Strengthening democracy through restorative practice – empathy, power and a sense of self

This blog is the first of a new RJC blog series highlighting how restorative practice connects with some of the big themes of the day. In this first blog of the series, the RJC’s interim chief executive, Chris Straker, reflects on the links between democracy and restorative practice.

Tomorrow is International Day of Democracy, with a theme of ‘democracy and conflict prevention’. This provides a perfect opportunity to reflect on the vital, but often overlooked, role of restorative practice in strengthening democratic involvement.

To see democracy as only being about the ballot box misses the importance of the principles behind our right to vote on Election Day. Democracy is ultimately about empathy, participation and self-government. Strong communities are at the heart of this. To paraphrase Nigel Richardson, the ex-director of children’s services of Leeds:

”Families create communities and communities create cities. Those connections are the things we need to invest in. Investing in those connections has to be about relationships, languages and values…how I want to you to treat me, and how I should treat you”.

Restorative practice aims to build up communities through developing strong relationships. Its focus on empathy – understanding the ‘other’ - challenges the divisive rhetoric we often see elsewhere, where difference is seen as a thing to be feared. It sees communities not as an excluding concept, but as a series of overlapping, shifting groupings where fragmentation into cliques around sexuality, gender, class, race and religion is reduced. This encourages dialogue that leads to understanding which focuses on solutions rather than barriers. It opens up the space, where necessary, for conflict to be dealt with in a positive way.

Restorative practice also emphasises the importance of balancing power relationships in any dialogue. It develops skills in individuals and groups that allow them to engage in purposeful and deliberate dialogue about the issues that concern them. It gives them the ability to then go forward and speak authentically for their communities, at a local and national level.  In short, it changes the passive nature of the relationship between the individual and the state.

As Kay Pranis, the restorative justice trainer and writer, says: “The concentration of power and influence in the hands of professionals, to identify and determine solutions to problems, has not served social justice because it undermines democracy and encourages dependency”.

Restorative practice does just the opposite. It develops peoples’ capacity to tell their own story and reclaim their sense of community. It rejects the paternalistic models of politics and social care – the ‘we know what is best for you’ approach. Self-management and self-government are important skills that should be explicitly fostered in democratic societies. This means rethinking the roles of government and professional organisations that too often speak for communities.

Finally, restorative practice helps to connect the individual to their community, at a local and national level. This allows the individual to understand the patterns of society and therefore the importance of engagement with it.

The challenge for those advocating for restorative practice is to place it in the centre of the debate around developing communities and developing democratic involvement; not just position it as a reactive process or an adjunct to the criminal justice system.

Restorative practice has a role to play in developing individual and community voice and enabling self-regulating, consciously empathetic action within the democratic process. Now we need to get out there and make the case.