Precedent for Unprecedented Times

If there were one word in the English language that has had its moment in the spotlight over the past year, I think it would be: unprecedented. A quick search in email inbox reveals hundreds of emails from Duke administrators, companies, political campaigns and more addressing these “unprecedented times,” this “unprecedented moment,” and the uncertainty of the future. What this word has thinly veiled is simple: no one could have seen this coming, and no one knows what tomorrow will bring, and we have to face it together.

But, as we reach and pass the one-year mark of our last days on campus before Spring Break of 2020, as we commemorate what, for some of us, may have felt like our last “real” days of being college students, we face a scary reality. We face the reality that these are now precedented times—we have been here before, and we cannot go back. As a larger community, as individuals, as family members, as friends, we have suffered impenetrable loss over the past year. And I think there’s an important question to ask here: how do we restore when we’re not even out the other side yet? How do we heal from a trauma that is still ongoing? How can we find solidarity in our community without putting our community at risk?

As a student in the Restorative Justice house course last semester, I had backstage access to the power of restorative practices to facilitate healing in the midst of harm. I didn’t know what to expect from an online course meant to teach us about practices based on human connection and relationship-building. Each week, a group of nine students, some of whom had never spoken or known each other beyond a face they kept running into in big pre-med lectures, gathered in a Zoom room to learn about restorative justice and experience it through circle practice, a core restorative practice meant to create a space where everyone can speak and everyone listens, a space to forge community.

Many of us entered the Zoom room on the first day adamant about our typical reluctance to be vulnerable, and yet we found ourselves baring thoughts and experiences some of us may have never shared with even those closest to us—I certainly did. We dove into topics ranging from our relationships to our bodies, to what our upbringings had taught us about conflict, to how we felt about love and relationships, and for me this process of connection-building was in itself restoring. The knowledge that an authentic community could be built from the ground up from a distance was a powerful defense against the swelling tide of isolation during one of my loneliest semesters here at Duke. The hour and a half on Zoom did more than I could ever imagine to remind me that the world beyond my apartment’s cream-colored walls, deeply human and deeply flawed and deeply alive, isn’t as far away as it feels. The circle gave us the freedom to share ourselves, and in sharing we found pieces of ourselves inside each other.