This is the third in a series of articles by Kerra L. Bolton, on her experiences with restorative practices in Detroit.
The dried spit on the customer service window at the end of the workday was a telltale sign that things needed to change at Michigan’s Third Judicial Circuit Court in Detroit.
“It was on both sides, too,” explained Zenell Brown, the court’s executive administrator. “They are yelling at you, and you are yelling at them. There was no (positive) connection between the citizens and the (frontline) staff.”
Two Tales, One City
For decades, Detroit has been an American emblem of urban violence, crime, and poverty.
Recently, much has been made of governmental efforts to revitalize Detroit. Michigan state leaders appointed an emergency manager and a “reform” mayor, who have helped Detroit move out of bankruptcy, clear abandoned houses, and restore city services.
However, there is an untold story about the growing commitment among neighborhood and nonprofit leaders, teachers, parents, and frontline city employees to change the culture of Detroit from the inside. They are not waiting for sweeping governmental reforms to restore peace, civility and economic prosperity in their city. Instead, residents are learning and implementing restorative practices, as a means of building social capital and achieving social discipline through participatory learning and decision-making.
“Restorative practices,” the name of an emerging social science, has been credited with reducing crime, violence, and bullying, improving human behavior, strengthening civil society, providing effective leadership, restoring relationships and repairing harm.
“I now have hope that we can migrate toward communicating and functioning better at work,” said Benita Cheatom, Brown’s colleague and Executive Director of Human Resources and Labor Relations at the Third Judicial Court of Michigan. “Once we respect and understand each other as colleagues, we can extend it to the entire community.”
Restoring Workplaces and Communities
Cheatom and Brown say they are already noticing a significant difference among the court supervisors and managers who have undergone restorative practices training.
Restorative practices create a safe space in which participants can resolve issues, encourage thoughtful dialogue, and connect people to their feelings.
Engaging in restorative circles, for example, has improved workplace communication. Circles are a versatile restorative practice, enabling employees to tell their stories and offer their own perspectives as an alternative to formal, hierarchical meetings that rely on win-lose positioning and argument.
“Restorative practices help us see each other as humans,” Cheatom said. “We learn to overcome our differences and begin to understand how alike we are.”
Sustaining Restorative Practices in the Future
Michigan’s Third Judicial Circuit Court is just one of several public and nonprofit sector organizations that are gradually implementing restorative practices through its employee ranks. Schools, local police departments, and social service organizations are also training their staff in the use of restorative practices.
“We’re in the business of changing lives through various programs and services,” said Sheilah Clay, President and CEO of the Neighborhood Service Organization, a nonprofit agency that provides a constellation of behavioral health, employment, and supportive housing services for children, youth, adults and older adults in Detroit.
“We know people come to us because something is not going well in their lives,” Clay said. “Our job is to help them find their voice. We fix it with them, not for them.”
Clay employs restorative practices internally and externally. She used the restorative circle, for example, to help one of her teams deal with the emotional fallout from the departure of one manager and acclimate to a new one. She also wants to use restorative practices in the housing program, to help tenants handle conflicts with the landlord.
“Restorative practices changes how you think,” she said. “It changes you, so that you avoid these problems in the future. If you can change your attitude and lifestyle, you can change the whole community.”
However, implementing restorative practices is not without its challenges.
Employees come and go. As soon as one group is trained, members move on to other opportunities and new employees join the team. Changing organizational protocols and individual mindsets can also be initially difficult. Finally, getting people to understand how their actions and behaviors contribute to the conflict can be a difficult notion for some people to embrace.
Nevertheless, it is this kind of wholesale change that Clay, Brown, Cheatom and others who live and work in Detroit want for the future of their city.
“Instead of people picking up weapons and hurting each other, we could talk to each other,” Cheatom said. “We have to figure out how to deal with conflict and hurt feelings, without it destroying us. We’ve got to do it, or else we won’t save our community.”