What is Restorative Justice? Ancestral Practices for Peaceful & Interconnected Living Today.
Updated: Nov 18
Originally published in Black & Pink's Bi-monthly Newsletter
What is Restorative Justice? Ancestral Practices for Peaceful and Interconnected Living Today. by: David Ryan Castro-Harris, Founder, Amplify RJ (Restorative Justice)
Restorative Justice (RJ) philosophy and practices have existed throughout human history, but Howard Zehr of Eastern Mennonite University is widely credited for popularizing the term. In his book Changing Lenses, he defined Restorative Justice as “…a process to involve, to the extent possible, those who have a stake in a specific offence and to collectively identify and address harms, needs, and obligations, in order to heal and put things as right as possible.”
What Zehr described as an alternative to the criminal legal system is actually a process that all of our ancestors used to resolve conflict. If we go back far enough to the times where our people lived in small tribes, it was important to resolve conflict without throwing someone out of community because that person would either die on their own or cause more harm somewhere else. Losing even one member is a significant loss in a small community. Not only are they someone’s sibling, child, parent, and friend; they were also a significant contributor to the community’s work.
Our ancestors deeply valued the idea of interconnection because community relationships were so important. Cultures across the globe express this idea of the unity, oneness, and connectedness between all beings. The Lakota people describe it as “mitakuye oyasin” and the Mayans in modern Mexico and Central America use “in lak’ ech, ala k’in.” Varying peoples in southern Africa call it “ubuntu,” while it is referred to as “kapwa” in the Philippines.
As Howard was doing criminal legal reform work in the late 1970-80’s, he traveled the world looking for alternatives to the rapidly growing carceral system in the United States. Howard developed most of his understanding of this work from the Maori, the indigenous people of modern New Zealand. Much like black, brown, and indigenous youth make up most of our juvenile justice system, Maori youth make up a majority of New Zealand’s juvenile justice system. When Maori youth are sent to juvenile court, community leaders ask the judge for permission to use their ancestral practices of addressing harm in the community instead of the punitive legal system. Embodying the value of “kotahitanga,” the Maori word for oneness, the community offers the young person love, support, and guidance in taking responsibility for their actions and for repairing any harm caused to the individual and the community as a whole.
Punitive questions for addressing harm are not considered. What law or rule was broken? Who did it? What punishment do they deserve? Instead, a restorative approach is used to address root causes of conflict, identify the impact of the harm and the needs of everyone involved, and, finally, repair harm. They ask: What happened and why? Who was affected and how? How can these needs be met and who’s responsibility is it to meet them?
The process meets the needs of the person harmed, the person who caused harm, and others impacted; which leaves the person who caused the initial harm without reason or incentive to repeat their harmful behavior. This accountability process can lead to healing, repaired or strengthened relationships, and accountability (acknowledging harm, taking responsibility for actions, and changing behavior moving forward.) A punitive approach does none of those things.
So how can we be restorative? Asking those questions when harm occurs is a start, but we need a foundation of proactive restorative practices. We must root ourselves in a restorative mindset and values to effectively use these practices (see sidebars for more information). We can live out our ancestors’ values of interconnection in everyday life by seeking to repair relationships when harm occurs and proactively building and maintaining relationships to prevent future harm.
How do we make these ideas practical? One interaction, one relationship at a time. When harm occurs do you pause to ask “what happened and why” or do you jump to conclusions and assign blame? Do you try to assess and meet the needs of the people involved to prevent future harm, or are you looking to punish, get revenge, and cause more harm? In everyday interactions, are you treating others as if their well-being is connected to yours or only looking out for yourself, no matter the cost to others? Are you acknowledging the humanity in the other, or are you demanding respect without giving it?
This is different from the way many of us have been taught to live, and it happens one moment at a time. Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu said, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” Living this way is a lifetime of work, but it’s been so rewarding for me.
Which part of these restorative ways do you want to step into today?
Proactive Restorative Practices: things we do to build and sustain healthy relationships with ourselves and others.
Self-care: making sure you are taking care of your physical, mental, spiritual, and emotional needs. We can’t pour into others if we’re empty. We’ll end up causing more harm than good.
Creating collaborative agreements: getting on the same page with people in your community helps clarify expectations and prevent misunderstandings.
Checking in (with yourself and others): Making sure you know how you and others around you are doing so you can address needs before they go unmet and it turns into a crisis, conflict, and harm.
Communicating for connection: Speaking, listening, and using non-verbal communication (body language, tone, etc.) that will share observations, feelings, and needs, building relationships instead of being judgmental or dismissive.
Restorative Mindset and Values: mindset and values that help guide our actions to be more relationship focused.
7 Core Assumptions** (statements on having a restorative mindset)
The True Self in everyone is good, wise, and powerful.
The world is profoundly interconnected.
All human beings have a deep desire to be in a good relationship.
All humans have gifts, everyone is needed for what they bring.
Everything we need to make positive change is already here.
Human beings are holistic.
We need practices to build habits of living from the core self.
Values: Honoring Indigenous Roots, Interconnection, Equity, Multiple Truths, Respect, Compassion, and Openness are principles that help guide my actions to be more relationship centered. These are some that are helpful to me, not an exclusive list. What are yours?)
**Adapted from various indigenous and spiritual teachings by Carolyn Boyes Watson and Kay Pranis