Who’s Driving the RJ Bus? Race, Equity and Standards in Restorative Justice

It’s uncomfortable talking about privilege, power, control and race within a movement dedicated to justice. We want to believe we’re doing good! But I am convinced that achieving the potential of our movement will start with some reckoning. I don’t have answers, but I hope the experiences shared here will provide some food for thought to others who share a commitment to restorative justice.

Let’s start the conversation here: for all its promise, restorative justice has – in the words of our colleague Alan Edwards – a credibility problem. This goes well beyond restorative justice being misunderstood, which I acknowledge is also the case. This is about (to quote the Australian author John Braithwaite), processes “masquerading” as restorative justice that when measured against restorative principles are “outrageously poor.” It’s the lack of credibility of restorative justice within the community of victims/survivors and their advocates, earned by the field’s frequent myopic focus on the wellness, recovery, and reintegration of people who offend at the expense of the needs of those harmed; it’s about the willingness of restorative justice providers to content ourselves in dealing with cases at the extreme minor end of the spectrum of harm (yes, recognizing that harm is subjective); it’s also about frequent disenfranchisement of would-be practitioners and advocates of color because of overwhelming whiteness embedded in the texture, flavor and objectives of the movement (more on that later).

Yearning to overcome these problems and achieve the transformative promise of this work, restorative justice advocates in many jurisdictions across North America and beyond have been grappling with the issue of standards. This is a widely varied process, ranging from the detailed provisions of the New Zealand Ministry of Justice Best Practice Framework to the succinct program policy recommendations offered by restorative justice providers in my home province of British Columbia (Canada).

In 2018, Just Outcomes set out on a path to spark a conversation on this issue across the state of Oregon. We assumed based on our networks that this conversation was ripe. We thought that if crafted carefully, standards could help the restorative field become more, rather than less, responsive to the individual, cultural and collective needs of those impacted. We wanted diligently to avoid some of the pitfalls we’d heard about from other jurisdictions, such as practitioner requirements for specific formal education with its bias toward Eurocentric ways of knowing. We wanted to collectively explore mechanisms for fostering adherence to standards that did not replicate the hierarchical systems of institutional control and bureaucracy common to the self-regulatory attempts of professional disciplines. And at all costs, we set out to avoid the prospect of “standardization,” by which we mean replicating a ‘one size fits all’ approach to restorative justice. We believed we could arrive at an inclusive, culturally agile – dare we say ‘restorative’ vision of standards (you can read more about these distinctions in our discussion paper on the topic).

In the current context, it seems we were wrong.

Picture this scene from Just Outcomes’ 2018 Transforming Justice Symposium near Portland, Oregon: Matthew and I are standing as two white men in front of a room of racially diverse restorative justice advocates. We’re saying we believe in the continued exploration of some version of standards. Several people of color in the room say no: standards signal exclusion to them. They point out that we as a group don’t yet have the relationships or the trust to meaningfully have this conversation. That white people are in the majority and have set the rules of engagement for this conversation. That the purpose of standards is to fit restorative justice into a system designed by and for white people. A white supremacist system of social control. Which offends some white people who believe they are being labelled as racist, and who then decide to leave.

What followed was a circle process among the 50 or 60 remaining participants, to give voice to the racial tensions present in the room. The circle was graciously led by an Indigenous leader in our midst. And miraculously, though not surprisingly, there was a great lifting of spirits. A feeling of connection and relationships. I remember feeling, as we literally set aside our agenda: this is the work ahead of us. Whatever the outcome, this is the work of restorative justice.
It was clear to us then that, in the current Oregon context, we simply could not pursue a vision of standards while also being in the kind of relationship that practitioners across racial identities deeply want and need in order for the restorative justice movement to thrive. Even with this recognition we quietly grieved the loss of our initial vision of standards. But as we let go, we haltingly began to see a space for something new to emerge. In this process we met and partnered with Alison Allen Hall, a skilled and deeply principled social scientist, Jamaican woman and equity consultant, who has joined our team and worked with us to revision the project with an aspiration toward equitable processes and outcomes.

Alison designed an affinity process to explicitly engage with Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) who are involved with restorative and transformative work throughout the state. Matthew and I meanwhile began caucusing with white practitioners and administrators to critically examine the role of race in the leadership and focus of the current restorative justice field. After these separate meetings we would come together for dialogue across racial divides in regions across the state. There were triggers, missteps, and lessons learned to be sure. But with this preparation the discussions had changed dramatically for the better. A feeling of shared leadership had begun to emerge.

After spending much of our fall travelling across the state, we again convened our state-wide Transforming Justice Symposium. There was honest sharing, tears, laughter – even dancing (thanks Mama Sheila!). The contrast in tone from the previous year was palpable. There was a new energy, honesty and even moments of unity. And there was no question in my mind that this was a group capable of working together for change.

We have a long way to go before restorative justice as a movement – like its institutional surroundings – resembles a racially equitable space. I’m certain that my own blind spots and unexamined assumptions continue to be a part of the problem. As I reckon with the experiences of these past two years, there’s a gradual letting go of fixed assumptions about this work, its objectives, what falls under the restorative justice ‘tent,’ and what it means to move forward as a discipline. In place of certainty and clarity, there is the beginning of a relationship.

What does it mean to advance restorative justice in a racially equitable way? What do you think of the issue of restorative justice ‘standards’ in your context? We’d love to hear from you. And, stay tuned for Matthew’s forthcoming blog on our next steps in Oregon!

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