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True justice requires us to acknowledge and attend to the underlying and systemic harms that have led to interpersonal harm. Last Thursday, April 21st, the Restorative Justice Project at Impact Justice invited four restorative justice and truth-telling practitioners to discuss the intersection of their work and how communities might move closer to realizing true justice.

The panelists were clear: there is little chance of justice if we are not first grounded in truth. Similarly, there is not much hope for redemption unless it’s grounded in justice. In striving for truth, however, we’re often faced with a challenge: how to help people discuss painful truths about systemic harms, when they don’t even believe what they have seen with their own eyes? Sometimes our limited interactions with opposing viewpoints and own internalization of white supremacy limits our ability to fully understand and recognize the impacts of harm caused at the societal level.

Truth-telling processes must therefore center the voices of those most victimized and impacted by state-sanctioned violence, especially those whose voices have not been heard and valued by mainstream society. Doing so is critical, as civil rights attorney Fania Davis explained, because it allows for stories that have been buried to be unearthed, and those that have been silenced to be voiced. Facilitating dialogue in a way that invites truth also matters. Restorative justice facilitator and artist Poet Williams described the importance of modeling authenticity and vulnerability, which allows others to do the same and to feel safe telling their full truths.

In creating spaces for these stories, we have to be prepared to listen deeply and with open hearts and minds, recognizing that people who have caused harm often have been harmed themselves and have resulting needs (this includes those who have perpetuated some of the most painful and violent forms of white supremacy). A goal, then, as Rev. Nelson Johnson, co-director at the Beloved Community Center described, is to identify opportunities for people from seemingly opposing sides to have honest conversations so that they may “walk towards each other.” In doing so, they often find they share similar needs (like safety and job security) and have more in common than they may have originally thought or been taught to believe.

Co-founder and Co-executive Director of the Truth Telling Project Dr. David Ragland pointed out that part of creating safe spaces for truth-telling involves being intentional about who holds the space. Typically, truth-telling processes have been top-down, led by the very systems of domination communities are seeking to dismantle in the first place (e.g., government agencies). Instead, communities must lead these processes—radically redistributing power rather than recreating harmful dynamics.

This shift is necessary because, as Rev. Johnson explained, the damage systems have done and continue to do produces individuals who then cause harm to each other. We therefore must be prepared to acknowledge the trauma systems have imposed on people and to challenge those very structures and systems. Ultimately, restorative justice processes addressing interpersonal harm should not happen in the absence of addressing the societal harms that have created the conditions for the interpersonal harm to occur. To that end, Fania Davis offered the “Four Rs” as guiding standards for any truth-telling process: (1) Recognize harm; (2) take Responsibility through public apologies; (3) Repair harm; and (4) prevent Recurrence of harm by changing narratives, reorganizing white supremacist institutions, and healing trauma.

Sia Henry is a senior program specialist at the Restorative Justice Project at Impact Justice.

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