Restorative Circles at 25

This year we are commemorating 25 years since Restorative Circles first emerged as a practical response to community conflict.

As part of a year of reflection and celebration Dominic Barter will be posting drafts chapters of a longer text, receiving feedback and making adjustments to it. The first draft of the first section is below.

This is not a text for those new to the work but part of an 'internal' conversation between practitioners and those who accompany them. So while everyone is welcome some sections may make less sense if you are not actively engaged in what I call dialogical system building or using a dialogical practice within such a system. Please bear that in mind while reading.

If you would like to comment on or edit the text, you can do so here:

Restorative Circles at 25

by Dominic Barter

A look at the next steps forward in our work

1. Where we are now

August 2020 marks the 25th anniversary of the first conversations that gave birth to Restorative Circles. These meetings with kids and then teenagers in the favelas of Rio began a process that has influenced both federal and state justice policy throughout Brazil as well as initiatives in over 50 countries.

In South and North America, Asia, Africa and Europe untold thousands of people have been impacted. Countless deaths, violent punishments, state or gang impositions, separations, imprisonment and exilings have been averted. 

In schools suspensions and exclusions, physical violence, punishment and distancing have been put aside. Transformations have gone beyond reduced fear, reduced police presence and greater understanding: the images and associations of whole schools and districts have shifted in the minds of students, teachers and neighbourhoods.

In families words never spoken have found space and attention and this has empowered decisions that replace silence, violence and legal battles. Businesses, religious communities, trade unions and a diversity of affinity groups have seen similar movement towards dialogue and renovation.

In state justice systems there have been consistent reductions in incarceration and significant increases in satisfaction levels from all impacted as recidivism levels drop and reparation agreements provide tangible evidence of changed relationships and greater social harmony. Instead of meeting pain with more pain there are agreements for inclusive change and justice, made in ways that increase community and organisational safety and strengthen cohesion between warring individuals, families and groups.

Wherever the work has been measured, repeated harm and the occurrence of further violence and trauma have been reduced. These changes have been noted in diverse contexts, including neighbourhoods, charities and NGOs, trade unions, government departments, intentional communities, housing associations, professional associations, hospitals, theatre companies, cultural groups, as well as in the response to disasters, crises, repression and war.

This has occurred as a response to acts labelled as crimes but also those injustices which are normalised and made invisible by unjust social dynamics that are often unseen, tolerated or reinforced by legal codes or unwritten social convention.

The basis for these results has been an approach which, when true to its roots, develops the dialogical conditions for unique local practices emerging out of endogenous community wisdom. 

Rather than provide more participatory forms for resolving disturbances to the status quo by encouraging conformity to pre-existing social arrangements, these changes have come as an expression of self-determination, chosen and validated by the communities directly involved, through the use of processes they develop and whose efficacy is evaluated by them. 

And rather than suggesting a specific format in which those involved in and impacted by painful or violent conflict gather, Restorative Circles guides the design of processes owned by and responsive to the communities that use them.

The impacts of such a change are multiple, including in the more rational use of resources. In 2009 the influential British think-tank NESTA - then the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts - chose the work for its Radical Efficiency showcase of innovative solutions, estimating a US$101,000,000 annual savings if a Restorative Circles approach were applied to UK youth crime.

At the same time...

At the same time, the justice systems Restorative Circles have seeded have often struggled to survive. In many contexts they have struggled to maintain congruence with their design principles. In others they’ve been overwhelmed by resistance to the change they bring, diminishing their reach or surviving only by accepting adaptations that weaken their outcomes. 

In some cases this has resulted in them effectively sustaining the policies they were implemented to change, by absorbing painful conflict rather than facilitating its progress into transformative action. As a result they’ve sometimes failed to provide the consistent results that merit ongoing community legitimacy and to gain and / or maintain the scale necessary to be seen as valid and sufficiently robust alternatives to ingrained authoritarian options.

Punitive drift - the tendency I’ve named for dialogical social systems to inch towards compromise with imposed, totalitarian strategies - is a major phenomenon within the wider restorative justice movement, and Restorative Circles is not an exception.

In particular, Restorative Circles - which I understand as being in some aspects one of the forms further along the spectrum of restorativity in relation to sister approaches - has been subject to ongoing cooptation, disappearing its origins and excising its unique contributions in ways which mirror the colonial dynamics it was born in resistance to, and leaving it both less effective and more easily assimilated into a restorative justice or alternative dispute resolution mainstream.

Given these significant benefits and challenges, the still young nature of the work and the ongoing crisis of capacity, legitimacy, efficacy and ethics in formal justice systems, it might be a good moment to reflect on how this is going, to celebrate it critically and see what we can learn from it.

To initiate a year of such reflection - and in the hope of providing some conceptual map for part of that - I am offering these thoughts.

2. What we are now

Restorative Circles remains an experimental, systemic, dialogical approach to community resilience, strengthening our collective ability to live with change and thus understand agreements, policy and living together as mutable and requiring regeneration.

‘Experimental’ because there is still much to learn, question and test; 

‘systemic’ because it provides not a single determined practice but rather a specific, ongoing and collective process of community self-determination in which new practices are birthed and take form; 

‘dialogical’ both because this community process is designed through dialogue and then seeds, through its embracing of painful conflict, further dialogue where that was previously absent.

I have suggested it is implicit in Restorative Circles that such conflict is seen as feedback within relationships, indicating that change has occurred and thus the understandings we live by require updating.

While I agree the work is accurately placed within the wider field of Restorative Justice, I also see, as others have pointed out, that it’s clearly distinct from many of the standard aspects of that field, and that difference has increased significantly over this quarter century, as the wider field has become further institutionalised.

In addition to the distinctions arising from its systemic and dialogical nature, it also stands out from the RJ mainstream due to the artisanal nature of the endogenous practices it promotes. These characteristics, as well as the aforementioned benefits and limitations, bring my attention to how the work is learned, practiced, understood and taught by those who do it; what elements the folk who do apply, learn and share it hold in common, where they diverge and the significance given to such changes; and how they care for and contribute to its further growth, spread and refinement towards greater effectiveness while still maintaining a living connection to its roots.

3. Learning and naming

It may be that there is no possible expertise in this work, if by that we mean a state which as good as guarantees a desired outcome. The only accurate description I’ve ever found for myself in this regard is that of a student of conflict. 25 years on, that's still my job title. 

But there are distinctions - such as those between one agreement and another, while system building; or between one use of eye contact and another, while facilitating; or between different ways of specifying agreements in action plans; etc. These have become clearer over time, for the work, as well as clearer over time for each one doing it.

Such distinctions are testable by anyone. And from that basis, anyone can then deepen or add to them. However, this active participation in the work (which necessarily includes its further development) is accessible only through engagement in its key elements. It is not substitutable by engaging in derivations of the work, however useful and effective these may sometimes be in response to a specific conflict.

Like any path of practice and learning, Restorative Circles has a living line of research and a series of derivations. These derivations sometimes present themselves as the work itself, and are indeed highly influenced by it, while being distinct from it in crucial, but maybe initially invisible, ways.

The invisibility of this is such that beginners - both those starting out sharing and starting out receiving the work - may innocently believe they are doing the work itself, rather than a simulation of it. The telltale clue is that the derivations, while possibly better satisfying certain personal and ideological criteria, rarely produce the results associated with the work that inspired them. In fact, when they do, they are probably better seen and named as new works entirely - new forms grateful to, but branching out from, their origins, of which RC may be one.

This distinction between a line of research and its derivations, once it occurs, creates a number of challenges. One is simply the use of the name. Does ‘Restorative Circles’ refer to community/organisational justice systems that develop and use their own dialogical practices for strengthening relational cohesion and innovation? Or does ‘Restorative Circles’ refer to a sequence of steps - related to, or even simply repeating (as if existing independent of context), the ‘skeleton model’ I use in workshops I’ve taught abroad? Or does ‘Restorative Circles’ refer to a more general field that, while coming from the specific experience in the favelas of Rio, has now taken on a wider significance and life of its own?

(And this is beyond the possible confusion that arises due to the more recent widespread use, in some countries, of the term ‘restorative circles’ in a generic sense, usually written in lower case and referring to any number of distinct, but usually formulaic, practices.)

Another challenge arises in relation to this last question, and some of the questions that follow it: Who will decide? In this example, who decides what the term ‘Restorative Circles’ refers to? And then, who decides what those who gather around the history and nature of this work do, what they call themselves, where and how the work is applied, shared....?

4. A craft model

  • a) knowledge 

When I look at crafts from different contexts - whether art, trade, wisdom traditions, or others that perhaps cross these areas of practice - I find a clear distinction between knowledge and information. This distinction may be of some use to us in understanding where we are currently and what might support us moving forwards.

In order to gain craft knowledge one must move against considerable, sometimes insurmountable, resistance. From this movement something emerges. It may be seen and named by those who have already given themselves to the journey. It can be observed by them, and between them it can be recognised as something they hold in common. This emergent quality is theirs to point out because it is a fruit of the journey itself. It presents differently when the journey they’ve taken is successful and when it is not, but it is visible in both cases.

While this emergent quality can be seen and named by them, it can not be given. They observe but don’t define it. Knowledge, in this sense of craft, is not transferable. Even when transmission is part of teaching, it involves a brief lending of perspective and is never a formal substitute for the learner taking the unique journey itself.

As such this quality is never denoted by the giving or not of a title of qualification, because there is no one who stands apart from the ongoing practice who could then give such a distinction. Such people don’t exist - not because there are not those with greater understanding than others, but because they themselves do not stand on any ground from which it’s possible to decide the work of the other. They can only name what is evident in the results of the work itself.

The mark of the journey is evident in what it, and it alone, makes possible. In this there is a security for both those traveling and those observing them. This security can be seen in different ways, depending on who is the craft traveller and who is observing. Here are three examples:


- when 'traveller' refers to one who builds systems, designs and facilitates circles, and 'those who observe' refers to community members new to such activities but taking their first steps in such self-determination, this security is evident in their willingness to reflect, propose, question, collaborate and agree to the necessary systemic elements and/or design and commit to the practice as theirs, even while sometimes simultaneously or later expressing surprise at this willingness and its results;

- when 'traveller' refers to one who builds systems, designs and facilitates circles, and 'those who observe' refers to the community of a specific conflict, this security is evident in how both the conflict itself, and the self-determined focus of the participants, acquires their overwhelming priority of attention, while the conditions that support that process are of a far lesser importance to them;

- when 'traveller' refers to someone sharing their learning of this with others, and 'those who observe' refers to others in a learning relationship to what is being shared, this security is evident in a certain balance between their suspension of disbelief that such work and results are possible and their critical questioning of how this comes about and what is involved in it.

While we might still describe these results as subjective, it is a shared subjectivity, and the basis of what is shared is an observation of common referents. These common referents are perceived, even when not understood, as a direct result of the changes gone through by one who moves against this resistance and takes this craft journey.

  • b) information

Quite different from this journey of craft knowledge is the gathering of information. 

Gathering information requires no such movement because it presents no terrain. It requires not a giving of oneself but a taking, an acquiring of data, procedure, policy, sequence or script.

Something that is presented as information is not the thing it speaks of. It is the very speaking of it; the description is the content. It has no independent existence in its effects.

Involving no risk, and thus no effort, and thus no change, it produces a heightened sense of insecurity and a craving for feedback. This feedback is not sought from results - it’s obvious that information produces no results on the level of craft. It’s sought instead from those who provide the information. By what the information provider shares, they implicitly suggest that they have knowledge born of craft. As a consequence it may seem that they can thus tell the difference between knowledge and information and so evaluate the learning of others.

Even if those dispensing information initially resist giving formal recognition, they soon find that the demand from those who receive it is overwhelming and its absence damaging and contradictory: those attempting to learn require the confirmation that substitutes for knowledge in the economy of authority that any learning field engenders.

Information, and the information providers, seek to emulate and reproduce the logic of real-world knowledge with increasing promises of future results. And stave off rebellion from their clients by more or less subtle admonitions to their lack of achievement. The more or less unspoken suggestion is that the lack of measurable, repeatable results is the responsibility of the client and that these failings can be fixed by taking the next level of training.

  • c) recognition

Craft is far more brutal, far more honest, and requires no tricks, promises, manuals or worksheets. There are no advanced levels and no pretend titles. Craft can work - perhaps reluctantly - within regulations, but does not require or seek them. No one is anything but a learner. And while the technical steps involved in craft can be described, as can the development of its practitioners, a craft is never defined by or reduced to such steps, which are forever mere information until they are understood from within their application. Thus there is no achievement, only practice. There is, perhaps, though, recognition.

This is not recognition for who the learner is, but rather for what is more likely to occur or not occur as a result of the distinctions by which the learner guides their action. It is recognition of their practice.

In crafts this practice is both a giving-to the tools and traditions of the field and a susceptibility-to the changes that reciprocally impact the practitioner. You exert influence to promote change and are changed in return. Therefore, though the recognition is not of the crafter, it is of who the crafter is allowing themselves to endlessly become. It is impersonal, and yet is located in the willingness to be moulded of the body that is given to such action.

Again, this person can’t decide for anyone else. But they can name - failing, correcting, growing in precision, never infallible, always seeking the precision of describing what is an observable result.

And the others learning - those in the field of knowledge - can identify in each other, if they so choose, their capacity to influence the likelihood of the desired outcomes through concretely verifiable results. To do this, those on a journey in the same field of knowledge can apply the distinctions that mark the practice these people hold in common. And as a consequence they can decide to value that person’s naming of the field, of the craft and of their engagement in it.

This can then hint at a response to our prior question: who decides what the name describes? Who describes what the work is and how it’s defined? Who gets to name?

If we so choose, then it is those who verifiably apply themselves in ways which consistently increase the probability of certain outcomes, and then live to tell the tale.