9 Duke students. 9 different Duke paths. One new community.

Last semester I had the privilege of co-facilitating – with my fellow RJ practitioner, Chris – the first ever Restorative Justice House Course at Duke. When I say that it was a privilege, I really do mean it. Nine Duke students, who may have tangentially known each other or crossed paths, came together for an hour and a half each week on Zoom to share our fears, our successes, our family stories, and our passions. After our twelve sessions together, it felt as if we had known each other for much, much longer. We felt connected. That is the power of RJ. And because of this experience, I know that building an inclusive and authentic community is POSSIBLE. In fact, it is within everyone’s reach.

Restorative Justice is about truth-telling, it’s about really listening – not to respond – just to hear from the perspective of someone else’s lived experiences. Each week the group engaged in a circle practice, before diving into some of the more academic conversations surrounding RJ: how to use it in criminal justice or education settings, for example. All of the other RJ Fellows joined for “guest lectures” and they too were welcomed into the special space that was our Zoom class.

What I learned: In order for a new group of people to trust one another, a willingness to engage and share and a very clear intentionality behind the conversations are essential. The stories shared in an RJ space are not just about what happened, but how that made us feel. Whether you are conscious of it or not, when you are in a circle – passing around, in this case, an invisible talking piece – you feel a sense of comfort. From my many circle experiences over the last two years, it feels as if you must dig deeper. You let yourself be vulnerable and no matter the circle topic, you feel how that vulnerability makes you stronger, and how it makes your surrounding community stronger, too.

Now, in the midst of a global pandemic that largely caused the erasure of community, it’s more important than ever that we are thoughtful about the ways in which we interact with one another. That we consider how we are going to restore our communities as we begin to find a new sense of normalcy. We have what some might call a blank slate, a rare opportunity to re-imagine what communities should feel and look like. RJ may be the perfect start.

A Better Way: RJ at School (and really anywhere)

There’s no denying that I was frustrated. I asked my 7th grade students repeatedly to choose a book from the shelf and begin reading quietly to themselves. Instead, they were riled up, running around the classroom, shouting at one another, and certainly not reading.

I inhaled and exhaled, asked my students to quiet down, and took advantage of the momentary pause in chaos.

“When you all don’t follow my directions after I’ve asked a few times, it makes me feel like you don’t respect what I’ve asked you to do. I really want us to help one another succeed, and that means we need to get our work done before we can enjoy free time. So now, when I ask you to quiet down and begin your reading, I’d really like you to try doing that the first time I give instructions.”

The word "teach" spelled on lettered diceMy students looked up at me, wide eyed, a bit confused I think, but mindful of what I had just expressed. They could tell that I was hurt by their lack of attention to my instructions, and that I was being honest and serious with them now. Later that day, a couple of my students asked if I was still upset with them. I told them that more than upset, I was disappointed and even a bit hurt, because I felt that respect should go both ways. And that requires them to do their part as well.

My students’ reaction to how I shared my feelings is – I believe – the goal of educating children. I want them to learn that when we are hurt and frustrated, there are ‘better’ ways of sharing those emotions. I want them to internalize that our actions have consequences, both good and bad. I want them to learn that respect and understanding goes both ways in any kind of relationship. In order for these lessons to transpire, as the teacher, I need to model that. Really we all do.

Restorative justice provides a framework for ways in which we can create community and space for adults and children alike to support one another, learn with one another, and grow alongside one another. What we say matters – but how we say it matters even more. Affective statements are simple restorative practices to guide interactions with anyone…even when it’s difficult to remember that there’s a ‘better’ way to react when things get a little out of control.

Here’s an easy template for affective statements:

When you ______, I feel ______. I value _____, so next time I would like you to _______.

Try it sometime whether with students, friends, loved ones or work colleagues. You might find a “better” way  to make room for all of us to find solace, connection and amends.