One year and a long cup of tea

Tomorrow will be January 7, exactly one year since I joined Restorative Resources as Executive Director. At the time I had little knowledge of Restorative Justice and related practices. But I have long felt inspired by a story about the value of not-knowing. Here it is:

Nan-in, a Japanese master during the Meiji era (1868-1912), received a university professor who came to inquire about Zen. Nan-in served tea. He poured his visitor’s cup full, and then kept on pouring. The professor watched the overflow until he no longer could restrain himself. “It is overfull. No more will go in!” “Like this cup,” Nan-in said, “you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”

I came to Restorative Resources with an empty cup.  Lots of room to learn. And in this past year I have indeed learned a lot. But I hope my cup is not full; there is still a great deal to learn. And that is likely to be a permanent condition.

A few weeks ago I was speaking Ted Wachtel, who is one of the great innovators in the field of restorative practices. Ted is president of the International Institute for Restorative Practices. He made a comment that is, in my view, quite congruent with Nan-in’s (no, Ted did not pour tea all over my desk). He said, “We should remember that this is a young field, and 99 percent of our history has yet to occur.”

This sense of ongoing discovery and innovation is one of the two main aspects that drive my enthusiasm for restorative practices. Another is our effectiveness. As I’ve dug in and studied  variety of restorative approaches in the past year, it’s been very inspiring to see that wherever evaluations have been done, the data are consistent. Restorative practices are indeed effective.

But the fact is, we need to continue to innovate. It’s premature to point at any particular way of doing things and say, “That’s it, that’s our proven best practice, that’s what we should be doing.” For one thing, rapidly changing economic and social conditions require us to adapt, or we will not remain relevant and effective. The main approach Restorative Resources has used over the years, New Zealand Style Family Group Conferencing, has proven effective in most cases. But it also requires anywhere from 20 to 60 hours of staff time per offender. The expense of this approach is simply not tenable in today’s economy.

So we are faced with a very interesting challenge. I’ve asked staff to come up with ideas for how we can do an effective restorative intervention, beginning through end, that requires only six hours of staff time per offender. I think it can be done, and in fact I’m confident that there are other organizations that already doing it.  Victim-offender reconciliation encounters, one of the earliest models of restorative practice, are still being widely used and are much less time-intensive than the New Zealand approach. Can we meld ideas from these two approaches, along with some others? I’m optimistic and excited by the possibilities.

My first year here has been interesting and deeply rewarding. Now, as another year starts, one of the challenges I feel personally is how to keep pouring tea into my cup without filling it up.

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