What Is Restorative Justice?

Native American activist, poet, musician, and actor John Trudell once stated, “Protect your spirit because you are in the place where spirits get eaten.” I open our restorative circle, full of students of color, with this quote, asking that they reflect upon their experience at an academic institution where a majority of students neither look like them nor act like them.

I then pose the following questions: “Bring someone to the circle who is not physically with us. Who would you like to bring? Why are you bringing them to the circle at this moment? What wisdom can they offer our group?” Students pass the talking piece and offer stories of hope and hopelessness, of grandmas and childhood friends, of home and afar, of culture and history. As we manage the complexities of our lives, from family to school, restorative circles, like the one described above, serve as an essential space for personal and collective healing, reflection, and necessary sustenance.

These circles are an integral part of the toolbox that is Restorative Justice (RJ), a philosophical and practical approach that champions itself upon equity, inclusivity, accountability, community, and the prioritization of relationships above all.

Indigenous Roots of Restorative Justice

Long before RJ became a prominent approach in the Western world, it was first and foremost an Indigenous practice dating back thousands of years. Tribes from Australia to the Americas engaged in RJ or rather, peacemaking efforts in order to strengthen and sustain their culture, their families, and their communities. Today, many tribes continue to employ peacemaking in order to solve disputes, discuss local matters, and promote kinship among their people. 

Common RJ practices of the present, such as the inclusion of a talking piece, marking a space with opening and closing activities, calling ancestors into the circle, as well as principles of unity, solidarity, and interdependency, are traditionally rooted in Native ceremony and customs.

As a Native American woman, I strive to keep my culture alive and vibrant through peacemaking efforts, and I take immense pride in sharing them with you. As you read and engage in RJ yourself, I ask that you acknowledge and appreciate the Indigenous infrastructure upon which it was built.

Jordan (second from the right) serving on a panel for Tribal Justice, a documentary film highlighting the utilization of restorative justice in tribal communities

Jordan (second from the right) serving on a panel for Tribal Justice, a documentary film highlighting the utilization of restorative justice in tribal communities

Restorative Justice in Schools and Youth Organizations

I am sitting in a science classroom, encircled by twenty ninth-graders and one teacher. It is our third consecutive circle where we explore a range of topics from classroom guidelines and discipline to what it means to be an adolescent and how it feels when adults ignore them. Students already know the routine as they depart from their science curriculum and welcome the distinct and unique structure that is RJ. I offer them critical questions like “How will you hold each other accountable in the classroom?” and “What are the purpose of rules?”

Students and the teacher answer the questions, passing the designated talking piece, a tennis ball that they use in their physics demonstrations, from one hand to another. Only the person that holds the talking piece may speak as the the tennis ball represents not only an essential guideline of RJ, but also the common purpose that ties the students and the teacher together. Due to the principles of RJ, every adolescent is given a voice of equal weight to both their peers and the adults in the room, empowering and enabling them to learn about one another, address disagreements, express opinions and beliefs, and ultimately, to build a community of trust and compassion. Students that never speak, finally do, and issues that were never confronted, finally are. After six circle sessions, the group has transformed itself. There is mutual respect, established understanding, and fostered empathy between the students and the teacher, leaving the community better prepared for academics in the classroom, as well as life beyond the school grounds. It is with a restorative approach, where power is shared, vulnerabilities are embraced, and relationships are built, that outcomes like this are possible.

National Education Association, 2014

National Education Association, 2014

In the past, RJ has become a viable alternative in the criminal justice system, seeking to resolve conflicts, provide reconciliation, and attend to both victims and perpetrators in disputes. It is this same approach, of understanding, forgiveness, and compassion, that has since become widely utilized in both schools and youth organizations—much like Upper Ninety. These institutions seek to build a positive, restorative climate with strategies and activities like circles, peer-to-peer mediation, conflict management workshops, social-emotional learning, and time allocated towards building relationships and community.  

Many of these institutions have adopted RJ in an effort to steer youth away from the “school-to-prison pipeline,” a term that denotes the manner by which certain students are exiled from the school system and systemically channeled into the prison system. Exile often occurs in the form of detentions, suspensions, expulsions, non-inclusive classrooms, and other forms of punishment and humiliation tactics, including the involvement of actual police officers in school matters. These punitive approaches, like zero-tolerance policies, heavily target youth of color and those with disabilities, further marginalizing these populations and jeopardizing their future trajectories. For example, you’ll see children get suspended for countless days due to minor infractions, missing school and missing their community. When your own school fails to support and accept you, where else do you go?

The Illinois Criminal Justice Authority reports that RJ allows youth to explore their identities, learn pro-social behavior, establish positive relationships, reflect upon one’s actions, engage in critical thinking, and become a valuable member of a community and the larger society. Important skills, such as empathy, listening, problem-solving, and teamwork, are established and further developed in restorative practices. With its positive results RJ has become well-known in education, law, business, and more.

Living Restorative Justice

I leave you with a thought from Rupert Ross, author of Returning to the Teachings: Exploring Aboriginal Justice. In his book, Ross advises that we cannot simply use peacemaking or RJ solely as an approach, rather we must live it and understand it to be “the source of meaning, identity, purpose and fulfillment in life.” RJ is not limited to classrooms, to police departments, or even to soccer fields. Restorative Justice is an all-encompassing philosophy that guides us beyond the boundaries that we know. It is a smile from your coach. It is your loved ones by your side. It is your team supporting you. It is your culture. It is healing. It is loving. It is community.