The Art of Restorative Questions

We live in a punitive culture. We are so used to punishment as the go-to solution for any behavior we want to change, that it can be difficult to imagine other options. A group of artists, organized by Project NIA, are here to help us.

When it comes to discipline and punishment, we seem to be reaching a tipping point. The number of people incarcerated in the US has become so outrageously large, that bi-partisan support (a rare thing these days) is building up behind criminal justice reform. People are (re)considering alternatives to incarceration, particularly for non-violent crimes. In schools, too, it has become clear that a largely punitive approach to dealing with behavior “problems” has only led to more problems. Schools hand out unconscionable numbers of suspensions and expulsions. This disproportionately harms low income Students of Color, exacerbates the large opportunity gaps that already exist, and fosters what has come to be known as the school-to-prison pipeline.

In response, we have seen rapid growth of the restorative justice movement, which offers a radically different approach. Restorative justice asks that we make a paradigm shift in the way we think about “crime” and “misbehavior.” As Dr. Carolyn Boyes-Watson at the Center for Restorative Justice at Suffolk University explains,

“Rather than privileging the law, professionals and the state, restorative resolutions engage those who are harmed, wrongdoers and their affected communities in search of solutions that promote repair, reconciliation and the rebuilding of relationships. Restorative justice seeks to build partnerships to reestablish mutual responsibility for constructive responses to wrongdoing within our communities. Restorative approaches seek a balanced approach to the needs of the victim, wrongdoer and community through processes that preserve the safety and dignity of all.”

Within this realm, practitioners have developed a wide range of “restorative practices” — such as victim-offender dialogues and peacemaking circles — often drawing on conflict resolution practices from indigenous societies around the world. But restorative justice cannot be reduced to a set of practices. It is a way of thinking about and approaching conflict. It requires a shift in how we relate to one another. It is about developing a restorative culture in our schools and communities.

If this seems daunting, a new arts-based campaign offers a simple, but powerful, starting point. The effort was catalyzed by Project NIA, an influential Chicago-based organization dedicated to “participatory community justice” (which encompasses restorative justice as well as more systemic approaches like transformative justice). Project NIA brought together a group of (mostly) Chicago artists to create restorative justice posters. These stunning posters feature “restorative questions,” drawn from the work of Margaret Thorsborne.

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The posters, and the questions they pose, are deceptively simple. However, if we were to truly use these questions as our starting point to address crime, violence, and conflict, we would find ourselves veering far from the punitive path. To ask someone who has been harmed, “What is needed to make things right?” is to privilege healing over retribution.  To ask someone who has done harm, “Who do you think has been affected by what you did?,” is to assume that learning and growth are possible.

All posters are available for public download. Print out your favorites and hang them in your neighborhood. I’m definitely going to be putting some up in the schools I work with here in Salt Lake City, where restorative practices are just beginning to gain traction. If you take a photo of the posters you hang, you can share it with the project by emailing it to transformchi2013@gmail.com.

Shifting from punitive to restorative approaches to justice and discipline will take more than learning new practices. It will require what Jeff Chang calls a “collective leap of imagination.” Fortunately, catalyzing our imaginations is something many artists excel at. As it says on the restorative posters website, “Artists help us to imagine new worlds. Let’s keep imagining together.”

 

 

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