Five Things I learned about Restorative Justice

And why you should consider incorporating its principles into your life.

Amplify RJ: Restorative Justice
Amplify RJ: Restorative Justice

There we were: Me and 12 strangers on the internet, getting ready to learn about restorative justice for two hours on a Friday afternoon. I did not know what I was getting myself into.

How did I end up here?

Well, one unexpected side-effect of all this social distancing — I started taking classes about things I’m curious about. I get excited about webinars! Look at us. Who would’ve thought? Not me! I took a sketch class for the first time. And I also got to attend an interactive experience about restorative justice (hereafter also referred to as RJ) via Zoom.

I had been following #restorativejustice on Instagram (yep, definitely an expert), but hadn’t had the chance to go deeper.

Enter David Ryan Castro-Harris of Amplify RJ. I first met David through another great organization, AAJIL (Asian American Justice + Innovation Lab) where we decolonized religion and spirituality together. He recently started his own organization dedicated to restorative justice and offering “Intro to RJ” classes on a donation basis.

What did I learn?

Well, first of all, I learned that I am terrible at restorative justice. I KNOW THAT IS NOT THE POINT DON’T @ ME. I was raised in a punitive justice system, AKA conservative evangelical Christianity. Actually, I’m not doing justice to Christianity, because so much of it is putatively founded on grace.

It’s just not the way I was raised. Like I told a few of my fellow participants, I walk around with this overwhelming sense that I have done or am about to do something wrong — I just don’t know what it is yet. Yeah, it sucks. And I was a good kid, the kind of kid who never got into trouble — but maybe that’s because I was scared out of my freaking mind all of the time.

So, I started with a question: How can I practice restorative justice with other people if I can’t even practice it with myself?

What is restorative justice?

David presented this definition: “Restorative Justice is a philosophy and set of practices, rooted in Indigenous teachings, that emphasize our interconnection by repairing relationships when harm occurs while proactively building and maintaining relationships to prevent future harm.”

Lesson one: Restorative justice is not just an alternative to punitive justice.

RJ isn’t just an alternative to the cycle of harm and punishment, it’s a radical approach to everyday life and relationships rooted in indigenous practices and paradigms. It’s not just about dealing with harm, but about building good relationships so that when harm does occur, we can repair the damage done.

As one of the core assumptions states: “All human beings have a deep desire to be in a good relationship.” Embracing a restorative justice mindset doesn’t happen overnight. You also have to deconstruct from a punitive mindset.

Speaking of harm, I feel like we often leave people to heal alone. We expect people who have experienced trauma to “just get over it,” go to therapy, read a book, deal with your shit, etc. etc.

But how can we heal without the support of community? This correlates to the second thing I learned:

Lesson two: Restorative justice is a holistic, hopeful practice.

I like to think of it as building resiliency in the context of community. One of my favorite things about the workshop was connecting with other people who were also excited to learn about RJ. Simply by sharing our experiences in a supportive space, I felt connected to a broader community.

When I think about harm in my own life, I struggle to feel hopeful. One of the core assumptions of RJ is “Everything we need to make positive change is already here.” I don’t know if you can build resiliency without hope. I don’t know if you can have hope if you don’t feel cared for or supported by other people. Hope is tough.

One way to build community is to ask people what they need.

Lesson three: What do you feel? What do you need?

When in doubt, ask yourself (or the other person), what are you feeling, what do you need? Clarify the feelings and needs that come up. Some of us didn’t grow up being asked these questions, so identifying feelings and needs can feel impossible or risky. Some of us were punished for having needs.

Honestly, I’m often afraid to ask other people what they need. I’m afraid that if they tell me, I won’t be able to help them. Plus, naming what you need is actually really hard and vulnerable to do.

Part of RJ is cultivating spaces where it’s safe to feel feelings and need needs. Something I’m working on personally is being okay with having needs without feeling like I’m a burden (oof).

Lesson four: We can cultivate safe, vulnerable spaces together.

Ever since I stopped going to church, I feel like I’ve been looking for ways to share vulnerable space with other people.

We did an exercise where we broke into pairs. Person A told Person B about a time when they experienced harm. Then Person B told Person A about a story about a time they caused harm. After each story, we returned to the main group to talk about the feelings and needs that came up.

I told a story that I’ve never told anyone before about causing harm (in retrospect, not sure I would recommend doing this). At the end of the story, I said, “I can’t believe I did something like that” and then promptly started to cry. I felt so guilty. Is this why people don’t practice restorative justice, because the shame is so overwhelming? There’s something so terrible about having caused harm. Feeling, meet need.

My partner responded with so much grace and empathy, it made me want to cry even more! Told you I’m bad at restorative justice. Hey, we’re all in process.

Taking accountability requires resiliency, something that is very hard to develop in a punishment-based system.

Lesson five: Restorative Justice doesn’t work for every situation.

In a follow-up conversation with David, he said that restorative justice is not the always the right approach. In my experience, the people who cause the most harm are also the least likely to apologize or take responsibility. Often, they blame the victim for being harmed, causing even more harm.

The goal of RJ is not to force people to take accountability — you can’t force anyone to participate in the process of repair.

One thing that I keep coming back to from the class is the idea of multiple truths. There doesn’t have to be a singular story. I don’t have to get it “right” or arrive at the one correct answer for healing or preventing harm.

I’ve noticed that so much harm comes from trying to force a singular narrative onto other people. Even internally, I’ve felt so much pressure to respond to abuse perfectly, as if there is only way to heal. So many of the ways that we shame and punish each other seem rooted in the idea of a singular narrative:

There is one way to be a good parent.
There’s only one path to success.
If you do X, then you don’t deserve empathy.

To recap, here are the five lessons I learned:

  1. Restorative justice is not just an alternative to punitive justice.

If you too are curious about restorative justice, I encourage you to sign up for a future class. Check out Amplify RJ’s Instagram page or this list of upcoming sessions.

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