Rio de Janeiro is in the headlines , as a Brazilian military operation seeks to clear a large slum ("favela" in Portugese) of drug traffickers. Military occupation of the area is expected to last at least through May of next year. With guns and military might, the government is seeking to "pacify" the area.
There is another way to approach the problem. Dominic Barter, raised in England, followed his Brazilian girlfriend to Rio de Janeiro in 1992. There, he was struck by the deep divide between the rich and the poor. In Rio, 20 percent of the population lives in crowded favelas where shoddy, multistory houses are crammed together on steep hillsides, sometimes next to the most affluent parts of town. Drug gangs employ many of the favelas' youth. In Rio alone, thousands of people die every year in gun violence, and murder is the principle cause of death for people under 25.
When he saw the conditions in the city, Dominic wanted to understand the connection between the "silent' violence of unequal wealth and opportunity distribution and the immediate violence of gang and police shoot outs. He speculated that perhaps people engaged in violence because the conflicts they were involved in were not being heard. He reasoned that if he walked into the pain, toward the point where the conflict was manifesting, and engaged with the issues, people would feel heard and the use of violence would diminish. He decided it was worth a try.
Not knowing what else to do, he began by simply showing up in a favela with a beach ball. As first the youth, and then the adults, got used to Dominic always being around, they began to tell him about the problems they were having with one another. He began to see patterns emerge in what they said. Drawing upon his background in theater, education and social change, Dominic began to envision creative engagement with the conflict, getting inside the conflict, not pacifying or controlling it.
In the mid-1990s, Dominic began working with favela residents, including drug gang members, developing nonviolent options. He did not want to set up a system for those who lack resources to learn to be quiet so that those who have more can not be bothered by them. In this regard, "We need more conflict and less tolerance with the present world," Dominic asserts.
He set out to create a space for conflict to manifest and "fully flower," as he says. To do so, he worked with Marshall Rosenberg, founder of the Center for Nonviolent Communication. Nonviolent Communication (NVC) is a system that studies how people use their power to create partnership and cooperation, "emphasizing compassion as the motivation for action rather than fear, guilt, blame, coercion, threat or the justification of punishment" ( www.cnvc.org ). Incorporating NVC into his understanding of conflict, Dominic learned to listen to what local people want and to respond to that.
In June 2000, a bus hijacking ended with the shooting of the hijacker and a passenger by a Rio police officer. Dominic saw the events unfold on television and was shocked by what he perceived to be the militancy of the police reaction. He called everyone he knew, asking them to learn with him how to deal with such situations differently.
First, they learned themselves, then they trained others, then they suggested the use of nonviolent methods of conflict resolution to the police. This led to Dominic and his cohorts mediating between favela residents and police. They also began to mediate between gangs. They called the process that first developed in the mid-1990's Restorative Circles .
Dominic has learned many lessons while working in the midst of widespread violence in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro. The existence of relationship is universal. Everyone and everything exists in relationship to the broader world. It is in our relationships with other humans that we discover our own humanity. The Restorative Circles process is designed to heal relationships by leading people to discover their shared humanity.
He has come to realize that how we confront our differences is a fundamental question that every culture must face. To find meaningful solutions, we must be fearless in facing what is going on around us. We must think outside the box, and we can't reject solutions just because they require us to modify our thinking. Dominic's sees conflict as something to be engaged with, an opportunity to learn, not as something to be "resolved."
In contrast to other systems, his system does not focus on guilt and blame, as this gives rise to defensiveness. He is seeking engagement, honesty, transparency, even when it is painful and difficult. The community that uses this process carefully constructs a safe space of shared power so this can happen. Rather than import the binary, adversarial logic of specified victims and offenders, Restorative Circles recognize the complex constellation of pain and fear that violence, broken agreements and painful conflict can create for all those impacted. Many may feel victimized; many may see others as having offended them. All are seeking to recover dignity, respect, safety and justice.
The Restorative Circle process begins when a community (whether a family, business, school, neighborhood or court system) decides to engage with conflict consciously and elects to create a compassionate justice system. A signal is agreed upon, such as a box where anyone who wants to convene a Circle can let that desire be known. This information is communicated to a facilitator who commences the process.
There are three stages to the Restorative Circles process. During Pre-circles, the facilitator speaks to each party involved in or directly affected by the event that is being addressed. The facilitator determines what each person's connection to the event is, and what meaning the event has for each one.
In the Circle itself, each party has an opportunity to express his/her connection to the event, and how he/she responded to it. What each person was thinking when the act occurred and how he/she reacted reveals deeper meaning. The way in which these questions are asked provides an opportunity for those present to connect on a human level now, and to see the humanity of one another when the event occurred.