Everyone comes to Restorative Justice/Practices by a unique route. Here’s my story:
For 20-plus years I’ve been visiting schools – as an education journalist, a Providence School Board member and a mom of public school kids. It’s always seemed obvious that improving the mental and social health of everyone involved would improve just about everything else about schools — from disruptive behavior and chronic absenteeism to poor test scores. So I’d been on the alert for that magic ingredient that would strengthen relationships and help school communities manage conflict.
The solutions that emerged in this search were all programs, add-ons. They focused on changing kids’ behavior without much attention to how the adults affected a school’s culture. And each was a budget line-item begging to be cut. Ultimately they were all only nominally helpful, leaving kids to become increasingly alienated – from learning, from adults and their communities, even from each other.
Then a 2007 trip to Northern Ireland introduced me to Restorative Justice. Literally every Belfast native I talked to, including hotel staff and taxi drivers, worried that if their country couldn’t shift to a more Restorative mindset, their punitive, angry culture would blow up into the violence of the “Troubles” all over again.
Apparently the Restorative movement had been going viral internationally, but who knew? I’d seen nothing of it in the US. On my last night in Belfast, I attended a lecture by Dr. Donald Shriver that rocked my world. An accomplished mediator who’d worked on the post-apartheid South African Reconciliation Commission, Shriver told powerful, riveting stories about using Restorative tools to guide difficult, enraging conflicts into a collective vision all the parties could live with.
I thought, surely schools could use these same practices as an everyday way of building interpersonal connection, cultivating empathy and handling issues that arise among angry or disaffected kids and adults. If misbehavior is really only a symptom of issues with deeper roots, no wonder punitive responses only seem to make things worse — at home, school, justice systems, playgrounds, literally anywhere.
I returned from Ireland and soaked up all the research and training I could find on Restoration. The benefits of shifting from punitive to restorative seemed painfully obvious to me, but in reality, changing the interpersonal climate of so many of our schools and organizations is a huge lift.
Then in 2009 Dr. Fran Gallo, the visionary Superintendent of Schools in Central Falls, asked me if I could help her pilot Restorative Practices in her district. The work gained enough ground that in 2015, the Central Falls School District, YRP and two research organizations received a $3.68 million federal grant to implement a conferencing program at 6 secondary schools. Family Service of Rhode Island helped us assemble and manage what grew into a team of 10. And the Sargent Center reached out to partner with us on a credentialing program for Restorative Practioners in the state.
Restoration is a mindset, not a mechanical fix. Its simple, sandbox-level tools can heal alienation, restore human connection and reknit the frayed fabric of community. My personal goal is someday to see every one of Rhode Island’s 200,000 children growing up in a restorative environment. Right now the Youth Restoration Project’s goal is to grow a statewide community of Restorative Practitioners who can effectively teach, practice and model our tools and principles, and make Rhode Island our first Restorative state. We want to engage with anyone interested in this work — please come join us.
With Love & Sincerity,