Article

Toolkit: Peace-Building Circles

Transforming discipline practices requires commitment to processes that strengthen relationships among individuals and connections within communities.
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ILLUSTRATION BY ZOË VAN DIJK

Restorative practices, as defined by the International Institute for Restorative Practices, is a social science field that explores strengthening relationships among individuals and social connections within communities. 

The core concepts of restorative justice practices, which have deep roots in Indigenous communities worldwide, include:

  • “Crime” is not a violation of the rules but a violation of people and relationships.
  • Authority figures should not dictate the terms of our relationships; the people involved should create community agreements that reflect how they want to show up for one another.
  • Everyone affected, not an external authority figure, should be involved in identifying harm and deciding how that harm should be addressed. Those most affected should be centered in deciding how to address harm.
  • Justice is not achieved by punishing and isolating the people who create harm. Rather, those who create harm must be held accountable for acknowledging the harm they created, for working to repair that harm as best they can and for not committing that harm in the future.

Building a Culture of Reflection, Agency and Community

Restorative justice requires building a culture of reflection, agency and community. Some strategies for building this kind of culture include:

  1. Journaling and reflection activities that prompt young people to account for their internal conditions, perceptions and emotions.
  2. Intention-setting activities in which young people have opportunities to set intentions and goals for their engagement with a space.
  3. Values-clarifying activities in which young people reflect on what they care most about and consider how these values inform their actions and expectations for others.
  4. Setting group agreements for how we want to show up and how we expect others to show up in a space and referencing these group agreements regularly so young people have many opportunities to reflect on and practice these agreements. Young people should also discuss and set mutually agreed upon consequences (which are not punishments) that give those who violate group agreements opportunities to reflect on, receive feedback about and learn from their actions.
  5. Building up a language of agency, boundaries and credibility through regular check-ins and structured opportunities for young people to make choices about their actions and engagement. The language of consent can also be helpful for encouraging young people to make and advocate for their decisions about how they show up.
  6. Trust-building practices, such as cooperative games and group activities.
  7. Affirmation activities in which young people have an opportunity to acknowledge one another for the ways they showed up in a space. These can be based around group agreements or sets of shared values.
  8. Open discussions based on young people’s interests in which adults and young people are encouraged to share their feelings and perceptions without judgment but with honesty and clarity when there is disagreement.
  9. Group activities in which young people have opportunities to work together toward common goals. Along with this, it is important to develop healthy relationships around peer-to-peer feedback through structured critiques. Young people learn by practice that critical feedback is not an attack and that disagreement and conflict can be generative.
  10. Developing a commitment to “keeping a small problem a small problem” by encouraging young people to “right-size” their reactions. Also helpful in this regard is developing a practice of “don’t react, respond.” Slowing down the time between having an altercation and addressing it can give everyone the necessary time to gather their thoughts and feelings, rather than creating more harm through their default reactions.

Peace-Building Circles

In cases of conflict or the violation of a group agreement, an important restorative justice practice is the peace-building circle. A peace-building circle is an opportunity to convene a group to identify and address harm.

The peace-building circle process is divided into three stages:

  1. Pre-meetings:
    • Facilitators meet with those directly affected to discuss what happened and to provide space to reflect on how the harm had an impact on them. This includes those who created the harm. Here, the facilitator explains to each person the process and goal of a peace-building circle and asks them if they will be willing to participate.
    • Facilitators ask other community members to participate—these are community members invested in repairing the harm and rebuilding relationships. Here, the facilitator explains the basic context but avoids providing details that may influence or undercut the perceptions and feelings of those affected. The facilitator also includes an explanation of the process and goals of the peace-building circle.
    • Facilitators arrange the peace-building circle in a comfortable space with intentionally planned seating. Facilitators also identify a “talking piece” that can be passed from person to person to ensure that everyone has an opportunity to speak.
  2. The circle:
    • Facilitators give community members an opportunity to develop questions that they want to ask those who were directly affected to get clarity about what happened and about how the situation had an impact on them.
    • Facilitators open the circle with basic agreements:
      1. Respect the talking piece. Everyone will have a chance to share, but we must allow each person the space and time needed to express themselves and describe their experience.
      2. Use “I” statements. We must avoid the impulse to judge or ascribe intentions to others’ actions. Instead of saying what others meant or intended—which we can never truly know—we ask each person to explain how the words and actions affected them. This encourages everyone to take ownership of their own feelings and avoids dead-end arguments about what someone intended.
      3. Speak and act intentionally. We must avoid slipping into hostility and violence toward one another in the circle. Although our feelings are all legitimate, they may not help the process of healing. We encourage people to take time away from the circle if they find themselves unable to continue speaking with the intention of restoration, and we seek to provide them with care and support in rejoining the circle.
    • Facilitators engage in four steps:
      1. What happened? The conversation always begins with those directly involved giving their accounts of the situation and how it made them feel. Everyone directly involved gets an opportunity and is encouraged to restate the situation in their own words even when others have already said something they would say. During this time, it is vital to ensure that everyone continues to uphold the norms of the circle. There should be no back-and-forth during this time so everyone has a chance to speak fully. The facilitator may prompt participants to share how the situation made them feel but may also leave space for others in the circle to ask this, especially if there has been adequate preparation.
      2. Clarifying the impact. After everyone directly involved shares, the rest of the circle has a chance to offer their account of what they experienced (if anything) and to ask clarifying questions. Before the circle meeting, the facilitator encourages the rest of the circle to brainstorm clarifying questions they wish to ask and guides them to begin with clarifications about what transpired before asking about how they felt. After the circle has asked these questions, the facilitator may ask the participants to restate how the situation has affected them and whether they believe there was a violation of the community agreements. This might involve reminding participants of the feeling words they shared already and about community agreements. During this time, the entire circle has a chance to say how the harm has affected them and what community agreements they feel were violated.
      3. How can we create healing? In this stage, the facilitator asks participants: “What can be done to create healing from this? How can we make sure that something like this doesn’t happen again?” At this stage, participants make clear, actionable requests of one another based on what they need. If one person was clearly victimized by the other, this stage is guided by the victim. If the conflict and harm was mutual, these requests are also made mutually. Everyone in the circle has a chance to make requests of everyone else in the circle.
      4. Have we reached agreement? After requests are made, seek agreement. If participants agree to fulfill the requests made of them, each person in the circle restates their commitments and the circle is adjourned. If participants cannot agree, discussion about the nature of the requests can take place; however, participants can reserve the right to refuse requests. If participants refuse requests, we must again ask the circle if the commitments are enough to create healing. In most instances, participants reach a clear agreement about the steps that will create healing. In some instances, participants decide that the agreements may not be sufficient for healing and another conversation may be necessary.
  3. The follow-up:
    • In all cases, following up is the most important step. In the follow-up conversation, participants again convene to discuss their progress toward the agreements they made in the first circle. Participants are also asked to check in about how their emotions have changed in the intervening time and are encouraged to share how the healing process has gone.
    • If new requests and agreements are needed to create healing, they can be made in this follow-up conversation.

Restorative processes are never truly over. Healing is an ongoing process, and often instances of harm are inextricably bound up in patterns that may extend well beyond the people involved or the initial context for the conversation. But with continued practice, participants will achieve deeper levels of trust and investment in the process, and conflicts will become generative opportunities to pursue necessary transformations in our relationships and our community.

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