Caution and blessing, Restorative Justice Circles can quickly create a culture.

When Kay Pranis and Jennifer Ball came to visit SCVRJP, they met with a few of our volunteers and stayed for a Controlled Substance Intervention Circle.  I realized that SCVRJP has developed a culture of Circles.  As we spoke about our work, it was consistent from Underage Consumption Panels to Circles with alternative school students, SCVRJP has a consistent method and manner for our Circle work.

I stick closely to Restorative Justice values, I do all I can to make sure our volunteers, community representatives are aware of the Mission, Vision and Values of this work.  SCVRJP Circles have consistent Restorative Justice Circle elements, consistently.  I have 253 posts on this topic of Circle process.  Each year we keep the paper plates stacked in an area and we watch them grow.  I still have 2011 plates in my office and when you have a meeting with me, you sit right in front of that stack of values.

I recently helped in a North St. Paul elementary school, spent the day going class to class introducing Circle.  The school is implementing Olweus.  I don’t align with some of the methods, however I do support a great deal of it (anything that excludes, in my opinion is perpetuating violence).  This day in the Elementary school, was not my first, I did some training there a few years ago.  Circles are used consistently, classroom morning meeting, school wide Circles to address situations that could erupt in the school.  They even do Circles to support students during difficult times.  I heard a great story about preparing students for a school break, and how they loved hearing a perspective from the school police-liasion officer.

Students in 5th grade, had been in Circles since 3rd grade.  They had been in Circles for the beginning and end of the day, those students KNOW Circle.  They let me know, my Circle was not long enough!  They knew the basics for Circle in their community:  tell the truth, eyes on speaker, quiet hands and feet and listen.  These 4 were simply the theme of the Circles I helped conduct in the school that day.  I realized the school has developed its own culture for their Circles, an effective means for using the process, consistent patterns for communicating for community building and for problem solving.

SCVRJP also holds Victim Empathy Seminars.  We’ve had a few that ended without participants recognizing the harm to the greater community.  I heard feedback to the point I called someone into the office to talk about it.  I hadn’t been keeping those Circles and I had an opportunity to get back to it recently.  When we did the 3rd stage of the Circle, the Community Representatives all passed.  This was something different, I always prepare people and enourage them to role model, and not pass.   The next round the Community Representatives all passed the piece across and over the participants.  I was nearly having a panic attack!  This style didn’t demonstrate core Circle values.  I was feeling uncomfortable, I realized something had developed in our culture that was inconsistent with our vision.

What happened in that moment was a division between us and them.  NOT a quality of Circle.  It became clear to me, that a pattern of doing the VES emerged, a new aspect to the culture.  When I got the talking piece, I immediately changed it out and addressed this.  I pointed out I was confused by the community representative passing and then the round where the talking piece did not go person to person.  I explained the next round going to each person directly.  I reaffirmed that the Circle is about equality.  Then I specifically framed a question everyone in Circle could answer.

What is important in being a good citizen?  If you had a do-over about your citizenship what would it be?

This round had each and every person answering.  This round also had each and every person being teacher and student.  I saw people finish the Circle with accountability and realizations that they caused harm and can move on in a better way.  I even got a new volunteer out of the mix, demonstrating our inclusiveness was effective in growing our community.  Even with a strong committment to a culture, it is important to always make sure the culture is consistent with key values.

4 Tips for Restorative Justice programs, skills with victims and addressing domestic violence.

My first experience in the helping profession was as a volunteer in a domestic violence shelter.  I would stay weekends when my daughter was a baby.  I did other evening shifts, helped around the office and became very close with the director and co-directors.

I learned a great deal about working with women, families, answering a hot-line, getting restraining orders, working with law enforcement and the community.  I did this work while I was working on my MS in counseling, and I had the domestic violence lens on my learning.

Little did I know then, that in a few years, I myself would be on the door steps of a shelter.  I stayed one night.  These experiences are the cornerstones to my perspective.  As a therapist, I saw first hand the impacts of sexual abuse, violence, family violence.  My work as a social worker for violent adolescents helped me learn intervention and change strategies for those who inflict that violence.

I’ve been working with Restorative Justice for 14 years, full-time the past 6, going on 7 years.  I read all I can find, I am passionate about using a holistic response to people, finding the strengths and power for transformation and healing in Restorative Justice.  These 4 tips come from experience and education.  This blog does not replace professional training and is not recommending that practitioners tread lightly into the topic of domestic violence.  These tips are intended to be the start, to help your work, promoting safety.

Tip 1) Understand and examine yourself.  What are your theories of violence?  The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence site, hosts a very interesting article, that can help you understand perspectives.  This article, WHY, by Susan McGee, provides some insights and it is full of resources.

I encourage advanced training for crimes of severe violence, and my training in this area has been crucial to my work.  On going training is important as well as a network for feedback.  Mastering a skill set of helping others help themselves takes practice, coaching and experience.

Tip 2) Study.  It is very, very important to educate yourself about DV and victim advocates.  If you are a Restorative Justice practitioner or advocate, you have to read the 22 page document, Taking Victims and Their Advocates Seriously: The Listening Project.  This is not a new publication, it is very, very important.  I offered this post in July of 2010, when I had memorized the specific needs of victims.

Tip 3) Don’t freak out (externally anyway).  You MUST be comfortable in seeing red flags.  You have to be able to be compassionate and open.  Sometimes you have to ask if violence occurring?  You should know as a program, how you handle these kinds of situations.  How do you treat someone who reports violence to you?  You should know ahead of time, because you never know what RJ case, might have an undertone or aspect of DV.  Even if the referring incident was not related to DV.

If you are non-judgemental, that means you can be trusted.  I’ve had offenders relate their own past victimization.   A victim of a traffic crime shared about abusive behavior as an offender.  You have to be able to share the message, violence is NOT healthy.  Promoting healthy living, encouraging people to take care of their bodies, their spirits, their connections and to get professional help can be done respectfully, supportive and compassionately.  This may completely change the course of your restorative work, you need to let it.

Tip 4) Refer when needed.  Safety First.  Always be curious about people wanting to see you together.  Meet with victims alone.  I know it seems common sense.  I don’t want to believe that kind of harm and evil can exist.  You have to learn to listen to your gut.  If you have to ask yourself if you see signs of DV, that means there are signs of DV.  You might need to use outside resources, I have referred situations out for AODA assessments and returned a referral back to court, because the situation was more complex than the services we had available.  This is tough, because there was a chance no other appropriate services were available.

Take care of yourself.  Domestic Violence is tough work, burnout from dealing with the trauma can challenging.  Restorative Justice practitioners should be caring and supportive of our friends in violence work.  We should keep a strong committment to our work with violence prevention with youth and in schools.  Restorative Justice provides empathy development, which can prevent violence from escalating.

I’ve seen the field transition from “absolutely not, never” with regards to DV and RJ – – to programs that provide surrogate dialogue, survivor panels, sentencing circles.  Research is growing on the planet.  It is a dynamic time to be watching and learning.

Guest blogger on “Circles Matter”

Amy Vante Bintliff, author of Re-engaging Disconnected Youth: Transformative Learning Through Restorative and Social Justice Education provided me this guest blog post.  Click here and check out the website for Transformational Education.  Her guest post:

After training a group of educators on using Restorative Justice Talking Circles to establish connections with youth, a teacher approached and said, “You know, that’s all nice, but it’s just not me.  I discuss things in my own way.  I’m not a touchy feely guy.  What’s the difference between me just having discussion day and me talking this way?”

“It’s about equity,” I said.  “In your classes right now, who speaks the most?  Who raises her hand?  Who is left silent? Circle is about each member having an opportunity to speak, to be heard, to share his or her voice.”

Talking Circles, a process stemming from First Nation and American Indian communities in North America, and many other indigenous communities worldwide, involves communicating through turn taking.  Members of the Circle use a Talking Piece, a unique object traditionally found in nature, to take turns.  When a person has the Talking Piece, it’s their turn to speak.  When they don’t have the Talking Piece, it’s their turn to listen respectfully.  A set of agreed upon norms guide the Circle.  Traditionally, those norms involve honoring the sacred space, keeping things confidential, and showing respect.

A leader, called the Circle Keeper, facilitates the first question.  The Circle Keeper plans for the Circle by selecting a poem or reading to settle participants in, selecting questions for the day, and reviewing the group norms.  The Circle Keeper facilitates the process, but also participates as an equal.  In my classroom, both adults and youth serve as Circle Keepers.

I’ve worked with Circles for over ten years and have researched the process discovering that members of Circle feel more connectedness towards each other, can solve conflicts, and provide support for one another.  Though Circles serve a number of purposes, including conflict/resolution, Circles of healing, and decision-making Circles, the Circles I was training that day had one purpose—to facilitate feelings of connectedness and belonging.

Though the majority of training participants left that day excited to begin the practice, a few of the educators still felt that the old way of forming connections was best—raising a question and calling on students who appear excited to answer.  But I’ve found that the old way of discussing issues often leaves out the voices that need the most support—the youth who feel the most disengaged from their educational communities as a whole.  After explaining the idea of equity, I began to dig deeper among the participants who seemed the most resistant.

One of these teachers said, “You know, you talk about equity.  You’ve got to realize that it isn’t equitable to ask an adult to share information about themselves with students.  Some of us don’t like to share.”

I had anticipated this concern in advance, and prepared a set of laminated Circle question cards that were color coded—brown for narrow, blue for deep.  The narrow questions included simple beginning questions, such as, “What’s your favorite food?” or “What is an activity or hobby that you enjoy?”

After asking the teacher, “Do you think any adult in this building would have trouble sharing the answers to these narrow questions with their students?”  I was met with a look of panic.

“Well, no,” said the teacher.  “I guess not.  But the whole idea makes some of us uncomfortable.”

Aha!  It was then that I realized that there were some hidden fears among these veteran teachers—they were afraid to lose control, they were afraid to sit in the space as an equal with a student, they were afraid to not “look cool”, they were afraid to hand a process over to a group of young people, and they were afraid to create vulnerability. They believed in a type of classroom equity that kept them in control.

Letting go of the reign of control, sticking with the process even when Circles don’t go perfectly takes commitment.  But the benefits to youth far outweigh the risks that educators take.  In fact, once we appear more human to our students, there’s more buy in, there’s more trust, and you set the platform to be able to dig more deeply into educational content.

This week, I sat in Circle with a group of 8th graders.  We’d been sitting in Circle each week for four months now—when we began in October, some students were afraid to speak at all, some asked to leave the room on Circle days, some tried to undermine the group process by side chattering the first times.  But now, after only fourteen Circles together, when I asked these youth, “Should we do a narrow one today, or go deep?”  They all screamed, “Deep!”

“Let’s talk about our fears then.  What frightened you when you were little?  What frightens you now?  How do you overcome those fears?”

As we passed our Talking Piece, each young adult shared openly and beautifully.  I listened to stories of childhood fears—of spiders, monsters, and closets.  I then listened to stories of today’s fears—being called fat, losing a parent to cancer, moving into 9th grade, failing…

That time wasn’t about me in the least.  It wasn’t about my idea of classroom control.  It wasn’t about my fear of appearing human in their eyes.  It wasn’t about my desire to fit into their world…it was about them.  About their voices and the courageous ways that they overcome their fears every day.   And when my turn came, I felt cowardly making light of my own fears, so I shared some of my own too.

And we build connections like that. Each individual sharing an answer, knowing that they are being honored by being respectfully listened to.

When we let go of our need for control in a safe environment, whether we are parents, activists, community leaders, or educators, we learn to listen openly to the voices of our young people.  What I find there, within those Circle spaces, is that our youth need us to let go of some of our own ego and fears of losing control.  They need us to fade into the woodwork and listen, so that they can speak.

Circle keeping from the depths of your humanity.

Thank you Webster dictionary on-line.  Humanity:  The totality of human beings.  Human Beings are mental, physical, emotional and spiritual.  I believe that Circle keeping is most effective when the keeper is working towards a balance and wellness.  I say working towards – cause we grow and learn every single day.

Circle keeping is the manner and method of guiding the process of a Restorative Justice Circle.  Anyone can tell other people what to do.  Facilitation techniques separate you from the group.  The elements of power are important in Circle keeping.  Using the power of love rather than the power of authority.  It takes practice in this.  What you are doing is using a strength, often initially perceived as weakness.  Being vulnerable and creating space for others to do the same is really intentional behavior.

I write about this because of a recent experience.  I was able to get feedback from Kay Pranis and Jennifer Ball.  Kay, author of Peacemaking Circles and the Little Book of Circle process.  Jennifer Ball, co-authored Doing Democracy with Circles (with Kay and Wayne Caldwell).  Links take you to Living Justice Press, where these are also available as E-books!

I was excited to meet Jennifer, and knew she would bring gifts to being part of the Circle.  I love Kay, she has been a teacher, guide, mentor, inspiration for years.  I managed to stay calm about conducting the Circle, by just remembering how I know Circle.  By remembering this is about the Circle, Kay will be a wonderful community participant.  There really is no control of a Circle or the outcomes.  You REALLY do need to trust the process.

It was a good Circle.  One young man, after hearing the story, got up and shook the storytellers hand.  That was so significant because a change of heart (which I always say leads to a change of behavior) happened right there in front of us.  I could go on about what I saw that went well, I will go on about Keeping Circle.

Humanity is the realization we are all the same.  Humanity is a gracious space of connectedness, and connectedness means inclusion.  I’ve been asked about the words I used that night.  The feedback has been that my keeping was smooth and flowed.  I’m thankful, relieved and proud of the work that SCVRJP has evolved into doing.  I’ve been intentional about keeping our Circles very close to core values and the core elements of the process.  I believe that we have created a community of practice – Circles that are invitational, non-judgemental and transformative.  The feedback on the keeping was reflective of this collective.

If you connect to the collective, the core values and elements of Circle, your keeping will come from the depths of your humanity.  Keeping from that place, produces the magic and mystery that is Circle.