Though I’ve only worked in the education field for a few years, I’ve come to learn that young people have a very strong sense of justice, and they know when something’s not right. I’ve embraced Restorative Practices (RP) countless times in my work, and as an AmeriCorps Promise Fellow Leader with the Minnesota Alliance With Youth, I had numerous Promise Fellows reach out to me for RP training resources. They wanted to learn more and get some quality training they could somehow apply in their youth work.
The more and more I searched, however, the more frustrated I became. In Minnesota, there were only a few major trainings happening the entire year, all beyond the budgets and time commitments of most of our youth workers. I wanted so badly to offer resources. I did my best, but I couldn’t deny a sinking feeling that I was letting my fellow Fellows down.
What are restorative practices and restorative justice, really?
Restorative Justice (RJ) may seem like a trendy buzz word, but what exactly does it mean? And how does it overlap and differ from RP?
At its core, in the world of RJ, the focus is on the harm done and how to make things right between all stakeholders, rather than punishment for the rule that was broken. RJ is generally reactive, consisting of formal or informal responses to crime and other wrongdoing after it occurs. Restorative Practices, on the other hand, includes formal and informal processes that precede wrongdoing, those that proactively build relationships and a sense of community to prevent conflict and wrongdoing
There is no single definition for these terms, which adds to their perceived elusive nature. Take some time to explore the web to learn more about the fields of RP and RJ.
Suspensions, detentions, office referrals and Zero Tolerance policies are on the rise in schools around our nation, but they are not the solution, nor are they sustainable for the health of our communities. We want youth to be contributing members of society for the greater good, not fed down the school to prison pipeline. We need to move beyond punitive discipline to a relational model that takes the whole child into account and asks ‘what happened to you’ instead of ‘what’s wrong with you’. Punishment reaps short-term compliance, it doesn’t develop independent/resilient thinkers or raise awareness on the impact of one’s behavior.
A shift from punitive discipline does not necessitate a move away from accountability. We can have high expectations for one another while providing space for respectful healing. There are articles and studies you can find detailing the potential effectiveness of RP, as well as the failings of suspensions and punitive discipline in our schools.
If you put work in the front end, RP reaps dividends in the long run. School staff see initiatives come and go and investing only partial energy into anything is a waste. The good news is that systematic use of informal RP reduces the need for more time-consuming formal practices and has a cumulative impact that creates a “restorative milieu—an environment that consistently fosters awareness, empathy and responsibility in a way that is likely to prove far more effective in achieving social discipline than our current reliance on punishment and sanctions” (Wachtel, 2013).
Restorative Justice work in and of itself is not exhausting if we go about it intentionally. In fact, it oftentimes more closely aligns with our personal values than current punitive models. The transition takes time, however, especially if there is resistance from colleagues, whether real or perceived. Some schools succeed in RP implementation more successfully than others for a variety of reasons.
Anyone who has ever been a part of the nonprofit world knows what it’s like to have work siloed. The world of RJ can be no different.
Although the field is growing, the overarching reality seems to be that RP trainings are expensive and few and far between. Trainings can take days, cover few topics, and can be far away from where people are living and breathing the work. There are only a handful of experienced trainers in any given area; the pool of those doing this work has been seemingly closed off for far too long. A multitude of perspectives is required if we are to effectively address the needs of today.
As with any unregulated field, there will be growing pains. Trainers want to share their passion and, in many cases, make a living. My intention is not to squash toes, but to spread valuable tools and information to all people working with youth. I strongly believe that RP is a critical component to the health of our communities, and access should be whole and complete, not piecemeal for certain demographics.
During my time serving in a public school, I worked with students facing continual retributive punishment. Let me be clear: they are not “bad” kids, they are our kids. By turning our backs we are failing them and ourselves. I struggled to help students advocate for themselves and navigate a system that is not set up for their success. If a student doesn’t fit the mold, we must reconsider the mold, not the student. All youth deserve an avalanche of caring adults in their landscape.
So...what can we do?
You may be wondering: “This all sounds great, but what can I do?” Here are a few ideas to start:
1. Start a conversation- communication is key
2. Get out there and ask questions!
3. See who's already doing the work in your area and who’s supporting it.
4. Get together for venting and solution sessions.
5. Let’s talk about our challenges and triumphs practicing RP, so we can address various intervention levels and craft clearer definitions.
6. We need to develop best practices to articulate the path to get there. The elusive nature of RP disappears once we’re all on the same page.
7. Talk to your local legislators, school district officials, etc.
8. Be willing to be vulnerable- a mind-shift this big takes time, but it is worth it!
9. Pass the microphone.
We need familiar voices to step back and share the mic with new voices. While appreciating all the work that has been done, we must be ready to move into a new phase, a phase of diverse action, energy and commitment led by people “on the ground”. There have been conferences in London and other European locations regarding RP accessibility. It’s time we foster those dialogues in the U.S., dialogues built up of people actually doing the work in local spaces.
RP can’t simply be shoved into a punitive structure and expected to flourish. RP is not a plug-in program. It is a philosophy and a way of living and breathing values. It requires whole school buy-in, high quality professional development and mindful implementation. If we’re serious about implementing RP in our schools and beyond, then it’s time we put the work in and get creative. We must build social capital if we are to nurture the seeds of the future.
If we embrace it, RP will flow into every facet of our lives for the better. When we take the time to love each other and love ourselves, wonderful things happen. To set students up for success, we must build authentic relationships with one another. We need to provide all people who work with youth the tools they need, from summer program coordinators to social workers and school staff.
Youth work is a “must have” service that deserves recognition and appreciation by communities. Youth workers deserve access to a variety of trainings so they can continue their professional development and further hone their skills. Welcoming new voices and increasing access and inclusivity of RP trainings will create a movement that no one can ignore. Our children deserve nothing less.
Having the "tough" conversations doesn't have to be tough
RP and RJ can get us into the weeds with tough conversations, but that’s exactly where we need to be. We need real, hard dialogue. Counter to the pressure and immediacy of today’s world, RP offers a space to slow down, reflect and be with each other as our true selves. To spread this movement like loving wildfire, we must shift the narrative and make the case for the viability of RP. We build up our community so that when situations occur we handle them collaboratively. As mistakes are human nature, incidents become teachable moments. Collectively we can learn how to wield our power wisely.
Please Note: Each blog is written by the individual author, and the views expressed may not be shared by all YNPN members.