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Transforming Conflict Through a Restorative Framework

A conversation with conflict specialist Jessie Kushner.

 Cristiane Mohallem/used with permission
Cambuci Tree (2017), cotton thread on linen (70 in x 56 in), by Cristiane Mohallem
Source: Cristiane Mohallem/used with permission

Peace on earth. At this time of the year, this is what people all over the globe wish each other. Paz en la tierra! Siocháin ar talamh!

Peace, the resolution of conflict, has been on my mind. The subject concerns me as a member of a family, community, and nation, and as a fiction writer with a keen interest in empathy, trauma, and healing. Of late, our species has been mired in the opposite of peace—division, conflict, violence. Bryan Stevenson, the director of the Equal Justice Initiative and author of Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, has said, “Hope is our superpower. Hope is what gets you to stand up when other people want you to sit down. Hope is what gets you to speak when others tell you to be quiet.” The question arises: How do we find the courage and confidence to engage in difficult conversations with our friends, family, and the larger community? What skills can we learn that can lift us out of the anger, frustration, and helplessness of our current state?

Today I’m privileged to have a conversation with a crisis responder, grief counselor, and facilitator of restorative justice practices in family and group settings. This person is my daughter, Jess.

Jessie Kushner/used with permission
Jessie Kushner
Source: Jessie Kushner/used with permission

Jessie has worked with teens, young adults, families, and professionals for almost 30 years through Outward Bound as well as the non-profit she co-founded, Forward Learning Youth and Young Adults. At Outward Bound, she directed the national high-risk teen program and introduced and implemented restorative practices into its curriculum. She was honored to work over the decades in numerous roles for both wilderness and urban centers and has served as a national staff trainer and facilitator at the Outward Bound Center for Peacebuilding. In 2019, she founded Collective Voices.

Dale Kushner: Collective Voices actually addresses many themes that come up in my novels. Please explain what it is and what it offers, Jessie.

Jessie Kushner: Collective Voices is the company I founded whose mission is to help people reconnect, repair, and rebuild their relationships. Collective Voices provides a structured approach to healing and to interrupting cycles of misunderstanding, conflict, and even violence by seeking to understand the underlying issues. My methods begin with building relationships and trust. Together, we uncover what lies at the root of the dynamics and work to find a path forward that is agreeable to everyone involved.

DK: What led you to start Collective Voices?

JK: I will begin answering this with a quote:

“In Zulu, a common greeting is the word ‘Sawubona.’ It roughly translates to ‘I see you,’ as in, ‘I acknowledge your presence.’ By acknowledging you, I bring you into existence . . . your acknowledgement of me brings me into existence. For the Zulu, the failure to acknowledge other people is to literally threaten their existence.”—Carolyn Boyes-Watson, Ph.D.

People in many cultures push to be seen in this world and there is a big difference in being told you are equal and feeling seen, and actually being equal and seen.

A barrier to justice is that we live in a polarized system wrought with an “either/or,” “one or the other” mentality. There is competition for whose opinion and way is “right” and wins. Reality is multi-faceted and there are many sides to a truthful understanding of an issue. Dialogue has the power to rebuild each of the three things shattered by violence: safety, compassion, and dignity.

I am committed to working with people on allowing all viewpoints to be heard and valued, even if there is strong even adamant disagreement. We rarely make deep connections through language—too much interruption and not enough silence when others speak. Speech is often used to intimidate, interrogate, control, demand, ridicule, or manipulate in order to show we are right, and others are wrong. Rarely do people listen to others tell their stories and opinions in their own time and ways.

Reconnecting, repairing, and rebuilding relationships happen through acknowledging other people’s existence (and all that it entails) through facilitated dialogue.

I am passionate about exploring with people, “How can we live together in a good way?” —while still maintaining our independence, options, identity. This is the ultimate question of justice. Brilliantly ordinary people can come together for the sake of one another, to listen, to share, and to find a way forward. I started Collective Voices in order to be a part of a solution to the injustice many people face of not being seen, heard, believed, and valued.

DK: What are some manifestations of conflict? What is a “restorative framework” and why is it important?

JK: Conflict can manifest as tension, silence, abuse, oppression, repression, trauma, and grief, to name a few. Many communities and individuals are deeply affected by systemic and generational cycles of conflict, violence, and harm that shock one's sense of self, security, and connection with others. Silence is often a protector of conflict that includes abuse, violence, as well as relational dynamics that hamper people’s ability to overcome challenges, sustain wellness, and be effective (and productive) in a workplace, community, and/or family setting.

A violence-peace spectrum based on Johan Galtung’s work

A “framework” is the attitude, lens, and value system one inhabits that guides interactions, conflict, repair, and communication. A “restorative framework” is grounded in the question “How am I impacting others?” A restorative framework is the opposite of a “dominant framework” that is built on systems of colonization and oppression. A dominant framework inhabits one voice, one harm, one point of view, and leads to blaming the circumstances or other people. Johan Galtung speaks of peace existing on a spectrum. On the left side, he puts violence. In the middle, he puts negative peace, which he defines as the absence of war and violence or fear thereof. On the right, he places positive peace. Positive peace can be used to gauge the resilience of a society. In a dominant framework, positive peace cannot exist because the primary belief is that there are right and wrong in every situation.

In a restorative framework, everyone’s feelings and needs are a priority. All voices and perspectives are valid and deserve to be heard, and explanations are not considered to be excuses. The overall goal of restorative-based dialogue is to seek mutual understanding and practice respect, even when serious conflict exists. Restorative practices are aimed at promoting positive peace. They build the capacity within people to identify and solve their own problems. Restorative services have been found to be more effective and successful for resolving conflicts and interrupting violence than their counterparts. What is essential to the process and what makes a band-aid approach (focusing only on solutions or quick fixes) different from sustained peace is the dialogue that takes place to allow for all perspectives and needs to be heard. The end result is increased safety, unity, and an understanding that the “collective good” is essential in order for each individual to get what they need.

DK: Why do families and groups seek your help with conflict and repair?

Jessie Kushner/used with permission
Mist (photo by Jessie Kushner)
Source: Jessie Kushner/used with permission

JK: In my 30 years of experience working with youth on long wilderness expeditions (in which the family is a part of the program, although not in the wilderness), as well as in community and/or clinical settings, I have discovered that while no two families are alike, many struggle with similar issues—communication, boundaries, violence, addiction, finances, power, culture, identity, and incarceration—and are looking for experienced and objective guides and facilitators who can help them navigate the turbulence.

In addition to working with youths and families, I also have had the privilege and honor to be hired as a consultant to run training and facilitate conflict and repair work across a range of clients: childcare centers, drug and alcohol clinics, First Nations tribes, an auto clinic, nonprofits, and other agencies. My work has included facilitating dialogue around topics such as racial and social justice, equity, violence, workplace culture, diversity, employees’ roles and responsibilities, and impact. After some initial hesitation in trusting the process, participants find that they have an increased understanding of the roots of their conflict(s) and are willing to find a mutually agreed-upon path forward, even if that means they simply learn how important it is to listen to opinions other than their own.

DK: What does being “repaired” mean in repair work?

JK: A great question. Simply put, repair implies that something was once in full form “before,” and repairing is about restoring the relationship, the community, or group to a new harmonious state. Humans are layered creatures. We aren’t broken or fixed like a toy or machine. The process builds a capacity for empathy and mutual understanding and aids in discovering durable solutions that work for all parties involved.

 Collective Voices/used with permission
Collective Voices logo
Source: Collective Voices/used with permission

DK: How does the conflict resolution work you do differ from therapy?

JK: My work is therapeutic; however, I am not a therapist. Every interaction we have has the capacity to be therapeutic dependent on one’s ability to master the craft of being a guide as well as a nonjudgmental but knowledgeable resource and listener. My direct care services appeal to people who have tried therapy and feel that it either does not work for them or that they want to take a slightly different approach. I am a strengths-based practitioner and work to understand and address the root causes of issues before moving into collaboratively exploring solutions and tools to increase one’s capacity for managing conflict and repair.

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