Putting the “Rest” in Restorative Justice

Despite being in my third semester as a Restorative Justice Fellow, I have never felt less restorative in my personal life. I am teaching the RJ House Course and leading RJ teach-in sessions for the campus, yet the values I teach each week feel farther and farther away.

Alongside–and partially due to–the pandemic, my family is enduring some particularly tough challenges and changes. In August, I proposed an ultimatum to one of my parents, and when my requests for a change in behavior were not met, I ceased contact. Drawing this boundary was one of the more difficult things I’ve had to do in my 21 years, but it was an act of self-love, and it has served me well up until this point.

I recently found myself at a crossroads: my demands of that parent have been mostly met, and I have the opportunity to have a safe and facilitated conversation with them. If you would have told me in August that I would have this opportunity, I wouldn’t have hesitated for a moment. But now that the option is sitting in front of me, I can’t find it within myself to restore this relationship.

This olive branch was not extended in a vacuum: it’s midterm season, I’m applying to internships, and we’re now facing a campus-wide lockdown. I want to repair this harm, I do, but I am exhausted. This semester, I finally gave myself a break from overloading, but family drama can feel like a fifth–and sixth–class.

Perhaps I can begin to treat my lack of action not as an absence of restorative values, but as the presence of restorative values. As an RJ practitioner and teacher, I am often thinking about harm at an arm’s length; I speak hypothetically of harm, but I am not often forced to consider it in my own life.

RJ teaches us to focus on the needs of the person harmed. Well, I am the person harmed, and what I need is a break. I am not acting against what I’ve learned in my three semesters studying RJ, I am acting in accordance with a core tenet of RJ. If delaying this conversation in favor of emotional and physical rest is what I need, then, as a practitioner of RJ, I have to make sure that’s what I get.

When we think of acting restoratively, we often think of action items. But, if this experience–and this year–has taught me anything, it’s that sometimes restoration can only happen at rest. During this lockdown and during the rest of this semester, I encourage you to focus on this restorative aspect of RJ: listen to your needs, and make sure you provide for them.

Unexpected Lessons from Bob Dylan

If I’m being honest, the past (almost) two months since we were sent home from school have not been easy. As I do in any period of sadness or frustration, I’ve been listening to a lot of Bob Dylan. His words always seem to be speaking to me, but one of my favorite tracks of his recently offered some timely advice. In “Things Have Changed,” Dylan confesses:

“People are crazy and times are strange

I’m locked in tight, I’m out of range

I used to care, but things have changed”

One of the core tenets of Restorative Justice is the importance of not only being ready for difficult conversations, but entering those conversations with a restorative state of mind. If you hope to exact revenge or inflict shame upon someone who has hurt you, you can’t effectively resolve the problem, and you’re still left with the anger, hurt, and shame.

I am fortunate to have had a stable, loving, and supportive home life for all of my twenty years. But no family is without occasional strife, and since we’ve all been back in the house together, my family has definitely dealt with more than a few tense conflicts.

We are all passionate, opinionated people; with two lawyers for parents and a paralegal for a sister, we are known to have heated dinner-table debates. While in the past these conversations felt fun, now that we are all “locked in tight” together, I’ve found them to be more harmful than productive.

Without a place to release steam, I’m embarrassed to say that I’m entering into family debates with intent to belittle other family members or make them feel bad for their views. My anger only serves to cause harm and increase the tension in the house. So, taking a note from Dylan, I’ve realized that “things have changed,” and it’s alright if I no longer “care,” or engage with contention.

I know I can’t be alone in this familial struggle, and so I challenge you to really think about why you are entering into each discussion you have during this exhausting time. These are some of the questions I’ve been asking myself when deciding whether or not to engage.

  • What am I trying to gain? What is the end goal of my engagement?
  • Is this productive? Will I or other participants learn something valuable?
  • Will I be able to move past this discussion in a reasonable amount of time, or will it burden me?

The community building aspect of RJ is critical during this time, but we could all also learn something from the values of conflict resolution. You don’t owe anybody your engagement in conflict, but you do owe yourself kindness as you continue to settle into our new normal. Dylan reminds us, “People are crazy and times are strange…things have changed.”