Restoring Community

Dominic Barter has helped bring restorative practices to thepoverty-ridden favelas (shantytowns) of urban Brazil, where violence isendemic. This article by Joshua Wachtel includes information about amodel for nonviolent communication, restorative circles, which isproving highly effective in resolving conflicts in schools, criminaljustice and other settings.

In 2004 the Brazilian Ministry of Justice received a small UNDP(United Nations Development Programme) grant to launch the country’sfirst official restorative justice (RJ) pilot projects. Recognizing theunique social context of urban violence in Brazil, the projects broughttogether school administrators, judges, court workers, prisonauthorities, social service agencies and local community leaders tocreate a broad restorative response to the most challenging breakdownsin community safety. While justly known for their creative celebrationof life, Brazilians also live with glaring wealth imbalances and thenormalization of violence: Murder is the principle cause of death forpeople under 25.

In Rio de Janeiro, 20 percent of the population lives in crowded favelashantytowns — improvised communities of cramped, shoddy, multi-storyhouses. Drug gangs are the city’s largest youth employer. Education,family life and social cohesion are all hugely impacted by fear,improvised martial law and the struggle to make ends meet.

In the mid-1990s, Dominic Barter began working with favelaresidents, including drug gang members, to help them strengthennonviolent options for working with young people. “I saw violence as amonologue,” said Barter. “All the state and gang responses to violencewere more of the same. I wanted to create a dialogue.” In early 2005 hehelped organize the country’s first public presentation on restorativepractices, at the Brazil-based annual World Social Forum. The Ministryof Justice heard Barter’s presentation and hired him to develop aconferencing model and train facilitators for two of three new pilotprojects, in São Paulo and Porto Alegre.

A self-educated RJ practitioner, Barter was raised in England, firstvisited Brazil in 1992 to attend the United Nations Conference onEnvironment and Development and settled in Rio in 1999. Barter’sbackground in theater, education and social change, he says, involvedcreative engagement with conflict. He became a colleague of MarshallRosenberg, founder of the Center for Nonviolent Communication (CNVC),which studies how people use their power to create partnership andcooperation, “emphasizing compassion as the motivation for actionrather than fear, guilt, blame, coercion, threat or the justificationof punishment” (

In June 2000 a bus hijacking ending with the tragic shooting of thehijacker and a passenger by a Rio police officer shocked the nation.Barter saw the events unfold on television and later learned hownegotiations between police and assailant had been bungled. (He wasdoubly stunned to realize he had once met the hijacker.) Reeling fromthe militancy of the police reaction, Barter took action. “I rangeveryone I knew, and we began learning how to deal with such situationsdifferently, first by teaching ourselves, then by giving trainings,getting to the police and suggesting the use of nonviolent methods ofconflict resolution.”

The municipal government soon requested Barter’s help mediatingmeetings between the chief of police and shantytown residents’associations. Projects brought favela youth and school-age children ofthe elite together to share cooperative ways to play sports, learncomputer skills, acquire fresh food and support local health workers.The NVC -guided principle was: Listen to what local people want andrespond to it, rather than arrive with prepackaged answers.

“In each project, the question of violence – domestic, community,police/gang or school violence – was never far away,” said Barter.“Most youth have absent fathers. Their mothers work long hours asdomestic maids. After school, children hang out with the ‘uncles,’teenagers employed by the gangs. From nine years old, they’re alreadyrunning errands for the gangs, looking cool and making money. Yet theywere always asking for help with conflict, saying they wanted adifferent life.”

From these initial conversations, Barter began to organizerestorative responses to the situations youth and adults were raising.“It was very effective,” he said. “People would come to us with theirissues. I started organizing impromptu restorative conferences in theshantytown. Although I had read about RJ in the early 90s, I had nomodels, just the principles of NVC.”

Over time a unique conference model emerged, known as restorativecircles, which involves three key participants: the author of a givenact, the recipient of that act and the local community. Barter coinedthese terms – and prefers them to the victim and offender labels – inrecognition of the complex web of mutuality much violence involves.

“Often, all those in the circle see themselves as victims and eachother as offenders. Restorative practices are valuable in part becausethey can contain and recognize such experienced truths.” Barter added,“The process speaks to people because it balances responsibility withempowered decision making and belongs to the community that uses it.All who come to the conference do so in a personal capacity, no matterwhat their relationships are outside it. This creates safety and helpsreveal our shared humanity.”

A weakness of these early shantytown conferences, said Barter, wasthat agreements made with the best of intentions would sometimes vanishas soon as the participants left the meeting room and returned to thesocial realities of their daily lives. When the pilot projects began itwas possible to carefully create a systemic context for theconferences, in which each community chooses to use the process and isdirectly benefited, thereby giving the circle and its results validityand shared meaning. The agreed action plans are now carried out toeveryone’s satisfaction in over 90 percent of cases.

In Porto Alegre, in southern Brazil, (metro region population: fourmillion plus), the new RJ program is an alliance between the courts andassociated criminal justice and social service agencies. A restorativeprocess: a pre-circle meeting, the circle itself and a post-circleevaluation, is offered to adolescent offenders in the community byvictim and offender support services and agencies that facilitatecommunity service sentences, and in youth shelters and secure youthdetention facilities. The program serves large numbers of youth and hastrained thousands in RJ principles and practice. Introductory RJworkshops are offered free to the public. Pontifical CatholicUniversity of Rio Grande do Sul’s research department is studying theprogram’s effectiveness, and there’s a website where people can inputinformation about their experiences with RJ for comparison andresearch.

The São Paulo program, in Brazil’s most populous state, is also foradolescent offenders and is a joint project of the justice andeducational systems, with local communities and police involvement. Itis active in four cities, with plans to expand to a further 15. In thecapital (also called São Paulo), Brazil’s largest city, any youngperson who attends one of the high schools surrounding the city’sbiggest shantytown, Heliopolis, and commits a crime is funneled to arestorative track, administered in the courthouse, school or localcommunity. In some areas police have discretion to take an offendereither to the police station or back to school, where a restorativecircle is immediately convened. Referrals to the juvenile court havedecreased by 50 percent since the policy’s inception.

Both Brazilian projects are expanding within their states and seedingnew initiatives throughout the country. They have attracted nationalmedia attention, been featured on a youth soap opera, and won awardsfor innovation in the areas of justice and education. Lessons learnedfrom this experience have been shared in India, Iran and thePhilippines. In 2008 Barter was a keynote speaker at the IIRP WorldConference in Toronto, which brought this work to many morepractitioners. “Since judges, teachers, students, law officers, parentsor any affected community member can initiate the process, people getbehind it,” said Barter. “In terms of power it’s a very wide ranging,inclusive and therefore effective proposal.”

Sylvana Casarotti is a coordinator in the São Paulo RJ program. Shewas initially trained as a facilitator to go into schools and work withschool directors and others responsible for making pedagogicaldecisions, to demonstrate how to facilitate circles, and teach schoolsto set up and maintain restorative systems. She now works closely withBarter as part of a core team establishing new RJ programs in a growingnumber of schools.

One moving situation Casarotti experienced involved a family with 14children between the ages of 3 and 16 years old. Two of the brotherswere caught stealing food from other students during lunch. The headteacher wanted to expel the boys — the usual punishment for stealing.But because the school had recently implemented a restorative system,the head asked Casarotti to facilitate a restorative circle first.

“There were several results that were very meaningful,” saidCasarotti. The students were not expelled. Through the conference thetrue circumstance of the family was made known to the school for thefirst time: They were so poor they used a schedule to decide whichchild would eat each day. The eldest child was in prison for stealingfood, and when the story came out, the judge who sentenced that childcalled for a review of the case.

Not only was the problem solved with the boys and the family, butthe boys also have a new, positive relationship with the other studentsin the school. Now when the brothers get into trouble, even outsideschool, they approach school authorities and seek restorativesolutions. “They know this is not simply something the adults andteachers send kids to do,” said Casarotti. “RJ is available to studentsto initiate themselves.”

Said Casarotti: “I give the information to my family and mychildren, and I have found the value of having learned how to listen.Brazil is growing and looking toward the future but suffering from alot of individualist thinking, so it is essential to learn to see theother person as a human being. In order to establish a culture ofpeace, so Brazil may have a future, it is essential for people to learnhow to dialogue and resolve their problems with restorative justice.”

You may contact Dominic Barter at: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .