In the context of the growing awareness of the deep inequities within our culture, institutions and society, the idea of promoting proactive restorative practices is becoming increasingly popular. The fact that restorative practices (RP) can be used in a wide variety of settings, not just as an alternative to a reactive, punitive justice system, is very appealing to its advocates.
Associate Professor Diane Elze is one of those advocates. “The punitive systems in this country disproportionally target people of color,” she said. “RP is a different way of thinking about how to intervene when conflict or wrongdoing occurs. RP doesn’t just respond to and repair harm; it’s also aimed at building community and strengthening relationships. Wherever people are together, RP can be used.”
Rather than taking a traditional approach to conflict resolution, i.e., you broke the rules/law, you must be punished, RP brings the stakeholders in a conflict together to communicate; to work through the issues and consider alternative solutions.
Elze and Dina Thompson, the executive director of the Erie County Restorative Justice Coalition (ECRJC), agree that when more widely integrated, the proactive RP process has the potential to prevent conflict and heal individuals, communities and culture.
Thompson is also an adjunct instructor at the school and has been teaching a course in the use of RP since 2015. “RP is an important skill and philosophy for social work students to have,” iterated Elze. “It can be utilized in many different settings, like child welfare, criminal and juvenile justice systems, and other service delivery systems.”
“RP could be used to reduce the ‘school to prison pipeline’ cycle that we know exists. Instead of suspending kids, sometimes the same kids, multiple times, RP establishes a process for looking at what caused the challenging behavior,” Thompson said. “When harm or wrongdoing has occurred, it brings those who have been affected together to find solutions, hold people accountable and change behavior. We know that the current system is not working; repeated suspensions often lead to a failure to graduate. And 68% of incarcerated people don’t have a high school diploma.”
There’s a lot of work to do around examining our own positionality. Especially, for example, in public school districts, where the majority of teachers are white—they need to be committed to examining their biases, behaviors, and feelings.
“The Erie County Restorative Justice Coalition was created in 2013 to look at alternative solutions, especially for communities and people of color who are negatively impacted by systems, including schools, criminal justice, and society in general,” added Thompson. “We received training from the International Institute for Restorative Practices, and learned how to train others in the necessary skill set. We would like to see RP used in places like schools, policing and in the courts, to offer alternatives to punitive practices.”
Without other major cultural and structural changes, there are challenges to the practice. “I’m thrilled to be part of the adjunct staff at UB; it gives me opportunities to have conversations about racial impact and potential healing,” she said. “But the bigger picture is that we have not addressed this country’s original harms: Black people were stolen from their land; Indigenous people’s land was stolen and they were harmed to the point of genocide. A portion of the country continues to prosper from that, without our true history being acknowledged or taught. How is anyone—educators, social workers, administrators, lawyers, psychologists— supposed to deal with the trauma they will encounter, if they are not prepared to address it? The trauma and the biases are just perpetuated.”
Elze concurs that structural inequities are barriers to deeper integration of RP. “There’s a lot of work to do around examining our own positionality. Especially, for example, in public school districts, where the majority of teachers are white—they need to be committed to examining their biases, behaviors, and feelings,” she said.
The process can also help people learn about themselves; not all harms are intentional, and talking about it could help someone understand how a microaggression or insensitive remark may have been perceived. Elze has also been at the forefront of developing an internal RP process for the school, intended for responding to racism and other forms of oppression experienced by students. The school’s process, as defined by a year of collaborative exploration and planning, is outlined in a five-page document that is in the MSW Student Handbook and the Field Education Manual. It begins with this paragraph:
[UBSSW] students may experience or witness racism, heterosexism, cissexism (i.e., oppressive behavior and policies targeting transgender/non-binary people) and other forms of oppression in their classroom and/or field placement. These incidents could involve faculty, staff, field liaisons, field educators, or other students. The UBSSW is committed to addressing these incidents in a trauma-informed and restorative manner when they occur.
“Over the years, we heard from more and more students about experiencing forms of oppression in their field placements and within the school, explained Elze, who is also associate dean for academic affairs. “We realized that it was important to have a restorative process to address those situations. We use it to try and keep those who feel harmed and those who did (or are perceived as having done) the harm in relationships with each other. Another strong tenet of the process is that it must be mutual and voluntary. Within it, each tells their story; there can be an element of consciousness-raising, a feeling of becoming connected.”
Prior to the pandemic, Elze and Thompson’s work resulted in an annual, community-inclusive Restorative Justice Day that took place for four years, and that involved multiple units on campus and community organizations. They remain committed to deepening RP wherever and whenever they can, whether through efforts with the Buffalo Public Schools to support the practices being implemented, creating a deeper relationship between the UBSSW and the ECRJC, and encouraging more social workers to learn about and use RP.
Dina Thompson, executive director of the Erie County Restorative Justice Coalition, tells a story that illustrates how RP can work. “When the coalition was being formed and we were preparing to offer the RP course at the UBSSW, we attended a lot of community meetings around UB South Campus,” she said. “During this process, we learned that, after a huge of-campus fraternity party, students were accused of stealing ornaments from a neighbor’s garden. So we were able to do some healing work with neighborhood and campus.
A UB security guard actually came up with the idea to do a [restorative-style] conference. Everyone was willing to participate; with community business and nonprofits participating in the discussion. Everyone came together, and the harmed person told her story, saying that she valued her ornaments very much because they were inherited. And the young man who did the harm listened, and was remorseful. They agreed on a solution: he would mow her lawn, and do other volunteer work in the neighborhood. It was so successful, and it became so impactful that there was a ripple effect; the entire fraternity began volunteering in the neighborhood. Before that process, they all hadn’t realized the value of the community.