Restoring Community

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conference 1In this guest blog, IIRP lecturer Nicola Preston reflects on the IIRP Europe Conference, which took place May 9-10, 2017 in Dublin, Ireland. Preston (pictured on left) is IIRP Adjunct Faculty; teacher and special educational needs coordinator; Ph.D. student at the University of Northampton, UK; and trustee and senior restorative practitioner, Thames Valley Partnership.

IIRP president John Bailie, Ph.D., opened the conference with words that resonated with participants from all over the world, not just Europe. He stated that across the generations, we are experiencing a time of societal unrest that, for many reasons, makes us feel as if "an age is passing." He suggested that the world needs a new philosophy to help us better understand the human condition and that restorative practices offers a social science of human dignity and an approach in which the hardwiring of our brains can be shaped to "better the human condition" and help us interact and relate to each other in a positive way. IIRP lecturer Borbala Fellegi, Ph.D., founder and executive director of the Hungarian Forsee Research Group, continued John’s theme, stating that we need to find the humanity beyond every conflict and seek to listen before making decisions about the best way forward. She used the power of storytelling to illustrate how opinions matter and need space to be expressed without fear or shame.

These introductions set the tone for the conference, which refreshingly (in my opinion) contained no keynote speeches but offered greater opportunity for participants to choose from more than 40 diverse 100- and 50-minute teach, engage and inform sessions over two days. The challenge was deciding which ones to attend, especially as I was presenting a session, Restorative Practices, Relationships and Child Development, which ruled out attending others in that time-slot!

conference 2It was refreshing to see the diversity in the ways restorative theory and practice is being developed across contexts, cultures and countries. Theorists and practitioners are helping us understand what it means to be restorative and how theory and practice can be consistently applied to build social capital and healthy human connection. I really enjoyed the restorative nature of each session I attended. It felt safe to challenge and question and, on occasion, open up and express vulnerability. For me, it led to a deeper sense of thinking and learning, and it was good to be personally challenged about my own thinking and perceptions.

I found the following sessions to be particularly impactful:

In False Assumptions? Rethinking Restorative Practices in the Wake of 2016, Tim Chapman, Ulster University lecturer in restorative practices and European Forum for Restorative Justice board member, posed questions that challenged participants in the restorative movement to examine their own motivations. He wants to ensure we do not become "an echo chamber" who only accept feedback we want to hear, or a liberal elite — just another set of professionals who, in the words of Norwegian criminologist Nils Christie, "steal the conflict."

In Responding with Hope Through Compassionate Witnessing, IIRP associate professor Frida Rundell, Ph.D., took each of her session participants on a personal and powerful exploration of their own understanding of relationship and mindfulness of being. Leading group compassionate witnessing sessions that highlighted what restorative means to her, she had a profound impact on all of us.

In Making Peace with the Enemy, Jo Berry, founder of the UK organization Building Bridges for Peace, shared the very personal story of her journey to understand and "rehumanize the other" with the man who planted the bomb that killed her father. Her decision at the time to "do something positive to save herself" helped her understand the conditions and “roots” that create violence. Her organization is sharing her learning widely with young Muslim women in relation to ideas that underpin extremism.

conference 6Sensitive topics such as childhood sexual abuse, racial violence, the needs of refugees and terrorism were all addressed within the context of dialogue and understanding.

In From Bystander to Activist — An Exploration of How RecoRa’s Principles of Self-Help and Activism to Tackle Extremism and Injustice Equate to RP, Yousiff Meah, chief executive of The RecoRa (Recognizing and Responding to Radicalism) Institute, explained how storytelling and self-help strategies that build on people’s own resources are more influential in changing thinking and building relationships than merely confronting ideologies. As Yousiff says, "individuals lead change rather than plans or models."

Several sessions looked at restorative practices at the organizational level.

In Crime, Conflict and Culture in the University: Proactive and Reactive Restorative Approaches, University of Leeds Criminology lecturer and Ph.D. student Ian Marder shared his use of proactive and reactive restorative practices within the university setting. In Reorientating Organizations: New Management Ideas Supported by Restorative Practices, Stijn Deprez, coordinator of the nonprofit youth-serving agency Ligand, in Belgium, gave participants much to think about around to how we could build relational and soulful organizations using restorative practices. Stijn’s engaging presentation style took the vision and work of Frederic Laloux around how we might reinvent organizations and certainly inspired me into thinking differently about restorative organizations. As Laloux states "if we can be in the world in the fullness of our humanity, what are we capable of?"

The conconference 4ference was as memorable for the informal networking opportunities as it was for the sessions. It was a particular treat to be welcomed in the 18th century Palladian-style splendor of Castletown House by Tánaiste and Minister of Justice and Equality Frances Fitzgerald, who showed great support for restorative practices and the development of the philosophy in her own country of Ireland.

Participants were asked in the closing circle to express what they were grateful for. One participant said that the conference "felt different, in a good way." I would share that view. I also found the following quotes meaningful:

I am grateful for:

  • Challenge
  • Self-reflection
  • Space – both the rooms and my mind
  • The organization
  • Empowerment and support like I have never had
  • Feeling resourced and supported
  • The quality of the experience

In the words of restorative practices pioneer Terry O’Connell, it seems we are beginning to have "the right conversations." I have gone back to my life with renewed energy and gratitude for such a passionate and committed worldwide restorative community!