The outcome of the recent U.S. elections amplified deep divisions etched in the country’s soul.
For some, the election of President-Elect Joe Biden represents the potential to return to civility, moderate policies, and an upward, if not staggered, progress on social and racial issues. For others, the election outcome represents an undermining of the democratic system and a return to economic and environmental policies that led to the disenfranchisement of the rural poor.
No matter where you stand on the 2020 elections, the real work of restoring democracy will have to be done on the grassroots level. If we want true representation in our government, we have to talk to one another again. We have to have a “revolution by conversation.”
I have spent the past two years in Detroit and Kortrijk, Belgium documenting grassroots restorative practices initiatives, culminating in the award-winning docuseries, In the process, I learned a lot about what it takes to create a restorative city and foster democracy in everyday life.
Below are the three main lessons I learned from these experiences. I hope to offer a path forward during these divisive times.
One Person Can Make a Difference
Restorative practices usually ignites as a match struck in the heart of one person.
In Detroit, that person was Henry McClendon, a Detroit native and community leader. While working in a prison ministry and attending a conference on restorative justice, Henry met Mrs. Washington. She not only forgave the man who killed her daughter but allowed him to live with her upon prison release.
“If restorative practices can create an environment in which a mother can ‘adopt’ the man who murdered her son, I want to know how to do that,” McClendon said. “After hearing her story, I made a commitment to God that I would learn more about restorative practices.”
Henry became trained in restorative practices and recruited Alice Thompson, an educator and fierce community leader in her own right. Together, they used trainings to pollinate restorative practices in Detroit’s public schools, police departments, social services, health agencies, and even the court system. Their ultimate goal is to transform Detroit, once known for its crime, violence, and poverty, to America’s first “Restorative City.”
“In Detroit, we have all the right ingredients for strengthening relationships and community building,” Thompson said. “To make something like this happen, you need the mayor’s support,
the support of the philanthropic and corporate sectors, the community, and everyone to come together around a single vision for Detroit.”
That united vision was needed after the death of George Floyd. While other American cities burned, Detroit remained relatively calm due to the flowering of restorative practices at a time of racial reckoning in the county. The city’s police department expanded its community policing initiatives, advocated for less aggressive policing, and increased its transparency.
Kortrijk, Belgium combines restorative practices with nature.
Forta Kuné is an experimental initiative that combines family support counseling with wilderness experiences such as camping, hiking, and canoeing in the mountains. It is part of a constellation of programs administered by , a local nonprofit organization that adapts restorative practices to serve at-risk youth and families in .
The program focuses on families who want to actively work on creating sustainable parent and child relationships by removing them from their old habits and environments.
Every activity in the wilderness experience, such as kayaking or bicycling, is designed for two people. A volunteer coach checks on the pair’s progress and identifies suitable challenges they encountered that can be used as springboards for further discussion. Together, they learn to develop a positive space in which the parent and child can speak and be heard, respect each other’s position, and create a path forward for the relationship.
“Sometimes, it’s easier to talk about something when you are doing something active together, rather than sitting in a circle facing each other,” said Wies Vandenbulcke, who leads the program. “It’s restorative because they can restore their bond by doing things together. When a parent makes time for their child because they want to fix their broken relationship, it sends a very strong message.”
By being adaptable and expansive, Kortrijk community leaders are keeping children and families together and opening the possibilities for a new reality.
It Takes a Village
A common question asked of restorative practices trainers in both cities is, “how do I get the people in my life to accept this new way of doing things?”
“By example,” said Keisha Allen, executive director of Black Family Development Inc. Training Institute in Detroit.
“If the fruit you’re producing is good, it makes people want to come to your tree,” Allen said. “Buy-in is not convincing someone else; it’s about modeling the behavior and making them come to you.”
Stijn Deprez, the former coordinator (executive director) of Ligand, a restorative practices training
organization in Kortrijk, eliminated his job description and used restorative practices to restructure it.
At a team-building retreat, Deprez burned his job description in a nearby campfire. He wrote the tasks of his former job description on individual pieces of paper and passed them around the fire to his colleagues. The colleague kept the sheet of paper if they liked the task. If not, they continued passing the tasks around the circle until his job description was reassigned to people who would enjoy it. Deprez describes this and other restorative practices in the workplace as “together management.”
Buckminster Fuller said, “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” That is the most important lesson I learned watching restorative practices flourish in Detroit and Kortrijk – the dawn of a new reality.