Restoration is an Organizing Principle for Transformative Social Action

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© 2019 William A. Bledsoe, Ph.D.

A principle is a basic truth, ideal, or tenet that we rely on to guide our thinking and actions. In human relationships, principles are based on a fundamental belief about what constitutes correct, moral and/or ethical treatment of others.

I am my brother’s keeper

A principle becomes an organizing principle when it aligns individuals and groups in a pursuit of a shared vision. The principle informs the shared vision by providing the reasons and motivations for fulfilling the vision. When a principle is operationalized, it functions to coordinate strategies, policies, and procedures in service of the vision.

There are 3 guiding principles upon which all restorative efforts are based:

  1. We are responsible for the well-being of others.
  2. Fulfilling this responsibility requires restoring individuals, families, communities and their relationships.
  3. Restoration requires meeting people’s needs. Needs – especially the need for healing – are nonnegotiable.

These principals are not just moral arguments. They reference a social ecology which defines “community” as a sum of interdependent parts contributing to the health of the whole. If one part is weak, the health of the organism is compromised.

Restoration can be an organizing principle in a community (and society) when those involved in health and human social services, education, churches, law enforcement and justice, public policy making, economic development, and legislators share in a common vision, commitment, and language to restore the health and well-being of community members.

While this may seem obvious and perhaps idealistic, when diverse groups begin to frame their own and each other’s efforts as “restorative”, it creates alignment between those groups. This alignment facilitates and helps coordinate their efforts in a shared objective of restoring community well-being. When this happens, restoration functions as a force multiplier in service of comprehensive social healing and transformation.

Restoration keeps us focused. It orchestrates our efforts.   

Two Case Studies

Let me give you two examples. In 2004 I was given the opportunity to expand a restorative justice program at the University of Colorado in Boulder. The program was in danger of being eliminated because university officials viewed it as unnecessary. The program was only processing 12 cases per year involving on-campus infractions of the student code of conduct.

However, Boulder Municipal Court wanted C.U. to expand the program to process off-campus student misdemeanor crimes. On average, there were 1200-1400 violations committed each year by 18-24 year old’s living in Boulder. The majority of these were committed by C.U. students and involved alcohol and drug violations, obstructing police officers, assault, destruction of property, nuisance parties, etc.

When the court asked me to create a proposal to expand the program, the very first thing I did was talk to the stakeholders of the community: municipal judges and the city attorney, the police, permanent residents in the neighborhoods surrounding the campus, property managers, and university officials. Each of these stakeholder groups shared a common interest but had very specific and diverse needs.

The courts needed the university to take more responsibility for their students. The police needed offending students to not view them as “the enemy” and appreciate the difficulty of their job. Permanent residents and property managers needed students to be responsible neighbors and respect their property (vandalism and trash). The university as a public institution needed a better reputation as a member of the community. When I met with officials I reminded them of their own student development model which emphasized “social responsibility and citizenry.”

In my proposal I explained that the only way the program could expand and effectively meet stakeholder’s needs (as well as students’) was through collaboration. I explained that restoration needed to be an organizing principle in the community that would coordinate stakeholder’s contributions and efforts.

  • The courts needed to work closely with the program to create an efficient referral process and authorize our status as a legal diversion option. If students completed our program, they wouldn’t be charged and receive a criminal record.
  • The police needed to help us determine whether a case was appropriate for diversion, and participate in conferences with students to express the impact a violation/interaction had on them.
  • Neighbors and property managers needed to contribute their voice in expressing how a violation/interaction negatively impacted them.
  • The university needed to fund us and authorize our status in the Office of Judicial Affairs.

When I left the program in 2007 we were processing over 400 cases per year with a re-offense rate of less than 1%. The program became an exemplar for other universities to follow. How and why did this happen? In addition to the collaboration and communication we created between the various stakeholders, the reason the recidivism rate was so low had to do with identifying and meeting the needs of the students.

Throughout the course of my directorship, I made it a point to train my facilitators to identify underlying issues compelling the anti-social behavior. I emphasized that anti-social behavior was a symptom. Offending students were struggling with addiction and alcoholism, mental health issues, unresolved family trauma, domestic abuse, economic hardship, gender identity, and social/cultural pressure to conform.

To address these issues I created partnerships with mental health providers, substance abuse counselors, family psychologists and therapists, academic tutors, and mentors. As an organizing principle, each of these diverse groups contributed to achieving an overall objective of “individual and community restoration.” When issues presented themselves, we made sure the student received professional help.

“Restoration means restoring a community’s capacity to continuously restore itself. That’s the key to restorative sustainability. It’s a whole-community approach.” (Bledsoe, 2009)

Perhaps most important – the program continues today. In any context, authentic restoration requires restoring a community’s inherent capacity to continuously restore itself. This is accomplished when restoration is used as an organizing principle to coordinate and harvest contributions from diverse stakeholder groups.

Case Two

The second case involves a k-8 school. Like many schools, this school was struggling with student, parent, and faculty conduct. The solution was to implement a “whole-school/whole-community” program. We created a conduct policy that clearly articulated positive behavioral expectations (for all community members, not just students), and restorative responses when those expectations were not met.

We trained all faculty members in restorative and trauma-responsive communication. We encouraged parents to receive the same training to apply these methods in the home. We created a central Restorative Council to process all incidents. And just like the C.U. model, we “trained our eyes” to look for underlying issues in a student’s life that might be contributing to misconduct. When warranted, the school referred families to mental health providers and family counselors to provide outside support to both the student and the student’s family.

Conclusion

When restoration is used as an organizing principle for positive social change in a community, it facilitates collaboration, alignment and coordination between diverse individuals, groups, professions, services and entities charged with the responsibility for social health.

Restoration accomplishes this by providing a shared understanding of underlying issues, a clear objective in resolving those issues, the structured and pragmatic process to achieve that objective, and a common language that enables coherence among diverse groups.

This is how you build a sustainable restorative social infrastructure. It’s all about interdependence. It’s all about restoring a community’s inherent capacity to continuously restore itself. To me, this is the definition of resilience.

Bledsoe, W.A. (2009). Performing Restorative Justice in a College Community: Integrating Navajo Peacemaking with an Accountability Conference Model. Dissertation published by University of Colorado at Boulder.

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