Restorative Justice: Cornerstone of Equity at Camp
Conversation is the root of change.
Each day after dinner at Stomping Ground, all of camp heads down to the main field for some open camp time we call Ballfield. During this time, campers can hangout in Downtown Stomping Ground or participate in any other activities going on. Ballfield is also the time that the program team uses to set up for the daily night game.
Tough Convos in Harry Potter Costumes #campdirectorlife
During Ballfield a couple of summers back, I was heading to the costume cabin to get my Professor Sprout costume on for the Harry Potter-themed game we were going to play. On my way, three campers came up to me and said, “Klee, we have to tell you something that’s kind of awkward.” I asked what was going on, and they told me that they were annoyed at a staff member who, during volleyball, wasn’t letting them play with “their rules” or the way that they wanted to play.
They said this staff member was making fun of them and being rude. In the way they told the story, something didn’t sit right with me. I’m not sure how to explain it, but I was considering the full context of the situation - the campers who came to me were three white females and in our oldest main camp village, ages 13-14. The three of them had been coming to camp for a couple of summers now and felt pretty comfortable with me. The staff member they were talking about was a Black staff member and it was his first year on staff.
After I asked a couple of questions I said, “Okay well it sounds like we need to have a circle.” The girls all looked at each other and kind of stiffened up. I said, “I can be there if you’d like. It doesn’t mean that any of you or the staff member are in trouble, and it’s how we respond to these types of situations at camp.” I had a hunch they were hoping they could vent to me, and then I would take care of it from there. After they considered for a minute, the three of them agreed to have a circle, and I then started gathering all of the people who needed to be involved.
Laura and I decided we’d both be at the circle, along with the three campers, the staff member they were in conflict with, and one of his close friends on staff. We wanted to make sure all parties involved felt like they had an advocate and someone present who they really trusted.
When we came together for the circle, we started by asking the campers to explain what happened from their perspective. As they spoke, they told a similar story that they had told me one on one, but there was far less judgement in their voices or discomfort. They were almost giggling as they told parts of it, and it was as if as they told the story and looked in the eyes of the staff member they were previously frustrated with, they saw some of the light heartedness of it all and didn’t seem as upset.
After they shared, I asked the staff member to share his perspective and what he made of their thoughts. He apologized, and explained how he hadn't realized they didn’t want to play by traditional rules and didn’t mean to make them feel bad. The girls all looked at each other and nodded. They said, “It’s okay. We get it. Next time we can ask to play differently.” We all sat with that for a minute and then the staff member made a joke and the girls all laughed with him. We hung out and chatted about other things for a while before all walking over to the beginning of the night game together.
Conflict can be the start of conversation.
The story I just described is just one of many circles I have participated in at camp. At Stomping Ground, we talk a lot about how living in community means conflict is inevitable. That being said, we do not push it under the rug or shy away from it. At Stomping Ground, conflict is seen as a tool for innovation and connection. We embrace conflict to form trust with one another and build stronger, more empathetic communities and relationships.
Our circle system at Stomping Ground is by no means perfect. Sometimes we have multiple circles regarding one conflict that may hold a lot of weight or tension. Other times campers may not follow through on agreements made, and we have to come back to another circle to continue working through difficult situations. While all situations and conflicts are different, we believe using circles to respond to conflict and build community is one of the best ways to ensure equity at camp.
Thinking about this circle specifically, I am considering what may have happened if Stomping Ground did not have a restorative conflict resolution system in place in place. It is possible that after hearing the concerns of those three campers, I may have said, “Okay. Thanks for telling me.” Then go directly to the staff member they were upset with and tell him that he couldn’t make jokes with campers because he was being perceived as rude.
Would that have damaged the camper-to-staff relationship further? Built distrust between myself and staff? Made the staff member feel ashamed or confused? I am not sure. I do know, though, that the power of the circle allowed the campers and this staff member to see each other’s humanity and back down from some of the preconceived notions they held prior to having the circle.
The campers shifted from seeing his behavior as rude and discouraging, to humorous and understanding. When it comes to perceiving the actions of others, the identities we hold are always impacting how we think and respond to certain situations.
While the conversation of race didn’t come up directly in the circle we had, everyone having the opportunity to share their perspective also meant we were sharing power. I am reflecting on a conversation I had with my friend Marjorie who once said,
“Violence and harm take away power, and a person’s ability to have control. So restorative work is really about returning power to people who have had it taken from them.”
Believe in the process.
In our circle, no one’s word took precedence over another, and those who both felt harm and/or created the harm had equal opportunity to be in control and share their perspective.
As I have had more time to reflect on this circle and many others, along with learning more about the connection between racial justice and restorative justice, I firmly believe that responding to restorative justice is a tool that helps us check our implicit biases. Because circles implore us to speak our perspectives and communicate how we are feeling and what we are needing, we are encouraged to dig deeper into emotions we have and reflect on decisions we make.
Redesigning Systems As A Check for Bias
At sleepaway summer camps, where it tends to be the case that there are more white people making decisions compared to people of color, it is imperative we build systems to check our biases and hold us accountable to create equitable, anti-racist camps for the communities we serve.
When we ensure that there is a system in place that individualizes experiences and allows all voices to be heard, rather than employ arbitrary rules that may work for some but not all, we are able to not only see the impact of our decisions and thus build radical empathy, but consequently build equity into the fabrics of our communities.