My guest is award-winning journalist and author, Bob Koehler. Welcome back to OpEdNews, Bob.
You recently reprinted an older column on restorative justice. I'm intrigued. Can you tell us a bit about what it is?
BK: Restorative Justice -- RJ -- encompasses a number of practices and concepts, but begins with the notion that justice is about healing rather than punishment. It is a worldwide movement that has been slowly growing over the last 20 years or so, but it comes from the indigenous tradition of sitting in a circle and communing about matters of significance to the community. A circle is non-hierarchical; everyone in it is equal and everyone's presence is vital to the whole. I call this a state of "vibrant equality."
The peace circle is the cornerstone of Restorative Justice, and the most important part of the ritual of sitting in a peace circle is using a talking piece (a rock, a stuffed animal, a piece of driftwood -- anything you can hold in your hand, often with some meaning behind it). Only the person holding a talking piece can talk. It's passed around, clockwise or counterclockwise. Everyone gets a turn to either talk or pass. When it's not your turn to talk, you listen. People who think they are enemies -- rival gang members, for instance -- will listen to one another in a peace circle and discover how much they have in common. Restorative practices are the essence of common sense. Here in Chicago, where I live, RJ is gaining a significant foothold in the school and juvenile court systems, both of which are in desperate need of common sense.
JB: Talking things out - what a radically simple concept. How did you get involved with this?
BK: I first heard about peace circles through the friend of a friend -- a woman who was involved in mediation. She talked about peace circles, and the turnaround they brought about in people's lives, with so much enthusiasm I knew I needed to learn more. The universe works in mysterious ways. A day or two later, I got an email forward from an acquaintance announcing peace circle training at a local high school. While it was geared toward teachers, anyone was welcome. I immediately signed up for it and have never looked back. This training led me to further opportunities to train and learn; a door opened for me into the RJ community. As a syndicated columnist and self-proclaimed peace journalist, I began undertaking the complex task of writing about RJ and the way people achieve understanding with one another.
JB: I want to know everything, Bob! How does a "case" arrive at a peace circle? What's the mechanism? And what kind of cases show up at RJ? I'm assuming not everything qualifies.
BK: Well, it's important to remember that RJ is based on voluntary participation. It doesn't blend easily or simply with the criminal justice system, and bureaucratic attempts to make it do so distort the process to the point of meaninglessness. Cases don't simply show up -- indeed, RJ circles are tremendously diverse and aren't necessarily about dealing with harm or conflict. Those that do, usually called conflict circles, require voluntary participation of all parties: those who were injured, those who caused the harm. And often "those who were injured" is an all-inclusive label.
We're all wounded in various ways. Circles are complex and sometimes lengthy processes, especially if they are dealing with conflict; several circles may be necessary to build trust between people and get to the bottom of a harmful event. As Rupert Ross explained in his brilliant book Returning to the Teachings, indigenous justice isn't focused on "who did it?" but on "where is the harm?" A circle searches for the harm, which is often more psychological than physical. And many people may be harmed by a particular action, including those who love the perpetrator. All are welcome to be part of such a circle. Circles work by entering people's consciousness.
In a school setting, kids who know about circles will ask for a circle, or organize one themselves, if a fight threatens to erupt on the playground. It's a matter of spreading awareness, not creating a new bureaucratic category. RJ-aware schools have all kinds of circles. They may have morning check-in circles, in which the students simply talk about how they're doing in that moment. One teacher told me that such circles are like daily vitamins. They strengthen the social immune system. RJ isn't reactive; it's preventative.
JB:The comparison to daily vitamins is very apt. This is fascinating and exciting but still a bit hard to visualize. Can you give a specific example of RJ in action so we can see how it works, Bob?
BK: Here's a passage from a column I wrote a year and a half ago, about how the RJ process worked at a Chicago public school, Fenger High School:
"While peace circles can be held for any reason, a peer jury, which is run by students trained in the process, is held to deal with a dispute or the commission of harm; it's an alternative to suspension or other form of traditional punishment, which never deals with underlying causes. Peer jury circles give all sides a chance to listen, a chance to apologize and a chance to forgive.
"Sometimes all that matters is the listening. In a recent post at the Illinois Balanced and Restorative Justice website, staff member Robert Spicer wrote of an incident at Fenger that could have blown up into headline-grabbing violence. One morning, two boys in the lunchroom were trying out a new kind of handshake, which another student took offense to. He challenged them, they felt disrespected -- and suddenly eight students were involved and ready to fight.
"School security guards broke it up and, later that day, all the participants were part of a peer jury circle. They could have been suspended, but the anger would have continued to smoulder and could easily have erupted into violence at some point, at school or in the neighborhood.