By Carly Thornburg, DRC Volunteer Manager
Building community is essential in today’s fragmented, digitalized world. Community can provide the connection, vulnerability, and support that all humans crave. How is community created? How does a community support its members? What happens when things go wrong in community?
This June, DRC Training Manager, Carrie Stringer, and I had the pleasure of attending two trainings that addressed these questions. The first was Introduction to Restorative Practices by the International Institute for Restorative Practices, or IIRP. Forty people from DRCs across the state gathered for 3 days to gain some consistent language and practices to offer restorative practices to schools. Restorative Practices are a set of tools and processes that focus on relationships: building them and restoring them. We were introduced to a circle facilitation model: a question is proposed, a talking piece is passed around, and each participant has an opportunity to respond based on their own experience without cross-talk.
The days began with having fun together. The circle model was used to share our hopes for restorative practices in Washington Schools, our take-aways from activities, and our perspectives. We played games to get to know each other. This practice allowed us to build trust and rapport as a learning community. Similar to mediation, restorative practices include using emotionally-intelligent affective statements and focusing on values and needs. Although we were eager to learn the tools to fix problems when they arise, this training taught me a valuable lesson: if community doesn’t exist in the first place, then there is nothing there to restore when an incident occurs. Later we learned a set of restorative questions and techniques to facilitate restorative conferences to address misbehaviors in a community.
Restorative conferencing focuses on including an offender in the process of creating a plan to repair harm done. In mediation and restorative conferences, the facilitators are neutral and everyone is offered uninterrupted time to share their story. Mediation can be considered a restorative practice, because it does have the ability to restore broken relationships; however mediation and restorative conferences are different. During mediation the parties are sometimes joined by support persons who simply listen and provide moral support. The process guides the parties through opening statements, agenda building, negotiation, and possibly a caucus. During a restorative conference each person is joined by a support person (or people) and representatives from the greater community who contribute to the process by providing their perspective. All parties are led through a series of questions using the circle model to explore what happened, how they were impacted, and what can be done to make things right.
The next training was called Cultural Competency and Beyond by the F.A.C.E. Consulting Collaborative from Seattle WA. The training focused on building knowledge and skills for growing more effective cross-cultural relationships and partnerships. “Culture,” as defined by by Gary Wederspahn “is the shared set of assumptions, values, and beliefs of a group of people by which they organized their common life”. Our cultural background is a powerful lens through which we perceive, experience, and understand the world around us. Remaining culturally flexible and adaptable takes practice and intention. By examining our own biases, automatic unearned privileges, and the dominant structures that reinforce social inequity we were able to explore what it means to be an ally and to be receptive for the truths of other people, especially when those truths seem to threaten the systems we rely on to provide order in our society.
Implementing restorative practices in schools is a critical way to be an ally to youth. Restorative Practices empower youth to be a part of problem solving and to understand the impacts of their behavior on the school community. In doing so it begins to break down the school to prison pipeline. My hope is that as we continue to promote restorative alternatives for solving disputes between students, teachers, and school administrators, we will continue to support all students growing into empowered, positive, happy adults.
Jessica Babcock, DRC Youth Trainer, reflects on her experience co-facilitating the DRC’s first Peaceamker Club at Hansen Elementary School in Olympia. The one-hour after-school clubs are led by trained DRC Facilitators. Students learn communication skills, emotional vocabulary and awareness, conflict resolution techniques, and restoratives practices through circle conversations, games, art, and interactive activities.
We all have the potential to learn from one another, no matter the age or rank. This is how I approached working with our first group of 5th graders at Hansen Elementary in the DRC’s afterschool Peacemaker Club. At times, I felt like I was the student (re)learning how to express my emotions or respectfully listen to others, the students, when I didn’t want to discipline them or was frustrated by their behavior. Working with twelve 11 year olds is incredibly rewarding, and it’s also extremely difficult. After school is a time to unwind, recharge with a snack, and let loose. The last thing I wanted to do as a kid after school was to sit in a circle and talk about my problems. But that’s essentially what we did, with some fun stuff too.
For an hour after school, 2-3 days/week for 4 weeks, my co-trainer Nick Rawson and I would sit in a circle and talk to these kids. We taught them a talking circle process that allowed them to not only learn about each other in a deeper way but also what to do if a conflict came up, and conflicts did come up.
One afternoon during the talking circle, Nick and I asked the students to describe a difficult time in their lives. Most students described a problem with their parents or running away at the grocery store. But one student described a time when he accidentally broke his dog’s legs. He told the story with some discomfort in his voice, masked as laughter, and as a result the other students started laughing thinking it was a joke. When the student starting crying it became clear it was not a joke. The entire circle was quiet. These kids hadn’t been that silent in the circle, ever! But when one of their own showed genuine emotion they were all engaged and actively listening. After a few minutes of silence each student, in their own way, tried to comfort the boy. Some apologized for laughing, some offered their snack, some acknowledged the hurt. It was a turning point for not only the boy who cried but for everyone to show empathy and truly grow as a group.
There were so many other turning points during the club as it was a challenging four week program. These kids got a crash course in conflict resolution training and did what most adults would shy away from if given the opportunity.
A month after the program we met up with the students during lunch on one of their last days of school. They were just as rowdy and loud as the first day we met them, probably excited to be done with school for the summer. You could tell there was a difference in how they interacted with each other. While the silliness and loudness remained, the teasing and meanness did not. They missed the club, mostly the snacks, and they missed us. When asked if they would like to have a Peacemaker Club in Middle School there was a unanimous shout of “YES!” They didn’t specify as to why, but I think it would be safe to say these kids just appreciated someone listening to them about their needs.
Nick and I received a card and some chocolate as a ‘thank you’ from the students. One student who showed particular growth wrote, “Thank you for giving me the opportunity to learn different ways to settle my problems and how to be a good person. It was nice meeting you both!” Providing these kids with a healthy outlet and skillset to talk about their problems is the most beneficial part of us being there. I look forward to future clubs and hope that more schools will consider integrating conflict resolution skills and emotional intelligence into their curriculum or start a club. These are essential life skills that we all need and if they are taught at a young age it can truly help minimize conflict in the future.
To the 5th Graders at Hansen Elementary I say; Thank you for teaching me to be patient, silly, and careful with my words. Thank you for teaching me that having a plan is important but knowing when to be flexible is equally as important. Thank you for teaching me to trust in the process.
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