The Restorative Revolution

Photo by foxrosser on Flickr

Call me crazy - but I think we are ready for a Revolution. 

I'm talking about a revolution in the way we approach justice, transgression, punishment, crime, and every day conflict among ordinary people. I am talking about the way we treat each other after we hurt each other - even in very deep ways - and the way we treat those who are less powerful than us when "justice" is placed in our hands.

I am talking a transformational, society-wide, lens-shifting, all-affecting revolution the scale of the 1960's civil rights and women's rights movements, a revolution in how we think about who we are and how we live, work, and love together.

Not a solution to everything. Not panacea, utopia, peace and love for all. But a fundamental shift in the collective understanding of what might be possible.

I feel it in my bones, like the rumble of a train coming down the tracks way before you see its lights appear from behind the bend.

People are sensing the heavy creaking of the current justice system, the way it is over-burdened and under-humane, the way it takes our sons and daughters and nieces and nephews and puts them back into our communities more hardened and less integrated than they were before, the way it creates rifts among us, decreasing rather than increasing the sense of safety for which we all long.

And people are becoming dissatisfied with the way we inadvertently replicate that same model in our homes, with people most precious to us, and in our communities, the places where we spend our waking hours.

I work with a lot of communication modalities and I have been talking to people about empathy and healing and dialogue for a long time.

But when I mention the restorative practices work in which I am involved, people respond with the kind of excitement, the kind of energy I have not seen before. Their eyes light up. They smile.  They want to learn more. They want to get involved.

I am talking about people across all economic, class, age, and race differences: administrators working in the formal justice system and grandmothers of boys in the local jail, academics and activists, rabbis and conservative ministers, teachers and parents, college students and poets. When I share what might be possible, there is a spark, an electrical surge of hope.

And what is possible is a way of doing conflict and justice in which each voice and each side gets heard, in which people who have been hurt get to ask their toughest questions and those who have caused pain get to experience the impact of what they have done and come out feeling more human, not less. What is possible are solutions to conflicts that are not believable until you hear them, that stem from human creativity that is untapped by the current way we do things, and are agreed upon by everyone who is impacted by the conflict.

Restorative practices, as ancient as human society, have been making their way back into our collective knowledge. Some of them, like the Restorative Circles practice which I have been learning, are laced with a modern edge, an edge forged in the fires of inner-city Brazilian favelas where drugs, gun violence, racialized tensions and numbing poverty overlay the struggle for daily survival.

And that is what makes the possibility so palpable. There is another way and it works. It works to re-humanize people to each other in the most trying of circumstances across deeply etched lines. In a place where unbelievable beauty and unbelievable disparity go hand in hand, restorative practices are growing and being embraced by school districts, youth courts, youth prisons, neighborhoods and homes, presidential candidates and major news networks. Restorative Circles are winning awards and changing circumstances, changing lives, changing how people think about and live with conflict.

Not a solution to everything. Not panacea, utopia, peace and love for all. But a fundamental shift in the collective understanding of what might be possible.

A Restorative Revolution.  It's coming.

Wanna get on board?

Fall 2011: Restorative Circles learning event in my town of Urbana-Champaign, Illinois: October 12-16, 2011 

Want to chat about the Revolution in person while learning Restorative Circles (RC) from Dominic Barter, founder of RC? Read more below...

Dominic Barter, founder of Restorative Circles (RC), will be offering the only 2011 North American RC learning opportunity right where I live (along with his team and other RC folks). Click on links below to register and let me know you saw it here so we can connect at the event!

One Day RC Overview Registration

Four Day RC Facilitation Practice Registration
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  1. Some folk will always respond to disagreement violently. No point wishing for utopia.
    Most folk respond very deeply to authentic acknowledgment, when they're validated as individuals.

    What I've been working on (since August 1976, I kid you not) is a systematic way of bringing together conflicting views and opinions so that the human values underlying them can come to light. (Imagine someone in a terrible situation losing their temper and killing someone. We don't need to approve of manslaughter, but we can empathize with the pressures. We really are amazingly capable of solidarity.) Drilling down into the psychology of opinions and identity / group membership is very revealing!

    Everybody needs to care about things, to value their world view. That's either cause for constant war or basis for community.


  2. Elaine, I believe that you are correct. There is a mass movement toward what I call "shalom" (holistic well-being) across the US and the world. I see this movement in communities where I cam doing Asset Based Community Development (ABCD)trainings( I also see it in my ABCD consulting work ( I see it in my recent work in Australia ( And, I witness it across a broad spectrum of community developers, conflict resolvers, reconciliation practitioners, justice officials, authors ( and the list goes on. Most of the people and groups that seek Restorative (Unitive) justice are progressive to liberal in their predilections and as George Lakoff would say, more nurturant.

    Conversely, I also see a huge counter-movement that is rallying significant unilateral power to dominate, to enforce an eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth model of justice. There are quite a number of people and organizations that strategically rally to assert this model of justice, and they are well-funded and deeply connected. Again turning to George Lakoff for a word, we would use "paternal" or dominate father role.

    As one might imagine, the two groups mentioned above focus on their differences and often demonize the other.

    However, there are the liminals: those who seek common values and a common future in which we may all live; not totally void of conflict but with civility and shared power: equity. Some examples of liminals are Desmond Tutu, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Martin Luther, Moses, Rosa Parks...

    Tutu's God Has a Dream, holds up a dream of justice that will be realized as we all work together for the common good, not just the good of a few with the most power.

    Dave Cooper

  3. Elaine,
    I live in a small city on Rio de Janeiro State, Brazil, where a dozen people are meeting weekly to study, to unite more, strengthen and implement restorative practices in the care of juveniles in conflict with the law, drug users. All we need is within us, we are making this revolution happen.
    Cristiana Baptista
    Nova Friburgo, Brazil

  4. Re: Ben

    Yes, I appreciate you highlighting the part played by de-humanization in conflicts, both on the interpersonal/family scale and on the nation/global scale. Like you, part of what gives me hope about the restorative practices movement is the emphasis on balancing re-humanization with self and community responsibility.

    (p.s. I regret the lateness of this response as I so value comments from my readers and benefit from the exchange of ideas and energy. For some reason I did not get your comment sent to my email, while the other two comments that came after yours went to my email. So I just saw yours today when I went to look at the other two)

  5. I'm sure you're right, Elaine. Do you know Thomas Kuhn's Structure of scientific revolutions? I have only seen a summary, not the whole book. But it is interesting that he starts off by talking about science, and how people resist new theories by trying to assimilate them into old ones (I thought of the astronomers who didn't want to accept Copernicus's theory, and tried to explain the movements of the planets by saying that they moved in 'epicycles', in the hope that this would avoid admitting that everything doesn't revolve round the earth); but then he applies the same idea to political revolutions. I think that RJ may contain at least two paradigm shifts. One is Howard Zehr's - instead of crime-punishment, we think of harm-repair. There is also a psychological one: instead of trying to force people by the threat of punishment, we try to encourage them to behave in an acceptable way by providing a space for empathy. I read somewhere that Englsh shepherds drive their sheep from behind, but middle-eastern ones lead them from the front. I don't know if it's true, but you get the idea. Of course the thing about empathy is that you aren't likely to feel it for other people if other people haven't shown it to you. Restorative conferences provide a setting which make it more likely to happen, although of course they don't guarantee it. Do you know the English song, 'The miller of the Dee' ?

  6. Elaine,
    I recently held a restorative circle in collaboration with our school board social worker to deal with boys using racial slurs against another:

    It was by far the most powerful moment I've had in education. I have always been excited about the healing that comes from the restorative framework. Thank you for such an inspiring post.

  7. Re: David Cooper

    I found your comments and links heartening. I had not heard of the Shalom movement but enjoyed the echoes of compassion and unity in your words. I have read Sylvia Clute's blog and am now actually reading her fiction novel (Destiny Unveiled). I look forward to exploring our mutual connections.


    P.S. Does anyone know how I can "reply" to each comment underneath the comment instead of as separate comments at the end??

  8. Re: Cristiana

    So grateful for the work you are doing in Brazil - the country which gave birth to my favorite restorative practice ( I salute you and your efforts!


  9. Re: Martin

    I like the scientific spin you are giving the idea of revolution - as well as the double entendre of planets "revolving" around the sun. I also resonate with how it can be difficult to see others as human when pain or harm has occurred - and that one of the powerful things about restorative practices is the strong and safe container they provide for empathy and compassion to emerge - to flower between us.

  10. Re: Erin

    Thank you for sharing your story and your blog link. I also find Circles with children/youth to be absolutely amazing. We do Circles at home and sometimes my 8 yr old son just blows me away. Seeing this, how open and vulnerable and compassionate kids can be when the context allows it (makes it logical) brings me hope and joy.

  11. Thank you :-)

    Here is a french translation of your text :évolution_Restaurative

  12. Re: Dieudonne

    Wow! Thank you so much! I am touched and honored by the effort and symbolism of the translation. I must admit that I am also loving the way the title sounds in French!

    Can I include a link to the French version right at the top of the English version (on the main page)?

  13. Re: Elaine

    > Can I include a link to the French version right at the top of the English version (on the main page)?

    Of course :-)

  14. Thanks for this Elaine. We are building up restorative schools here in Finland and even taking RJ practises to different companies.
    This microcircle is OK.
    We have worked even together with Belinda Hopkins from UK.
    How are You today ?

    Jens Gellin, mediator, traner

  15. Thank you for the sharing. Feeling hopeful when I hear how widespread this revolution is. :)

    The micro-circles I described is a modified version from the full Restorative Circles process. If you are curious to read more about the full RC process, there is info and videos on the page. I also highly recommend the "Restorative Approaches to Racial Conflict" article (go down to where it says "peace review"):

    yours with care,

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