The past few days, I’ve been thinking a lot about relationships. Human relationships is the aspect of social change that gets me super excited. I’ve also been thinking about systems and processes. These don’t get me so excited – thinking about them usually leaves me frustrated. On Monday I was coaching a colleague, Andrew, to support him with his restorative justice (RJ) project. Andrew’s specific task at hand is to work closely with a social landlord committed to urban regeneration and responsible for some nine thousand homes. We quickly identified that one of his challenges is the way that generally the staff of public service providers, e.g. those delivering social housing, often get tangled up in and constrained by their systems. Life, as a an employee for a public service provider, can easily become a daily grind of following the rules to be able to tick boxes and show you’ve done your role in implementing the latest system or process created to address some problem or another.
How uninspiring is that?
And how often does this cultural norm result in cycles of problems that seem to get a bit better only for a short time or, in fact, never really change at all?
Talking about this context, it quickly became clear that Andrew would benefit by working out how he can support the social landlord staff to understand RJ as more than just another system to implement. His work to promote RJ runs a high risk of the main staff question becoming: “What are the basics I need to do with this new process, you know, to get my job done?’
What’s Andrew to do?
One of the questions I asked Andrew, who has facilitated many successful cases in his RJ work to date, is: ‘What makes you so passionate about RJ – what about it really gets you excited?’ He responded by telling me that he loves it when he sees people let go of their assumptions about others – and that this is a crucial dimension of the RJ process.
To which I responded: “Now tell me a story – tell me about a case that you get excited about when you think of it?” I asked him if he has a partner – answer, ‘Yes.’ “Okay” I said “Pretend I’m your partner and you’ve just come from work, we are in the pub and you can’t wait to tell me about what happened in a case you facilitated that afternoon – what do you tell me?
This time Andrew started to become animated as he told me the story of a adolescent burglar meeting the victim of his crime – an elderly woman living alone in the house that he broke into. I prodded him to tell me what he felt when he was watching and listening to these two people he had brought together. I wanted to know what he witnessed happen between them. I wanted him to make RJ come alive for me, so that I could start to get a sense of what it was about and connect with it emotionally. I encouraged him to flesh out a few such stories, so he can take them along whenever he goes out to talk about RJ.
But he can also benefit from communicating more than just the individual case stories. When we communicate about the social change we want to see, we can easily miss out on what Andrew called the ‘meta-narrative.’ This isn’t a term I would normally use, but it did seem appropriate. What we were both thinking is that he has a larger story to tell – one that is bigger than the details of individual cases. It is about the types of communities he wants to create. RJ is not just another system, it is part of the journey to create a different world – or if that feels too grand, to create a different neighborhood.
For example, maximizing the impact restorative justice practices can have in our communities requires that the people involved are prepared to listen to the ‘enemy’, to put aside their assumptions about people and see the other through different lenses, to work with compassion and forgiveness, to make themselves vulnerable, to trust a process where the outcome is not pre-defined – which ultimately requires trusting others, to be open-minded and ready to create in new ways, i.e. come up with actions that will bring about justice in a way that is healing.
Thus, the bigger story that holds restorative justice processes within it is that we are committed to building communities more strongly rooted in trust, compassion, forgiveness, connection, visibility, creativity, collaboration and healing. To do this we need to relate to each other differently from what we are doing in the status quo.
On the surface, what’s there not to like, right? Wrong. Many people find it hard to believe that the communities we live in can have such roots – our experience has pushed us be distrustful, cynical, pessimistic and wary of both systems and people. Which means that Andrew, and any of us when in a similar situation, are faced with the often-difficult task of taking people on a journey.
Yet, we sometimes approach the task as though we are making a sales pitch. We try to explain away why our system is better than the one currently being used. We make a business case. We do this when, instead, we could be extending an invitation to join us on a journey – a journey where we work together to create different kinds of relationships and different kinds of community/communities.
What would inspire you more – to be asked/encouraged/directed to implement a new, more effective system or to be invited to play an active role in collaborating with people – perhaps in ways that are new to you – in order to reshape the communities you all work and live in?
I’m now thinking about the following questions and I put them to you: As a social change activist, what kind of communities do you want to create – what are their main characteristics in terms of how people relate and collaborate with one another? What are specific stories you have that illustrate what can happen when we head off in this direction? How might integrating your big-picture change story – your ‘meta-narrative’ – into your day-to-day work help you be more effective in creating change – whatever the arena? What indiviual, specific scenario stories do you carry around with you to help communicate why your work matters to you and why you think it should matter to anyone else?