Restorative Living

In January 2020, five of us from Romania set off for a 7-day trip to Wales to participate in a training with a focus on building sustainable community based on principles of dialogue and restorative approaches to conflict.

Our group was Ian, Maria, Petronela, Raluca and Robyn who all live in different parts of Romania yet share a common passion for nonviolence as a way of life. The trip was funded by the Erasmus Plus programme and sponsored by Asociatia Comunicare Non-Violenta (Romanian Association for Nonviolent Communication). A second group will visit Denmark to attend a follow-up event in March and then we will start to disseminate our insights and new skills through Romania.

The workshop itself was embedded in an overall experience of co-creating a temporary community with diverse people in a short space of time.

This is what Maria wrote:

What I liked most about this training was the fact that it was very experiential, in the sense that I had the opportunity to live together with a diverse range of people (different cultures, languages, backgrounds) for 5 days, organizing together to cook, clean the dishes, eat, sing, do different activities in working groups (walk in nature, poetry, prepare the food, discuss particular topics of interest etc.), alongside participating in workshops for learning how to build resilient communities. Theory was directly linked to practice and that generated a lot of insights and gave me ideas about concrete actions that I can take in my everyday life and what we can build in our NVC community.

And Raluca:

I left home for the training allowing myself not to know exactly what to expect to find there as place, community, people or structure of the training days. This brought me curiosity and, at the same time, some anxiety around it. I found safety quickly and closeness with my other four colleagues from Romania and I consider this as one of the great achievements of this period: living together, participating in the training and supporting each other brought closeness and a drive to bring change and new ideas in our community and society.

At a first glance, when I arrived there, I was impacted by the landscape and nature which brought me peace and ease to connect with myself. The people from the community who welcomed us, taking part in working groups, self-catering and singing in the morning helped me arrive in the community faster than I expected and gave me a flow state and a feeling of energized focus.

The main workshop in Wales was led by Dominic Barter, whom several of us knew by reputation as a pioneer in, among other things, Restorative Systems in the favelas of Rio in Brasil and establishing a school there. His work has attracted attention in many fields and countries.

Here’s what Robyn has to say about the workshop with Dominic and her takeaways, especially about the school he runs in Rio:

Dominic Barter, who might be described as “a pioneer in Restorative Justice, Restorative Circles and Dialogic System Design” began his talk to a larger group on Friday night with a quote from Paulo Freire, a Brazilian educator and philosopher who said:

“If the structure does not permit dialogue, then the structure will have to change.”

There was some ambiguity about whether he meant that it will have to or be forced to change or that it will inevitably change through time. Dominic met with one of Paulo Freire’s colleagues who told him that she imagined that he meant it both ways since there is a dual meaning built into the language as it is written in the original Portuguese.

He then proceeded to give an overview of life as it is currently lived in Brazil, with a heavy deployment of military personnel and machinery; there are regular fires, shootings and people in their normal day-to-day routines have grown accustomed to being stopped by heavily outfitted military officers.  One school has chosen to put a large plaque on its roof to warn potential air raiders looking down from the sky that children are present in this building.  It says “School, Don’t Shoot!”

The public education system in Brazil has become such that many of the children have taken occupation of their schools in an attempt to change the system.  In the midst of this kind of social backdrop, Dominic has begun a free school in which the children are equal partners in their own education.

Dominic says “There are advantages to crises,” pointing that this is one way that things can and will shift if those controlling the systems do not listen to what the people impacted by the systems want the systems to do.  Referring back to Paulo Freire’s quote.

Dialogical means that continued dialogue is welcome and that both sides are willing to listen and change as a result of what they hear.  Repeated studies have shown that students prefer to learn from someone their own age who has just learned whatever they wish to study.  So that is how Dominic’s school is structured, whenever possible.  And otherwise, students may choose from a list of available teachers and they schedule their own appointments for these people to come to the school if possible, or for them to go to the place of the teacher when circumstances make that necessary (for instance, if a student wishes to learn to develop photographs and the school does not have its own darkroom).

Dominic reminds us that it is “incredibly dangerous for a culture if we forget our dreams”  So in his free school, he prescribes space and time for the students to find and relate to their dreams and then helps the students build their own structures so that they can take steps toward realising them.  The students immediately decided that they wanted to go to school only 4 days a week and that school would begin at 2pm.  And that is how the schedule has been ever since.

Dominic reminds us that “Public is not private and it is also not the state.”  Public is … public.  It is what belongs to the people.  And he also reminds us that “if we do not build consciously the systems we want then we will inherit systems that we do not want.”  By allowing the children in his school to create their own systems, they are truly and deeply and fully learning what they need to know in order to live.

The students do not receive grades, but they do keep a “ship’s log” of their days – everything that they have done while in the school is recorded, and anyone who is part of the school community can write in each other’s books!  In this way, the community surrounding the student as well as the student herself is represented.

And a summary of the themes from Raluca:

The first day of training brought a lot of wonders, amazement, curiosity and questions about the  power to create an alternative system and on the potential of the dialogical system. In the next days, reflections on a lot of things remained with me. I am writing here only a few:  the three questions where to start to look at the system and the restorative flame,  the way to see empathy as a state to work through the blockages to get to action,  the way to create a support system to help me with whatever challenge I may be facing.

The importance of support systems and networks, was, indeed, one of the main themes of the workshop. Maria again:

What I also learned is that taking action and assuming some degree of risk will need a support system, which is not just about having a few people around me whom I can call, but also establishing clear agreements with these people, so that they know exactly what helps me in a particular situation. When things become challenging, one of the powerful ways to support each other is to offer empathy with a clear intention of removing obstacles from us taking the action we want. That means not only listening with presence to the other person, but also engaging with him/her to see what the blockages are and the ways to remove or work with them. I like this vision of empathy, because it leads to changing unhelpful behaviors, rather than just feeling good for a while and then possibly repeating the same pattern again and again. This brings hope and clarity around handling conflicts or difficult situations in a way that is not disconnecting, and inspires me to step into engaging rather than avoiding them.

Dominic also talked about 5 pre-conditions he looks for to indicate the readiness of as a system to embrace a dialogical approach:

  • Power – where does power lay within a system and how to include all stakeholders?
  • Time and Space – where is the dedicated time and space for dialogue?
  • Support – is the system supported internally and externally?
  • Information – is there enough information about the system and its processes? How do we let people know that it exists?
  • Access – is there a clear way for people to access to the restorative systems we are creating?

We returned to Romania full of inspiration, closer to each other …

 … and ready for the next stage.

Here’s what Petronela wrote:

An important factor for me was having the opportunity to travel, join, share and exchange ideas with other members of ACNV: that brought me togetherness, support, deeper connection and understanding of what motivates each member to continue the work with NVC and ease in the process of learning.

The structure of the days and the rituals practiced in Wales: offering gratitude to the elements of nature, community gathering and singing, cooking and cleaning together brought hope, openness, cohesion and clarity that the power stays in the human connection and the awareness of our interconnection with all the elements of the Earth.

Meeting Dominic Barter and finding out about his contribution to society change using dialogical social systems for me was a call to action and an invitation to learn from practice and be open to what is needed and evolve. Another gift that I take with me is applying Support System by testing it with the help of a member of the Austrian NVC community

And the last word from Raluca:

There is more value the training brought to me than the reflections. I knew more at the mental level about the paradigm we want to bring with NVC  – moving from “power over” to “power with” or about the structures which deepen our capacity to relate peacefully and serve life more fully. I embodied with this experience the concept more than simply thinking about them.

At the end, I left the place with a lot of queries about how do I want to live my life more fully, about the dialogical system and how can I bring more of this into my relationship with myself, my family, the community and the part of the world I live in.I wish I had participated in this kind of community and had met this vision as a teenager so I could take more  from the inner peace, the togetherness and the vision of the world in myself and to others for creating a more peaceful and satisfying place. I am grateful I had the opportunity to be part even now, this brought me inspiration and hope that the world can be different and I could be part of the contribution of this better world, too.