IIRP now has a brand new book, Building Campus Community: Restorative Practices in Residential Life. I co-wrote the book with Ted Wachtel, and the introductory chapter was co-written by Stacey Miller, University of Vermont Director of Residential Life, and Ted Wachtel.
Here are a couple excepts from Chapter 3 discussing the special role of the RA and how Restorative Practices can help balance the ideals of being a community leader with the need to also enforce behavioral norms:
The role of the resident advisor (RA) is complex. Most RAs sign on to do the job because they want to help build community in the residence halls, provide guidance to their resident peers and learn what it means to be in a leadership role. They want to develop relationships with residents, befriend them and help them when they need help.
While colleges and universities do support RAs in these goals, they also charge RAs with the responsibility of managing behavior, and they grant RAs a certain amount of authority to enforce campus policies, rules and regulations.
Some RAs discover this dichotomy puts them in an awkward position. One RA put it this way:
RAs play a really big double role on campus. It’s a very administrative position, a person who enforces policy—and then you’re a psychiatrist at the same exact time. Those are two very different things. Our job is not only to keep residents safe and build community, but it’s also to enforce policy.
I’ll be walking down the hall and see my residents and have a really good conversation about mountain biking or something, or they’ll come and talk to me about how their girlfriend is bugging them.
But then I’ll come by and be like, “Why is your closet door on your dresser with your bicycle and TV balancing on it? You can’t have that. You have to put that back, otherwise you’re going to get charged for that.” And then they look at you like, “Weren’t you the person who was just helping me with my relationship problem?” It’s a very Jekyll and Hyde position that we’re in. RAs are usually 19 or 20 years old. Their residents may be a year or two younger, but they may also be the same age or older. How does one both maintain friendly relationships with peers your own age and intervene when rules have been broken? The RA quoted above went on to argue that restorative practices were helpful in that they were more consistent with a helping role.
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Restorative practices can help redefine the role of the RA from a policy enforcer to a key member of the community and a facilitator. For many RAs, this role feels a lot more satisfying. An administrator commented on this, using the example of a common problem on campuses, noise:
On some level, when the music is too loud on a floor and it’s bothering other people, somebody needs to say something about it, because obviously the person who has the music on either doesn’t care that it’s impacting other people or doesn’t really realize that it’s impacting other people.
In an authoritarian paradigm, people are looking for the RA to be the one to go and knock on the student’s door. The reality is that we want any community member who is bothered by music to be able to knock on somebody’s door and say, “Hey, you know what, it’s late, I’m trying to go to bed but I can’t get any sleep. You know, I can’t fall asleep with the music this loud. Would you mind turning this down?”
Anybody should be able to do that. When we give people the language to make those statements to interact with other community members, it really takes the RA out of that role and allows other people to share in that. Even when people feel like, “No, no, it really should be the RA this time,” it still gives the RA the language to have an interaction with a resident that doesn’t have to be confrontational; it doesn’t have to be acrimonious.
Sometimes when an RA comes into a situation and they’re not prepared, they don’t have the tools to talk to a community member, sometimes they make the interaction more hostile than it needs to be because of how they initiate the interaction. If you pound on somebody’s door and say, “Hey, turn the music down,” the person inside might not respond well to that, and it might start to instigate a conflict that doesn’t otherwise need to have been instigated. By giving them the language to have them communicate to somebody the impact of their music, it often defuses things before they get escalated. Giving RAs that language helps them operate in a paradigm where the focus of their position is to be a community developer, rather than a
Along these lines, an RA who was able to distinguish his role as a policy enforcer from that of a concerned peer made an impact with residents on the subject of alcohol use, which is illegal on many campuses, even for students who are of legal drinking age. When alcohol use and abuse became an issue on his floor, the RA held a circle. But rather than taking a hard stance from a disciplinary point of view, the RA opened up a discussion about alcohol safety. A resident reported that he thought his RA handled the situation very well. “He definitely put the emphasis on our safety rather than any disciplinary ramifications, which I thought was well played on his part,” added the student.