A Reflection on Implications of Restorative Justice Education on the Junior Youth Moral Empowerment

In this article, I will focus on how Restorative Justice can operate within the context of my current work with a moral education program called the Junior Youth Moral Empowerment Program (JYMEP) or simply, Junior Youth Groups, for youth ages twelve to fifteen.

I will draw on recent literature that explores how teachers are using Restorative Justice Education (RJE). I will also speak with inspiration from what Bell Hooks calls “educational pedagogy,” which contributes to the empowerment of students. Hooks’s ideas are central to the themes of this article, as they emphasize “engagement” as a “spiritual, healing relationship” (Sevilla, 2016, p. 125). Her written texts suggest how to make pedagogy more “engaged – emotionally, intellectually and even spiritually – with students and their experiences” (2016, p. 127).

The JYMEP started as a social and economic development project under the Ruhi Institute in rural Colombia. It then emerged into a moral education program being used throughout the world. This educational program consists of social action, study of literacy texts and service to communities. In the JYMEP, older youth serve as mentors to a group of about ten younger peers, known as Junior Youth, who fall within the ages of twelve to fifteen. The mentors, also known as animators, help the Junior Youth to navigate the social forces that they are facing and to develop the capacity for moral reasoning. The Junior Youth also develop the power to express their concerns for their future, along with their hopes and ambitions.

A question that has emerged in the development of my thesis research is “how are education and empowerment connected?” The notion of empowerment is central to my discussion in this paper because it is situated at the heart of the JYMEP, which I am currently and will remain engaged in. Empowerment entails “both the process and the goal of educational programs that seek to enable young people to take charge of their own intellectual and moral growth” and contribute to the betterment of their societies (Farid-Arbab, 2017, p. 1). When individuals are motivated by the commitment to the intellectual and moral development of not only themselves but also of their communities, the fundamental relationships that constitute the fabric of societal existence begin to flourish (2017, p. 300). The kinds of relationships to which I am referring here are the ones “among individuals and groups, and between the individual, community, and institutions of society” (ibid). Society exists through communication and relationships, and “all communication (and hence all social life) is educative” (Sevilla, 2016, p. 132). My role as an animator in the Junior Youth Moral Empowerment Program, then, is to enable youth to learn about the complementary nature of their own development as well as that of their communities. As they participate in this development process, Junior Youth become further concerned about the well-being of their societies and more engaged in service to them. Subsequently, those aforementioned relationships improve.

Youth tend to be characterized by the typical behaviours associated with their age. The spread of social forces such as affluence, violence and drug and alcohol abuse tend to affect the way in which youth view themselves and their relationship with their society. ​​The rise of such forces can also create a sense of apathy and disillusionment within them. Moreover, the nature of their relationship with adults can heavily affect the way in which they view themselves. While youth demonstrate the capacity to think profoundly about their life purpose and their futures, adults can at times treat them like children.

As Singh and Ntuli (2017) found, the prejudiced treatment of youth, particularly within the criminal justice system, has detrimental effects on the outlook and emotional health of youth offenders (p. 272). However, with the commitment of teachers and mentors who “teach in a manner that respects and cares for the souls” of their students (Hooks, 1994, p. 13), these relationships hold the hope of being restored.

As Sevilla (2016) argues in regard to such relationships, the responsibility for an exciting educational environment “is not located merely in an individual but between individuals” (p. 128). It is a place where individuals “learn to value one another” (ibid). As proponents of Restorative Justice are aware, the goal is to shift the focus from “behaviour” to “relationships” (Vaandering, 2011). Similarly, as an animator in the JYMEP, my role is to facilitate the study of literacy texts and the community service projects in a way that maintains connectedness, ensures that the needs of the Junior Youth are met, and that they feel supported (Vaandering 2013:4).

My method as an animator is to work “outside the context of behaviour and control” (2013:15). I encourage the youth to be active community participants (ibid) and to embrace the period of youth and the vitality that is associated with it. Moreover, Vaandering (2013) encourages educators to reflect on any harm that they may be causing for students. When it comes to my work with Junior Youth, I choose not to reflect on harm but rather to ponder the impact I have as an adult on my relationships with the Junior Youth.

Junior Youth Groups are commonly conducted in circle format, which remind the youth that though they are engaged in an education program, they are not in a classroom and the relationship with their animator is not a teacher-student one but that of mentor and mentee. Graveline’s (2003) literature supports this, in that it reveals that learning in educational settings in circle format holds the potential for participants to become strong members of their communities. Graveline indicates, moreover, that such a learning setting reduces power gaps between teachers and students (or in my case, between animators and Junior Youth) and enables them to trust one another (2003, p. 144).

Junior Youth are experiencing many life changes, and therefore, as argued in Bell Hooks’ educational pedagogy, education must have the flexibility to respond to these changes (Sevilla, 2016, p. 127). The question I wish to pose, then, is, “When it comes to improving the types of relationships to which I referred earlier, how can RJE further propel that process? How can the JYMEP benefit from Restorative Justice Education?” I see myself propelling the process by supporting the changes and different needs of the Junior Youth and valuing and working with those differences (Vaandering 2013:4). My role as a mentor and educator in the JYMEP is influential to Junior Youth and one that requires the use of restorative language, along with sensibility and flexibility to the changes occurring in the youth.

A paramount concept that I learnt to apply to my current reality as an animator is assisting

youth in making, repairing and maintaining relationships (Hopkins 2011). Within the context of restorative methodology in particular, students are encouraged to use restorative questions in their conversations. Such dialogue assists them to consider each other’s feelings as they communicate with one another. I am particularly inspired to carry this methodology into my current work as an animator in the JYMEP. I am convinced of the value in using restorative conference facilitating skills to avoid making any youth feel excluded from the Junior Youth Group.

I will accompany the Junior Youth as they learn to use affective statements to convey their needs to one another and to understand those of their peers” (Vaandering and Voelker, 2018, p. 70). As such, the Junior Youth will utilize the tools to overcome the common challenge of when their worth is overlooked, or when they are treated like children. Further, restorative language is considered a “language of cooperation” (Hopkins, 2011, p, 77). As such, I will use it for the purpose of assisting the Junior Youth in developing emotional literacy, which will enable them to “listen with empathy” and express conflicting opinions without insulting one another (Hopkins, 2011, p. 25). Youth can then use the intellectual and moral capacities that they develop in the program to contribute to the life of stronger communities around them. After all, “education is impossible without community” (Sevilla, 2016, p. 132).


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