Vancouver’s City Council recently voted in favor of becoming a Restorative City. This vote serves as a powerful signal of the City’s intent to approach crime and civic relations in a new light. While much work remains to translate this vision into action, this article explores some of the principles and values that may underpin such efforts and guide its realization. It also considers the reflection of restorative principles in Community Mediation programs.
What is Restorative Justice?
Restorative Justice is an approach to conflict and crime that seeks to repair harm and strengthen communities. Harms are contemplated as actions and speech that undermine trust, relationships and, by extension, the fabric of a community. A restorative approach to addressing harms is based on principles of collaboration, empowerment and responsibility. It is predicated on the active participation of those who have caused harm as well as those who have been directly and indirectly harmed. A trained facilitator supports and encourages parties to work together in a restorative process to develop a shared understanding of the harm caused and what is needed to repair it.
The needs of those who experience harm are central to the process. These needs may include information about the event and people involved, validation of their experience and the harm they have endured, safety and support for healing, and restitution for any loss. A restorative process provides a framework for those who experience harm to communicate these needs and define how they can best be addressed.
Restorative processes also give participants opportunities to restore their underlying relationships while rebuilding trust in one another.
Priority is given to addressing the human needs of the participants and to empower them to communicate their thoughts and feelings in an open and honest way. The goal is to build understanding, to encourage accountability, and to provide an opportunity for healing.1
Throughout the process, facilitators encourage dialogue and collaboration between all participants with the aim of reintegrating those who have caused harm back into society. Implicit in these efforts is the goal of increasing a community’s resilience, its awareness of weaknesses in the social fabric that can lead to conflict, and to encourage early interventions in the future.
How these principles are reflected in Community Mediation
While participants in mediation are not typically defined in terms of having caused or suffered harm, the strain of civil conflicts can be no less formidable than those experienced in a criminal context. Indeed, parties to a mediation often express needs for validation, vindication, support, healing, and a longing to restore their pre-conflict equanimity.
Community Mediation (CM) programs are designed to address such conflicts with an approach that closely aligns with restorative justice principles. Indeed, one of the defining hallmarks of CM programs is their efforts to support collaborative community relationships to effect positive systemic change. This focus distinguishes CM from transactional and more binary approaches to conflict, and can be traced to its emergence in the 1960s civil rights movement in the United States.
In a recent survey of several hundred CM programs across Canada and the United States, a recurring theme was the “need for members of a community to come together, to see, know, and acknowledge one another in a way that was harmonious while still acknowledging and respecting difference. … Those who are involved firsthand with the centers, especially the volunteers, noted how the efforts of the centers ripple out into their communities, creating waves of healing and solidarity around everything from ‘my neighbor will not cooperate’ to school responses to teen suicide and college student dropout rates.”2
The centrality of relationships in a community serves as a strong incentive for participants to engage openly and with sincerity in addressing conflict. CM programs tailor the process to the participant’s needs and circumstances, aim to facilitate an empathic exchange of perspectives, and encourage active participation and dialogue. By creating opportunities for parties to listen to and validate one another’s perspectives, mediators can help people bridge seemingly irreconcilable positions. Similarly, by facilitating participants’ cooperation in defining solutions and establishing frameworks for more constructive dialogue, the CM process can strengthen the resilience of the underlying relationships in the long term.
To learn more about how restorative justice or community mediation can help you, contact us today.
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1Cpl. J. Cooley, S. Blaker, Restorative Justive: Recommitting to Peace and Safety, RCMP Community Contract and Aboriginal Police Services, 2010 ed.
2F. Washington, D.G. Mawn, J. Shedd, State of Community Mediation 2019, National Association for Community Mediation