Restorative Circles For Multiracial Democracy
By Brittny-Jade Saunders
When I began consulting just over a year ago, one of my top priorities was incorporating restorative justice practices into my work for racial equity and multiracial democracy. As a Deputy Commissioner at the New York City Commission on Human Rights (CCHR), I’d worked with our agency head and staff to integrate restorative justice principles and practices into CCHR’s policy, outreach and litigation work. We took this task seriously, seeking training from and observing individuals and organizations with expertise on restorative justice theory and techniques as we shifted the agency’s approach. We also worked to generate resources to support and expand the incredibly important work of local organizations committed to restorative practice. We did all of this because we recognized that these practices—which originate with Indigenous communities and center concepts of interrelatedness central to multiple cultures of the African continent—had tremendous potential to make our local human rights work more meaningful and effective over the long term.
This experience made me curious about how restorative justice practices could support work for racial justice and multiracial democracy, regardless of the form it might take. Since then, I’ve been fortunate to learn circle keeping from Hidden Water and to get training on how to support others to hold these spaces with Creative Response to Conflict. I’ve deepened my understanding and practice by absorbing lessons from The Little Book of Race and Restorative Justice by Fania E. Davis and Doing Democracy with Circles by Jennifer Ball, Wayne Caldwell and Kay Pranis among other works, while also incorporating circles into projects where appropriate.
All of this and more has convinced me that there is tremendous potential for various types of circles to foster connection and transformation among Americans at a time when both are sorely needed. Specifically, I believe that circles can be a powerful space in which Americans can build trust and connection with one another, affirm their core values and enhance their understanding of racism, xenophobia, homophobia, transphobia and other forces that are deployed to tear our communities apart. Perhaps most importantly, circles can also be a space in which we learn how to take action to counter these forces and foster a culture of belonging in the communities where we live and work. A recurring circle composed of individuals who share values and are all striving to act in ways that are consistent with them could serve as a “home base” and a community of practice of sorts. For example, circle participants might explore techniques for communicating with friends and family about racism, debrief their efforts to apply these techniques in the real world and gain moral support to sustain each other through what is likely to be a difficult process.
My intuition is that applying circle practices in this way may be especially helpful for white Americans who recognize that they have both a responsibility and an opportunity to take action to address racism in their networks but struggle with how to do so effectively and where to begin. If appropriately designed and resourced, such circles could be spaces in which participants offer one another knowledge, support and accountability to sustain this work, which is essential to the future of this country. Circles could also be designed to support members of other groups to take on and sustain work that is needed to build solidarity, fight misinformation or disinformation or take other steps to strengthen our democracy. Eventually, these efforts could lay the groundwork for restorative efforts that are focused on connecting across differences, repairing harm and promoting healing.
Whatever the outcome of the upcoming midterms or the 2024 presidential election, progressives will need strategies that can foster trust and connection and expand and deepen solidarity among Americans. Thankfully, community organizers, social science researchers and other innovators have developed a wealth of promising techniques and tools to support those of us who are alarmed by the degree of disconnection, distrust and disinvestment we see around us. I am committed to doing whatever I can to get these tools into the hands of more Americans, supporting them to use them effectively and nurturing and expanding networks of people who are committed to the values of equity and belonging. Transforming this nation into a true multiracial democracy requires that we do so, even as we create and fight for the progressive policies we need to make structural change. I’m excited to begin working with partners to put these ideas into practice and to document and share what I learn on that journey.
Brittny-Jade Saunders is Principal at Three Views Strategies, LLC (TVS), a consultancy that works with governments, non-profits, philanthropies and other partners to advance racial justice, foster solidarity and belonging and bring about an equitable, multiracial democracy. TVS aligns values and resources so that we can have schools that educate and inspire us, work that rewards and fulfills us, care that sustains us, power to shape the world around us and a culture that affirms that we are all deserving of the supports we need to thrive.