Walking Towards Community – A Restorative Approach, with Dominic Barter


This past Saturday I attended a full-day workshop called, Walking Toward Community – A Restorative Justice Approach, with Dominic Barter. The workshop was held at the Quaker Meeting House in Dupont Circle and it brought together a great group of about 50-60 participants, some of whom I had met from other such events. The workshop was sponsored by the following organizations: DC RJ Network, DC Peace Team, The Peace Alliance, Shambhala Center, Critical Exposure, PeacexPeace, Little Friends for Peace, and Pax Christi.

I am somewhat familiar with restorative justice practices, and utilize elements of the practice, such as the talking circle, in many of my courses, but this was the first time I had an intense introduction to restorative justice specifically. I was not too familiar with Dominic Barter (restorativecircles.org), but I soon realized why many in the RJ field consider him to be one of the best RJ practitioners in the world.

Here are my notes from the workshop. Now, they may not be totally clear to the random person who stumbles across this post, but if you would like to make sense from the note-taking system I am using then the following key will be helpful: TA = takeaway, ID = idea to incorporate into my work, and Q = question remaining or lingering. I have bolded the take-aways that I think are the most valuable for me. But first, the description of the event itself:

Engaging creatively with social systems – in our families, neighbourhoods, schools, workplaces and groups – is becoming an increasingly important part of many people’s lives. The ways we’ve been living are under immense pressure. New forms of partnership offer the potential for increasing meaning in community life while recovering our shared power.

This day long gathering is an invitation to rethink areas of your life that seek greater alignment with your deepest values.

We will use the experience of new community-created and owned social technologies – such as Restorative Circles – to begin redesigning how we live with others, and how we understand core influences in our lives such as justice, love, learning, truth and belonging.

TA – One thing I know about learning is that we don’t know what’s going to happen next. That can be scary for a community that has been weakened by domination structures. When we don’t know we can be thrown back into what we do know. (Barter)

TA – Community is understood as a web of relationships. Barter gave the example of the baker in the town where he lives. The baker may be a “stranger,” but Dominic and his family smell that baker’s bread baking every morning, buy his bread from the bakery, and nourishes his family with that bread.

TA – I don’t intend to be the primary source of meaning. Look to yourself or the person next to you for that. I am a host for you to find meaning. (Barter)

TA – A state of listening where my state of feeling changes because of my presence to another person. Listening to not just what is being said, but who is saying it (Barter on setting up the partnered listening exercise)

TA – At the end of a connection with someone I will never be the same. I have changed not just what I think, but who I am. (Barter on listening through dialogue)

TA – Clear space for other sounds. At the end of one person sharing, just sit silently for 10 seconds. (Barter’s instructions for what to do at the end of listening to a partner respond to the question, “how are you?”)

TA – Oftentimes the meaning of what we are saying is behind what we are saying and in what we are saying. (Barter)

TA – Having a “script” does not necessarily mean you are being inauthentic or dishonest. Scripts are authentic too. Having a script can be a way of communicating that you are not ready to be totally forthright or open with the person to whom you are speaking.

TA – We don’t always enunciate what is true to us, but we are still being honest.

TA – There is danger that we might start caring about another person. (Barter on why deep listening can be difficult)

TA – There is a modern dilemma – we seek community or long for it while at the same time prevent ourselves from developing one and taking on what that means and entails. (Barter)

ID – If you have a question and your hand is ignored, write that question for and check in with it to see if it has been addressed. (effective way Barter dealt with too many hands).

TA – Thinking of communicating and listening as an exercise can actually be an impediment to communicating and listening. (Barter)

TA – I love that others can more accurately see what I am feeling more accurately than I can see it myself. (Barter)

TA – There is a difference between listening to the person vs. listening to what the person is saying. (Barter)

ID – Try out asking folks “how are you?” in different ways – e.g. how are you doing?  How are you feeling? How is your heart? How’s it going? What’s up? This can be part of a check-in exercise with a partner.

TA – What is most important to you in life? (Question that Barter asked the entire group to respond to). The responses included the following: connection, play, authenticity, openness, good energy, love, caring for others, family, freedom, integration, laughter, autonomy, creativity, choice, passion, meaning, learning, wellness, mystery, growth, understanding, joy, peace, chocolate, health, connectedness, liberation, support, mutual responsibility, pouring myself out for others, sleep, common nurturing, nature’s cycles, dance, movement and meditation.

TA/ID – I went through all years of formal education and no one every asked me this question (above). It is important to have this question spoke out loud. (Barter).

TA – Barter has worked with groups to create this list and it is universal in terms of how people respond.

TA – Truth is alive, it is not static and it is not isolated. What is our/we truth right now at this moment?

TA – Principles = that which comes first. Values = what has importance and significant and substantial meaning in how we think and act. (Barter)

TA – Marshall Rosenberg – our feeling and bodily affect state communicate to us if we are in line either inside or outside ourselves with our needs, values, and principles.

TA  -Where there are value, needs, and principles there are feeling and visa versa.

ID – Connecting values, principles, and needs with what the person is saying and how the listener reflects back what they hear from the person.

TA – When you make meaning together you approach community. (Barter)

ID – “How is this landing with you?” (Great phrase Barter uses to check in for understanding)

Q – How does the process by which people come to participate in a restorative circle impact who’s involved in that process and what they are likely to contribute?

TA – Unequal power dynamic can be accepted when those dynamics are understood and accepted for some valuable purpose – learning, organizing, working, etc.

TA – Person responsibility vs. social co-responsibility, what is the difference? Go into a restaurant, look at the menu and choose from three options (pasta, corn, potato). I am 100% responsible for the choice I make from that menu, but if I want soup and that’s not on the menu then the restaurant is co-responsible for the situation and context under which someone is making choices. (Barter)

TA – Focusing attention not on the self or the other, but the “us/we” instead. This is an interesting explanation of dialogue.

TA – No one can communicate on their own. Communication always starts with the #2 and moves upwards. (Barter)

TA – A decision to act in concert with our agreements.

TA – Arendt – violence is the absence of power.

TA – Justice is a community organized response to conflict.

TA – Justice system vs. behavioral system – justice is a response to the behavior, not the behavior itself.

ID – Connected to King’s saying that, “justice is what love sounds like when spoken in public.”

TA – Barter was shocked when he heard a teacher as, “how do I shut down a student?” This communicated to him that the teacher had neither the time no the energy to interact with each person as an individual, so they saw or looked for ways to “turn that student off” or “shut them down” like a computer.

TA – Retributive and punitive justice diminishes community. It separates us. It is not a response based on a collective understanding of what is good but rather separates me from what considered wrong.

TA – Its a danger to the retributive justice system when there is no enemy. (Barter)

TA – Terrorists are not foreign to the justice system to which they are responding, ergo domestic threat. (Barter)

TA – Conflict seen as one of the doorways to understand and/or develop community. (Barter)

TA – If you make a difference then you are answerable to the different you make. (Barter)

TA – The dynamic between power and responsibility is edgy. (Barter)

TA – Power is experienced in community. (Barter)

Pre-Conditions for Setting up a Restorative System:

1. Agreement – The most effective way to get agreement around this is to not immediately try and push this idea on a community or convince them that its the “right” approach. Go into the conversation as a “student of conflict.” What is it that we are currently doing to respond to conflict that is working well?

2. Meaningful Space – this is needed to respond to conflict once it occurs. It should be a space with minimal noise, a certain level of comfort, that has meaning. The meaning is important because people behave differently because of the meaning a space has (such as the Quaker meeting house). It should be a space that reminds us of why we are doing the thing we are doing. Space is steepd in power. Restorative flames already exist in a lot of environments.

3. Host – This is the person who will be receiving the parties that are in conflict. We should think about how do we nurture, care for and inspire this person. We need to be restorative ourselves, first, before we can respond restoratively. This is why institutionalizing and “manualizing” RJ in order for it to grow and be more efficient can be dangerous. This concept is connected to Gandhi’s use of “pre-figurative politics” which means making your protest and action be a demonstration of what can be done to replace the injustice. Training a host without support and nurturing is a dry formality. Ergo, training is just a small part of being a host.

4. People Know the Process Is Happening – the fact that an RJ process is in place needs to be publicized and made known. How it is publicized must also include information on how to start the process.

5. Access – RJ must have a freely available access point. There is no permission phase. This is what actually shifts power because now you’ve actually shared power.

TA – neutrality in RJ is not an option. What is available is omni-partiality, plural-partiality or multi-partiality.

TA – The more we think we are insufficient to act (need more training, more prayer, more workshops, more readings, etc.) the longer it takes us to act. (Barter)

TA – When rules and regulations are created outside the community that is to follow them, then it can come across as an imposition. (Barter)

TA – Conflict within agreement vs. a conflict with the agreement is a key distinction. (Barter)

TA – How do we create a sense of widespread agreement?

TA – Franchising RJ vs. expanding RJ. Each system is slightly different based on the specific community. Creative adaptation vs. fatal mutulation of RJ when RJ is franchised.

TA – An effective change agent is someone who is willing to keep going despite not knowing.

TA – Economy = that which cares for the home (original Greek meaning of the word)

TA – Important to not accept conditions in exchange for money. (Barter)

TA – Gift-based economy = nurture that which has nurtured you.

R – The Circle Way (book)

R – Geneva, Infrastructures for Peace

TA – Rio is even more like the place you think it will be than any other place on Earth. (Barter)

TA – Emotions only come in through one hole in the body. If you close yourself off to pain you also close yourself off to joy. (Barter)

TA – Raising your voices is done to compensate for distance (whether its physical or experience emotionally). Yelling across a riverbank or right in from of someone’s face with whom you are in conflict is examples of yelling to compensate for distance. Shouting can then turn into shooting. When we move close geographically but also emotionally we can lower our voices.

TA – If you think conflict is dangerous then you will want to distance yourself from it. If you see needs as your own as opposed to ours then you will distance yourself from someone who you think is in conflict with your needs as opposed to moving closer to that person to understand the needs you both share, which is what will actually create safety. (Barter)

TA – Brazil has 2.8% of the world’s population and 14% of the world murders.

TA – If I move towards something that frightens me I actually increase my safety. I know this sounds counter-intuitive but its my experience. (Barter)

TA – There are three parties to every conflict: (1) Person who did the awful thing, (2) Others who were indirectly involved, and (3) victim(s).

TA – “One role of a robust civil society is to overcome both normative and cultural blindness to human suffering.” – Richard Falk

TA – A circle process is an intention to share power.

TA – We need to change our vocabulary if we are to accurately describe what we are seeing. We are not “offenders” and “victims.” We are rather the “author of the act” and the “receiver of the act.” These new ways of identifying that actors in a conflict contain the complexity of what is being discussed.

TA – The use of victim and offender vocab can lead to the role of victim becoming a prized posession (in retributive justice).

TA – There are no secrets. The facilitator holds no special knowledge that no one else knows.

TA – Facilitators do not start a circle by saying, “thank you for coming.”

TA – There are no adults, children, adolescents, social workers, police, psychologists, etc. in an RJ circle. There are only humans.

TA – Simplicity should not be confused with ease. RJ is simple but not easy. (Barter)

TA – Reparative vs. Restorative. Barter prefers the latter.

TA – In dialogue we are moving beyond “exchanging words” and toward “co-creating meaning.” (Barter)

TA – RJ circles become a safe space for truth and we don’t know when that space will present itself again.

TA – Pre-circle, followed by circle, followed by post-circle.

TA – There are three pre-circles: one with the receiver, one with the author, and one with the community indirectly affected.

TA – You can’t observe a closed circle. You can only participate in a closed circle. (Barter)

TA – Conflict is a message. You have mail. Your relationships have been updated. Your life has changed. The world has moved on. (Barter)

TA – Hosts questions during circle process

  • To reciever – How are you?
  • To author – What do you hear?
  • To receiver – Is that it?
  • To author – What do you hear now?
  • To reciever – Is that it?
  • To community member – What did you heare James (author) say?
  • To receiver – Is that what you want Caroline (community member) to hear?

TA – Until people have been heard, they can’t hear others.

TA – I never want to do anything that suggests there is a right way to speak.

TA – You create the conditions as the host.

TA – Mutual comprehension.  The question, “How are you?” actually means “What would you like known and by whom about what you were looking for when you did the action in question?”

TA – The final stage of the process is an agreed upon action by all parties.

TA – “Dialogue is a conversation between two equals whose end is unknown.” -Martin Buber

TA – All homes have some form of kitchen because we know, as humans, we will get hungry and will need nutrients. All homes have some form of room for sleeping because we know we will need rest. But where is the space for us to seek justice and approach conflict in a constructive way? (Barter)

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