‘Let’s Meet. Everything Starts With a Conversation’
The role of Local Organisations in Popularising and Fostering Restorative Justice Cultures, Practices and Policies
by Dorotha Whitten
The House of Peace Foundation was created by people who like talking. All our activities are bound together by the motto: ‘Let’s meet. Everything starts with a conversation.’ We work in omnipresent processes of change, including those born out of conflict, as change is the only value of conflict, provided that it is created by all the involved parties.
For these reasons, we initiate or collaborate in a whole range of diverse activities with a common goal of transforming conflict and building consensus. The following examples are just a fraction of our activities, referring to many areas of social life. We feel that presenting such a broad spectrum will make it possible to see the universality and power behind our work.
As just mentioned, conflict is a path to change. It can bring creativity and growth, or disorganisation and ruin. Prolonged, unresolved conflict tends to escalate, and its effects can be devastating and very costly for all the parties involved. On the other hand, conflicts and disputes are natural elements of social life. With several different parties, conflicting interests and tensions arise. Mediation can be a constructive support in such situations. Such a method of resolving conflicts involves a third person, who helps the parties communicate with each other and facilitates reaching an agreement. The mediator does not judge or pass judgment: they support the parties in the dispute to communicate, without interfering with the outcome. Such processes are at the heart of our Emergency Mediation Project. Within its framework, we offer free assistance in resolving disputes available to all Wrocław residents. The service is financed from the city budget and may assist anyone in need of efficient and quick support in a conflict situation. The project also includes counselling, workshops and training, as well as an annual conference. In particular, 2022 was devoted to the social understanding of multicultural conflict, as it is commonly confused with conflict over access to goods and services.
Seeing mediation methods as an effective means of influencing not only adults but children and young people as well, we work extensively in the field of education, cooperating with many schools and peer communities. Among other projects, we have been running the Peer Mediation Programme for ten years. While teaching non-violent communication, we emphasise integrative activities, building and maintaining relationships, as well as developing the social and emotional competences of children, adolescents and adults. Such a comprehensive and long-term programme helps to prevent school violence. We show that conflict will also arise even with strong relationships, communication competence and the ability to manage emotions, as they are a natural mechanism. However, well prepared individuals/groups affected by the conflict will know how to seek win-win solutions. If such skills are lacking, conflict will escalate and most probably turn into violence.
Peer mediation methods are also about experiencing citizenship and participation. This is important given that the past decade has seen the development of social participation, grassroots movement activity combined with inclusive local government policies. The ideas of civil society, sustainable development, intersectoral cooperation, care for public space and corporate social responsibility all constitute a three-dimensional, comprehensive perception of the local community. This approach characterises our activities undertaken as part of neighbourhood projects. All of them deal with revitalisation and social activation, viewing it through building local networks, with active participation of responsible business and intersectoral relations. The value of the latter, its importance and role, is particularly well demonstrated in contexts of major social conflicts, in areas involving sensitive, difficult and perennial issues. The complexity of such processes requires multiple partners, a real platform for communication and, above all, tremendous mutual trust.
This approach is exemplified in our cooperation between the Wrocław municipality and the Roma communities. Since the second decade of the twenty-first century, Roma communities have independently established a settlement in the city area, commonly known as the encampment and functioning in the perception of Wrocław residents under such a name. It was inhabited by more than 200 people, who lived in makeshift barracks built from recycled materials, largely found in landfills. The settlement was deprived of access to the basic facilities (running water, sanitation) and, while being socially and systemically invisible, it turned into a kind of ghetto with difficulties typical to such places. The municipality wanted to solve the situation in a responsible and conflict-free manner, for a number of reasons, including illegal occupation of the area and people living in impoverished conditions. It was almost impossible for a single institution or organisation to create such a solution, so a project was created involving all the stakeholders, with the House of Peace as its leader. The result was developing a system that enabled the community consensually to change its place of residence, and thus close down the encampment (which took place in April 2018). Working with the community required balancing between building mutual relations and trust while gradually pursuing the immediate goal of the project, which was to get rid of the encampment and integrate the families into the local community. It was done with full respect for the will of the families. Participation in the project was voluntary, preceded by many informational and explanatory meetings about the scope of support and its principles.
Within its framework, the Foundation still coordinates cooperation between institutions, NGOs and schools and manages training apartments, which are a transitional element on the way to independence (obtaining social housing). At the intersectoral level, coordination is led by a team composed of the Department of Social Affairs Director and representatives, the Director of the Municipal Social Assistance Center and the Director of the Wrocław Integration Center, as well as representatives of the House of Peace Foundation (management team). Working groups were also formed within the team, in order to create solutions for specific challenges that emerged during the program implementation.
Another innovative activity based on cooperation between different sectors and communities is the initiation and coordination of the ‘Trees in the City’ coalition. The group was born out of a conflict over the planting of trees in urban space and their impact on the underground utility grid. The work involved municipal entities responsible for greenery and urban design of the city, activists, business representatives and network managers. The result of the group's work was the creation of a model combining the needs and interests of many stakeholders. In retrospect, the model developed has become a model for good practice in many local governments. In Wrocław, it was further proof that conflict can be a creative and rewarding way of change for all the involved parties. Infrastruktura w zgodnie z drzewami about the model is available in Polish.
The Wrocław Citizens Panel is another activity undertaken in Wrocław which reflects the nature of deliberative democracy, defined as a democratic equilibrium built from the bottom up, taking into account citizens’ opinions (Braithwaite, 2015; Zalewski, 2016). The activity was co-implemented with the Foundation for European Studies. Randomly selected citizens had the opportunity to participate in developing answers to two main panel questions:
- Which means of public transportation should connect the city centre with the outskirts — bus or tram?
- In order to improve the quality of life and for the sake of the environment, should we introduce special traffic zones in the city with, for example, entry restrictions for vehicles with certain types of engines, entry fees, pedestrian traffic zones or an increased number of paid parking zones?
The added value of the panel was to see the growing sense of agency and involvement of those who took part. The random selection of 75 citizens from different parts of the city made it possible to invite to this form of participatory activities those residents who, for various reasons, have so far remained passive in terms of getting involved in the city affairs.
Another example of a restorative initiative is the Lower Silesian Dialogue Center (DOD), established by the Foundation in 2020 to enable establishing and maintaining relations between socially active entities in the region, particularly in Jelenia Góra, Opole and Zgorzelec. DOD allows for meeting and supporting each other based on joint activities, leading to the solution of social problems that are important for a given area. Each community has its own features, history and issues. Long-standing, inflamed conflicts often prevent different entities from working together. In our experience, it is possible to remedy local conflicts, even those volatile ones where people have already formed warring groups and differences in perspectives and/or interests seem irreconcilable. More often than not, a simple conversation about issues important to local communities helps the opposing parties to realise that they a re fighting over the same thing. This, in turn, can spark future cooperation.
When describing our activities, we need to mention the initiative that was born within the ‘Wrocław Talks’ project, namely a group with the pertinent and telling name of ‘The Midwives of Dialogue.’ It was a response to the need to support the process of building dialogue between many parties involved in the management of the city/local community at different levels. This turned out to be one of the most challenging and rewarding areas of our work as we deal with the transformation of conflicts existing in Wrocław social space, involving many parties and emotions and affecting various spheres of life. Since 2019, at the invitation of Adam Bodnar, Polish Commissioner for Human Rights at that time, the ‘Midwives’ have been organising dialogue meetings for polarised groups representing extremely different world views. The pretext for the first meeting was the potential of individuals and groups who participated in the research that produced the Report ‘Significance and reactions to the Polish Independence Day March in Wrocław, 11 November 2018.’ The meeting was a truly unusual event. For most of the participants, such discussion was a new experience of mutual relationship, as they usually stood on opposing barricades, looking at each other through anger or even hatred. During the meetings held periodically, participants discovered their common issues and realised that existing differences can and should be discussed. The need for such discussion is underlined by the fact that we have expanded the formula to include ‘dialogue breakfasts’ enabling more frequent meetings in smaller but still very diverse groups. It is worth emphasising that we base both meeting formulas on dialogue methods, seeing dialogue as a conversation that requires special conditions — safety, trust and respect for diverse views. The starting point is listening, but also humility and openness. Dialogue is not aimed at a specific operational goal, always focusing on a deeper understanding. In our work, we strive to create space for such a safe and transformative conversation.
In addition to restorative measures aimed at human relations in the broadest sense, we recognise the need to discuss the meaning and role of space arrangement and design. Mistakes in this area can often be a source of conflict. Thus, we are launching activities on architecture/space and its impact on relations. Currently, we relate them to the context of the school environment, where we emphasise the important role of meeting the need for security, including that in space. Such conditions make it easier to focus on relations and work with the various difficulties related to them. This is to draw attention to the school, where a sense of security and support is important not only for free and peaceful learning, but also for supporting relations. The Foundation addresses issues such as a sense of responsibility for the space:
- What makes us feel safe in the space?
- How to make it ‘ours’ and how to do it already at the level of conversation/design — as design is a conversation?
- How to design to foster dialogue?
- What can we do to act systemically?
We share our experience gained through restorative actions as members of the Council for Restorative Justice and the Council for Equal Treatment. However, it is worth and important to emphasise that these actions have power through intersectoral cooperation, mutual trust and a sense of agency. It is important for us to believe that we can rely on cooperation with partners, especially the municipality and other NGOs. When done alone, many of the above initiatives would not have succeeded.
Dorota Whitten with the support of Joanna Wajda and Honorata Czajkowska.
Braithwaite, J. (2015). Deliberative republican hybridity through restorative justice. Raisons Politiques 59(3):33–49. Https://doi.org/10.3917/rai.059.0033.
Zalewski, W. (2016). Sprawiedliwość naprawcza — forma̧ demokracji deliberatywnej? Białostockie Studia Prawnicze (21):25–35. DOI: 10.15290/bsp.2016.21.02.