A conversation with Lindsey Pointer[i]

BP. Lindsey, thank you for accepting to have this conversation with me. I have wanted to talk to you more at length since the first time we encountered each other, in the art and justice workshop in Tirana. You amazed me at that time, since I kept complaining about Lady Justice, her violent accessories, and how incompatible that image was with restorative philosophy. Then eventually, with the support of a designer, you just decided to put Lady Justice in the circle and have her remove her accessories. As simple as that. I remember thinking, this young woman gets things done.

So I want to hear about all the other things you have done Lindsey, certainly about your brand new book. But first, tell me about the very beginning, where and how did you first get engaged with restorative justice?

Lady Justice joins the circle, designed by Lindsey Pointer, illustrated by Phil Dickson

LP. I’m so happy to get to have this conversation with you, Bruna! I love your work around art, imagery, and symbolism in the restorative justice field and have found it so inspiring. It is such an important conversation for restorative practitioners, researchers, and advocates to be having.

My own story with restorative justice began while I was still an undergrad student at Colorado College. I was a religious studies major minoring in nonviolence and was involved in facilitating interfaith dialogues on campus. I was interested in finding experiences that would help people to feel their inextricable connection to one another, that deeper interconnectivity beyond differences in background and belief. When there is an experience of that interconnectedness, I think compassion flows naturally. Howard Zehr’s The Little Book of Restorative Justice was assigned in my nonviolence class and when I read it I thought, “This is it!” It struck me as a philosophy and a collection of practices that could change the world in so many beautiful ways. I remember being so excited that I could hardly sleep that night. I knew I needed to be part of the restorative movement.

I was lucky enough to attend a conference for Colorado restorative practitioners soon after that where I met Lynn and Pete Lee, who are really amazing restorative justice leaders in Colorado. They brought me into the fold and Lynn trained me as a facilitator. After graduating, I got a job as a bilingual case coordinator and later program manager of the community restorative justice program at Longmont Community Justice Partnership (LCJP). LCJP is an amazing organization in Colorado that offers restorative justice as a full diversion (with cases referred directly by police officers) for juveniles and adults and misdemeanor through felony level offenses. I learned so much while I was there and only left because I received a Fulbright Fellowship to study restorative justice in New Zealand, which was another amazing learning experience.

Lindsey Pointer and LCJP team, Colorado, 2015

BP. And that was probably not a coincidence anymore. New Zealand I mean, probably a fully conscious choice at that stage, the dream place of all restorative scholars. Was New Zealand what you expected it to be, and how did this experience continue to inform your development and your work?

LP. It was definitely a dream come true to get to study there. I was amazed by how expansive restorative work is in New Zealand. Before I went, I had worked in the criminal justice system and schools and had experienced a restorative workplace. I was already thinking about restorative practices as a way of life rather than a specific process, but I really hadn’t grasped yet how many different areas of life the restorative philosophy could touch. I studied with Professor Chris Marshall, who is the Chair in Restorative Justice at Victoria University of Wellington, and he has this incredible way of getting the work out into the community, making sure people know about the restorative philosophy and approach, and then people from all different sectors of social life come to him looking for help applying restorative practices in their contexts. So in addition to seeing the work being done in the criminal justice system, which was my research focus, I also got to be part of implementing restorative practices in universities, in non-profits, in spiritual communities, in workplaces, in hospitals, in families in response to elder harm issues, and in prisons. There is an endless number of areas where this work can be helpful and I think New Zealand scholars and practitioners are really on that frontier of practice.

I also got to see some of the drawbacks of having restorative justice so institutionalized. New Zealand is famous for their Family Group Conference process and for having restorative justice as the default response for all juveniles (and now as the first choice for all adults as well), but it can start to feel like just another box to tick rather than the profound and  transformational experience it can be. On the adult side, restorative justice has been a bit captured in the pre-sentence space and I often found myself wishing it was being used as a full diversion. The restorative justice conference can be really amazing, but when everyone is then plugged back into the court process and the responsible party receives a sentence from the judge (which takes the restorative justice contract into account to varying degrees), I think it likely interferes with the sustainability of the positive impacts of the restorative process. So while the degree of implementation and integration of restorative justice in New Zealand is remarkable, I don’t think it is the perfect model.

BP. I think the “institutionalisation effects” are visible in some European countries as well. Which gives us really food for thought as to the level and the way in which we would like to see restorative justice embedded into the criminal justice system. The main theses on this matter lie between “we can change the system” and “the system will change us”. What is your opinion on this, what is in fact the best model, if any?

LP. That is a tricky question! All of the models I have seen, of course, have both benefits and drawbacks. I think that it is important for restorative justice processes to be coordinated and facilitated by an organization that is in some way external to the rest of the justice system (though still well-funded) so that there is a group that is responsible for ensuring fidelity to restorative values and upholding best practices. I also think that restorative justice is best placed as a full diversion. My dissertation research involved viewing both the restorative justice process and standard court procedures through a ritual studies framework and it really helped me to understand how just the experience of appearing in court (for example, before and after a restorative justice process) and all that is communicated by the physical arrangement and procedures of that space can generate an experience of stigmatizing shame and adversarial relationships that are really counterproductive to what we are hoping to achieve in the restorative justice process. So I think restorative justice works best when it is used as a full diversion. Often that is accomplished through having police officers be responsible for making referrals, but in that model, the views and perhaps biases of an individual officer can impact who is afforded the opportunity.

If I had a magic wand, I would say that every city should have a well-funded and independent restorative justice team that receives all cases involving a harmed party and assesses whether the person who caused the harm is taking responsibility. If the case is a good fit, then it would continue in the restorative justice process and never touch the conventional system. The court process would then only be used in cases of contested guilt or as a backup if restorative justice isn’t a good fit, the involved parties don’t want to participate, or the process isn’t successful.

I’m curious hat you think. What do you see as the best model for implementation?

BP. That is a tricky question!:) Well, I tend to agree with your reflections on having a well-funded but independent and external organisation that can safeguard practices and values. This is certainly the best existing model, although not a guarantee. Even such organisations have to interact with the justice system, and its language and ways of thinking can creep in. The diversion matter is more complicated, because if we do not address the criminal justice as a whole and in fundamental terms, we would have to only take in cases considered “unimportant”, whereas we know how important restorative interventions can be in what the system considers as “serious” cases. There is no ideal model yet, we have to continue studying, evaluating and improving existing models, but also articulate courageous alternatives.

Lindsey, you have done restorative work in universities too, addressing issues of sexual harm. What are some of the lessons you have drawn from that experience?

LP. Let me first just say that I absolutely agree with you that restorative justice needs to be used for the “more serious” cases and that is really where it is most effective. Longmont Community Justice Partnership, the organization I mentioned working for before, is an example of a model that uses restorative justice as a full diversion including for more serious, felony level, adult cases and it works really well. Kathleen McGoey, LCJP’s executive director, who is a dear friend and colleague, has done a particularly great job of encouraging those higher level referrals and reassuring police officers and the public that it is a trustworthy process for serious crimes. While I was working there and facilitating for LCJP, I saw the greatest shifts and experiences of healing in those adult felony cases. So I absolutely think we need to be advocating for that and helping the public move away from this idea that restorative justice is only for youth, misdemeanors, first time offenders, and so on.

I had the same experience of a more profound shift while facilitating sexual harm cases in the university context. Oftentimes these were cases in which the harmed party and responsible party knew each other prior to the assault, maybe they were even friends. The harmed party often didn’t want to pursue a punitive route because she (or occasionally he) didn’t want to ruin the other person’s life, call on other friends as witnesses, or go through the often traumatizing process of telling her story and having it picked apart and challenged. As someone who was also sexually assaulted by a friend in the past, I completely understand that need many people feel for a different type of process. The restorative justice process offers a space for the harmed party to tell her story and really be heard. The responsibility party has a chance to be accountable for his behavior, understand the harm, and work to put things right. I’ve also seen some really creative contract items come out of these cases like a harmed party assigning a responsible party feminist books to read with a book report on what he learned due on a certain date. I keep a collection of anonymized case studies on my website because I think some of these more specific stories and outcomes can help people to see how the process can be really healing and creative in the way harm is repaired.

But the most important lesson for me from facilitating those processes is that a lot of sexual assault is happening because of really harmful narratives around sex and masculinity and also some really awful lessons young men are learning from porn, which very rarely portrays good clear consent (in addition to a whole host of other problems). So I think this is an area where we also really need to be proactive and preventative in the restorative practices field. To begin to address this need, we designed and piloted what we called a Sustained Restorative Dialogue process, which was a series of circles with a group of interested students meant to address the wider culture that gives rise to sexual harm. The process received really positive feedback from student participants and has since been replicated at other universities. I think it is a promising model for working restoratively to hopefully prevent incidents of sexual harm. We also did a lot of culture-building work with restorative practices in the residence halls. This is one of my favorite applications of restorative practices in the university context and I currently teach an online course on implementing restorative practices in residence halls.

Lindsey facilitating a circle with university students

BP. Was there any backlash of that approach by feminists or other radical voices inside the campus? I am asking because very often universities have pursued practices that are non-disciplinary and non-punitive towards the harm perpetrator, oriented towards maintaining low profile and privacy, attempts at dialogue, listening to grievances of the sexually harmed, but have been often criticised for taking the side of the harm perpetrators, and of silencing the sexually harmed. These harmful practices that the universities have maintained mostly in the interest of saving their own reputation have unfortunately been confused with restorative approaches, also because they are called sometimes things such as mediation, dialogue, agreement and the like. How open do you think universities really are to go down the real accountability way?

LP. Yes, I know that has definitely been an issue at some universities and some really awful, non-restorative informal processes have been used to silence people and protect the university’s reputation. In the university I was working with in New Zealand, we didn’t receive much push-back. I think there are a couple reasons for that. First of all, restorative justice is, as we discussed, more widely used in New Zealand and therefore people are more familiar with it and understand how it is different from mediation or just a conversation. Because people are more often familiar with restorative justice from schools and the criminal justice system, there is more understanding and trust of the process. Secondly, New Zealand is far less litigious than, for example, the United States, so I think in general there is less fear around trying something new. I think that is a bit part of why there is so much social innovation in New Zealand. We did experience some push-back and uncertainty when we were planning the Sustained Restorative Dialogue process, but mostly that just came from people not knowing what a circle was or the relationships and trust that can be built quickly by the process. Giving people an experience of a circle process really helped to address those worries.

BP. That makes perfect sense. It shows also how difficult it is to simply import an idea that is not culturally embedded, how it might be misinterpreted, and how it needs careful praxis and “translation”. It would be great nevertheless to extend the real restorative and transformative work towards universities everywhere. How was for you leaving New Zealand Lindsey, how was the return home?

LP. It wasn’t easy to leave. I loved working with Chris and his team, we had a great community of friends there, and just loved living in New Zealand in general. But we were expecting our first child and knew we wanted to be closer to family while having kids. I was also excited to re-join restorative justice work in the United States. While we aren’t as far along as New Zealand in gaining acceptance of restorative justice, it is a really exciting place to be involved in the restorative movement. The movement has aligned with larger social justice and racial justice agendas and people are increasingly talking about how to address the larger structural inequities that cause much more harm, and so often are the root cause of crime, restoratively. There is a lot of energy and innovation as practitioners and scholars increasingly move beyond a more limited individual choice lens to see that larger picture.

BP. I totally understand your excitement. Isn’t that alignment with social justice and racial justice a wonderful development? I have had some amazing conversations on this topic with scholars and practitioners based in the US. You have been quite productive since your return, just currently launched together with two colleagues The Little Book of Restorative Teaching Tools. What were you hoping to reach with this book, and how do you plan to take this project forward?

LP. It is a wonderful development. I loved reading your conversation with Jasmyn Story last year, which touched on this topic quite a bit. I see it as restorative justice increasingly striving to live up to its values. The restorative justice process is meant to be this really radically equalizing experience, where everyone has equal voice, equal value, equal power in determining outcomes, but if we are really committed to equality, then we need to also be addressing larger systems of power and oppression.

This idea of living the restorative values beyond the confines of the restorative justice conference is really at the root of The Little Book of Restorative Teaching Tools. The book contributes to a wider conversation about restorative pedagogy and how we can teach restorative practices in a way that is in alignment with restorative values. We offer games and activities as a great way to teach restoratively because they allow you to approach the teaching role as a facilitator, much like how you approach facilitating a restorative justice conference. Through setting up the experience, establishing trust, and holding space, you can create an environment in which the students build relationships and learn from each other. It can be a really equalizing experience that challenges the teacher-student dichotomy and helps to break down the classroom hierarchy. A restorative classroom or training space needs to promote the building and strengthening of relationships, be highly experiential, and encourage honest and reflective conversations about important social issues.

We have a collection of games and activities for teachers and trainers to use in the book and also launched a website with more teaching tools. We are continuing to add more games and activities to that site and people can also sign up to receive a new restorative teaching tool in their email inbox each month. I’m hoping that I will have more opportunities to share this approach to teaching restorative practices with others in the future. In addition to continuing to share new games and activities on the site, we are also offering a summer training in Colorado in July 2021 that will give participants a large range of games and activities to bring back to their teaching roles in their communities and will also prepare participants to design their own activities based on the needs of their learners. I’m looking forward to that training and to finding other ways to continue to share the work.

BP. That will turn out to be a great resource I am sure, and it is quite innovative. There are many courses on restorative justice, and certainly the professors and lecturers must share some of its ethos, but I have a feeling that the lessons are still organised within a traditional format. So this blending of epistemology and education is quite interesting, and certainly a younger generation of lecturers will find it more suitable to their ethos. Have you considered putting this pedagogy in conversation with other important pedagogies, I am thinking of the Paolo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, but also the work of John Dewey, and perhaps more contemporary critical pedagogies that might exist, transformative, indigenous, artistic? Is this focus into restorative pedagogy something you see yourself investing in the future?

LP. Yes, absolutely! In the book, we engage quite a bit with critical and feminist pedagogies, especially the writings of Paulo Freire and bell hooks. Restorative practitioners and educators are certainly not the first to view the classroom as a space where students and teachers can jointly construct knowledge, share power, and develop trusting relationships. There is a wealth of insight from these other pedagogical frameworks that we can draw from. It is an area I would like to continue researching and experimenting with in my own teaching. As you have noted in your work around restorative imagery, we really need better ways to communicate what restorative justice is to a wider audience. One way to do that is certainly through offering classes and trainings, and I think those educational experiences have the greatest impact when students are learning through experiencing what a restorative space feels like – feeling that their voice, experiences, and perspectives are valued, that there is respectful communication and opportunities to collaborate and learn from each other. We need to push ourselves to be creative and to be congruent with our restorative values. It can feel more vulnerable to teach in that way, but I think it is also far more rewarding.

Lindsey facilitating a game for teaching restorative practices.

BP. Sure, and a teaching that is not coherent with its own message does not really teach anything, despite its best intention, does it? Lindsey, can you also tell me something about your research on rituals. This is an exciting sub-field of research within restorative justice, with links to various disciples such as anthropology, sociology, indigenous studies, etc., but it is not an overly beaten path. What were your intellectual threads and some of conclusions, or rather openings if you prefer?

LP. Yes, it is a very fruitful area of research with a lot of interesting implications for best practices. The performance of justice has always been highly ritualized. For example, if you consider the criminal trial and broader court process, there is so much symbolism and ritual there. So it makes sense to also view the restorative justice conference as a ritual. My dissertation explores the ritual of court and the restorative justice ritual and how each structure fulfills, or fails to fulfill, the multifaceted human need for justice. I identify three dominant ritual functions related to the performance of justice: the normative, the transformative, and the proleptic, and develop an analytical framework that describes how each ritual’s process affects its function. I then used the theoretical framework of these three ritual functions to answer three major questions in the restorative justice field.

The first questions I engage with is, how is the personal and relational transformation apparent in the restorative justice process achieved? I answer this question through applying the theories of ritual put forth by Victor Turner and Émile Durkheim to the restorative justice process in order to better understand and describe its transformative function. Seeing the key features of transformative rituals, for example, how participants are brought into an experience that feels separate from normal life, how radical equality between participants is established, and how the transformation is sustained after the culmination of the ritual, helps us to understand what specific components we should be including in the restorative justice process. Increasingly, I think there is a hesitancy in the field to be too prescriptive in talking about what the restorative justice process ought to look like. Instead, we tend to focus on key values and principles, while allowing for cultural and context-specific adaptions to emerge. There are certainly benefits to this flexibility and the allowance for restorative justice to look different in different contexts. However, transformative ritual theory suggests that there are key features that ought to be protected. So that was a really interesting finding and something I am investigating further now. Routledge has recently accepted my dissertation for publication as a book and part of the additions I’m making for the book is to expand on these findings. As I mentioned earlier, this understanding of restorative justice as a transformative ritual also has implications for how to best integrate restorative justice with the conventional criminal justice system and suggests that the diversion model we discussed before might be more effective as a transformative ritual than models that are still very much so embedded in the symbolism and procedures of the court process.

The second question I explore is, can restorative justice have a normative impact that satisfies the wider public, particularly in comparison to the criminal trial? This is often a criticism of restorative justice and I explore it through the lens of normative ritual theory and end up making a couple of recommendations for adaptations to practice to address the issue. I propose that there may be a need to modify the strict adherence to confidentiality in the process, something that may be met with push back from restorative justice practitioners, scholars, and advocates. Specifically, I suggested that facilitators could, at the end of the conference, pose the question, “Who needs to be told about what happened here today and how will they be told?” In this way, the participants would have agency in deciding how to share the process and outcomes with those outside the process and it would form part of the agreement. This could remove some of the mystery from the restorative justice process and strengthen the normative impact of the restorative justice ritual for the wider public. A lack of public awareness of restorative justice has also been identified as a key factor inhibiting the normative impact of the ritual. Because a large part of the population does not know what restorative justice is or how it works, it is less likely to be perceived as a trustworthy and legitimate alternative justice ritual. For this reason, I propose further efforts to increase public understanding of the process through effective storytelling, symbolic images, and the media, thereby increasing its normative legitimacy. This is something you do beautifully, Bruna! I think increasing the number of people having the chance to experience the process first-hand would also help in this regard.

And the third question is, given its primary focus on making amends at an interpersonal level, does restorative justice routinely fail to address larger, structural injustices? This is when I engage with theories of proleptic rituals. Proleptic was a new word to me at the beginning of my studies, so let me just quickly explain. Proleptic rituals are capable of envisioning and temporarily creating a different possible societal future by generating social and power relationships that can challenge the status quo. By examining the expansion of restorative justice from a justice reform mechanism to a wider social movement, I consider that possibly the proleptic function of the restorative justice ritual has played a key role in this expansion by temporarily creating a “restorative society in miniature” that participants often emerge with a desire to experience again and extend to others, thereby enlarging the original scope of the restorative justice intervention.

Hopefully that response isn’t way more than you bargained for! I’m sorry to be so lengthy, but I get really excited about the ritual dynamics of restorative justice!

BP. Absolutely not! This is exactly what I -and I am sure our readers too- wanted to hear, all the details about your fascinating, innovative, dense, and important work. I look so much forward to the publication of your book, but meanwhile, our readers can read part of that work in a paper you wrote in 2016 on transformational space. It has been such a pleasure Lindsey, and I am sure we will find ways to engage in common projects together!

LP. I would love that! Thank you so much, Bruna. It has been wonderful talking with you.

[i] Lindsey Pointer is a restorative practices educator, researcher, and practitioner. She has a PhD in Restorative Justice from Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand, where she helped design and implement the Restorative University initiative. Lindsey is a former Fulbright Fellow and Rotary Global Grant recipient who is passionate about experimenting with new applications of restorative principles and processes and understanding how restorative practices work to transform communities. She has worked internationally with communities in a range of contexts to support the implementation of restorative practices in an engaging, responsive, and fun way. Lindsey currently works as an Adjunct Professor at Boise State University and offers training, consulting, and facilitation services to schools, workplaces, and other organizations interested in implementing restorative practices. She also teaches an online course on implementing restorative practices in university residence halls.