word of what he had done to Cindy had spread. Luke was suffering from what many perpetrators of sexual assault are experiencing in the #MeToo era; he had been exiled for his behavior.

There is, I think, a natural urge to exile someone who has caused this sort of harm. It is part of how we have traditionally expressed that we find a behavior abhorrent and will not tolerate it in our community. In a tight community like a residential hall, it is also likely a way of showing the victim that she is loved and cared for, even if the exile isn’t what she wanted. It is an incredibly positive thing that in the #MeToo era, more and more stories of sexual assault are being told. Increasingly though, it is clear that if we were to continue exiling the men who have committed sexual violence, we would soon have very few left. We need to find a way to pursue justice, while also prioritizing healing and reintegrating for all parties, and above all else, educating men about consent and shifting cultural narratives and gender roles so that they encourage respectful sexual relationships. We also need to fix porn. Particularly in the university context, it is increasingly apparent to me how many of men’s dangerous views and behaviors in regards to sex may originate in the portrayal of sex in porn, which is rarely consensual, and often one of their only sources of information. Rarely do boys and young men have the opportunity for honest, open conversation about how to be respectful sexual partners.

The impulse to exile also causes significant harm to the offender. Luke said that since the word had spread about what he did to Cindy, he had been severely depressed and had considered suicide. He said again and again that what he had done is not who he is or who he wants to be. He spoke about how he wished he could take back that night, how he couldn’t believe what he had done. We arranged for Luke to meet a couple times with a counselor before moving forward with the restorative justice meeting so that he could work through some of the pain he had experienced and be ready to hear how Cindy had been affected. After a few meetings, we spoke with Luke again and he said he was ready to move forward.

When we brought Cindy, Luke, Amber, Zane and Ray together for the restorative justice conference, there was a feeling of extreme tension and nervousness in the air. Luke was very remorseful as he told the story of what had happened, but it was clear that he didn’t understand the full impact his actions had on Cindy. Cindy cried as she spoke about her experience that night and her struggles since then, letting it all out. Amber spoke about her anger with Luke and how she felt scared when she heard about him texting another girl who was also a friend of hers. In one powerful moment, Luke explained that he was only texting that girl because he had been worried about her getting home safe because she was walking around late at night alone. Cindy interrupted him crying as she said, “So you were worried about the exact same thing happening to her that you did to me? … We don’t need you to walk us home, women are fine by ourselves and we have each other.” The message was clear and powerful: women don’t need protection; all they need is for men to cease the violence against them and to treat them with respect.

The conversation about impacts continued for a long time. The participants had a chance to ask each other questions, to explain the extent of the devastation that had resulted from that night. There were many moments of silence as the powerful realizations that unfolded settled in. Luke apologized many times for what he had done and was visibly impacted by what he learned in the process.

When we moved to talk about ideas for repair, Cindy said she really had just wanted the apology and to move forward. She said she wanted Luke to feel like he could go to the dining hall and live his life, she didn’t want him exiled, though she also didn’t want to specifically interact with him in the future. They agreed to give each other space. Amber said she still felt a lot of anger, though it had lessened a bit, but was happy to do whatever Cindy needed. Ray suggested that Luke continue seeing the counselor to examine some of his thought patterns that had led to the assault. Ray also suggested that Luke read a book about consent and said that he would read it with him, so that they could meet each week to talk about the book and what they had learned. The whole circle agreed with these ideas and felt that it was a good way to ensure nothing like this happened again. Luke had also come with an apology letter for Cindy, which he gave her, saying that she could choose if she wanted to read it or not.

In the final circle, each participant expressed how grateful he or she was for the opportunity to talk through what happened and that they felt better moving forward. Comparing the feeling in the room to the beginning of the conference, there was still certainly a strain between the two parties, but there was a sense of a weight having been lifted. A significant step towards healing and repair had been taken.

Restorative justice will certainly not be the best option for every case of sexual assault, but it should be an option. Like Cindy, some victims will want and need the opportunity to talk directly to the person who harmed them, in a safe and controlled space, to make sure that person understands the full extent of the harm caused, and never does it again. It is a process that honors and respects the experiences of all participants, rather than tearing them apart and doubting them like often happens to victims in sexual assault trials. It is a process that can transform and reintegrate offenders, rather than exiling them. It is a process that pursues justice and healing in equal measure, and for all involved. It is a process with so much to give at this point in human history.

The Power of Asking “What Happened?”

I recently had a pre-conference with man in his mid-forties who had been described to me as “prickly and difficult.” He had accosted two university staff members after not getting the outcome he wanted and was still very much so dwelling in the anger of the encounter, unable to take responsibility for his own negative behavior.

When we teach people about restorative justice, one of the biggest push-backs we get is about the issue of responsibility taking. A restorative justice process can only go forward if the person who caused harm is taking responsibility for their actions. Across the board, whether in the criminal justice system, the workplace, schools, or community groups, people being introduced to restorative justice often explain that a very high percentage of the people they work with do not take responsibility for the behavior, and therefore they worry that the potential of the restorative justice process is severely limited.

The answer to this concern, in my opinion, is to look carefully at the first interaction with people who are being approached on account of some negative behavior. Whether this is in the criminal justice system, a workplace or a school, often the first step is for the person who caused the harm to receive an (often written) declaration of exactly what they have done wrong. In criminal justice, this may be a police report or the criminal charges. In the workplace, it is often a letter from HR, letting them know there has been a complaint. In schools, it may be a summoning to the principal’s office, a letter home, or the documentation of disciplinary proceedings.

Rarely does the whole process begin by asking the person one simple question: “What happened?”

When we receive an outside account of our behavior, there is a natural urge to want to explain what happened, to push back against the partial-understanding of the incident. It isn’t the full truth, so it is easy to reject in the frustration of not being heard.

When we instead open the response to a negative incident by asking in a non-judgmental and authentically curious way, “What happened?” there is an opportunity to hear the whole story. In my experience, the person who caused the harm is far more likely to take responsibility for the negative behavior when it is understood in the context of the entire story.

After taking some time to build up relationship and trust with the client described above, I asked him to tell me what happened. What followed was a heart-wrenching account of a series of devastating occurrences in his own life that led up to the incident with the university staff. While not excusing the behavior, the history did help to contextualize it, and made the client feel seen as a full person outside of the one incident we were there to discuss. After sharing the contributing factors in his life, he was ultimately able to take responsibility and express remorse for the way he had harmed the staff members. We were then able to shift into talking about the impacts and brainstorming ideas for what he could do to make things right. However, none of that exploration would be possible without first giving him the chance to explain to caring and empathizing facilitators what happened.


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:

How can the circle manage power differences between participants?

Type of process: Circle

Conference Participants:

  • 2 Students – Shane and Brian
  • Student Advocate – Elizabeth
  • Professor – Paul
  • 2 Facilitators

Referring agent: Student Advocate

Factual Synopsis: A dispute over the grading of an assignment between a professor and two students expanded into an interpersonal conflict and rumors that damaged the students’ reputations within the department with other professors and their peers.


Shane and Brian approached the Student Advocate only after the conflict with their professor, Paul, had already been going on for several months. The conflict began when a group assignment that Shane and Brian had completed, which Paul had previously said was sufficient, was suddenly called into question by other students in the class who were building off Shane and Brian’s work in their own assignment. Paul decided the work was not acceptable and gave Shane and Brian only a day to re-do the assignment. They pulled two all-nighters re-doing the work, but still received a bad grade. In an email to the class, Paul expressed his disappointment with Shane and Brian’s work, which led to division and hard feelings in the class and embarrassment for Shane and Brian. Paul also informally shared what happened with other professors in the department. In another class, a professor told Shane that he wouldn’t get away with what he had done in Paul’s class there. The two students felt that their reputation in the small department was ruined and also felt that the grade was unfair and worried that it would negatively impact their ability to get into the Masters’ program. They prepared a lengthy report, detailing each incident in the ongoing conflict, and brought their complaint to the Student Advocate, who referred them to Restorative Justice.

Paul is a professor who really cares about his students and is passionate about his subject and creating an engaging and relevant learning environment for his students. He is also often disorganized and overwhelmed. When the co-facilitator and I met with Paul during the pre-conference, he regretted that there had been conflict over the assignment and his short fuse in the midst of a stressful class, but he did not seem to see the full impact of what had happened on Shane and Brian and their reputation, or how organization and clarity issues had contributed to the conflict.

Conflicts between students and faculty can be difficult because of the power difference that exists between a professor and a student. Often, the traditional education model only exacerbates this hierarchy. This difference in power can make it difficult for students to feel free to share their true experience and feelings in an incident of harm. In responding restoratively, it is important to be intentional about equalizing that power difference. That is largely accomplished through the circle process itself. Sitting on an equal plane, the use of the talking piece, equal time to speak, and equal respect and attention from all participating parties (modeled by the facilitator) all contribute to the equalizing experience. The ground rules and the facilitator’s confidence also contribute to the circle feeling like a safe space to share honestly. During the restorative circle meeting, the students and the professor had the opportunity to share their experience and hear from one another. They gained a better understanding of the other’s experience and Paul apologized for the stress and personal hardship caused to Shane and Brian.

Among the outcomes agreed upon were that the assignment would be re-graded by an outside professor, that Paul would look the structure of his class and assignments to identify areas of improvement regarding deadlines, clarity and balance of work, and that Paul will raise at the next department faculty meeting that the matter with Shane and Brian has been resolved and there are no hard feelings. He also planned to express to the faculty that there is a need in the department for a system and a culture that encourages prompt face-to-face resolution of conflict.

In the feedback questionnaire following the circle, Shane reported that he was surprised by the opportunity to understand the different perspectives of everyone involved and explained that now there is no longer repressed feelings and built up stress.

Below, you will find a general overview of the circle process the co-facilitator and I designed to respond to this issue. In any conflict, there is only so much you can do to anticipate what circle questions will be needed beforehand. As facilitator, you have to be ready to add another question round, or even suspend the structure of the circle, depending on what is needed to adequately surface impacts and needs and facilitate understanding. In this circle, I added question number three about misunderstandings in the moment because it felt like something the participants needed a chance to name.

Circle Guide

Welcome: Thank you all for being here and for taking the time to have this conversation. Explain the structure of the circle and the focus on impacts and repairs.

Ground Rules:

  • Listen and speak with respect
  • Respect confidentiality
  • Only one person will speak at a time
  • Any additional ground rules? Can we all agree to those ground rules?

Introduce Talking Piece

Round 1: What are your hopes for this meeting?

We are here to talk about a conflict around feedback and grading of an assignment that has also had an ongoing impact on feelings of comfort and ability to work together.

It is a long history, so there will be some different perspective on exactly how everything happened. We can all experience the same thing and have a different story (in the same way that today we will all experience this conversation but will leave with 6 slightly different stories). So today what we are focusing on is how each person has been affected, because impacts are always true to the individual and it is difficult for us to know exactly how another person was affected without hearing it from them. We will also be focusing on finding a way to repair the harm that has occurred and to move forward in a positive way.

Round 2: Speaking from your own personal perspective, how have you been affected? This can include personally, professionally, etc.

Round 3: In what ways have you felt misunderstood by the other person in this conflict?

Round 4: What is the main issue for you moving forward?

We are about to change gears now to talk about what needs to be done to make things right moving forward, but before I ask that, we want to ask a question that gets to the root of why you all work and study together.

Round 5: What is the thing you love most about landscape architecture?

In recognition that shared passion/path, how can we repair the harm from this incident so that you can work together?

Round 6: What needs to happen to put things right?

Talking piece is suspended and co-facilitator will guide this conversation until an agreement is reached. 

Round 7: Chance for a final word.


How Can Restorative Justice respond to a case like prostitution that lacks a clear “victim”?  

Type of process: Restorative Justice Conference

Conference Participants:

  • Responsibly Party –Tori
  • Impacted Party- Kate (roommate)
  • Hall Manager- Cheryl
  • 2 Facilitators

Disciplinary Measure Pending: Being evicted from the Residential Hall

Referring agent: University Residential Life staff

Factual Synopsis: Tori was prostituting herself out of the dorm room she shared with Kate.

*Note that in New Zealand prostitution is not illegal, so this is not a criminal case, but it is against the code of conduct for the halls and therefore would previously have resulted in eviction.


Tori and Kate didn’t know each other before being assigned as roommates in their university dorm. The beginning of the year went well for their relationship. The girls became fast friends and were part of the same larger social group. Tori struggled with anxiety and Kate would often stay up talking with her at night to try to help her and calm her down. Before long, Tori got help through counseling at the University for her anxiety and reported that her mental health steadily improved throughout the year.

As the year continued, Tori would regularly have male guests in the room, including many older men who were not students. This was an occasional annoyance for Kate because she did not have access to the room during the time the visitors were there, but generally did not concern her.

Later in the year, Tori mentioned to Kate that she was going to be paid for sex by an older man. She said she had arranged to meet him in town. Kate was worried that meeting the unknown man in a strange location would be especially unsafe for Tori, so told Tori she could do it in their room in an attempt to keep her safe.

Kate felt concerned for Tori and also didn’t like the idea of a strange man in her bedroom, so close to her bed and things. She discussed the issue with a few friends and the conversation was overheard by an RA. When the RA reported what she had heard to Hall Management, both Tori and Kate were called in separately to discuss what had happened.

Tori thought that Kate had gone to Hall Management and so was angry with her. Quickly the mood in the room became tense. Kate was given the option to move immediately to a different room, but she said that she wanted to stay where she was and wanted to work things out with Tori. In her conversation with the Hall Manager (Cheryl), Tori admitted that she had prostituted herself in the dorm room. Following these conversations, Cheryl made the decision to refer the case to restorative justice.

We moved through the pre-conference meetings with each woman quickly so we could have the conference as soon as possible due to the ongoing tension and poor communication in the room. Tori took full responsibility for what had happened and understood why the residential hall would have a problem with it, but did not have a sense of how anyone had been impacted. Kate had a lot to say about how she had been affected and her concern for Tori, but she didn’t feel comfortable bringing it up to Tori one-on-one without a structured process and worried that she wouldn’t take it seriously.

During the restorative justice process, Kate had the chance to explain to Tori how worried she had felt for her safety and also how uncomfortable it had felt to know there was a strange man in her room, so close to her bed and things. Cheryl shared her concern for the safety of both Tori and Kate and also for the other residents in the hall. She said that in the past, a violation of this sort would have resulted in immediate eviction from the hall, but that she was glad that restorative justice was an option and that didn’t need to happen. She shared that she always loved seeing Tori’s smiling face in the hall and really valued her as part of the community.

Tori and Kate also talked about Tori’s struggles with mental health at the beginning of the year, how she is doing now, and what she needs.

When it came time to form an agreement to repair the harms, Tori suggested that she not have any more guests for the remainder of the school year and Kate and Cheryl agreed that would be helpful. The group also agreed that Tori would continue to see a counsellor on campus. Tori and Kate agreed to talk with each other when something is bothering them and to be open and respectful in listening to each other. They also agreed to respect the shared space and each other’s needs in the space. Finally, Tori’s relationship with the larger friend group had been strained by the incident and the tension between Tori and Kate. Tori hadn’t been talking to the other girls or sitting with the group at mealtime and said she didn’t know how to approach a conversation with them. Kate offered that she would go with Tori to talk with the rest of the group and put things right.

Prostitution (when it is done consensually and from a position of choice rather than need) is often an offense without a clear “victim” in the way that label is normally understood. However, even when a case lacks an obvious “victim,” there are often other impacted parties with a need to voice the harms they have experience. In this case, the main impacted party was Kate, who had experienced a violation of her space, the emotional strain of a weighty concern for her friend, and the resulting fracture in their relationship. Through the restorative justice process and its focus on harms and repairs rather than violations and punishment, these impacts were able to be voiced and understood and concrete steps were taken towards making things right.

One struggle I faced personally as a facilitator for this case is the urge to address why Tori was making the decision to prostitute herself. If she had been doing it because she needed the money, I think it would have represented a responsibility of the university to address the needs of students who are dealing with financial hardship and would be something we could address through the process. There are many on-campus resources for financial hardship that could be accessed. However, that wasn’t the case. Tori expressed that it was not something she felt like she needed to do, but rather something she wanted to do. There are many possible reasons why Tori could have wanted to pursue prostitution. For me, it felt very important that ongoing counseling was one of the outcomes of the case so that she has a space and support to explore any possible problematic, harmful or painful roots of that desire. However, this exploration is best done with the support of a counsellor, not through my questions as facilitator in the restorative justice process.

Often this can be a difficult line to walk as a facilitator. It is important to open up the space through skillful questioning for participants to say all that they need to say, but to not pressure disclosure of individual struggles that a participant may not want to share with the wider group. This case proved an important reminder of the difficulty of navigating that line.

How does restorative justice counter biases?

Over the last couple months, I have started interviewing restorative justice facilitators as part of my research.  The insight I have gained from these conversations has been incredible and I look forward to sharing more as I write up my findings.

Most of the facilitators I have interviewed are in New Zealand, but I am also reaching out to a few facilitator friends from Colorado. Recently, during one of those conversations, a facilitator told the story of a case she appreciated in part because of the role she saw the restorative justice process play in countering biases and stereotyping.

I was the case coordinator for this incident, so I remember it well. It was two young boys who had been throwing rocks over the fence in their backyard into the busy street beside their house. One large rock hit the windshield of a young woman’s car, causing significant damage to the car and fear and stress for the woman.

The facilitator talked about how she thought if this case had gone through court, any bias the woman held about Latino boys would have been reinforced, and the same would be true for the boy’s families in regards to the young white woman. Instead, an open, honest conversation created the opportunity for those biases to be challenged and for the people involved to encounter each other as complex fellow human beings with shared needs and experiences.  The quote I captured from the interview explains this dynamic better than I can, so I will share it here.

“The boys, they were both from Latino families. The conversation about racial difference or bias or any of that wasn’t part of the conference, but I know that inherently because there was a Latino and white family on different sides of the conference and they were meeting each other and there was a police officer there, that there is so much opportunity to prevent bias entrenchment and further stereotyping.

I think about the restitution process this would have gone through in court. Whether it was criminal court or small claims court even. These people would know, even if they never met each other, they would know this is the name of the hooligan who damaged my car that I worked so hard to buy. And any already held stereotypes a person had about youth, or about Latino youth, or about male Latino youth, this would be an opportunity for this woman and her mother to say ‘Oh, these awful kids, who I now have to go to court to get money back from.’ And ‘Oh look there is more Latino youth on the street and maybe they are going to get up to the same type of mischief and I never received an apology and they don’t care about how it impacted me.’ All of those thoughts that people have naturally about people they are in court with just have the opportunity to flourish and there is nothing to stop that, nothing to counter that in a court process that I know of.

And then on the other side, here are two very young boys who could be taken to court and their parents held accountable for this dollar amount that they owe. And those parents then have the potential to be like, ‘This mean white woman taking our sons to court, don’t they know how hard our family works for this money?’…. Any interaction just has the potential to escalate and entrench those biases and stereotypes people hold already.

And at the root of all of this is that interaction with the police officer. People might feel like the officer targeted their kids or spoke to them unfairly in that brief interaction, but then they have this opportunity to talk about it and for the police officer to share his gratitude for their honesty. It isn’t about targeting your sons because they are Latino boys who did something wrong, it is because someone’s car is damaged and he is commending them for telling the truth. All of those things have the potential to go a very different way.”

How do you design a circle process?

For some conflicts and wrongdoings, a traditional restorative justice conference process with clear victim and offender roles may not be appropriate or necessary. Sometimes multiple people are both responsible for harm and have experience harm.

For example, at the university, there is a lot of conflict around every day things like a messy shared apartment or a rowdy group of students who frequently have noisy parties that bother neighbors and leave a mess in common areas. These day-to-day conflicts can expand into larger conflicts or can slowly drive a wedge between people, corroding feelings of connection and contentment.

Even when a restorative justice conference isn’t the best response, it is still possible to use a restorative approach.

One way of doing this is through a circle process. The circle is a simple and adaptable restorative practice that can be used to build relationships, establish group norms, process community trauma, or respond to conflict and behavior issues. For more information about how the circle is used in different contexts, check out “Building a Restorative University” or “Restorative Practices in the Workplace.”

Before jumping into using circles to respond to conflict, I recommend familiarizing yourself with the facilitator role. Circles have a profound power to create a space of connection and empathy, but in order for the process to be effective, the facilitator must be capable and comfortable holding and encouraging that space. The good news is circles are a lot of fun to practice! Try facilitating relationships building connection circles with your friends, family and co-workers to help you get used to the facilitator role. You’ll find that beautiful things come out of creating that intentional space with your loved ones!

Once you are ready to design a circle to respond to a specific conflict or issue, use the following steps to help you think through the process. Remember that it is most often helpful for the facilitator to not be an involved party in the conflict being discussed in the circle that he/she is facilitating.

Step 1: Look through a Restorative Lens

When we look at the world through the Restorative Lens, we shift our focus from rules and punishment to impacts and repair.

Remember the Guiding Restorative Questions and approach the conflict through that framework of understanding.

  1. What happened?
  2. Who was affected?
  3. What can be done to make things right?

Step 2: Pre-Conference

Meet with the involved parties individually to build relationships and trust and talk through how each individual person has been impacted and what his/her needs are moving forward.

Step 3: Identify Needs

In addition to the information gained through the pre-conference meeting, clues for needs are found in two places:

  1. Wrongdoings generate needs. Ask the involved parties, what is needed to repair the harms?
  2. Harmful behavior indicates a need that is not being met. Behavior is an attempt to fulfill a need, so try to identify the need at the root of problematic behaviors.

Step 4: Design Circle Questions

Remember to maintain the flow of the restorative questions, moving from impacts to ideas for repair. It is advisable to open with a question that will help to build comfort with the circle process and speaking in a circle. Ending with a question round that gives an opportunity for each person to have a final word provides a sense of closure.

The number of rounds and specific questions will vary depending on the needs being addressed by the circle.

Designing a circle

Depending on the situation, the discussion of ideas for repair will take different forms. At times, it may be enough for people to verbally commit to what they will do to make things right. At other times, it may be necessary to suspend the circle speaking order to allow more in-depth discussion of what is needed to make things right. This may culminate in a written agreement with specific action items moving forward. This can help circle participants to continue to take responsibility and make things right after the culmination of the circle process.

Example Circles

To help illustrate this process, I am including two stories of circles I have facilitated in the last couple weeks.

Circle 1: The Messy Flat

This case involved an apartment full of female students who hadn’t know each other prior to the university placing them together in student housing. The apartment was routinely extremely messy, with piles of dirty dishes covering the kitchen and trash left so long that it developed maggots. Each woman felt like the others weren’t completing their chores. They had also had several months of very high power bills and contentious conversations about how to divide them. Communication in the flat had devolved into passive aggressive Facebook messages. The RA and hall management had tried to hold a couple flat meetings to resolve these problems, but reported that most of the women would just sit there quietly on their phones, not willing to discuss the issues. I agreed to facilitate the circle with a member of the hall management team so that these sorts of conflicts could be resolved in-house in the future.

Using a talking piece and the circle format with clear questions invited each person to share how they were being impacted and what their needs were. We were able to get full participation through the structured equal voice. The women discussed important issues like not feeling at home in their flat, the extra stress created by the Facebook messages, and the financial strain and panic two women in particular felt when the power bill arrived each month. They agreed on a system for cleaning, a fair way to divide the power bill each month based on usage, a new way to communicate with each other, and an occasional flat dinner to get to know each other better. None of these solutions came from myself or my co-facilitator. It was all a product of creating the space for the conversation.

Here is the circle outline used to facilitate this process.

Circle Outline

Welcome: Thank you all for being here and for taking the time to have this conversation.

Introduction: We are here to discuss the issues in the flat (particularly the cleanliness, the power bill, and communication), to understand how everyone has been affected, and to work together to find a solution moving forward.

Ground Rules

  • Listen and speak with respect
  • Respect confidentiality
  • Only one person will speak at a time
  • Any additional ground rules? Can we all agree to those ground rules?

Introduce Talking Piece:  Share the significance of the talking piece and its connection to the circle. For this process, I used a rock I found on the beach that can balance in a really unexpected way up on its side and looks like a sculpture. It also feels nice to hold. I showed them how the rock could balance and said I hoped that this meeting would be a chance for them to find an unexpected and perfect way to come back into balance in the flat.

Question 1 Hopes: What are you hoping to get out of this meeting?

Question 2 Relationship Building: What is something fun or interesting you would like your flatmates to know about you?

Question 3 Impacts: What is the main issue for you and how have you been affected?

Question 4 Repair: What needs to happen now to make things right/improve the experience of living together in the flat?

Discuss ideas and reach agreement.

Final Round: What are you taking away from this process?

Close: Thank you for being here. Final reflection.

Circle 2: The Trouble-Makers

This case involved a large group of male students who had become friends in one of the university residential halls. Most nights the group had big, noisy parties with outside guest that negatively impacted the other residents in the hall. These parties had also resulted in damage to the hall and a mess left in common areas. The group also has a history of being very disrespectful to RAs when they have knocked on the door to ask them to be quiet.

RAs and Hall Management had tried to have one-on-one conversations with each of the young men as issues arose, but it was clear that what was needed was a chance to bring them all together, so they could all be part of the shared commitment to change some of these behaviors.

Two RAs and the Hall Managers were also present in the circle. One of the most impactful moments was several of the men with larger stature talking about how even though sometimes people think they are intimidating, they are actually really friendly and want to have a chat and include everyone. The female RA expressed that it was really helpful to hear that because she had often felt intimidated by them.

The group agreed to be mindful of their noise level and the impact on the hall and common areas, to be respectful and helpful to RAs, to keep each other honest and in-line, to rotate where they host parties so it wouldn’t always be one group of neighbors being bothered, and to keep the lines of communication open and respectful. They also asked the RAs if they would be willing to come by earlier in the evening to knock and just check in so that it wouldn’t always be a knock when they had gone to far. The RAs said they would be happy to do that.

Here is the circle outline used to facilitate this process.

Circle Outline

Welcome: Thank you all for being here and for taking time to have this conversation. We are going to use the circle format for this meeting. That means we’ll go around the circle and each have a chance to respond to a few different questions.

Ground Rules

  • Listen and speak with respect
  • Respect confidentiality
  • Only one person will speak at a time
  • Any additional ground rules? Can we all agree to those ground rules?

Introduce Talking Piece:  Share the significance of the talking piece and its connection to the circle. For this process, my co-facilitator used a polished moonstone. She said that this rock didn’t look like this when it was picked up off the ground, it had to be polished and cleaned to look like this. The same goes for our communities and ourselves, we don’t start out all shiny, but with a bit of effort and intention, we can make it just as beautiful.

Question 1 Relationship Building: What is your name and a story connected to your name?

Introduction: The co-facilitator and I won’t participate in answering the next few rounds, this is your chance to talk. We are here because something isn’t working and people are being affected.

Question 2 Story: What’s been going on that has been negatively impacting others?

Question 3 Impacts: How have people been affected (including yourself and the staff)?

Question 4 Strengths: What is something great about you that you bring to the hall?

Question 5 Repairs: Is there anything that needs to happen right now to repair the harms you’ve named? If not, how can we ensure that this doesn’t happen anymore?

Discuss ideas and reach agreement.

Final Round: Chance for a final word.

Close: Thank you for being here. Final reflection.