As I waited in line by the registration table to pickup my name tag, the low murmur that filled the fourth floor of Wilson Commons was one of excitement and anticipation.
I took a seat toward the back, and it began. Dominic Barter’s unassuming open collar button-down and khakis were reminiscent of his easygoing yet insightful manner. He would often pause, as if to pick the perfect combination of words. His posture compassionate, and smile warm, his soft yet clear English accent instantly silenced the presiding murmur of idealists — both young and old.
Barter is an internationally recognized expert on restorative justice and restorative circle practices, essentially pioneering its inception.
Restorative justice examines all aspects of a conflict by recognizing both the harm caused to the victim, as well as to the offender and community at large.
This unique approach encourages all parties involved to take part in the resolution process. Instead of only allowing the few key figures found in courtrooms, restorative justice advocates for the participation of those without a voice as the current legal system.
The restorative system has a different standard for gauging success. Instead of responding to conflicts with punitive measures, restorative justice attempts to focus on prevention, reparation and rehabilitation.
Etymology is also a pivotal feature of restorative justice. Language, both verbal and non-verbal play a huge role in the ways in which all parties involved in a conflict communicate. Special attention to anthropological aspects of a community speaks volumes of the inclusive nature of restorative practices.
Barter stressed that the restorative justice system takes human interaction into account.
“Restorative systems meet a deep, abiding need for justice through the ways we interact and access our world,” he said.
I had a chance to speak with Dominic after lunch about his past, and how he ended up pioneering the restorative justice movement. He exhaled slowly as his hand slid into his pocket.
“I spent over a decade shouting, squatting, and breaking into military bases –– and I woke up one day and realized that I was only opposing, not creating. This is simply the way I choose to balance my life. Opposition must be followed by living, breathing integration.”
Barter first implemented the project in the favelas (slums) of Porto Alegre, Brazil, in the mid-1990s. In 2004, a small United Nations Development Grant was given to the Brazilian Ministry of Justice, which put some of it toward the country’s first official restorative justice pilot program.
The introduction of Barter’s restorative justice practices in Porto Alegre reshaped one of the most violent cities in the world into an up-and-coming metropolis.
A restorative culture focuses on identifying the unmet needs of those involved in a conflict, restoring harmony between both parties and re-establishing the balance of power.
According to the restorative justice philosophy, our nation is that of a punitive culture — we base our legal decisions around enforcement mechanisms in the form of “damages.”
However, the punitive system does little for society. Offenders are rarely rehabilitated and victims and their families do not often find closure in the imprisonment of others.
According to the theory of restorative justice, this is mainly because of the impersonal nature of our legal system, not to mention the evils of the prison-industrial complex. Additionally, the current system cannot handle the complexity of the conflicts we experience.
Over sandwiches outside Starbucks, Barbara VanKerkhove of Empire Justice, a nationally recognized Rochester-based law firm and advocacy group, weighed in on the shortcomings of today’s retributive justice system.
“The current retributive system is not working––the financial and social costs are almost too great to bear.” She said. “I view restorative justice as a meaningful way to promote, support, and bring relief to families and communities that struggle with painful conflict, and foster a sense of real community.”
Over the two day introductory seminar, Barter trained the group in a variety of methods and strategies for restorative practices. One of the most powerful events of the weekend were the simulated circles, in which we were able to practice what we had been learning for the past day. I was fortunate enough to be placed into an incredibly dynamic group where we sought to redress a tragic accident, using the techniques of restorative circles.
From the very start, the genuine emotion elicited by not only the affected group member, but all the participants in our circle was apparent and poignant. The power of restorative practices not only meets our desire for justice upon being wronged, but promotes healing on both the part of the offender and victim.
The event was co-sponsored by a number of organizations, one of which was the M.K. Gandhi Institute. Barter’s message is akin to the ideals of the Gandhi Institute, as it fosters a culture of empathy, compassion and an understanding that we are all interconnected.
Toward the end of Sunday’s program, I had a chance to speak with Kit Miller, director of the M.K. Gandhi Institute. Her dynamic nature was shadowed slightly by the fatigue of planning such an incredible weekend.
“We have a proud history of civil rights here in Rochester,” she said. “Restorative practices are right in line with this. It is a truly innovative application of nonviolence, the means and ends are connected, and that makes all the difference.”
She hopes that restorative processes are implemented all over upstate New York, especially in our courts, communities and schools. Her words spoke volumes about her commitment to restorative practices.
At the end of the workshops, I approached Barter and inquired about his hopes for the future. Barter smirked, and was quick to respond.
“I don’t hope,” he said “It’s more effective to look at what’s happening directly in the eye.”
He could see that his response had caught me slightly off guard, so he followed up.
“The current system we have is failing for a reason, and placing blame is a waste of time.”
Barter was right, the hardest part is making the commitment from hope to action.
There will be a city-wide conference held at City Hall (121 Fitzhugh St.) this Saturday Sept. 18, from 1-5 p.m. to discuss the ways in which we can implement restorative practices.