Community and Restorative Justice

There are people who walk towards conflict wanting to know peace.

This encapsulates the sense I had of the practitioners and panelists I met at the 5th National Conference on Community and Restorative Justice in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida (May 31 to June 3).

But there is more. The conference was not only on restorative justice, it was on community and restorative justice. This underscores a theme I heard repeated throughout: that nurturing community is what drives members to protect it, preserve it, repair the harm and restore relationships when trust has been broken.

There are people who walk towards conflict who want to know peace, and…they don’t do it alone. They do it together, as a community, not only in the context of the criminal justice system, but also in the context of families, workplaces, schools and spiritual/religious congregations.

Imagine confronting challenges as a team, where each individual’s welfare matters and is understood to be linked to the well-being of the group. Imagine communities of transparency, where the effects of individual actions are voiced, felt and acknowledged by all affected. Imagine a community holding members accountable by supporting them to succeed in new choices that result in better outcomes.

Imagine being seen and loved that much. Imagine having the capacity to see and love that much. What “impossible things” might you accomplish with that much support and commitment? A song that conveys the feeling of that for me:

The following are some of the takeaways I brought home from the conference:

1. Where there is punishment, there is no accountability.

This appears to address the misconception that restorative justice is soft addressing conduct that causes harm. Whether we are talking about a dispute or a crime, a circle happens so that there can be accountability. In a punitive system, it is unsafe to take responsibility because the role of offender is inherently unsafe, as accepting responsibility only results in punishment. It reduces conflict to a polarity of static roles where parties must fall on one end of the spectrum or another, and does not consider larger community interests. A restorative system acknowledges the complexity inherent in human relationships and creates a safe space for individuals to take responsibility and take action to repair harm & restore relationships in their communities.

2. Context matters.

The idea of configuring in a circle is to meet as human equals, putting down for a period of time the social ranks that signal to imbalances of power and authority, so that it is a safe environment to tell the truth. Context includes choosing the places that would most support the conversations that people want to have. These could be places where historical harm has occurred or where social transformation has occurred. Symbols are important here, as they convey a shared meaning. The community sees the circle in a larger context of shared meaning that uplifts them and supports where they want to go together.

3. Meaning matters.

A conflict is feedback until it becomes painful conflict. When the conflict is painful, the painful meaning the parties attribute to what is happening decreases their ability to listen.  Though listening to one another deeply, with the simple intention of understanding, new opportunities emerge. Assumptions can be debunked.

4. There is value in “skill-less” listening.

No soothing, no helping, no fixing, no knowing. Noticing judgments and redirecting attention to curiosity, not only about the words spoken but also about body language and the space between people. Opening the heart. Caring without knowing.

5. A transformative process asks for a willingness to be transformed.

Dominic Barter defines dialogue as a conversation between equals where the ending is unknown. Reminds me of when I heard David Whyte say that no one survives a true conversation. A commitment to listen deeply and a willingness to understand is inclusive of different perspectives and reveals possibilities. Where the commitment is to a position or strategy instead of a shared desired outcome, there is no room to transform.

6. Play makes space.

At a breakout session on games, the value of play in community building as well as in restorative processes was underscored. The idea is to break the ice, to practice curiosity, to see each other as human beings again, engage people in a non-threatening way and open up creative possibilities. I was reminded of an article I read a while back on Primal Leadership by David Goleman, Richard Boyatzis and Annie McKee, where they refer to a Yale University study to back up the finding that “laughing represents the shortest distance between two people because it instantly interlocks limbic systems. This immediate, involuntary reaction might be called a limbic lock. Laughter in the workplace signs trust, comfort, and a shared sense of the world.”

7. Forgiveness is canceling a debt to move forward.

I met Kate Grosmaire at the hotel lobby on the last day of the conference. Connor, her daughter Anne’s boyfriend, murdered Anne when they were both 19 years old. I asked Kate: How do you forgive someone when you want to, but it’s really difficult? She said: You write down all the things they owe you, and then, you cancel the debt.

The day before, Connor’s words were read aloud at a plenary session. Connor said:

One of the classes we have here in Prison required me to make a tombstone which has my epitaph. The idea is to make goals and plans in life to make that epitaph come true in death.  On my tombstone, I wrote one word: “forgiven”.

Only in forgiveness can I move forward and live, without being trapped by the horrible decision I made. I’m not chained by my past or beating myself up forever. I’m moving forward, I’m forgiving others, because of the forgiveness shown me.

I don’t deserve forgiveness at all. But the Grosmaires still chose—out of love—to forgive me.

That’s all I need my tombstone to say: forgiven.

Now it’s up to me to live that way.

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    By: Annabelle Berrios

    Annabelle was born and raised in San Juan, Puerto Rico. She lives in Berkeley and works at the Contra Costa Family Justice Center in Richmond, California. She teaches an annual course at the New York Open Center on Terrapsychology (psychology of place) as part of a larger curriculum in Holistic Psychology. She loves writing about the living spirit of place, and is passionate about exploring ways that places and people can become playful partners in mutual wellbeing. You can reach her at:

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