I was honoured to speak about my restorative work with children based on my learnings from designing and implementing a pilot project for children in contact with the legal system in New Delhi, India. I also wrote an article for the conference on my journey with holding restorative circles in different spaces (custodial/protective homes for children, frontline workers, during trainings and while teaching, at the workplace and for friends and community).
image: Arti Mohan's presentation at the RJWorld 2020 eConference.
The theme that stood out for me through the conference was that restorative work is an expansive continuum. The RJ World 2020 Conference beautifully brought out the multipronged potency of restorative work. The continuum begins with how we relate to ourselves, extends to our relationships, and to transforming systems. The conference embraced all these themes from different lenses – ranging from philosophical and theoretical underpinnings to practice pointers. This piece reflects on some learnings from the conference and tries to focus on various parts of the continuum – the self, the workplace, responsive work and systems change.
The use of restorative work for addressing criminal wrongs remains one of its oldest and most well-known aspects. As restorative justice implementation expands across the world, there is increasing evidence which demonstrates that it is an effective response to harm caused from wrongdoing. The use of restorative justice for serious offences including severe sexual harm was brought out in the powerful movie, The Meeting, screened at the conference, and the related presentations of Ailbhe Griffith and Marie Keenan. Ailbhe had been severely sexually harmed and came face to face with the person who harmed her in the presence of Marie Keenan. It was only with this meeting and dialogue that she could shake off the ‘victim identity’ and felt healed and empowered for the first time after almost a decade.
While restorative justice has traditionally been used for crimes involving identifiable people, the conference was a window into some possibly unique applications of restorative justice.
The conference was a window into some possibly unique applications of restorative justice.
Restorative processes can be an effective way of responding to a wide range of harms even when the people involved are either unidentifiable, numerous, or a part of corporations or institutions. Rizwana Begum spoke about the possibility of using restorative justice to respond to white-collar crimes, including environmental ones. Brunilda Pali pitched the idea of using restorative justice to address environmental harms wherein the stakeholders invited could include the state, harmed communities, and corporations. In addition, restorative practices can also be effective for those harmed by historical and collective harms, something Rick Kelly and Symone Walters beautifully spoke about. Lorna Dyall, Raewyn Bhana, and George Ngatai shared their work on restorative practices with indigenous populations in New Zealand harmed by state institutions, including to address the misappropriation of intellectual capital from the indigenous Maori people.
Restorative processes understand harm in nuanced ways which are not necessarily limited to the lens of the law.
Restorative processes understand harm in nuanced ways which are not necessarily limited to the lens of the law. In addition to offering restorative justice for people directly impacted by wrongdoing, Lisa Rea and Jeffrey Deskovic spoke about the use of restorative justice for those who are wrongfully imprisoned, centering them as the victims and also potentially involving the police, prosecutors, the victims, and even the actual wrongdoer (i.e. the person who was actually responsible but never convicted initially).
The legal system often adversely impacts those involved in it as well as their near ones. In my work, I’ve seen how children and adults who are involved in the legal system (as wrongdoers) suffer from psychological, financial and social consequences. Restorative processes may be helpful for addressing this impact. Janine Carroll spoke about the need for restorative processes between young people involved in the legal system (as wrongdoers) and their caregivers with the aim of collectively processing the impact on them. These processes result in improved relationships and increased emotional wellbeing and can also be an effective means for undoing the harm of the legal system and reintegrating people back into society.
Apart from addressing individual harms, the continuum of restorative work expands to the systemic level, where restorative work has the potential to transform. Tim Chapman, in his powerful presentation, emphasized how most injustices are systemic and, to address them, we need to engage radically with these injustices.
Restorative work has the potential to question oppression, transform power structures, challenge and undermine social inequalities, and empower communities for social change. Restorative processes humanize everyone, including those who are ‘othered’ and pushed to the margins of society, as powerfully shared by Mirriam Attias. Sharing one's narrative in a circle has a cathartic power, combined with the effect of profound listening. Restorative spaces also create the conditions to address one’s needs and to evolve into better versions of ourselves. Kelly Richards shared how circles help to facilitate identity change, specifically speaking about Circles of Support and Accountability for people who’ve caused severe sexual harm. Similarly, Geovana Fernandes, spoke about how restorative circles have the power to transform the way individuals see themselves and the world. Dr. Zulfiya Tursunova also spoke about the power of circles to transform people while sharing about the impact of women's talking circles in Uzbekistan. As a result of helping individuals transform, restorative spaces have the power to potently transform and heal social fabric.
Increasingly, I see hope for circles to slowly pave the way for social change, including addressing polarisation, marginalisation, and exclusion. Malini Laxminarayan and Baudouin Mena Sebu spoke about their project on restorative processes for hate crimes against people attacked for their sexual identity or orientation. Perhaps, in addition to responsive spaces, we can use circle processes proactively (and not only in response to a specific harm) to build more respectful and inclusive spaces. Relatedly, Paulo Moratelli shared how transformative dialogue circles can be used to break the cycle of gendered violence and pave the way for collective social change.
While the restorative continuum has the power to address systemic harms, it is also important to ensure that we do not replicate the harm. This requires centering those at the margins, explicitly addressing biases and devolving power in an aim to decolonize restorative work (Dr. Muhammad Asadullah). In addition, we must also acknowledge historical harms and lived realities including historical trauma, a point beautifully brought out by Lorna Dyall, Raewyn Bhana, and George Ngatai in their piece on restorative work with indigenous populations in New Zealand. It’s also helpful to remember to not replicate mainstream models of restorative justice without contextualising them. Rather, we must use a bottom-up approach involving communities in designing, implementing and reviewing the practices. This is a practice we try to consistently operationalise as we develop our restorative work in India.
Restorative work can not only help in addressing structural harms but as Terence Bevington and Anna Gregory said, also help to create positive peace: a world of equity, harmony, and belonging.
For restorative work to do its magic at a systemic level, it also needs to come alive in our more immediate environments.
For restorative work to do its magic at a systemic level, it also needs to come alive in our more immediate environments. The continuum of restorative work extends beyond a specific program or a process and must engulf interpersonal relationships including organisational culture and practices. Mark Spain presented on restorative leadership and emphasised how organisations doing restorative justice work need to adopt the principles as a way of being where we prioritise relationships (with ourselves, with each other, with the people we work with, and with communities). Lindsey Pointer and Kathleen McGoey spoke about restorative principles and how these can be operationalised while conducting training or workshops, including the importance of participation, dialogue, and non-hierarchical spaces.
To make restorative principles a way of being, it serves us well to begin with ourselves. Belinda Hopkins emphasised the need for nurturing a restorative mindset, a lens from which we view the world. The power of restorative work to transform our inner selves and the way we engage with ourselves and the world is one of the most powerful pillars for me.
"An abnormal reaction to an abnormal situation is normal behaviour."
Belinda Hopkins, quoting Victor Frankl, said that "an abnormal reaction to an abnormal situation is normal behaviour"; highlighting how our behaviour is often influenced by our prior adverse experiences. Sometimes, when we are hurt, we hurt others to make them feel our pain because we need our own pain acknowledged, something beautifully articulated by Leaf Seligman. Restorative work urges us to see beneath the actions and reminds us that we are all human, irrespective of where we’re from, or what we’ve done. Bonnie Weppler presented on The Justice Storytelling Quilt, a quilt made collectively by people harmed and people who've caused harm, symbolising their suffering, hope, and courage. One story on the quilt says, "I peeled back the mask of a monster to see who was really underneath." Seeing people as more than their actions is a crucial aspect of restorative work and involves recognising how each one of us is much more than the worst things we may have done. Restorative spaces allow for operationalising this principle and serve as a reminder for us to use this lens in all our personal and professional relationships. As I’ve facilitated more restorative circles, this is a learning I try to implement in all my interactions with people around me.
This also applies to how we relate to ourselves. Leaf Seligman spoke about how compassion for oneself is the core of restorative work. Emphasising the need for tenderness, she spoke about how it is only when we are compassionate to oneself can we be accountable to others. I see the need to define our work with compassion for ourselves, as the root of everything we do.
"I peeled back the mask of a monster to see who was really underneath."
While I stepped into the world of restorative work through restorative justice, I’ve grown to strongly believe in the continuum and to believe that my interactions with myself and others around me tie in very closely with the work I seek to do. The continuum, as was highlighted in the conference, is a reminder for me to start doing the restorative work with myself, and create those spaces wherever possible, believing in their power to address systemic harms. Anooj Bhandari spoke about imagining the ideal world and then think of what we need to do to put that world into existence right now -what we need to take down and what we need to exalt. Perhaps, tiny acts of care and compassion, along with radical spaces of restorativeness for ourselves and those around us (all along the continuum) are what we need to exalt as we work towards a world that has more space for healing, belonging, and community.
With deep gratitude to Martin Howard for the Conference and for his generosity; to all the presenters for sharing their beautiful and deeply inspiring work including many other speakers and contributors who enriched my learning. Also grateful for the new connections fostered through this conference. I am also thankful to my colleagues at Counsel to Secure Justice