An article written by Mr. MARÇAL BAIG VIÑAS
It’s a quarter to eight in the morning. The sky has been clouded for many days, but today I hope that the sun will finally shine. This time of the year it’s still dark when I get up. One of the first things I do is to take a moment to look through the window, while I mentally review what the day holds for me: apart from some inevitable administrative tasks, I have “only” to deal with a restorative circle. It’s just a matter of saying, because just thinking about it and I feel a tickle in my stomach… After many years doing the same job, these feelings are the ones that transport me to the times when I started. However, today this feeling is completely justified: it is the first face-to-face circle I conduct after all the strange and hypnotic era of confinement, webinars, teleworking and video calling. So, yesterday I informally summoned all my RJ teammates: I need their opinion on some technical aspects of the circle. I also need to coordinate with my colleague Albert: I’ve got him tangled to work as a co-facilitator with me.
City of Justice in Barcelona
I arrive to the office at the City of Justice in Barcelona. Albert arrives always very early in the morning and he is already in front of the computer. I explain him my feelings around the restorative circle we have today. He is always optimistic, and that reassures me. Gradually the rest of the team arrives. Everyone begins the daily work in front of the screen. Shortly afterwards, at my request, we go downstairs to have a coffee at the bar, as I want to take the opportunity to discuss with them the situation: what worries me is that I had to do all the previous individual interviews with the parts involved in the restorative circle by video call instead of face to face, and that makes me feel that I will not be able to manage the situations with the same quality. First of all, I have to decide how to organize the circle, where I’m going to sit everyone, as a proper arrangement is key for a circle to flow. My colleagues give me their opinion what helps me a lot to decide the final organisation and approach. Besides formal meetings, this informal way of communication is usual in our team and has incalculable value for us all.
Right after coffee, I go straight to prepare the room on the 3rd floor where we usually do the interviews. The City of Justice is a bit as a cold maze, everything looks the same, and often the clients need to do a tour before arriving to our service. Meanwhile, Albert has gone upstairs to advance his work because you know when a circle begins, but not when it is going to finish. So, while he is making calls and working in the database, I cleared a large room I had previously booked: I set up tables and arrange the chairs in the centre, as a circle. There will be five people taking part in the restorative process, plus the two of us, the facilitators. Everyone will still wear masks. This also worries me, because if en circle it is always very complex to pay attention to non-verbal communication of all participants simultaneously, and when people are wearing masks this becomes even more complicated. But, in fact, this is one of the strong points of RJ: to be adaptable to meet the needs of the people involved in restorative processes.
The first participants
It’s 10:30 in the morning. One of the parties arrives. They are couple of about 35 years old. They are very nervous. I welcome them into the room while I to them trying to transmit calm and tranquillity. After a while, the other part arrives. They are a 25-year-old daughter and her parents. I welcome them 2 rooms away, because the walls of the interview rooms are like smoking paper and you can listen to everything that is being said inside.
Meanwhile, Albert is already waiting in the big room prepared for the meeting. But, after seeing that among the participants there is a lot of tension, I decide to introduce Albert to each party individually, instead of at the same time as I had foreseen. Restorative processes are elastic enough to be accommodated by the mediator at the needs of the participants in each moment. So, we first attend the couple I have noticed more tense: they need a face-to-face space for themselves, to be able to breathe a lot of serenity and a good dose of confidence in the process; I will introduce Albert to them and to take profit of the calm and warm presence of him to achieve a good atmosphere.
Today’s case is a neighbourhood problem. Everything began with a dog fight in a park and a discussion. But things became worse and worse: there have been a lot of insults, threats and aggressions during more than one year.
Once we see each other and see them ready, we take them to the living room. At one end of the circle is Albert, and I am diametrically opposed. The two parts are placed one on each side. The speaker has the “object of the word”, which he hangs while is speaking and passes on to the next one when he finishes. In this case, it’s just a soft ball. At other times, it may be a special object with some significance relevant to the situation.
Master of ceremonies
I act as a master of ceremonies, arranging word shifts, paraphrasing and redirecting, if necessary. Albert plays the role of a meta-mediator: this figure allows us to observe the dynamics of the process, of the parts and also of myself from a different place. He captures things and can say things, often beyond neutrality that I, as the main facilitator, am not allowed to say. At the same time he gives support. He is in and out at the same time. It’s a role I love, but it’s up to him today. And it’s not an easy role.
Today‘s dynamic is complicated because the reproaches, the accusations, the glances and the gestures are very intense and aggressive. In one of the first rounds of the turn, one of the participants gets up and leaves. In these cases we stop the circle for a moment. We split. One facilitator holds the circle, while the other speaks individually, in another room, attending the person who has left the circle. He finally decides not to come back; he says it’s too much for him.
Just for a moment, Albert and I, we wonder if it makes sense to continue the circle in these conditions. We decide yes. Our experience tells us it can work. We all sit down in the room again: “Let’s talk about the person who has left”. We refer to the legitimacy of leaving this space at any time. After another couple of turnovers, we notice how things are changing. The parties can now talk, listen and open up. The reproaches are unravelling and, little by little, we are deepening in their needs. In those of others. In the needs of the situation they are sharing.
We have crossed three intense hours. But they are worth it. We started with insults, contempt, and bad looks, we went through apparent indifference, until we reached quite acceptable levels of recognition, respect, and dialogue. They have finally been able to get over the storm: we are convinced that they have laid the first stone to build a new dynamic, but surely now we have in front of us the most difficult part: sustaining and caring for this new dynamic.
The person who had left has been patiently waiting outside. This is a sign that needs to be interpreted. We talk with him, this time we go down to the street, because he has an urgent need to smoke. We propose him to explain him what has happened in a few days, which is appreciated by him. Now we can’t do much more. We are mentally exhausted, with no more energy.
However, I still have a lot of work to do: as the participants in the circle have decided not to go to trial (that would have taken place in a couple of days), the briefing note with the waiver agreement must be sent as soon as possible so that it can arrive in time to the court.
We know that a follow-up will be necessary. Individual calls and possibly some more interviews to assess how they went, how they felt and how they are. Because the only valid thermometer of the usefulness of the meeting is if agreements work in the everyday life.
We must all assimilate what we have experienced today: they as the protagonists of the situation. We as professionals. It has been intense. They will return home and go on with their lives. Only the passing of the days, the time, will reveal to them the meaning of what we have worked on. It will be up to us to reflect on our interventions, on the approach; of all that has been done well, and all that could have been better. Because no two processes are alike and there are mistakes and successes in all of them. Both of them serve to improve in a continuous learning that never stops: for many restorative processes that you have done in this profession, you learn from them all and you have the feeling that there is always a lot to learn. You never know enough and every interesting case like this is a new challenge. Despite the days that one feels down, the non-viable processes, the angry users, the cumbersome administrative tasks and a salary that you would sometimes say does not compensate, the seduction of the magic of restorative processes keeps you trapped as if it were a series of hectic intrigue, where you always stay to see an ending that, for the moment, never comes. Lying in bed, just before sleeping, I think I am very lucky, and I hope I can continue to enjoy many years of Restorative Justice.