Young people never cease to amaze me! I received a call today from Jacob, who is doing some work with us and attends a school we are supporting. He asked about the conference he is co-presenting at with me and then asked concerned if I could explain something. He asked about language, in particular what my thoughts were around “peace making circles.” I tend to prefer “Restorative Justice” to “peace making”, yet I hadn’t ever given it much thought. He raised this question because he was thinking that RJ is different from relationship building circle and in particular my definition of RJ and was looking to create alignment in his own thinking and is seeking out a whole theory. I will be the first to say it: we in the RJ community haven’t done a great job of creating a whole theory. What he saw was two different practices that don’t necessarily belong under the same definition.
His question brought up some real concerns… I had to take a moment and think about my definition of RJ, “A relational approach to conflict.” How does this connect to the community building practices of circles and peace making? In my definition of RJ there is an implicit assumption that we enter into relationship with conflict… Am I ok with this assumption? Are you? Should we instead believe there is a place of peace, a place devoid of conflict where we enter into community together?
Restorative Justice is closely connected to equity work and as such we know systemic and institutional racism (or sexism, or homophobia) are a real experience for people. If we enter into relationship with someone in the presence of systemic and institutional racism are we not in conflict immediately? Do we not therefore need to start building relationships and connection, eventually building to some level of understanding and empathy?
I stand by my first priority of RJ: Conflict happens. It isn’t a bad thing, but it is a thing. Conflict can be an intensely personal experience or it can be a systemic reality. Either way, it is our responsibility to build relationship in the face of that painful conflict.
Listen to young people… you might learn something, they might ask the question that drives your work forward… Thank you Jacob.