How will we know we are being restorative?

Dr. Dorothy Vaandering is Associate Professor in the Faculty of Education at Memorial University, St. John’s, NL and is Director of Relationships First - Restorative Justice, NL.

November is a month in which Canada and NL highlight the progress of restorative justice. In St. John’s we’ve had several opportunities already to do this. On Nov. 5, Dr. Jennifer Llewellyn (Dalhousie Law Professor and restorative justice expert) spoke to an audience of lawyers, judges, police officers, and educators on the topic of “How will we know we are being restorative?” ​​​​This past week, the City of St. John’s and four ministers of the Government of NL (Minister Dempster; Minister Warr; Minister Haley; Minister Parsons) signed a proclamation declaring Nov. 17-23 National Restorative Justice Week. It’s a great start especially when the provincial proclamation included the students at St. Mary’s Elementary. ​​​​

It is not uncommon that during this time each year, I am asked by people of all professions, “But what does RJ look like in practice?” In spite of the fact that descriptions are given and there are many resources available to answer this question, people grapple with how to perceive what it could be in their contexts. In this blog post, I draw on Jennifer Llewellyn’s list of Nova Scotia’s RJ principles to invite you to answer this question for your personal life first, in the hopes that it will lay the ground work for you to engage with RJ in other contexts.

Imagine you are sitting around a dinner table at home or in a restaurant with family, friends or colleagues. What do you notice about how people are interacting? Is the conversation:

  • Relationally focused?

  • Was I valuing everyone present? Was I working towards mutual concern and reciprocity? How did I show this?

  • Comprehensive & holistic?

  • Was I thinking beyond the moment to the context each of us are involved in? How did I show this?

  • Inclusive & participatory?

  • Did everyone have a chance to participate? Was I more dominant/quiet than others? Did I stop to check if the quieter ones wanted to say anything?

  • Responsive?

  • Was the content of our conversation, responsive to our particular context and key concerns? Did we collectively move towards change?

  • Focused on individual and collective accountability & responsibility?

  • Was I listening deeply and willing to change so that the collective well-being was supported? Did I acknowledge my role in collective/systemic actions that cause harm?

  • Collaborative & non-adversarial?

  • Did I ever think, feel or respond in a way that was defensive, competitive, or adversarial? What did I say/do that sent the message that I was open to collaboration?

  • Future-focused?

  • How did I encourage us to think about what we would do after leaving the table?

Restorative Justice includes processes for addressing difficult conversations and incidents of harm, but it is first of all a mindset (or better yet a “heartset”) that requires that I reflect critically on how my words and actions impact others and influence situations in daily interactions. Ultimately, RJ requires that I honour others as worthy and interconnected. It begins with me. When that happens, it becomes infused into how we do our work.

Yes, there are standard RJ processes but ultimately it requires knowing “why” we are using these. As Llewellyn said, focusing on “how” is not a shortcut to implementing RJ; it will be its downfall.

Have you ever wondered how we will know if we are being restorative? This month, sit down a few times with this list and work through the principles and questions after a meeting, after a social gathering, or a day with family. What do you think you’ll find? Will you adjust what you do next time? [I’m still working on it, daily ☺] If you do this regularly, by November 2020, I can assure you, your life will have changed.

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