I’ve been engaged in a running reflection on that sweet spot of the restorative justice approach: ‘doing with.’
As a concept, it seems relatively simple. Facilitators of restorative justice processes engage participants in defining and determining their own resolutions to conflict, harm, and wrongdoing. The facilitator’s core responsibility is to build a safe and inclusive space that enables dialogue, listening, and shared decision-making.
The restorative approach of ‘doing with’ extends beyond the realm of addressing conflict. An inclusive approach can be applied to innumerable arenas, including: prisons, case-management, community development, environmental regulation, medical education, elderly care… The possibilities are literally endless.
This is not to say that ‘doing with’ is the be all, end all. There are limits and limitations to the inclusive approach that are equally applicable to each of the above arenas; and there clearly are times when we want to fully embrace ‘doing to’ and ‘doing for’.
Restorative justice processes, however, are not those times.
We should also recognize that we are nowhere close to testing the limits of ‘doing with’. In fact, I would suggest that the general default of our systems and by extension ourselves, is to ‘do to’ and ‘do for’.
With this post, I’d like to explore some of the reasons why.
‘Doing to’ is built into our systems…
First, in their very purpose, many of our public and justice institutions are established to exercise power (within a framework of laws and rules) over individuals. The institutions’ representatives (police, judges, prosecutors and defense, corrections, child protection staff, etc.) are trained and empowered to make judgements and decisions upon ‘system-involved’ people.
Second, my experience suggests that these same institutions are profoundly uncomfortable with the inherent messiness of life, relationships, and conflict. Many of the rules and processes that guide our systems and agencies have been enacted to create order and structure; and provide a clearly defensible justification for ‘doing to’.
In other words, our institutions are both empowered and predisposed to keep life’s messiness on the periphery and ‘leave the rule-guided decision-making to the adults’. Responsibility is centralized and sanitized.
This has an immediate impact on our current restorative justice service system. In spite of a foundational and philosophical commitment to ‘voluntary participation’, our restorative processes often are embedded with a power differential. Many referrals come from the traditional criminal justice system (and its predisposition to ‘doing to’). Restorative justice participants’ voluntary engagement is–at least initially–the legal equivalent of a ‘shotgun wedding’.
Once we acknowledge ‘participatory ambivalence’, we can turn our attention to the more important question: how do we enable relational accountability without reinforcing the system’s coercive power over participants’ lives?
At least here, the answer seems to be relatively self-evident. ‘Doing to’ is not all that subtle. As I’ve discovered in my own fallible practice, ‘doing to’ is revealed in language and attitudinal posture. If, as restorative practitioners or volunteers, we are inclined to exercise power over participants, we probably are in the wrong line of work or service.
‘Doing for’ is built into our DNA…
‘Doing for’ presents a more complex challenge. As humans, we clearly gain satisfaction and joy helping others. In fact, altruism seems to be coded into our very DNA; it’s an evolutionary behavior that has produced clear benefits. Helping others, however, can also create dependency, passivity, and power differentials.
So how do we find that middle ground of providing enough but not too much support?
I wish that there was an easy formula or guide that provided clarity about where to draw the line on support. Life, however, is not that simple. In fact, we must frequently modulate support depending upon the context. We should not rely on fixed boundaries to make decisions for us; and we must be equally careful not to undermine participants’ responsibility and self-determination.
‘Doing with’ lives in the middle ground…
This is a challenge to our individual practice, not some systemic predisposition. Achieving this balance takes deep self-awareness. Training in modalities such as Motivational Interviewing can also help, as can supervision and learning communities. We must also embrace continuous reflection and learning.
After more than thirty years working in social services, I can find countless examples where I’ve missed the mark. The times where I ‘did to’ from a place of power stand out in stark and humbling relief and I wish I had the opportunity to make amends. The instances where I ‘did for’ are of a much greater number, but also–in many cases–equally ineffective.
It’s no wonder that restorative justice presents a fundamental challenge to our ‘normal way’ of doing things. To be good facilitators of restorative processes, we must first make peace with ‘messiness’. Our role is to create safe and inclusive spaces; invite participants to bring their full selves into conversation; and support their inherent capacities to discover meaning, make decisions, and experience healing.
A challenging, ever-changing, and eminently worthy human endeavor.