Attending the 2022 Sassari conference was like being at an exquisite banquet of rich and diverse dishes which were satisfying, nutritious and life-giving. Until I sat down at that banquet, I had not realised just how hungry I was (possibly even a little bit starved) for inspiration, learning, support and companionship on this wonderful, and often times challenging, journey of restorative justice. 

Far from the centres of privilege and comfort, on the ‘borders’ of the current system, is where the elements to create a new system exist.
Pre-conference training with Dominic Barter in Sassari

Looking back on my notes and impressions of the various speakers, workshops and plenaries, two words come leaping out at me again and again – margins and support. The wisdom that is often located at the ‘margins’ and the support needed to see it, recognise it and not squash it.  

During the pre-conference training and the plenary, Dominic Barter pointed out that it is “at the margins” that the “flame of restorativity” exists.  This flame of restorativity consists of “the elements already present which demonstrate the possibility of dialogue”. The margins, he defines as the places more distant from the sources of structural power. Far from the centres of privilege and comfort, on the ‘borders’ of the current system, is where the elements to create a new system exist.  

The danger according to Barter is that the “flame of restorativity” is interfered with when we seek to do restorative justice work with a focus on teaching rather than listening. He asks whether we serve the political imperative of restorative justice when we base our work on projects that may accidentally reproduce colonial exclusion, which may unconsciously silence other voices because we bring in restorative justice from ‘outside’ using fixed models. I found it very challenging to hear him name our tendency (my own tendency if I am totally honest) to “see situations of suffering, analyse them, look for good practice projects elsewhere, and impose that on the people suffering.”

Barter suggests another way which instead of analysing the problem and trying to fix it, might instead say: ‘Wow in this pain these people continue to survive, to interact. We want to learn from what they already know that allows them to do that’. He says that our role is to name the “genius of the local”, to care for the “flame of restorativity” which exits in every community, family, organisation. We do this by coming with curiosity rather than solutions, listening rather than speaking, asking questions rather than affirming, so that answers are endogenous, meaning they come from within. 

This reminded me of an interview I had with Howard Zehr in which he said: “everything will be distorted.” Zehr told me of the reactions he had received following a session on The dangers of Restorative Justice in the early days of the movement. People had responded 

with disbelief and anger – restorative justice was the answer, the solution, maybe even the ‘miracle’ they had been waiting for. They did not want to hear about how it could be distorted and even dangerous. This distortion can be conscious, however more often than not it is a slow, unseen “punitive drift”, as Barter puts it, which allows the dominant systems to strip restorative justice of its challenges to the unfair and unbalanced power dynamics and dilute its real potential. In these situations, Barter says that the risk is that restorative justice becomes, for many people, an “adjunct to the rules-based justice system with a class of trained people who know what to do.”

In my early years as a facilitator and mediator, I confess that my stance tended to be that of the ‘the one who knows’, the ‘expert’ who came to teach, speak and fix. Part of it came from a beautiful desire to contribute to people’s well-being. Part of it came from insecurity and inexperience. And also, if I am honest, from an egoic centering of myself. I SO wanted to have the solution for them. I wanted not just to be a mediator – I wanted to be ‘Super Mediator’ – faster than a speeding conflict, more powerful than a generational feud, able to leap opposed positions in a single session. My egoic dream was to come ‘save the day for truth, justice and the restorative way’ and then move on ‘up, up and away’ to other poor souls desperate for my ‘conflict salvation skills’. I turn red just thinking about it now and I am sorry for the damage I may have unconsciously done at the time.

I definitely understand what Barter was talking about when he said during his plenary “every time I try to get it right, I become authoritarian. That makes me miserable and others too.”  Ouch, I recognise myself in that. What a gift to be able to speak these realities out loud in a restorative context where the focus is on learning and growth rather than blame and perfection.

This need for support, Barter told us on the first day of the pre-conference training, was his secret agenda; for us to find other people with whom to start building support systems.

So how to do it differently? From my experience, and my learning at the conference, the key is support. Support is what will allows me to notice I am trying to ‘get it right’, to be ‘Super mediator’. With non-blaming, non-judgemental support, I become able to notice when I am more interested in speaking than listening, in teaching rather than coming with curiosity to see and respect (from the Latin to look again) at what people are already doing to respond to painful conflict.  

This need for support, Barter told us on the first day of the pre-conference training, was his secret agenda; for us to find other people with whom to start building support systems. I have been experimenting with different systems of support for several years, ever since I learned about them from Dominic in Brazil, and I was encouraged, though not surprised to see that many other speakers and presenters at the Sassari conference also focused on this. 

Carlos Alvarez of the Los Angeles Institute for Restorative Practice, himself a former gang member who has a license to operate with all groups in LA, spoke of the neurobiology of restorative justice and the importance of support and self-care to be able to do the work. If our brains are sad and stressed this will affect the brains of those around us. Alverez concept is “right-brain facilitation” – being aware of how trauma and stress impact us and those we work with and actively seeking to facilitate taking this into account. This work requires support: “self-care, or attending to your physical, mental and emotional needs, is fundamental to implementing right-brain facilitation effectively. How often do you find yourself teaching without proper sleep? Or while hungry? Eating well and meditating are ways in which we prepare to facilitate”, Alvarez said.

This teaching reminded me of those safety presentations on airlines when they tell you about the oxygen masks and caution you to “put your own mask on first, then you may assist others; including children.” They know from experience that a stressed, panicky parent trying to fit an oxygen mask onto a stressed, panicky child is likely to lead only to a passed-out child and a-soon-to-be-passed-out parent. How often am I actually operating as a semi-passed out practitioner? I am grateful to Carlos for his practical challenge. 

In the Tools for grounded accountability session with Karena Montag and Martina Kartman, I found their definition of self-accountability “being responsible to yourself and those around you for your choices and for the consequences of your choices” and the discussion on the support we need to be able to do that very helpful. Without support I struggle to really own my choices and their impact on me and others. Without support, I run the risk of causing harm.

Support is not a nice luxury, or a form of ego- centric self-care, rather it is actually what will allow me to do the work of restorative justice in ways that are less likely to harm others …

During his plenary, Dominic Barter shared a story of an intense day of training, followed by a dialogue in a prison with youth who had been rioting and who had burned down part of the building. On their way out his colleague had asked him “How are you?” He had given the usual ‘British’ response, “I’m fine”. His colleague had pushed him up against the wall and asked again, and Dominic had realised that it was not just a ‘nice’ question about his well-being; his colleague was wanting to protect him and others from the consequences of what he might say or do if he went out there in an undernourished state without enough support. 

In their deeply moving session, Layla Alsheikh and Robi Damlin who are part of The Parents Circle-Family Forum (PCFF), a joint Israeli-Palestinian organisation of over 600 families, all of whom have lost an immediate family member in that ongoing conflict, revealed to me the essence of the wisdom of the margin and the imperative of support. They shared that sometimes there is no justice beyond borders, there is “just us beyond borders.”

When basic human rights are not respected. When a mother is kept waiting at a checkpoint for hours with a dying baby in her arms. When young men and women are forced to do military service and lose their lives. When a mother has to find a way to make sense of her son’s tragic death in a conflict that continues, on and on and on. In those circumstances, what holds you is the support, the ‘just us’. In the Parent’s Circle, those who have lost a loved one move beyond borders, to listen to each other’s story, to speak for peace – even if their own families and communities do not understand. Even though they receive death threats. Even if it is “just us beyond borders.”

Support is not a nice luxury, or a form of egoic self-care, rather it is actually what will allow me to do the work of restorative justice in ways that are less likely to harm others and with a little bit more congruence than the punitive retributive system we bathe in and which we absorb blindly like osmosis. Without that support, accountability, and learning it is so easy for me to center myself, to consciously and unconsciously turn borders into barriers, for space and language to become sources of misunderstanding and conflict rather than for connection and celebration of diversity. With support maybe “just us beyond borders” could begin to move towards justice beyond borders.

Christina De Angelis

Christina De Angelis is restorative justice practitioner, consultant, mediator, systemic conflict coach. She accompanies people who want to transform and create systems to respond to conflicts. She has worked in the Solomon Islands following their civil conflict, with the Police force in Northern Ireland, judges in Brazil, youth in Ukraine,  & teaching at Universities.



Quotation marks in the text indicate that these are the direct words of the person in question.