By Kerra L. Bolton
Learning about restorative practices has helped me to approach the broken places within myself with openness, compassion, and curiosity.
Restorative practices is an emerging social science whose underlying premise is that people are happier and more likely to make positive changes when authority figures do things with them, rather than to them or for them.
The unexpected gifts of restorative practices have been present during every stage of my journey – from scouring the research and theory to traveling to Detroit and witnessing the application of restorative practices throughout the city’s public and social sectors.
However, the internal work required of restorative practices became clear during the four-day, basic training course I took at the International Institute for Restorative Practices (IIRP) in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.
Exploring restorative circles on a deeper level, as we did during the training, exposed one of my fundamental shortcomings. I dislike groups, avoid conflict and confrontation, and shun a leadership role even if it means my experience could advance the group. Yet, my best work is often accomplished in collaboration with others.
Encountering and engaging with a group of thirty strangers for four days of understanding and facilitating restorative circles as a means of building social capital, resolving social problems, and responding when harm occurs can be daunting.
However, it helped to view the experience through a framework based on psychologist Bruce Tuckman’s “Five Stages of Team Development” – forming, storming, norming, performing, and adjourning (also called mourning).
In a previous article, I describe the forming stage.
Storming happens when the initial excitement has worn off, and the reality and weight of completing the task at hand sets in. During this stage, personalities clash and mutinies ferment. Members of the group question whether others are pulling their weight, or challenge the authority and guidance of the group leaders.
I entered the storming stage of the restorative practices basic training during the first afternoon. I mentally and emotionally checked out of the training. I dismissed it as something useful for schoolteachers and education administrators who mostly comprised the group, but not for me, a freelance writer living in Mexico.
During one of the breaks, I challenged Lee Rush, our trainer, on his presentation of the information. I complained that it was too heavily weighted in the school setting, and that perhaps participants would gain a better appreciation of restorative practices if he discussed how it could be applied to other settings, such as those I had witnessed in Detroit.
Lee listened to my concerns and incorporated them into the remaining day’s instruction. He urged me to consider how I can or have applied restorative circles to personal and professional situations.
The Circle of Politics
Circles are a foundation of restorative practices. As Ted Wachtel describes in his book Restorative Circles in Schools: Building Community and Enhancing Learning: “Restorative circles enable students and a teacher or other school leader meet to discuss, answer questions, solve problems, play a game or offer feedback. Circles have structure, purpose, and focus, and can be personal, academic, or work related.”
Without realizing it, I have used restorative circles to facilitate messaging for political candidates, when I worked at the North Carolina Democratic Party as its Director of Communication, Outreach, and Oppositional Research.
Political campaigns are, by nature, chaotic. Everything happens faster than you can respond. A carefully planned day disrupted with accusations of campaign finance impropriety or news of a national event, such as a mass shooting, ripples down to your campaign.
Chaos breeds discordant responses and messages. Suddenly, you discover, for example, that both your gubernatorial and state legislature candidates—of the same political party—have sent conflicting messages to the media and their constituencies about gun control. The local impact of the mass shooting is no longer the news story; the contrasting statements among members of the same political party now is. And just like that, you have a political in-fight on your hands.
Going from “Me” to “We”
Political tribalism is often viewed as something that happens between parties and ideologies—Democrat vs. Republican, conservative vs. liberal.
However, there is a subset of tribalism that occurs between and within branches of governance. Senate and House members, on a state and national level, often clash because they are shaped by the institution to which they belong, as much as they are by ideology.
I navigated the inevitable clash by convening a weekly restorative circle with representatives from the state House and Senate and gubernatorial campaigns. During these circles, everyone had an equal opportunity to voice their concerns, promote their candidates’ initiatives, and ask for resources.
While some agendas remained hidden, we decided how to respond to crises and events, and shared responsibility in effectively deploying our resources. Inasmuch as anyone can in politics, we worked as a team and coordinated our messaging efforts whenever possible.
Remembering this experience helped me realize that I have wisdom and experience to offer groups—whether in a political or training setting—and I could use them without sacrificing my individual identity.
That’s when the real fun and next stage of team development happens: norming.