Zero Tolerance and Tackling Racism Restoratively in UK Education

Deborah Mitchell, CEO of RJ Working writes:

Of course, the premise we start from in any response to racism is zero tolerance: it is unacceptable, it is abhorrent.  The trouble is, racism is everywhere, and cannot always be separated out, it must be detected ‘in and amongst’ other aspects of communication and relationship.  Deeply embedded in UK cultures and structures, racism affects experiences and perceptions, the ways in which self and others are understood – or not.  And it compromises the quality of education, what is learned and how it is learned.  Following the murder of George Floyd and increased support for the Black Lives Matter movement, there is a chance of real systemic change.  But new content for long-term cognitive learning, such as ‘decolonising the curriculum’ is only a part of the journey.  While this may change perceptions over time, we need alongside such measures a more immediate means of improving the way people treat each other in our educational institutions.   Pervasive inequality resides in social and emotional learning and in the culture of our schools and colleges.  We must consider and question whether the traditional routes of policy and sanctions achieve the goal of tackling racism in education.

Policy and Punishment

Many Equality/ Diversity/Inclusion Policies espouse ‘zero tolerance’ of racism, but what does this mean in practice?  Often, such policies are a statement of aspiration which is not translated into everyday life.  Like the Equality Act of 2010 they are an impressive starting point – asserting that intersecting characteristics of identity are ‘protected’.  However, this reassurance does not stand up to scrutiny: who protects, and how ?  By the time a matter is in the hands of the Police or a school disciplinary system, it is too late.  For the principle of zero tolerance of racism to work in practice it would need to be understood by everyone in a school community, and ‘owned’ collectively.  In many schools there is an area of confusion in which a traditional system oppresses while claiming not to discriminate.  Many school staff have yet to learn to see racism as a pervasive and accumulative contributor to inequality, interactive with economic and other social structural issues.  Even the best schools still use disciplinary actions which punish without enabling learning.  If the main concern emphasised is the breaking of rules rather than the value of relationships, then staff’s  “taking racism seriously” simply means a detention or a temporary exclusion.  These responses give no opportunity for dialogue, for deeper investigation, for understanding.  Equally problematic is a staff member using their authority to elicit a superficial apology for a harm that is inadequately understood by the person responsible for it. Sometimes the person who has been harmed is viewed as part of the problem, sometimes they are told to ‘shake hands’ and ‘make friends’ with the person who has been hostile to their identity.  This experience can compound the harm.  Alienation of children and young people who experience racism can contribute to their disengagement, reduced life chances and risking their being drawn into what in the USA is called ‘the school to prison pipeline’.

The case for a Restorative approach

Restorative approaches in schools are gaining traction as an effective way of promoting young people’s leadership and teamwork.  Through a variety of avenues, including PHSE and peer mediation, the Restorative model enables citizenship and builds community.   As a response to unwanted behaviour, it can be contrasted with  ‘zero tolerance’ as discussed by Laila Fakoury  in the Ted Talk linked below, where that phrase means ‘no discussion’. 

 Restorative Justice can be described as both a process and an outcome achieved through third party support for a safe and voluntary communication.  It does not replace a formal response if the matter is illegal but can run alongside if the harmed person wishes.  This Restorative communication, whether in person or indirectly through the supporter, between the harmed party and the person who caused harm, is for the purpose of repair and recovery.

Moving to the relevance for tackling racism, the Restorative model can be understood as affirming shared humanity and also teaching deep respect for difference.  Rather than generating a win/lose dynamic, third party authority is used to enable each person to bring a part of the picture, facing up to the harm until understanding is reached.  There is the potential for the identity of the person harmed to be appreciated, valued and upheld.  There is also the potential for the person who caused harm to experience the discomfort of personal accountability as a route to change.  It is possible that this is a far more effective way of tackling racism.  

 We are not all starting from the same place

As with cognitive learning, how we extend and deepen our learning about self and others will depend on what we know already.   A child who has become acculturated to racism at home is unlikely to change through being sanctioned with a detention and /or exclusion for racism at school.  Embedded harmful attitudes and beliefs need to be addressed at their root, through exposure and a quality of personal challenge which can only be achieved through an ongoing relationship, not through a wagging finger and yet another punishment. Those will simply drive the attitudes and beliefs underground, to fester and grow.

Further, we do not all express our identities in the same way.  How we do ‘being white’ and ‘being black’ for example, will vary enormously, depending on our backgrounds, political beliefs, experience, and other aspects of our identity, such as emotional capacity and energy, and whether we find it easy or difficult to speak up and speak out.  Courage and confidence for everyday ethics are a matter of practice, and the Restorative model creates opportunities for these.

Belief that things will improve is a huge incentive to report and discuss racism

Research (summarised by Mark Walters, in Hate Crime and Restorative Justice 2014) has repeatedly shown that those harmed by hostility towards their identity want it to stop and want it not to happen to anyone else.  A system which responds with distant disapproval and bureaucracy cannot achieve these outcomes and is a disincentive to reporting, causing a real likelihood of relationships worsening.

In contrast, a culture of Restorative third party support enables the harm to be ‘witnessed’ and directly addressed through a process of creating personal accountability.  This is a way to recognise black people’s experiences of white people who have been blatantly offensive to them, but where there is no forensic ‘evidence’ of explicit racism.  Formal reporting of these experiences would inevitably lead to defensive denial for fear of sanctions and at best a conclusion of insufficient evidence, leaving the harmed person worse off than before.  Consequently, issues go unreported, frustrating the need for change.   If we can develop ways of listening to recognise harms that relate to identity, we can take action about the ‘small’ accumulative experiences of aggression and neglect which contribute to a culture of racism.   That action can be a new dialogue, a challenging conversation, a decreased likelihood of recurrence.

There is always more to learn

This is not an area of development in which anyone gets to feel the job is finished. Rather it’s one in which we must keep listening, to colleagues, children, and young people who experience racism, to learn again and learn more fully what we think we know.  For school and college cultures to become sensitive to racism is a different challenge in rural areas where ignorance and prejudice are often more prevalent.  In 2017, our organisation RJ Working began this dialogue in Cornwall, the most peripheral part of the South West, supported by the national BSBT programme.  In 2018, I travelled to Tirana, Albania to present this work at the bi-annual conference of the European Forum for Restorative Justice (EFRJ).  I was lucky enough to hear Fania Davis give a keynote address which can be heard here Restorative Justice as a Social Movement (June 2018). Sister of the well-known black American activist Angela Davis, Fania is an enlightening and hopeful writer.  Her book ‘Race and Restorative Justice’ (2019) is an inspirational push for transformative social justice.  Our collective challenge is to translate this to a UK context. 

Deborah Mitchell



Deborah Mitchell - 9th October 2020

RJ Working and Covid 19

Update 20th March

Thank you for visiting our site. Following government advice, we have suspended all of our activities in schools and colleges as of this week. We are continuing other work online, such as training programmes with adults, and will seek creative ways of remaining active throughout the coming weeks.

The team are working away from the office and working to find ways of supporting communities, schools, colleges and other partners to navigate the challenge of Covid 19 in a restorative way. We’ll remain ‘live’ on all platforms: follow us on Facebook and Twitter and please do email us with any enquiries you may have. If you have not already done so, join our mailing list here in order to receive direct offers for forthcoming programmes and news.

Take good care and we look forward to finding new connections in these difficult times.

The RJ Working team.

We want to be like Yoda

Why would RJ Working, a Cornwall-based not-for-profit organisation, dare to aspire to be like one of the greatest movie icons of all time?

Q: Why would RJ Working, a Cornwall-based not-for-profit organisation, dare to aspire to be like one of the greatest movie icons of all time?    

A: We recognise that the young people we work with, and the adults who support them, are often everyday heroes, showing courage and determination in the face of huge challenges.  In coaching their leadership, we are often privileged to be their trusted guide, as little Yoda is for the heroes in the Star Wars movies.

Restorative Practice aims high and holds the power to equip a whole generation of youngsters with language and principles for creating a fairer, more compassionate world.  We know they can collectively develop the confidence to deal well with harm and conflict (which are inevitable) and grow a community culture in which Restorative responses are expected and normal.

To explain: Restorative Justice is achieved through safe, supported and voluntary communication between the parties involved in a harmful incident or conflict, for the purpose of repair and recovery.  Restorative Practice involves building relationships based on mutual respect and shared responsibility for preventing harm and conflict and dealing with these well when they arise.  

In the Star Wars movies, Yoda is known for the huge gravity of his comments, and also for keeping them brief. This is one of the key qualities of a Restorative Practitioner of any age, since their focus is on the people being supported. So what would Yoda make of all this? Here are some of his most important statements, together with a little explanation of connections with Restorative Practice:

Yoda speaks of war to discuss the problems created by a win/lose mentality:

Wars not make one great…In war, a danger there is, of losing who we are.”

 A master of balance and complex truths, he is interested in self-discipline and a sense of choice – even when situations seem impossible. 

Very often, in an incident of harm, people are invited to make a quick judgement about right and wrong, but Yoda says, “So certain were you. Go back and closer you must look.”

Yoda’s challenge to his apprentice applies to many of us reacting too quickly and causing harm whether by accident or deliberately:

Control, control, you must learn control!”

This also often applies to the person who has been harmed who, with quality support, can learn to step forward and take up their own power to create a new outcome.  We find that one of the greatest motivations to participate in a Restorative Justice Meeting is that the outcome so far does not have to be the end of the story.  As Yoda says, Difficult to see. Always in motion is the future…

We want to support students to take Restorative Practice forward in their school community. Yoda says, “Mind what you have learned. Save you it can” and “Always pass on what you have learned”. We facilitate students to make their own plans for supporting younger people than themselves; they teach, consolidate their skill, and pass on their learning to better their whole community.

For adults working in authoritarian school environments we would encourage consideration of Yoda’s challenge:

Train yourself to let go of everything you fear to lose.”

Restorative Practice is not about staff giving up their authority but is about them using it differently – the subject of our next blog.  We know that adults working in schools are faced with huge challenges, including supporting the mental health of their students.  Yoda’s insight here is that Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering”. Often if students’ fears can be clarified and addressed, more peaceful classroom relationships can be achieved.

Above all, Yoda speaks of commitment to self and others: “Do or do not, there is no try”.

RJ Working is a small organisation with huge aspirations and we take heart from Yoda’s question:

Judge me by my size, do you?”

His words are also a great reminder not to judge anyone by their age or size.  We are always learning from the children and young people we work with, their curiosity, questions and wisdom: Yoda says Truly wonderful, the mind of a child is”.  The field of Restorative Practice stretches back to ancient Maori culture in New Zealand and we believe has a long future ahead, contributing to international diplomacy as well as playground conflicts.  The Yoda comment that fits this long-term path is:

“When nine hundred years old you reach, look as good you will not”

Like him, the field of Restorative Practice is looking great at this point in its evolution. 

 Deborah Mitchell, RJ Working

 

 

 

 

 

 

Image credit: https://www.starwars.com/databank/yoda

Schools’ Environment Conference – Autumn 2019

Read more here as linked in our Spring newsletter! Josh Rogers, lead for Climate Education and West Cornwall, attended this inspirational event in the Autumn term:

In late October, the University of Exeter hosted an inspiring conference for young people from all over Cornwall with students from more than 20 secondary schools, including Woodstock Day School from NYC. It was immensely exciting to see so many students from so many different schools coming together with such a wide understanding of the issues we face and how to collectively progress.

 

The day started with compelling speakers from Primary through to Masters Undergraduate with speeches from Rafi, Tamani, Eva, Bella, Francis and Woodstock Day School students providing an holistic vision of where young people feel that we are amongst climate crisis right now, and how they can see ways for us to move forward societally and globally. 

Students were then asked to provide their top concerns around Climate Change. These were then voted on and returned as our top three points of focus:

1: People accepting that Climate Crisis exists but refusing to do anything about it. 

2: The Fossil Fuel industry.

3: The Meat and Dairy Industry.

 

Professor Stephan Harrison of Exeter University followed with a presentation looking at high level science and the forecast for climate on our current trajectory. Manda Brookman from Permanently Brilliant then discussed the need for campaigning and being rebellious in a time of crisis, followed by an opportunity for questions. 

 

The day then saw schools split participants into four groups which travelled around the campus to participate in workshops around Renewable Energy, Textiles, Food Security, Climate Justice, The Green Charter for schools and a Question Time style panel sitting with Prof. Stephan Harrison, Manda Brookman, Cllr Edwina Hanneford (Portfolio Holder for Climate Change and Neighbourhoods, Cornwall Council) and Janine Bisson (STEM – Project Co-ordinator Education Business Partner, Cornwall Council).

 

To round up the day all of the schools came back together for a positive speech from Tim Osborne (Service Director for Education, Cornwall Council) and looking again at the three priorities decided upon earlier in the day, which remained strongly agreed upon. 

 

RJ Working were able to attend the entire day, providing a voice for the role of restorative practice within our communities as we face the harms resulting from the global climate crisis, both ecologically and interpersonally. The desperate need for Climate Justice along with ever more Social Justice as a result of climate emergency will be a strong point of focus within our work with young people from West Cornish schools in creating a youth-led conference scheduled to take place in March of 2020.