Review: Listening to the Movement

Thomas Levy*

Retrieved from The International Journal of Restorative Justice 2022 vol. 5(1) pp. 123-125 123 doi: 10.5553/TIJRJ.000112


Ted Lewis and Carl Stauffer, Listening to the movement. Cascade Books, Eugene, Oregon, 2020, 214 pp., ISBN 978-1-5326-4741-3 (pbk).

A particular type of hypocrisy lies at the underbelly of almost every significant shift in geopolitical, social, and cultural movements. On its surface, the process is supposed to be the purest form of uncertainty – the ultimate leap of faith – and yet uniformity exists. Particularly in Western culture, there remains a patriarchal stranglehold on change, with decision-making held in the hands of established experts insisting on a complete break from the past and a perfected vision for the future. Listening to the movement is a phenomenon in the duality of its core identity as one part introspection on the current climate of restorative justice and equal part tour de force on the antiquated structures of change that stifle her future. Composed of ten chapters from 169 different contributors, the text fully embraces this emerging praxis as fundamentally sloppy, fluctuating between moments of brilliance and disarray while remaining steadfast to the goals of ‘building community, addressing violence, and repairing harm’ (xvi) that have defined restorative justice since inception. Its pages serve to remind us that restorative justice is a living, breathing organism serving as an imperfect practice by and for imperfect people. Therefore, our most pressing responsibility is also our most primal: listen to the voices within the movement.

Listening, however, is not antithetical to the ideas of disagreement and dissent. Never is this paradox more present than in the book’s meta-analysis of community building. Serving as a relatively new concept within restorative justice, community building has revealed early signs of both rigidity and consternation, often packaged into the single tool of restorative circles. This assembly-line style of implementation results from ‘a tendency in the western mindset to learn a practice or skill and then assert that it is the way or the model’ (xxiv). Remaining true to its theory of change, Listening to the movement does not advocate for eradicating restorative circles; to do so would be to replicate ‘the colonial mindset’ (xxiv) each contributor uniquely identifies as a barrier to growth. Instead, Daniel Rhodes and his chapter ‘Pedagogy of circles’ are given extensive reign to address the existing processes of circles, doubling down on the West’s current obsession with talking pieces and mindfulness as the routines that best emphasise both the building of skills around silence and the internalisation of the inherent worth of all persons. The chapter is intentionally sandwiched between ‘Shared legacies’ and ‘Bigger than an RJ circle’, each providing a unique but coalesced argument of dissent. For Jonathan Stith in ‘Bigger’, the goal of restorative community building is realised when we fall in love with our voice through the act of collective organising. There is power – restorative power – when ‘the people who are negatively impacted by a system have a leadership role in reshaping it’ (73). Highlighting the youth organising group ‘Power U Center for Social Change’, Stith details how the group’s advocacy, coalition building, and eventual negotiations brought restorative justice into the Miami-Dade public school system. Through their fight, each participant built the skills we look to highlight in restorative circles without explicitly naming a structured time or place for which to build them. Their very identity became interwoven with the spirit of restorative practices, or what Stith calls an ‘organizing praxis to acknowledge inherent leadership’ (68). Pairing well with the concept of falling in love with one’s voice is Jill Straus’ chapter on falling in love with the power of the voices of others. ‘Coming to the table’ is an organisation that brings both descendants of slaves and slaveholders together to share personal and ancestral narratives as a central practice for ‘consensus building, dialogue, and conflict transformation’ (39). Through personal research and discovery in a format that centres on listening and empathy, the programme does more than heal wounds – it coalesces a community together. In both forms of community building advocated by Stith and Straus, restorative justice focuses on structural inequality explicitly and, in the process, implicitly builds the skills necessary for a genuinely restorative culture. Those dedicated to equitable change will see no difference between this practice and the one for which restorative justice bears its name.

Critical to the book’s theory of change is prioritising asking the right questions over the obsessive search for wrong answers. In its quest to expand the conversation around repairing harm, Listening to the movement radically asks, ‘as we engage in restorative justice … what if we are the offender’ (83)? It is impossible not to take this question seriously in a field dominated by White practitioners and facilitators. Continuing to enter restorative spaces in a position of power ignorant of how White supremacy inevitably plays a role in the words and actions of all other participants mirrors ‘the oppressive dynamics of the systems of domination we oppose’ (xi). Various chapters provide suggestions rooted in the critical components of listening and humility; self-identification and personal education (91), ‘embracing our various levels of discomfort’ (16) with the topics of White supremacy and racism, and creating affinity spaces (29) to discuss our discomfort, discoveries, and plans of action. There exist specific questions, however, that have no suggestions or solutions at present. In the face of this reckoning with power and racism within our most sacred of structures, is it, therefore, ‘hypocritical for white restorative justice practitioners to hold a Navajo youth accountable for stealing a car when we have stolen his whole country’ (90)? How do we marry the existing pillars of accountability and victim empowerment with the reality that harm is more complex than what exists on its surface? This question on the duplicity of harm manifests itself in expanding conversations around gun, environmental and electoral harm, often resulting in an argument that feels tone-deaf, given victims of individual harm still report en masse feelings of ‘disrespect, exclusion, [and a] lack of empathy’ (149) from those tasked with supporting their restorative process. In their chapter on addressing structural racism within schools via a partnership with critical race theory, Evans, Morrison and Vaandering leave restorative practitioners amid an ultimate crossroad. Ignoring the structural harm caused by racism perpetuates White silence and co-opts the very principles of rectifying injustice central to the movement. However, partnering with critical race theory is likely to shut the door on any version of restorative justice for a large – and growing – swathe of public education institutions in the United States. There are no easy solutions for complicated matters. The most important and immediate concern is ensuring that the process fulfils the emerging principles of inclusion, humility, and deep introspection.

The collective strength of restorative justice comes from a decentralised structure driving the fight against a restorative industrial complex. Listening to the movement is not bashful on how disarray can also be to restorative justice’s detriment. Stauffer and Shah emphasise the dichotomy of recognising certification, official training and a general ‘top-down approach’ as pushing to the margins non-White voices while also recognising that restorative justice is growing rapidly and often without a cohesive identity. Listening to the movement does not run from this and other contradictions. Instead, it embraces the lack of answers as reminders to continue to listen intently. Looking out on the horizon of restorative justice is to gaze upon a sprawling canvas. Some portions have been painted and almost instantaneously painted over; other areas are overwhelmingly desolate. We will continue to debate what the next mural should be, but we should never forget that ‘there is also a glue that holds it all together’ (xvi) despite our differences: the idea that we are a community-based practice intently focused on healing and repairing harm. Failure is impossible if we remain true to this most rudimentary of tasks.

* Thomas Levy is the Vice Principal of Culture at Coney Island Prep School, USA. Corresponding author: Thomas Levy ata

The International Journal of Restorative Justice 2022 vol. 5(1) pp. 123-125 125 doi: 10.5553/TIJRJ.000112

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