In July 2018, the legal community in Wellington, New Zealand was reeling from the revelation of a long history of sexual misconduct in one of the city’s largest law firms. Female summer clerks at the firm, all current law students at the university, had been sexually assaulted, on multiple occasions, by one of the male partners.
As news of the sexual assaults spread, similar stories from other legal firms in the country began to emerge. The university Students’ Association also began an anonymous #MeToo blog, where students were invited to share details of their sexual violence and harassment experiences on campus. The stories shared were a shocking illustration of the magnitude of the issue within the law school and the wider university.
As these conversations continued to unfold, it was clear that there was a need for a dialogue that could addresses the culture that engenders sexually harmful behavior. There was a need for an intentional conversation about students’ experiences and what could be done to make things right.
The university decided to pilot a Restorative Circle process in response to this need. A group of nine law students (four male and five female) was convened and met for four Restorative Circle sessions with two facilitators and a graduate student researcher. In each circle meeting, the group built relationships, shared stories openly, and moved through the central questions of a restorative analysis: What is happening? What are the impacts? And what is needed to make things right? The process was called the Sustained Restorative Dialogue.
Student feedback about the restorative circle experience was overwhelmingly positive. One student reflected that she had never had such an “in-depth, considered, and structured conversation about sexual harm before.” She further explained, “I thought I had, but I had actually only ever talked to people from similar backgrounds and with similar perspectives to myself. This made me uncomfortably aware of how narrow my perspective was, and how important it is to be patient with others who have different views and bear in mind everyone’s backgrounds. I think the experience gave me hope that things can change. I realized I should have more faith in the ability of people to listen and learn.”
The students found the process helpful in understanding the issue of sexual harm and ultimately produced a list of suggestions that arose through the dialogue for how to improve the university culture that was submitted to university leadership. In addition to these practical outcomes, the biggest take-away participants had was about the power of the experience of the Restorative Circle process. It was not what was said, but how it was discussed and the nature of the circle dialogue that stuck with the students.
As one student explained, “The process itself is one that I think everyone should adapt into their everyday conversations they have with their friends and family and other people around them. It makes you feel listened to, encourages you to listen to others and be very thoughtful and considered in your responses. It felt like a safe and comfortable space, which in of itself is a feat considering the magnitude of the topic we were addressing and the fact we were a bunch of strangers to each other a week ago.”
This is the remarkable power of the Restorative Circle process. It creates a space for open, truthful, and respectful dialogue unlike anything we normally experience. It paves the way for people to hear each other deeply, to cultivate compassion for each other’s experiences, and to work together to find ways to make things right.
What is a Restorative Circle?
The Restorative Circle process is inspired in part by indigenous cultures around the world. The essence of the process isn’t new, but rather is ancient and universal.
The basic structure of the Restorative Circle process is remarkably simple. Participants are seated in a circle with nothing in between them. Facilitators introduce the process, setting a respectful tone and explaining basic ground rules for the process including to listen and speak with respect, honor confidentiality, and only speak when you have the talking piece in hand. The facilitators introduce a talking piece, an object that carries some significance that is explained to the group, engendering respect for the object and the process as a whole. The dialogue then progresses through rounds of questions, with the talking piece being passed to each person in the circle. The facilitators will pose a question or theme for each round and provide summaries at the end of each round in order to help maintain focus.
The structure and set format of the circle process help provide a sense of safety for participants and ensure equal voice. This allows the circle to benefit from the collective wisdom of all present. New understandings of the problem emerge along with new possibilities for solutions.
“The Circle is a highly structured intentional space designed to promote connection, understanding and dialogue in a group. The Circle is a powerful tool for that basic community function of working out how we are going to be together, which includes building relationships, establishing norms, and working through differences. The Circle fulfills that basic community function: it holds a healthy balance between individual needs and group needs.”
– Carolyn Boyes-Watson & Kay Pranis, Circle Forward: Building a Restorative School Community
How are Restorative Circles used?
The circle process is used both reactively and proactively in communities. Reactively, it provides a space for involved parties to gather after a conflict or crime to discuss the story of what happened, the impact it has had on those present, and what is needed to make things right. Proactively, the circle process is used as a way to bring people together to understand each other, to strengthen community bonds and feelings of connection, and to address important community issues. In both a reactive and proactive capacity, the circle is used in the justice system, neighborhoods, schools, universities, workplaces, churches, and social service organizations.
The impact of the circle process on participants can be profound. It builds relationships and nurtures a deep sense of connectedness, which helps to break through isolation and loneliness.
The circle also has a great deal of potential for resolving large scale, systemic issues. This is because the process helps to provide a full picture of an issue by giving voice to the perspectives and experiences of all present. This allows for the circle process to address the deeper causes of conflict.
These positive outcomes were all present in the Sustained Restorative Dialogue process. When asked her favorite part of the process, one student explained, “It’s hard to articulate – the feeling in the room? The vibe? How important and honest the conversation felt? I really loved that the first session was pretty much dedicated to setting ground rules and building trust, because it meant that the subsequent sessions were so much easier despite the difficult subject matter. I loved that the questions were phrased in such an open and interesting way. They guided the conversation but were not restrictive or assumptive. I definitely think they prompted me to think about and share things that I otherwise might not have thought to. Also, it was so nice to share thoughts and just know that people were listening and reflecting, without feeling judged or critiqued or like you would have to defend yourself.“
The field of Restorative Practices is growing rapidly and new applications for the Restorative Circle process emerge every day. Whenever there is a need to bring community together to discuss an issue openly and respectfully, in a way that humanizes participants and helps them to have compassion for each other’s’ perspectives, the Restorative Circle process is worth considering.
Interested in learning more about Restorative Practices? You can find a collection of case studies and articles at Lindseypointer.com.
Lindsey Pointer is a restorative practices educator, researcher, and practitioner. She has a PhD in Restorative Justice from Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand, where she helped design and implement the Restorative University initiative. Lindsey is a former Fulbright Fellow and Rotary Global Grant recipient who is passionate about experimenting with new applications of restorative principles and processes and understanding how restorative practices work to transform communities. She has worked internationally with communities in a range of contexts to support the implementation of restorative practices in an engaging, responsive, and fun way.
Lindsey currently works as an Adjunct Professor at Boise State University and offers training, consulting, and facilitation services to schools, workplaces, and other organizations interested in implementing restorative practices.