We live in tumultuous times as a society and as a Pagan community. Conflict has caused many divisions, often accompanied with the drawing of lines. These can easily become permanent fractures, solidifying within what might be a unified and joyous community of similar beliefs. Often these conflicts are personal, or begin as personal disputes, or emerge in community settings. Just as often a community gets drawn into them. I participated in a restorative justice circle at Sacred Harvest Festival (SHF), facilitated by Crystal Blanton, and will refer to that experience.
Restorative Justice (RJ) is an idea and method to repair some of the damage these conflicts cause in community. It was developed and used in criminal victim-offender mediations in the 1970’s and has been adapted and applied to a broad range of conflicts, from within our schools to whole societies as in the The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), a court-like restorative justice body assembled in South Africa after the abolition of apartheid . It can be used in a community setting through ‘restorative group conferencing’ or ‘peace circles’.
In a community setting, first is a required recognition that unresolved conflict causes communities harm. At the SHF restorative circle, of about 30 people, when asked if they felt harm from conflict within Harmony Tribe the past year, no one had any difficulty affirming that personally. RJ puts repairing the harm done to relationships and people over and above the need for assigning blame and dispensing punishment.
Benefit from the process may take place even without identifying precisely the source of the ‘harm’. Often all parties are not present, or choose not to participate in a community circle. The healing of a community, by simply recognizing, voicing, and acknowledging the individual harm and disruption that has occurred, can then begin to take place. Clear from the SHF RJ circle was a sense that the prevention of conflict and harm was not necessarily within their individual control. Restorative Justice (RJ) still provides a benefit because these conflicts may not have been preventable or controllable (as with say, a death in the community), but conflicts still cause people to grieve, and feel the emotions of loss. Release of that grief allows the community to process and move forward.
Our natural inclination to conflict is avoidance. This can also be expressed as a position of being “Switzerland neutral“, but this avoidance minimizes our own role in resolution, and keeps us from learning many of the lessons of conflict. Crystal:
“No one wants to deal with conflict because it can be uncomfortable, hurtful and destructive. So often people would rather avoid the conflict or act as if it will blow over instead of lovingly engaging in a process of resolution. Any process that brings us closer to conflict can bring about feelings of vulnerability and this is often scary. In reality, we are not able to move beyond the hurt that conflicts creates if we do not take the chance to actively be a part of a solution, with community in mind, that promotes empathetic understanding and empowers each of us to be a part of healing. If we deny ourselves this chance, and try just to be in safe or neutral territory, we deny ourselves to grow through the lessons and adversity that can build a stronger community.”
Key to any RJ process is a trained facilitator. Mediation skills in the case of behavior adversely affecting others is helpful, but in a community setting guiding a group through a restorative circle uses an additional set of skills. At SHF we were treated to experience a master at facilitating this kind of process. Crystal Blanton often facilitates RJ circles within the Oakland, Ca. school district. These can be around such serious issues as assault or gang related deaths inside and outside the school experience.
At SHF, Crystal established a circle of respect, listening, participation, and co-operation from the very beginning. She prepared a list of questions used in the circle to assess and facilitate the discussion around the harm done. Her preparatory workshop made it clear, preventative practices to head off escalating conflicts are vastly preferred. She began saying conflict is always present, a natural process of growth and change, and can not be eliminated. A sense of justice and healing is never complete with the RJ process, it is a process for restoring individuals, groups, and communities onto a path of restoration, recovery from harm, and health.
From Crystal’s preparatory workshop notes:
THE THREE PILLARS OF RESTORATIVE JUSTICE:
Harms and Needs: RJ focused more on the harm that is done to a person or community versus the action itself. While laws focused on the crime, RJ focuses on the harm done to others and what is now needed as a result. In covens and groups it would focus less on the actions of the coven members and more on how said actions impact or harm the community of the coven.
Obligations: This point reinforces that thought that each person has an obligation and responsibility to his or her community. With this obligation comes the responsibility of understanding the harm that is created in a community, how actions effect others, and being accountable to try to correct some of the wrongs that have been created as a result.
Engagement: This point in the pillar refers to the participation of all the “stakeholders”, or effected people, in the decisions that will lead to the outcome and what is required to restore balance to the community.
Below is a summary of what was covered and how the time was spent to give you a better idea of the process, as occurred at Sacred Harvest Festival.
An RJ Circle Log (all participant comments omitted) :
Introduction: Crystal began by declaring the RJ Circles purpose to set the tone;
“… to restore; to restore a sense of safety in a loving and empathetic community. We are not here to blame, or to cast judgment on who was right or wrong. It is a about how we can support our community together and heal the hurt and harm that has been caused by a series of events. “
We started with an inspiring reading. (from “Fierce Conversations” ) and the establishment of a ‘talking piece’ or talking stick. As ‘Circle Keeper, Crystal began with a very controlled circle, limiting responses to short words or phrases from all participating.
10 min. into the RJ Circle: Values: Crystal started with creating a list of values to ask of each participating to move the process forward. She presented a baseline of values, and then passed the stick to add everyone’s contributions to this circles written list of agreed upon values in this RJ circle.
25 min in: Check in : One word to describe your feeling in this moment, offered by each participant.
29 min in; Define ; What community means to you ; a statement, phrase, or word offered by each participant.
39 min in: Elaborate; A role, within this community, that you see is really important to the community, offered by each participant.
49 min. in: The Meat ; I one to three sentences, “What happened in this community?”. All contribute.
“Everything that I have heard, and seen, about what has happened here, has been described here by others.”
69 min. in; Passion ; Crystal; “Who here has a burning desire in their heart or their mind to elaborate upon what has happened in this community, because this circle has been held (in expression) so tightly?” A limited number speak and are listened to, and thanked by the circle.
94 min in; Acknowledgement Crystal;
“ There is so much harm. I want a reflection of what we see and what we hear. To acknowledge that we have been experiencing, and what we have not been alone with over this past period.”
She then asked these questions of the circle one at a time:
- Have you felt harmed by what we have experienced?
- Does it hurt you to see other community members harmed?
- Do you feel vulnerable right now?
- Do you feel accountable for your part in how we got to here?
- Affirm if you believe you have a part in the solution.
These questions were individually affirmed by the raising of hands.
100 minutes in; Deep breaths.
“ What happens, Where do we go from here? We can not fix everything that has happened. We can not restore relationships without everyone present. We can restore what is here, We have not lost our community… what I have seen is that with time ,work, and a commitment to values, and the mirroring of those to each other, a community can be healed. “
101 minutes in; Solutions: One word or phrase that describes what is needed here, to heal what has been broken. Crystal starts with; “To hold each other lovingly accountable” . All contribute.
“ How many people here plan to do what they just said needs to happen? My challenge to each of us is to think of 2-3 of the things said in this last circle (of contributions), and hold yourself lovingly accountable for doing them throughout the year. Make them things that call to you, but, do not pick the easy ones. Community is hard, the reward is great, but it is work. ”
110 minutes in; Collective Agreements ; “In moving forward in the healing and restoration of the safety and trust within this community, what can we agree on as our commitments?” Participants individually contributed specific and accountable ideas, Crystal helped re-frame them and wrote them down. She committed to help re-writing these in a form that can be presented to the HT community for a formal commitment.
135 minutes in; Commitments; Re-reading of assembled list of agreements, preliminary consensus affirming the content of the list is vocalized.
“ I want to acknowledge you all for having the incredible amount of strength to be here. The trust in everything, to open yourselves up, and for having the amount of love that it takes to maintain a community through adversity. I love it. It is an example to me of why I am here on this Earth. Not just here, but on this earth. You are my family . “ All contribute.
160 minutes in; Closing; Crystal reading a poem; “To Live in Community”
It is full of sweetness, yet also lived with bitterness.
True happiness is its goal, but sadness is inevitable.
This is the reality of a community.
Having a binary symphony.
One tune is the music of fulfillment, another a harmony of despondency.
Melancholic and blissful moments give meaning of living together.
It is like making a paper rose,
To complete, it needs both feather and thorns.
We should envision not of uniformity, neither of individuality.
Community life is about the mind and the heart living in union with charity.
To truly live in a community means to serve the totality.
This act prepares one’s path, not only terestrially, but for eternity.
Crystal thanks and honors the circle and offers final words of commitment and encouragement.
This RJ circle ends 164 minutes after it began. Another ten minutes were occupied as nearly every individual hugs and thanks each other individual. Crystal warned us an RJ Circle rarely takes less than two hours. During the ‘workshop’ scheduled for 90 minutes, she repeatedly sought permission at each segment to extend the time alloted in order to properly finish the circle. The power and emotion of many people opening up and sharing, with honesty, grace, and wisdom is impossible to communicate without a personal presence. This is the nature of restoration.
A well run RJ circle creates an ethos of respect, inclusion, accountability and taking responsibility, commitment to relationships, impartiality, being non-judgmental, collaboration, empowerment and emotional expression. It is not for therapy. A ‘Circle Keeper’ is a skilled and learned role that is essential to a successful outcome;
To support our community together and heal the hurt and harm. To restore.
As Harmony Tribe works with their healing, values, and community commitments; future articles will report on their progress. The solidifying and avoidance of conflicts within our Pagan communities can only serve to harm our empowerment as communities. Please explore this Restorative Justice process for its application within yours. The benefits are great.
Crystal recommended reference books about Restorative Justice Peacebuilding:
Little Book Restorative Justice
The Little Book of Circle Processes : A New/Old Approach to Peacemaking
Peacemaking Circles: From Crime to Community