Engaging in circles
More than 300 people from 10 countries attended the three-day International Institute of Restorative Practices’ World Conference held in October at the Hotel Bethlehem and the IIRP’s graduate school campus on Main Street in Historic Bethlehem. Countries represented included Pakistan, Australia, the Netherlands, Singapore and Canada.
Restorative practices is an emerging social science that studies ways to restore and develop social well-being and interaction through participatory learning and decision-making. The institute in Bethlehem is the world’s first graduate school devoted exclusively to teaching restorative practices. It offers a master of science degree and a graduate certificate locally and, with is partners, provides train-the-trainer programs worldwide.
The conference featured 70 sessions with speakers and presentations on how restorative practices are being applied in a myriad of situations, such as resolving relationship issues involving education, communities, law enforcement, penal systems, business and work environments.
Two conciliation specialists from the U.S. Department of Justice tackled the timely subject of “Affectively Engaging Police and Communities When Responding to Allegations of Racial Profiling and Racial Tension.” Mildred Duprey de Robles from the DOJ’s Miami field office began by showing a video that reported that 54 percent of African Americans say they have been discriminated against by police because of race and color.
De Robles explained that conciliation specialists “are not investigators or prosecutors. Our goal is to seek cooperation with those in conflict. We facilitate dialogue.”
That dialogue takes place through “study circles,” an approach that involves bringing together all the major parties affected by the issue under discussion. That can mean the mayor, other city officials, community leaders, the police chief, the business community, schools and residents.
De Robles said a very important aspect of the circles is “to unite the community through informed sharing of the local racial history and its consequences.” She added that these discussions happen in real time. “Sometimes people are rallying or demonstrating, and they agree to come together.”
Conciliation specialist Kim Milstead from the DOJ Houston field office explained that study circles involve four phases: 1) “Who we are” – trying to build trust by getting the parties to talk about their personal experiences; 2) “Where are we?” – describing the overall state of race relations in the community and highlighting different individuals’ perceptions; 3) “Where do we want to go?” – moving the group from the “me” to thinking and talking about possible directions for change; and 4) “What can; what will we do to make a difference?”
During one of the “teach-engage” sessions, about 60 attendees participated in “Circle Up: Using the Framework of Restorative Practice to Facilitate Dialogue Around Diversity.” The demonstration circle was led by Dr. Stacey Miller, a diversity training expert, who began her session by asking participants to pair with another person in the room, and discuss what they found most challenging and most inspiring about diversity conversations.
“This is how I begin almost all my diversity training,” Miller said. “I get people to get up and move around. We don’t know each other. As presenter, I want to know immediately how they are. [It’s also] a temperature read of the space. You want people to be safely grounded in the space.” She recommended always training in circles because everyone is on equal footing and no one can hide. Circles also can accommodate different group sizes and learning styles.
Her advice for facilitators dealing with conflict: “To be effective, you have to be vulnerable—open up, share personal stories about your challenges, your mistakes. We engage by role modeling vulnerability and authenticity.”