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Community justice: Not to you or for you, but with you

Nov 19, 2009

by Christa Pierpont. This is a selection of an article from a special online complement to the Summer 2008 issue of ACResolution, Vol 7, Issue 4. The Association for Conflict Resolution has given permission for it to be used on RJOnline. The complete article is attached.

....The “magic” of restorative practices comes from a principled belief that when there is a breach in relationships, people can re-story their lives (often in gifted ways), given an active and supported responsibility to do so. It is clear from the research report, Restorative Justice: The Evidence, (Lawrence W. Sherman and Heather Strang, Smith Institute, 2007) that individuals can transcend large and small wrongs in a highly satisfactory way with improved long-term consequences when restorative practices are used. Our next question was: Could this opportunity be expanded from individuals to a wider sense of cultural harms?

In particular, could restorative processes begin to address underlying racial anger and fears in our region without exacerbating negative economic realities? These questions grew out of dynamics we were discovering as we explored the history of public school education in Virginia. When the RCF studied school disciplinary statistics for public schools, we found a significantly higher rate of disciplinary action for low-income and minority youth. Efforts are now being made to reduce out-of-classroom placements and to transition to more restorative disciplinary practices, but it will take decades and funding to re-build skills for individuals who have given up on the public school system.

Restorative practices are not a means to do something to someone or even for them in order to facilitate constructive changes. Restorative justice and restorative practices are intended to be a multi-party transformation to facilitate healing and community safety. But to succeed, authentic community voices must be at the table. We understood that the racism table was one that was too painful and unsafe for many people, and we questioned ourselves on how much of an investment we could afford to make without moving too far off the RCF’s mission. As Karen Waters commented, “If you have to ask for an apology, what good is it?” She later stated that some form of restitution would need to be considered in order to make the process meaningful. There have been noble efforts by individuals in our community to attempt to address racism, but when the RCF looked at the economic bottom line for families, we did not see promising results…..

Looking for greater confidence on the matter, I attended a presentation by Hillel Levine, director of the International Center for Conciliation (ICfC). Professor Levine confirmed for me the necessity for people to address historical cultural traumas in order to move forward on immediate matters that require sustained trust and cooperation. I am still in the sharing stages of working with the information I gleaned from that workshop. Levine’s insights on working with memorized trauma and its energy for continuing social traumas is worth a separate study itself. For more information, you can find the ICfC’s website at

Revalorization of a community through story-telling, ritual and shared fundamental interconnections with other community members has a way of melting away the sting of public policies that limit people. While we can individually support such efforts, racial reconciliation work is going to need to take a greater leap with strategic planning and a long-term commitment from government, business and faith community leadership. And it will be critically important to recruit and support young black leaders in this work if we are to overtake generational economic losses.

In my most recent conversation with EMU/CJP’s Associate Director Amy Potter, who had just returned from doing post-war trauma healing work in Sierra Leone, she said that her reconciliation work in Africa is evolving by listening to the invested needs of each group. She noted four basic principles:

  1. There must be space for truth-telling;

  2. Justice must be served;

  3. As people meet together, they need to be open to mercy not just retribution; and

  4. A greater peace (or security) must be a primary goal of the work together.

I believe that these four principles could help guide most discussions about social justice and racism.....

Read the whole article.

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