We Learn the Work By Doing the (messy) Work. Reflections On the First Annual NC4RJ Youth Conference

“Last year, I got suspended. And it didn’t work. It only made me more mad.”

The young man sat in a circle with 3 of his peers, his teacher, a youth intern and myself. It was the third and final day of the National Center for Restorative Justice Youth Conference and school teams were using this time to reflect on and collaborate on an action plan for implementing Restorative Justice in their schools.


He was recounting for us his first-hand experiences with both the punitive system of discipline that is currently most prevalent in US schools (which uses isolation as the primary tactic)  and the alternative system of restorative justice that seeks instead to understand the conflict and  repair relationships by centering around the idea that humans are hardwired  for connection and belonging.

“I was mad at the school. It was quick. No one asked me anything. They just told me I was suspended for two weeks and then I got way behind on my schoolwork. And I didn’t care, like, at all.  But when I sat in that restorative conference yesterday, I actually cared. I actually felt bad about what I had done because I realized that my words really hurt another person.  I actually felt really bad.  So this method... it works.”

What happened is what you expect to happen when you bring 20 diverse young people  up to the mountains for 3 days - some real conflict! Fortunately, that’s what we were all there for. Not to make conflict happen, but to make space for when conflict happens and to learn together how to navigate through it. The students who participated in the restorative conference this young man mentioned were real. Their emotions were real. Their angry/hurt was real. Their words were honest. And their reflection was deep. It was a powerful way - maybe the most powerful - to learn the work by doing the work.


The goal of the conference was to provide the youth/adult school teams who are ready to implement restorative justice with an authentic, experiential dive into Restorative justice as a culture mindset shift, and to equip them with some tools and practices to do that. Even more specifically, we were there to:

  • support schools in their rethinking of how they approach discipline,

  • encourage the development of agency in their young people to really lead this work around how we think about conflict in our schools and what it means to have an authentically accountable community, and

  • support the adults in empowering the youth in their school to do so, giving them some nuts and bolts of implementation and tools and ideas to support the advocacy work that inevitably comes with making this culture and mindset shift happen.

Easy, right?

The conference was held at a magical place called NatureBridge in the Olympic National Park  near Port Angeles, WA. (Some of you may have attended 5th grade science camp there!) Located on the pristine Crescent Lake, adjacent to a forest filled with old growth trees that once were 35 feet in diameter (HUGE!),  this incredible landscape provided the opportunity for conference participants to breath, walk, think and reflect. (RJ work can be heavy. Reflection time in nature = super important.) It also provided the opportunity for nightly beach campfires and in my opinion, there’s nothing better than a beach campfire.


Nicholas, Ryan, and I (NC4RJ staff) arrived a day before the five youth/adult school teams from across the state of Washington (Michael joined the following day),  our cars filled with six excited and focused youth interns from Open Doors High School in Federal Way, Bellevue Big Picture High School, and Gibson EK Big Picture High School in Issaquah: Simone, Jay, Dominika, Eleanor, Kelly and D’Monica.  These youth interns, along with 6 others, had spent every Thursday for the past year diving head first into Restorative Justice, working to implement practices in their schools, and planning for this event.

In fact, most of the conference was organized and  facilitated by these dynamic/intelligent/hilarious/passionate young adults  They organized into work teams, created the agenda and schedule, acted as camp ‘hosts’ and facilitated workshops on RJ prevention, intervention, implementation, and issues surrounding LGBT identities, race and socioeconomic status.

And they knocked it out of the park! Every adult who attended the conference spoke glowingly about the impact these youth had on their experience at the conference. They were impressed with their authenticity, their bravery, confidence and independence and their ability to speak articulately about restorative justice and what it can look like and do for schools. One adult expressed to the group at our closing circle,  “Listening to you interns inspired me examine my own life more deeply.”

The goal of the conference was to provide school teams with a deep dive experience  provide teams with tools and practices and based on feedback, that all happened. But the real good stuff? The stuff that makes the magic? The stuff that makes the greatest impact? Actual real human connections!  

“I actually made like real friends here and I wasn’t expecting that.” One of the interns said. A sentiment that was echoed by a number of youth and adults at the closing reflection circle.

Recording the plan.

The power of youth speaking to and leading other youth was palpable.  As we know, words and ideas hit youth differently when they hear it from other youth as opposed to hearing it from adults and this is especially with the work of restorative justice. This is one reason why getting youth involved early and often in this process as well as creating opportunities for youth/adult partnerships is imperative to successful implementation of restorative justice within a school community. And this conference was further proof that it’s totally possible.

This conference also served as a reminder to us that this work is messy! Stepping out of the way and letting youth lead themselves, each other and even adults means that not everything will be how you imagine it to be. But if  there is the essential element of trust - in the youth and in the process - we can learn to embrace that discomfort and allow ourselves the room to grow as well. We are all human and we are all learning.

By: Hannah Williams


Registration for summer 2019 coming soon!