For the purpose of this writing, I will use the term restorative justice. If you need to replace it with transformative justice, community accountability, or call it banana pudding, you can do so. At the end of the day, it’s about doing the work.
I have a vision that feels out of grasp
We have a desperate need for true, abolition based restorative justice in community spaces. Far too often, restorative justice is either used to protect harm causers from consequences due to their favorability or it is used in name, but in reality, is just a community version of carceral domination logics wrapped up in liberation language. Neither of these are OK.
In addition, restorative justice practitioner work at the grassroots level is highly unsustainable. Often BIPOC femmes, the work goes unpaid or underpaid, either due to a devaluing of the work or due to an inability for a group to pay, sometimes both. Until capitalism is abolished, which won’t be tomorrow, next Tuesday, or the week after that, everyone has to earn a living. To be clear, I’m talking about community-level restorative justice practitioners, not the practitioner with the shiny-new certificate from some accredited place that is going to go work in the school with some makeshift watered-down version of restorative justice.
I envision a network of abolition-trained restorative justice practitioners that could be called upon to facilitate or co-facilitate restorative justice processes for grassroots organizations and non-profits, as well as for family/friend/neighborhood groups.
The practitioners would go through a “Restorative Justice Academy” and learn practical skills beginning with the cultural history of RJ from the First Nations of Africa, Australia, and North America, among others. They would learn about mutual aid, non-violent communication, consent-based organizing, anti-oppression and intersectionality, reasons v excuses, accountability, justice, harm, etc. This academy would be offered at pay-what-you-can-if-you-can scale, to avoid locking out certification the way academia does. As they develop the theory, they would then move into practice where they’d learn how to conduct simple circles. They would then grow into learning how to go through entire processes (the tools we use are mix of Creative Interventions, Bay Area Transformative Justice, and other such tools). Our processes at RJC for example are three stages: identification, facilitation, and moving forward.
Identification: Find out who says they were harmed and by whom, and find out who is willing to own a harm, dispute part of it (i.e. they own part of it but not all of it), or deny the harm completely. Find out everyone’s story from their perspective. It’s not about finding the whole truth — or being a detective. You’d use this time to learn what disability, cultural, religious, or otherwise individualized needs and wants people involved have. You might learn it was a situation with mutual harms!
Facilitation: Based on what you’ve learned, you would create a facilitation process that meets the needs of the harm recipient(s) and harm causer(s). Facilitation models we use include listening circles, victim/harm causer reconciliation circles, storyteller seminars, peer panel conference, restorative mediations, and others. These facilitation models require creativity and although we have blueprints for them, they are designed to be modifiable based on specific needs of the community. Sometimes these conference have the harm recipient(s) and harm causer(s) in the same space, if they consent to that, other times, multiple conferences are held. The disrupted community (those not involved in the harm but in disruption due to it) listens and participates up to their comfort level and ultimately, they will decide what is true. Facilitators aren’t judges or juries, they help those involved tell their stories.
Moving Forward: Moving forward doesn’t always mean forgiveness or welcoming someone back into a group (but it can!) A moving forward conference is where the community, together with the harm recipient(s) and harm causer(s) and/or their support systems, create consent around what happens now. What guidelines and processes will the group implement to better prevent this harm? What individual actions and consequences will the harm causer(s) agree to, based on consent with a firm grasp on consequences, to correct their behavior and prevent themselves and others from enacting the same/similar harm? What needs does the harm recipient(s) have that can be fulfilled by them only, them and their support system, and the community at-large? And yes, what needs does the harm causer have to build conditions around doing and being better? This is all complied in a Moving Forward Agreement and requires the consent of all involved. It’s up to the community to honor that agreement, facilitators only help put it together.
Once someone is trained as a facilitator, they could then be called on to take on a “Project” (we don’t call RJ processes ‘cases’). A project may involve one harm causer and one harm recipient, or it may involve multiple parties, or cases of mutual harm. They get complicated! It may require more than one facilitator!
The trained facilitator consents to take the project and the group/organization pays what they can to cover the costs, including costs of materials, but also labor.
Internal RJ processes almost never work: people are undertrained, under resourced, and “just want to get back to work”, so it’s easier to either just cancel the harm causer or cancel the harm recipient than it is to do the hard accountability process.
The facilitator would have the support of their peers and the network as a whole, who can help them with their decisions, or if they’re having a hard time with a participant or making an accommodation. The facilitators would exist on a “contract” basis and could take on as much, or as little, work as they feel up to. They could also decline work if a project is too triggering or out of their sphere.
Accountability and RJ processes are usually lengthy, they are not available on the dollar menu at your favorite fast-food joint. They require time, energy, and tons of labor.
This isn’t about commodifying restorative justice, it would be about providing reasonable pay for the labor. If a group would rather do an internal process, they could hire a facilitator to help supervise and provide guidance.
Mutual Aid Group of Acme, a group of ten volunteers, provides tri-weekly food shares. One day, a regular, trusted volunteer, Joe, causes harm to another regular, trusted volunteer, Amy. The harm has made Amy feel uncomfortable and might endanger their willingness to do this work. The group meets and asks if it would be okay with Amy and Joe if they agree to not work together while a process is underway. Amy agrees, and states that she is rarely available for the Tuesday share anyway, and would agree to not come to any Tuesday shares for the time-being. Joe is disappointed he won’t be able to go to the Sunday or Friday as he has loyally, but is grateful he can still be in community. The other eight volunteers agree this is a just, reasonable restorative intervention (a quick action used in the immediacy of a harm to reduce/prevent ongoing/continual harm while a process is underway — these are fluid and change over time), and they also all agree that if Joe shows up any day other than Tuesday, without explicit consent, he is in violation of his own agreement and the groups consented agreement, and as a consequence, he may be dismissed entirely until (and maybe even after) the process is complete. Lena is asked to contact the RJ Network and bring on a facilitator, because the group truly believes that Joe and Amy’s harm can be transformed.
Lena contacts the RJ Network and a facilitator named Ella agrees to take the project. Ella has reviewed the initial information and believes that they are fit for the role. Ella then introduces themselves and does a welcoming with both parties in the conflict separately and helps each of them build their own support networks, while also going over mutual consent and expectations of one another in the process. Lena has reviewed the restorative intervention agreement with Ella, who agrees that it is a fair intervention. Ella suggests that the group revisit this intervention every 30 days while the process is ongoing to ensure it is being honored and to determine if adjustments need to be made. Ella also does a welcoming with the other eight members and proactively answers any questions they may have, while also dispelling myths and misconceptions about restorative justice processes.
From there, Ella will continue on with Identification until every harm has been identified and until every harm has been owned, disputed, or denied. After such, Ella will have more of an idea of what facilitation-model is best suited for this situation. Some questions Ella may ask:
Does Amy feel safe being in the same room as Joe, or will Joe need to be called in on a conference line? Or will Ella need to conduct two conferences: Amy’s story and Joe’s story, with the eight other group members present, so Amy doesn’t have to see/hear Joe. That’s for Amy to decide.
What are the power dynamics in the situation? Is the harm causer of a marginalized identity but the recipient of a privileged identity? Is the power dynamic in the group even enough to provide as much of a bias-free process as possible? Is it a white-led group but the alleged harm causer is not white? How could this impact the accountability process and what tools can mitigate this (i.e.. peer panel conference instead of a mediation)
After facilitation is complete, which may be one conference or a couple, Ella will help facilitate a Moving Forward Conference and provide guidance on building practical, but restorative, moving forward agreements. Ella agrees to check in with the group every 2 weeks to find out if Amy, Joe, and the community are honoring their collective agreements and if collectively consented upon consequences are being upheld. If they aren’t, Ella can help guide the group on what intervention may be needed. The group will decide when they no longer need Ella’s visits and it ultimately becomes up to them to honor their collective agreements moving forward.
That sounds like a lot of work!
Abolition is work. It is not easy work. It is important work.
So, how could this work? How can grassroots organization like mutual aid groups afford this?
That’s the barrier — they really can’t! Perhaps, though, if they are dues-paying organization (like the DSAs of the world — and lord do they need RJ processes), a portion of those dues could go into an RJ fund in case a need arises. Or perhaps this service could also exist for well-funded non profits that allegedly claim to use RJ/TJ in their work, you know the one’s I’m talking about. Those non-profits all pay an annual due to fund the network to keep it alive. Grassroots organizations would then be asked to pay what they can if they can to uphold it. The how to fund it is where I’m the most lost, I am not absent the ideas — just the resources.
But abolition-based (truly abolition based) restorative justice processes are a MUST in community-based work at ALL levels, whether it is a highly funded non-profit or a volunteer-based mutual aid group. We will not cancel our way into liberation. We will not transform society by replicating carcerality and claiming its protecting victims — if carcerality works, then the U.S. would be a super safe place to be for all. At the same time, yes, we must protect victims and the vulnerable.
The RJ Network could also be used for pay-what-you-can (grassroots) or fee-based trainings (for non-profits) proactively: anti-oppression training, consent training, responding to harm training, how to establish restorative interventions. mental health first aid, mutual aid training, etc.
Further, the Network could be used for regular, routine healing and/or accountability circles unrelated to a specific harm to help community members deal with the weight of the world, their own traumas, or heal from a past community disruption. These circles would be pay-what-you-can (grassroots) or fee-based (non-profits).
We have to put the work into restorative justice/abolition being part of our organizing, not just something we say….and then don’t do…when harm/conflict happens. Otherwise, we’ll always stay at square one.
What do you think? Love it, like it, hate it? Want to fund it and create it? Let’s do it…