[fusion_dropcap class="fusion-content-tb-dropcap"]P[/fusion_dropcap]ersonal account of facilitating restorative justice in New Zealand

“He aha te mea nui o te ao, he tangata, he tangata, he tangata.” Maori proverb.

I clearly recall watching the training video on restorative justice and thinking to myself, gosh, could I really do this work? The amount of emotion and hurt being displayed in the role play on the video made me feel rather uncomfortable. The real life facilitator on the training video seemed to me to possess a real capability of being able to sit with discomfort, gently but firmly asking those involved in the pre-conference meeting subtle probing questions to tease out their feelings, emotions and experiences. I was especially impressed by his ability to hone in on those individuals who were displaying irritation or frustration but not verbalising this to the group. As I made my way through the training material, I wondered if I would ever reach a point of being able to do this work credibly enough to ensure that harm was addressed, without harming those involved in the restorative justice conference. Fast forward three years, and I am happy to say that I have built up enough experience and have been fortunate to be surrounded by wonderful restorative justice peers that I feel able to say that I really didn’t need to worry, as much as I did.

I do acknowledge that my transition from a fledging restorative justice facilitator trainee to a NZ Ministry of Justice approved accredited restorative justice lead facilitator was not a simple process. I spent many hours involved with pre-conferences and conferences. A huge amount of effort goes into trying to contact the offender and offence victim(s) and being able to convince then to initially meet with myself and a co-mediator. This proved challenging, at times, because people didn’t know what to expect or they felt reluctant to meet with a person that had caused them harm. Mostly, though, people were open to the idea of at least meeting and discussing what restorative justice was and how they may be able to gain some benefit from being involved.

The work allowed me to visit offenders and offence victims in their homes or in community rooms. I also went into the local prison to meet with offenders held on remand. All in all, it was all worthwhile. Being able to sit with people, sit with their shame, their guilt, their pain and their hurt and have them share this with me and my co-meditator was a privilege. The work offered me an insight into how people process their experience of being hurt or being the person who has caused harm. The training that is provided offers a sound foundation on how to run the process.

However, what the training did not offer is how to work within the restorative justice process on a very human level and the myriad of reactions that present at the conferences. Having the ability to provide situational awareness is vital. Being able to sense when a situation may evolve into an unsafe experience is a skill that improves over time. For me, safety for all involved was always paramount. That means that at times I had to raise my voice, take people from the room to calm down and, on one occasion stand up in the middle of the conference and clap my hands to intervene in a conversation that was escalating due to the conflictual nature of it.

Being able to sit with people, sit with their shame, their guilt, their pain and their hurt and have them share this with me and my co-mediator was a privilege

It was the human interaction element of the role that I loved the most. As I reflect on the many people that I met from such varying backgrounds, I realise how blessed I have been to meet all of these amazing people. There was a lovely exchange of wisdom, ideas, resilience, kindness, compassion and learning that is shared with each person that I came into contact with. I am not saying that I never experienced frustration or disappointment, I am of course talking about interacting with humans. On the whole, the majority of people were committed to the principles of restorative justice. I did on occasion meet with an offender who have been instructed by their lawyer to ‘do restorative justice’ as it would be seen as favourable by the court. Once I explained the process of a restorative justice conference to the offender, some elected to withdraw as the idea of meeting a person they harmed was just too much for them to bear. I want to highlight that there is immense courage required by both an offender and an offence victim to agree to a conference. In a country the size of NZ, some were worried that once they met the offender, they could be identified. This is a very legitimate concern. However, after talking through these concerns, a lot of offence victims arrived at their own conclusion that the desire and opportunity to ask about the ‘why’ outweighed any hesitation or concern they possessed.

There is so much of oneself that one brings to this work. I was raised in a mix culture household, my mother is a NZ Maori and my father was from Singapore. From my mother’s culture I observed the silent strength exuded by the strong women in my wider family. They could translate a great deal through the expression in their eyes, that words were not required. In my role as a lead facilitator, I applied this knowing in the form of being able to sit with silence. Being raised by a father from an Asian culture, I learned how important it was to ensure that I did not create a situation where people ‘lost face’/. My father also taught me the importance of standing in my truth. My cultural background and my passion for travel over the past 20 or so years set me in good stead for dealing with people from many different cultures and races. The underlying thread in dealing with the many people that I came into contact with was honouring each of them. Having a clear desire to truly hear them and understand what they needed to share as either an offender or an offence victim.

In NZ, we talk about restorative justice being ‘victim-centered’. Yes, I agree with that wholly however, I have always viewed restorative justice as beige people centred. One of the key reasons I become involved in restorative justice was to work with people in a way where I could help them to restore their self. My vision was to work with offenders in such a way that I could challenge their thinking and their decision making which may persuade them from going on to commit further crime. This for me meant discussing who they are, what their vision was for their self and what was possible in making this vision a reality. In my interactions with offence victims, I looked to understand how they could best benefit from meeting with the offender and how I could support them on many levels to achieve this.

In the Maori culture we have a beautiful saying shown as the epigraph to this article, which asks: “what is the most important thing in the world? It is the people, the people, the people”. This for me was my guiding principle in dealing with both offenders and offence victims. As a restorative justice facilitator, I had the absolute privilege of working with those involved in an experience where harm had occurred and through the application of skill and self, I was able to work through the application of skill and self, I was able to work with these individuals to assist them to transition beyond pain, hurt and for the offender, often shame and guilt. My passion for restorative justice is underpinned by the amazing shifts that I witnessed taking place between offenders and offence victims in a conference. I saw people move from a position of pure anger and deep pain to true forgiveness. The effect that true forgiveness had on an offender was incredible to behold. It was a true privilege to observe the creative, compassionate, kind and generous outcomes emerge from joint thinking in a restorative justice conference.

Being able to sit with people, sit with their shame, their guilt, their pain and their hurt and have them share this with me and my co-mediator was a privilege

Society has so much to gain from implementing restorative justice across many different forums. I sincerely hope that Scotland is able to implement restorative justice for the benefit of many. There is so much to be gained as a society in learning to listen to each other’s stories, to acknowledge pain on a human level and to work collaboratively, to move towards addressing harm. When we do this work, we look to improve communication between people and that can only benefit present and future generations in terms of human interaction and I for one, am certainly in favour of this.

Written by Christina Tay for issuu: The restorative justice issue

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