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What is “Restorative”?

Getting Back to our Restorative Roots

Scholar and activist Fania Davis once described restorative justice as: “a justice that seeks not to punish, but to heal. A justice that is not about getting even, but about getting well. A justice that seeks to transform broken lives, relationships, and communities rather than damage them further. A justice that seeks reconciliation rather than a deepening of conflict. A justice that seeks to make right the wrong rather than adding to the original wrong. A healing justice rather than punishing justice. A restorative justice rather than retributive justice.” This is the spirit in which we in RRC understand the meaning of “restorative” in Restorative Justice or Restorative Practices. These practices have their origins in age-old communities. Sawubona and Ubuntu are two examples of ancient concepts, passed down from our forebears, that have inspired the modern RJ movement. These help to ground us in our approach to restorative work.

Sawubona –  a Zulu greeting in South Africa,  means “We see you.” It refers not just to the individuals meeting, but it includes our ancestors, our tribe, our village. The response is Yebo Sawubona, “Yes we see you too.” It is an act of seeing and embracing each other in our full humanity, with all our quirks, our weaknesses, our strengths, and our potential in this life. It is a recognition of our shared humanity and interconnection. Seeing becomes an act of dialogue. When two human beings meet in this gesture of sawubona, it is an opportunity to be present to each other,  and to explore our mutual potential and the possibility of that moment.

Ubuntu – a South African concept that was the underpinning of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. It’s a word that says “I am human because you are.” It acknowledges that people are people through other people. Ubuntu is the principle of caring for each other, of being in solidarity. It is a spirit of mutual aid and mutual survival, meaning that our individual humanity is expressed through our relationship with another’s humanity and our own humanity is affirmed in return. It also acknowledges our responsibilities to the well being of ourselves, of each other and the community.

Desmond Tutu says that:
“[…] A person with ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, for he or she has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished when others are tortured or oppressed, or treated as if they were less than who they are.”

Because we live in a retributive paradigm, we usually come to Restorative Justice after harm has already occurred, but it can and should be used to prevent the harm from occurring in the first place. This requires that we take a much deeper look at how we live in right relationship with each other, how we live in community.

Restorative Justice at its very core is the practice of sawubona and ubuntu, the practice of being kin to each other. How do we practice that in our daily lives? How do we look out and show up for each other in this moment of crisis and possibility?