Relationships to Resilience
By: Ramone Sanders
It was the winter of 2015—a weekend in February, to be more specific. I was a service member working as an education specialist with Public Allies Milwaukee, now known as Public Allies Wisconsin, and we found ourselves in a lodge nestled in the woods of Sister Bay, WI. Public Allies was my first introduction to restorative practices and the art of circle-keeping, and we had begun our term of service in September 2014 and now found ourselves at our mid-year retreat.
At this point of our service, we had engaged in restorative practices as a relationship/community building, low-stakes approach. Conflict began to occur through our work together and with our host organizations, as it naturally does. Prior presentations of learning that incorporated guided rounds of questions allowed for dialogue and critical thinking, which helped to prepare us for the collective challenges we would face that weekend.
Our first circle of the weekend quickly exposed our discomfort and resistance to an intentional space for conflict transformation laying the foundation for repair. The “circle keeper” and co-facilitators led us through a circle-opening ritual that was familiar to us all. We agreed to the community guidelines, and the circle was open to those to speak if and when they felt moved to speak. At first, there was an uncomfortable silence; we had no prompt, no guidance, just silence. A brave person began to speak; he was familiar with this type of process, but he was our peer. Therefore a couple of peers soon became agitated with our colleague attempting to direct the circle. As folks became more vocal about each others’ critiques, the circle devolved into a snowball effect of addressing conflicts that had lingered and patterns of behavior and disagreement. The “circle keepers” allowed the conflict to occur only by interjecting to remind us of group agreements breached.
We fought, we blamed, we shamed, we projected, we made assumptions, and we cried. That first day of circles (there were three extensive circles per day, from Thursday through Sunday) was exhausting; the cliques remained, and nothing seemed resolved. There were whispers of this particular process causing harm and not worth it. Folks weren’t ready to take responsibility for how they showed up within our community. The second day of circles seemed to shift the energy. During opportunities to reflect, guided by our circle keepers, we began cultivating a brave space as a community; a brave space to share pieces of ourselves that we dared not before. Guided by prompts carefully crafted out of the common themes of our collective conflicts, we began to feel less defensive. The cliques dissolved, and we cried, we laughed, we inspired, we apologized, we made commitments, we validated, we affirmed, we reflected, and we loved. We cultivated a “Beloved Community.”
Our final circle incorporated a group dance session on Sunday afternoon to close out our experience. This was a cathartic release to help ground us as we prepare to leave and commit to more authentic and vulnerable relationship goals. We left Sister Bay, WI, with newly formed connections, deeper existing connections, commitments towards repair, and a stronger sense of self and community.
Following our mid-year retreat, there was an open invitation for folks to participate in a circle-keeping training led by the practitioners we had become familiar with over our weekend experience. I jumped at the opportunity to learn how to facilitate circles with my friends, family, and the young folks I served. This was when I learned about restorative practices. I learned the “magic” of circles manifest from intentional processes and rituals relevant to those involved in cultivating authentic community and conflict transformation.
Without the intentional efforts to implement restorative processes and rituals every Friday for eight hours leading to our mid-year retreat, none of the repair work would have been possible. The way folks chose to navigate conflict within relationships and the support we offered each other would likely not have manifested in the way it did. Our relationships extended beyond our proximity; we were engaged in an authentic community willing to address our differences and take responsibility for our roles within our community. We began to demonstrate remarkable resilience throughout our relationships.
I continued learning restorative processes and rituals, which led me to restorative practices in schools. It was first with the Milwaukee Public Schools District restorative practices initiative. As a volunteer, I identified the connections between restorative practices and social and emotional learning theories. The concepts of "educating the whole child,” peaceable schools, restorative learning communities, liberatory education, and so on became my passion.
I am now the restorative justice training manager at Longmont Community Justice Partnership. Our professional development course, Relationships to Resilience, offers restorative tools for the classroom and school communities. The goal or outcome is to cultivate student leadership through restorative processes and rituals, to complement the learning environment. Proactively using restorative tools within learning environments assists all the folks involved by becoming more familiar with restorative processes and language. The benefit of a restorative culture of understanding allows for an exploration of alternatives to punitive forms of discipline, like suspensions or incarceration.
The continuum of restorative practices swings from prevention to intervention, utilizing restorative processes to cultivate relationship building to restorative processes addressing more specific situations. This particular restorative tools series lands in the prevention spectrum.The prevention spectrum focuses on restorative processes that aim to cultivate authentic relationships and familiarity with restorative language and processes.
With the support of Matt Hoffmiester, a national trainer for Sources of Strength (a social and emotional learning framework), we co-facilitate a participatory learning opportunity focused on developing relationships and the core restorative skills for facilitating restorative processes. We dive into facilitating connection circles and restorative conversations; we practice the core restorative skills within these two particular processes.
The use of connection circles assists with developing and deepening relationships among students, educators, support staff, and administrators. The proactive use of formal or informal circles also develops a greater understanding of restorative practice processes. Relationship is the foundation for restorative practices in learning communities. Authentic relationships are crucial when cultivating buy-in from students to engage in more formal restorative processes that address maladapted behavior. Circle facilitators can model authenticity and vulnerability, allowing space for students to reflect, relate, and actively listen to one another. Proactive circles set the stage for a multitude of dynamic restorative processes.
Additionally, our facilitation of restorative conversations focuses on an intentional one-on-one process to address a concern directly. These conversations utilize a series of restorative questions to discover or understand what needs are communicated from the behavior presented, creating an opportunity for students to regulate. Restorative conversations can address conflict and miscommunication directly in a way that attempts to remove the behavior from the person to mitigate shame and blame. The goal of a restorative conversation is to establish relevant verbal agreements that focus on repair and a plan for moving forward. Using restorative skills, such as affective questions and affective statements, allows participants to lean in with curiosity and address unmet needs. Restorative conversations can be used peer to peer, student to student, student to educator, with parents, support staff, and supervisors.
These foundational processes promote a dynamic cultural shift to learning environments if modeled authentically and ethically. The use of circles allows for equal voice and establishes a versatile process that could be used to establish group agreements; navigate challenging curricula; community healing; celebrations; departures; and reintegration. Restorative conversations assist in setting, resetting, and reinforcing boundaries. Restorative conversations allow for addressing concerns or reminders that don’t elicit shame. The restorative skills needed for these foundational processes lead us to cultivate relationships “with” all our learning community members.
Relationship is the foundation that leads to resiliency.
For more information or opportunities to learn about restorative practices processes or volunteer with LCJP, visit here:https://www.lcjp.org/training-with-lcjp-2
Restorative Justice Training Manager
Longmont Community Justice Partnership