Restorative Justice: Strengthening Communities Through Collaborative Research

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Nova Scotians face a variety of harms and challenges at interpersonal, institutional, systemic, and societal level. Systemic racism, sexual harassment, institutional abuse, and accessibility are just some examples. Nova Scotians deserve and demand justice when they experience harm or when things go wrong in their communities. In this episode, we hear from a researcher of restorative justice and two community members who have established restorative justice practices to build safe, healthy, and inclusive communities.

Mission: Improved Quality of Life for Nova Scotians

Richard Derible 00:01
I have a theory that a lot of the behaviour we see on an elementary school playground that worries us or concerns us shows up throughout our lifetime.

Jennifer Llewellyn 00:11
Systems can’t really collaborate, right? Structures aren’t really suddenly going to integrate. That’s going to happen when people have opportunities to come together in different ways and to see the ways in which they can support one another in the work that they’re doing in the places and spaces where they are.

Jake MacIsaac 00:30
If you imagine the ingredients if you were baking the justice cake, what would you put into it? Respect, equal care and concern, and a space where human dignity is recognized and assured.

Stephanie Reid 00:54
Nova Scotians face a variety of harms and challenges at interpersonal, institutional, systemic and societal levels that are often out of their control. Systemic racism, sexual harassment, institutional abuse and accessibility are just a few examples. Nova Scotians deserve and demand justice when they experience harm, or when things go wrong in their communities. The justice they are looking for to meet their needs and ensure their safety and well being often requires more than just asking what rule was broken and who’s to blame. Our guests today explain how research has been used to think about justice differently in ways that consider the relationships between people, communities, and systems to better support those who have been harmed to build safe, healthy, and inclusive communities in Nova Scotia.

Jennifer Llewellyn 01:42
My name is Jennifer Llewellyn. I’m a professor at the Schulich School of Law at Dalhousie, and I’m also the chair in restorative justice there. And I’m the director of the relatively new Restorative Research, Innovation and Education Lab.

Stephanie Reid 01:56
Jennifer focuses on developing a relational theory of justice, which recognizes the importance of connections and relationships among people, groups, communities, and systems.

Jennifer Llewellyn 02:05
The work of the lab and the kind of research that we do is inherently participatory. It’s one of the principles of a restorative approach, that, that when you start to pay attention to relationships and interactions, and that actually the knowledge that you need to inform how do you see a problem how you respond to a problem, how you think about creating positive conditions for what you need, must then center the voices of those who know the most about that.

Stephanie Reid 02:37
Her research findings are used to educate and build capacity for government leaders and community based restorative justice practitioners. Her work has expanded the application of restorative justice across Nova Scotia. She’s brought all of her friends; she’s brought a crew with her today.

Jennifer Llewellyn 02:53
I love that you’ve said I brought my friends, I have I brought my friends and colleagues in this restorative work. Joining me today is Jake MacIsaac.

Stephanie Reid 03:03
Jake MacIsaac is the Assistant Director, Security Services at Dalhousie University, where he has been a leader in the development and implementation of a restorative approach to safety and well being on campus. He previously was a caseworker leader at Nova Scotia’s largest restorative justice community based agency.

Jake MacIsaac 03:21
So if you think about where students are learning to live together for some time for the very first time, what are the opportunities to learn outside the classroom? What would it look like to bring people together to create community charters? Who do you want to be together? So, we’ve started to see those shifts where the community is responding to each other and not requiring as much system efforts.

Stephanie Reid 03:42
Jake has designed and facilitated restorative processes across the province and nationally.

Jennifer Llewellyn 03:47
And I’ve also brought my other friend and colleague Richard Derible, who’s currently with the executive council office.

Stephanie Reid 03:55
Richard Derible is a former principal at Ecole St. Catharine’s Elementary School in Halifax, one of the first schools to adopt a whole school restorative approach.

Richard Derible 04:04
Research that involves first voice, research that involves those most impacted leads to the best path forward.

Stephanie Reid 04:13
Richard worked closely with Jennifer in the design and implementation of a restorative approach. He led the provincial restorative approach in schools initiative, and was then the director of the restorative justice unit at the Department of Justice. In the context of your work, how would you define restorative justice?

Jennifer Llewellyn 04:34
Sure, I often joke I don’t live in a place with enough tall buildings, maybe we’ll fix that, enough tall buildings to have an elevator pitch. Restorative justice is a way of thinking about justice that draws our attention to the importance of justice as just relations, right? How we are with one another and the structures and institutions and ways we organize ourselves that create the conditions for us to treat each other well, to be inclusive, and to care about one another. And that, that more than identifying justice with just when things go wrong, or when with what law is broken, that that really helps us think about justice in a different way. And then helps us figure out how do we do justice? If that’s what it’s about.

Stephanie Reid 05:27
Interesting. So how did you get interested in restorative justice, researching restorative justice? And what does that look like for our listeners at home?

Jennifer Llewellyn 05:35
My interest started really being prompted by real questions in the real world, right? So how is it that we think about what justice requires, at the level of whole society breakdown? I started thinking about, what does justice look and feel like? And how are we going to do this in the context of mass atrocities, societal breakdown, and responses to sort of transition, what we call transitional justice questions? How are we going to deal with our past to build a better future at kind of a societal level? And recognizing that the institutions and the processes we have, the ways we think about justice, aren’t adequate to understanding the nature of the problem of injustice on that scale? And, and also the kinds of systems and responses we have couldn’t help us rebuild societies? It turns out that those big questions about when all of society fails, are actually the same kind of questions we have when we’re trying to keep society going well, whether it’s in our schools, or in our justice system, or on our campuses. And so, I started to do work on what ideas about justice do we have? And how can we develop and research and write scholarship about what difference it would make if we thought about justice through a relational theory about how the world works, and who we are and what we need from one another? How does that help us understand what justice is all about? And then how does that help us design systems, structures and processes to do that relational work, to respond when things go wrong, but also to build the conditions for things to go right more often?

Stephanie Reid 07:17
Can you give us an example of one project or question that you’ve looked at specific to restorative justice and how we could refine or evolve a system?

Jennifer Llewellyn 07:26
So I think one of the most obvious examples in Nova Scotia is that we’ve started to think about how we respond in the criminal justice sphere. So that’s probably where people are most familiar with restorative justice, that those questions started to come up initially in terms of rethinking our youth criminal justice systems in Canada, especially when we realized at one point just prior to the Youth Criminal Justice Act, that we were incarcerating proportionally more young people than the United States. So, our strategies, yeah, our strategies for responding to what happens when young people come into conflict with law wasn’t tracking our values and our understanding of ourselves. And so, Nova Scotia took the lead in that when there was an opportunity that opened up to try to think about how could we do justice differently? How do we respond when there are needs that are generated by wrongdoing, by kind of harmful acts and behaviors? But also, how do we look beyond that to really think about the conditions, the relationships, the supports that would be needed for us to be safe and well, and move forward in a better way.

Stephanie Reid 08:40
The restorative research innovation and education lab, also known as the restorative lab, was founded in the spring of 2020. The lab provides a space for researchers, policymakers, partners and communities to convene, learn and work together to support a more just and inclusive world through a restorative approach.

Jennifer Llewellyn 08:59
The lab is a place where we convene, and we facilitate and we not just for the purposes of having a place where we can then research you know, the people who come in and use them as our subjects, but because they are active, actively engaged participants, collaborators, and colleagues in this work.

Stephanie Reid 09:24
And I saw you nodding a lot, Jake. So, I would imagine you spend some time there.

Jake MacIsaac 09:28
I do. So, there’s an energy, right? There’s a whole vibe to the lab that I love. I love going there because when folks show up there’s hope. There’s hope that there’s, it’s going to make a difference. That you know, it’s scholarly, there’s, it’s not sort of making it up as you go. It’s certainly not that, but folks like to show up at the lab with a problem and like to sit in the design room and see the analysis. So what does it look like to take a principle approach to analyzing this? What are we looking at? What is the context? What’s the causes? What are the circumstances around the thing that you brought, that you thought was the problem. And so, you can see, when folks show up, they want to participate. It’s not a dump and run of here’s my problem, go and analyze it and fix it come back to me. But we call people in to collaborate on the problem solving to see it together to work it and it’s, it’s really fun.

Jennifer Llewellyn 10:28
In some ways. It’s deeply reflective of those principles and ideas that are often associated with participatory kind of action research.

Stephanie Reid 10:39
Are you able to provide an example of that?

Jake MacIsaac 10:41
Could I?

Stephanie Reid 10:43
Of course you can.

Jake MacIsaac 10:43
So it’s a bit personal. But it’s the Restorative Public Inquiry into the Nova Scotia Home for Colored Children. So, I had the, one of the high points of my restorative life was to facilitate a circle with some family members that, of my own family, who we knew about abuses that had happened within the home. But we never talked about it as a family. And so it wasn’t until I had an opportunity to sit in a structured way to have, to convene a conversation that was really hard, very emotional. It was heavy. It was enlightening. It was unburdening. So, a lot of things are happening at the same time, in this moment. And the way of working, was built on these principles these and taking this restorative approach to calling people who’ve experienced incredible harms, together to talk to each other to sense make, to not, as folks from VOICES, Victims of Institutionalized Child Exploitation Society, it was a collection of survivors, who came together and wanted their story told and understood in ways that wasn’t about shame, wasn’t about blame, but could make a difference on going forward, that would be transformative. And so that was all of the energy that that you asked in that question. What would it be like to bring people together who’ve experienced harm? It looks like giving them a voice, it looks like hearing their stories, ensuring they’re believed, when they tell them and seeing the change that can happen from a system centered approach, to what would it look like to center the humans?

Jennifer Llewellyn 12:42
And you might imagine that’s quite different than how, this was the first public inquiry in Canada and internationally to take a restorative approach that’s designed on the basis of our experience, and our expertise, and our knowledge and research here in Nova Scotia, you might imagine that’s quite different to the kinds of justice processes where people would be called to testify, or not called and have a public inquiry happen about them, without them. So, this is a very different, transformed understanding of justice in action.

Stephanie Reid 13:13
And what were, I mean, obviously, we can guess at this, but what were those outcomes that you were looking for? And what are the outcomes that you saw?

Jennifer Llewellyn 13:22
From the restorative inquiry?

Stephanie Reid 13:23

Jennifer Llewellyn 13:24
So that’s a great question around the kind of way in which we often think about sort of linear understandings of you know, we’re going to have an input, we want to make a difference, and we’re going to have an outcome. One of the outcomes that was very clearly the desire of the former residents in taking a restorative approach to that inquiry is that their lived experience would be heard, understood, and would matter, would make a difference to the way in which others experience care and justice and community in this province, right? That it would be, that it would shift the experience of systemic racism, and how that landed for them in their fight for justice and, and in their experience as children, connect it to the care system. And so, if you think about then how to make that difference stick, what they wanted, it wasn’t a list of recommendations or a set of outcomes. They wanted to call people in, the very people who are responsible in various systems and in community, call them in together so that they could work together to imagine a different way forward and be building the relationships and the commitments they need to walk that journey. They called that their journey to light, to walk that journey together in a different way. And so, what the inquiry did was take seriously how we did that work, because we were actually building capacity and understanding for working in a different way. And then identifying what’s our work going forward, then how are we going to take these skills, relationships and capacities and put them to work to ensure that we make a difference for the lives of children and families and communities in the province of Nova Scotia.

Stephanie Reid 15:07
Right, and Richard, you can speak to the school piece. So, you actually implemented a school wide restorative justice program at one of your former schools. So, how did you guys meet?

Richard Derible 15:19
Jennifer actually approached our school, approached St. Catherine’s school, and at the time, we were thinking that, you know, the traditional ways of addressing conflict in the school system wasn’t, you know, certainly wasn’t, you know, getting us the outcomes, the hope for outcomes. So, we were on this path of thinking about it, and we knew what we needed to do, but we didn’t really have that unifying theory, we didn’t really have that, that relational, and restorative approach theory to guide us and structure the way we want it to work. So, it was just, I think, by luck that Jennifer reached out to St. Catherine’s school, and, it wasn’t by luck?

Jennifer Llewellyn 16:07
No, it was not by luck. No, I asked a whole bunch of people, it was who showed up. So, we, it was part of the CURA grant and we were reaching out to a whole bunch of schools. And here’s a lesson: if you invite people, sometimes the right people show up.

Richard Derible 16:23
Yeah, so we were, you know, the original comment Jennifer made was, you know, I know, lots of volunteers, you know, bring baked goods. And she said, I can’t offer you cookies for your bake sales, Richard, but I can offer you something else. And so, we were invited to the law school, I brought some of my staff, I brought our school social worker who was very much interested in different responses for the students that she was connected with. And we went over to the law school. And that was the beginning of taking this, this approach within the school. We worked directly with Jennifer and the lab for the next five years, so that transformation at the school occurred over a period of five years. But that’s, that’s the connection that started with a conversation about cookies and bake sales.

Jennifer Llewellyn 17:21
I can’t bake cookies, but I can cook up some justice.

Richard Derible 17:27
A lot of times we hear that, you know, everybody should be able to go to school and have the same experience in school. But the way we organize schools for a variety of reasons actually underlines difference between students. We implemented a restorative approach on the day-to-day. In the very early efforts to implement the approach at the school, we realized that what were we hearing in those moments of discord among our students. And we learned pretty quickly that the structure of schooling was actually driving a lot of the very behaviours that we were concerned about. And so it forced us to think a little bit more deeply about our day-to-day practices in the school, the way we organize the students in the building, the way we worked with families, the way we worked with the community. And then that led us to starting to think a little bit about how those systemic societal issues actually bring, are brought into the school setting. And if we were ignoring those, if we weren’t having conversations with the students, with their families, again, with the community around those things, well, you would, we would see a repeat of those behaviours. Interestingly enough, the stuff that happens on the playground, when there’s conflict on the playground, typically, the kids aren’t arguing around how to best you know, find lowest common denominators, they’re not debating those kinds of things. They’re debating those systemic societal things that they’re surrounded in on the day-to-day, and they’re bringing that into the playground, they’re bringing that into the schoolhouse. So, when we started to talk to the kids, in a different way, when we started to think about how society, systems, and even policies and practices within the school, were orchestrating some of that behavior, setting the stage for some of that behaviour, it required us to change those policies, to change the way we worked on the day-to-day. That’s why we say we took a restorative approach on the day-to-day. It wasn’t just about those individual conflicts. It’s about looking at the entire system, starting with the interpersonal, moving up to the way we organize the school and then bringing in and facilitating conversations with the community and with parents and caregivers around how do we want to be together as a school and that’s where we saw unbelievable gains and a shift in the culture of the school.

Stephanie Reid 19:50
When you say the structure of the school or the traditional structure was actually setting us up for failure, what do you, what are some examples of what you mean by that?

Richard Derible 20:00
The way we respond in moments of conflict that are that disproportionately impact groups of students within the building. So, using just extracurricular activities as an example, and access to extracurricular activities, there’s lots that gets in the way of equitable access to those kinds of things. Those are the kinds of things that drive the conflict, on the playground or within classrooms. And so those structures need to be analyzed, we analyze them, we took a restorative approach to analyze them, we thought about them in a more principled way. And it actually led to one of the little projects we did with the lab, which was really, really helpful, is we designed a set of questions that we should ask for any activity that a school undertakes. What’s the purpose of the activity? Let’s get, let’s be clear about that, who’s going to be impacted and how, by the way we go about doing that activity? So, if you apply that question, to anything you’re about to do in school system, it requires to you to think about access, equity, it requires you to think about the conditions that would make that activity helpful and achieve the outcome, the stated outcomes. Oftentimes, some of the outcomes that we get out of these activities are not what we hoped for.

Jennifer Llewellyn 21:24
So, it’s amazing actually, to see that in action as a sort of research and scholarship in action, right? So, you’re taking the framework of how do we look at this? How do we literally put on a different lens, as Richard just offered you and said, like, how do we think about field trips? How do we think about who goes to track and field? How do we think about who can participate in the fundraising activities that go home and have a read-a-thon, right? If we bring a framework that says how are we attentive to the relationships that are involved in this and to the impact that’s having, then that actually shifts what you see and what you do. But then there was huge opportunities for continued learning that informs research, when we’re able to learn from partners who are taking a restorative approach. What is it that we’re learning about systemic inequality, about access, about these relationships, about the structure of schooling, about education? By taking this approach? And how then are we partners in this work to bring that back in a way that can make, you know, sort of scaled up systematic difference to the way in which we design and pursue schooling and other institutions?

Stephanie Reid 22:35
Right, and Richard, you had mentioned community involvement with parents? And that’s really wonderful to hear. And so, once you’ve put these new practices in place with consultation within the community, can you give us an example of or maybe there’s something that stands out a memory where you saw it work?

Richard Derible 22:55
Oh, there are so many places where we saw positive payoff. It’s hard to zero in on one in particular. At the time, the school system in Nova Scotia was gathering student success data, parent surveys, parent caregiver surveys. And we saw the areas we are most interested in is how did students and parents feel in terms of attachment to the school. Did kids like coming to school? Did parents feel welcomed in the building? Those results shot right up, we were hovering at 100% in terms of how they felt about walking in that door, how they felt the staff, the level to which they thought staff cared about their children. And of course, most exciting for us was the students reporting that they love coming to school. And those are the conditions you need for academic success, for social success, for feelings of belonging that’s what we were particularly interested in. Lots and lots of other examples. But we, the school community surrounding Ecole St. Catherine’s School was a community that understood how important good positive relationships were for the health of the community, for the health of the students. And so, I would say that was, you know, the most important success we had. But I will also add that we saw academic achievement increase as well, which was not the initial focus of taking a restorative approach at the school. But I share that only because there’s lots of folks who think that you have to do these kinds of things separately. Oh, we’ll take a restorative approach over here, but then we’re going to do curriculum over here. By taking that approach on the day-to-day, it was one in the same and so we were really pleased to see literacy numeracy levels soar along with feelings of attachment and connection to the school.

Stephanie Reid 24:57
What does the next five to 10 years look like for you? What would you love to see happen in your respective areas? And where are some key areas that we still have a lot of work to do?

Jake MacIsaac 25:07
So for me, I would. It’s been a, it’s been a moment and a movement in the last few years, particularly around public safety. And so if I were to invest, the hope that I talked about earlier, I would hope that we would start to pick up the threads within our expressions of public safety, policing, particularly, not what does it look like after police do their thing to get it into a system to divert out, like I was doing, but what could it look like to do restorative policing differently? What could it look like to hire differently, to expect different, a different approach a principle based approach to public safety, so a transformation of policing could be a phenomenal place. I’d be very excited about starting, and we’re seeing elements of that. But I think society is starting to demand more and demand differently, and that’s those are the right conversations then to ask, what would justice require here then?

Stephanie Reid 26:11
To dive deeper into Jake MacIsaac’s insights on restorative justice, tune in to the Disorienting Dilemma Podcast, where he and his co-host Chris, explore the inward journey needed to foster a more inclusive and equitable society. Join the conversation with Chris and Jake, as they explore these subjects and more on the Disorienting Dilemma. Subscribe, wherever you get your podcasts.

Jennifer Llewellyn 26:36
One of the both challenges and opportunities, I think that’s become so clear to us here in Nova Scotia through the Mass Casualty Commission’s Report and, and their, the depth of work they did to try and bring us all together to understand some of some of what we learned from that about public safety and importantly, about how we do that in communities. And, and I would say, this becomes particularly evident in terms of how we can’t rely on a system centered approach in rural areas and communities alone. We need systems and we need structures, but we need them to be convened and connected around the needs of people and communities. That’s true in rural areas. I think it’s equally true in terms of how people experience vulnerability and isolation in urban areas as well. And so, you know, I think that’s like, where to next? Like, where’s the work? This idea of imagining what restorative communities look like, what it takes for us to support one another’s well being, to be safe and well, I think that’s, that’s one of the opportunities. And for the lab, if I have a dream, I think it’s that we continue to be able to work in ways that supports building the connective tissue between all of these places and spaces in which we see movement, to be to transform the way in which we think about justice and where we do it. And that if we want to be greater than the sum of all of these parts of projects and ideas, we need to keep pulling people back together, to be connected, to be learning together, to be building this sort of connective tissue across all of that incredible work. So, we can keep learning and growing and innovating in ways that is this whole, whole society kind of dream.

Richard Derible 28:27
Yeah, I might comment on the Department of Justice’s involvement in the restorative justice program is what led them to collaborate with the Department of Education. In thinking about what a restorative approach in schools could look like, beyond just using it as a tool in moments of conflict. And the Department of Justice at that time had some interesting data around the young people who were being referred to restorative justice. And one of the themes across all of those referrals was a lack of connection with schools, with their school. And so where I am hopeful that we can continue to work toward is thinking about a restorative approach in schools as a public safety vehicle, a vehicle for enhancing public safety, because I think if we can have all kids experiencing that common experience in a good and positive way where they feel attached, where they feel connected, well, the data is telling us that there’s likelihood of reduced criminality in the communities but beyond again, so you know, we have to be cautious that we’re not just looking to ensure public safety by measuring how many, you know, crimes are being committed in the community. We also have learned through St. Catharine’s how you can build resilience too within a community.

Stephanie Reid 29:57
This was an incredible conversation. Thank you all so much for everything that you do, but also just taking the time to spend here today with us and I hope well, I know our listeners are going to really enjoy this conversation. So, thank you so much. As you heard, Professor Llewellyn is passionate about seeking restorative justice for Nova Scotians and works incredibly hard to create safe, inclusive, and caring environments. Jennifer works closely with government and various organizations to support the understanding of the relationships between people, community, and systems and to make changes to how justice is approached. Professor Llewellyn has positively impacted outcomes for many and has left lasting impacts on the lives of Nova Scotians. We hope you enjoyed today’s episode, be sure to hit the subscribe button and leave us five stars. You can also follow us on social on Instagram at beyond research podcast and let us know what research topics you would like to hear on the podcast. Thank you for listening and we will see you next time.

Featured Guests:

Richard Derible is the former principal at Ecole St. Catherine’s Elementary School in Halifax, and is currently the Executive Director of Restorative Initiatives at the Executive Council Office in Nova Scotia.

Jennifer Llewellyn is a Professor at Dalhousie University’s Schulich School of Law, Chair in Restorative Justice, and Director of the Restorative Research, Innovation, and Education Lab.

Jake MacIsaac is the Assistant Director of Security Services at Dalhousie University, and previously was a casework leader at Nova Scotia’s largest restorative justice community-based agency. Listen to Jake’s podcast on restorative justice topics: Disorienting Dilemma Podcast.