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A Community Based Approach: The Collective Healing and Transformation Project
By Selene Calderón & Chelsea Miller
July 19, 2022

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For the past several years, the anti-violence movement has questioned its reliance on law enforcement and policing as a pathway to justice and safety. Those inside and outside of the movement have increasingly called for shifts towards restorative and transformative approaches to violence intervention and prevention. These are exactly the kind of demands for alternatives that The Collective Healing and Transformation Project (CHAT Project) was created to address.  

CHAT was founded in 2018 and gathered a diverse set of partners in Contra Costa County with expertise in domestic and sexual violence and community engagement along with mentors from the fields of restorative and transformative justice. Together, we knew that our current options for survivors were too limited, that survivors were asking for support that didn’t exist.  

The CHAT Project came together to create a community-based restorative justice (RJ) program. Community-based means that the process is not mandated by or reporting to the criminal legal system; explores the participation of all people impacted by the violence; and is focused on connecting and strengthening participant’s natural support system. Our team became a learning and practice community, and we started working with individuals and families – preparing them to participate in RJ circles to address harm in their relationships and families. 

Many survivors are not well served, or are harmed, by a criminal legal response and many more people experiencing domestic and sexual violence will never reach out to the police for help. While there have been calls across the country for alternatives to the criminal legal and state system approaches, we repeatedly see the misguided approach of placing funds for “community based” restorative justice programs within that same system; for example, new RJ funds being house within the Department of Justice at the federal level and here in Contra Costa county, new funds for community based RJ being co-opted by the probation department without local funding for a true community-based model. 

The domestic and sexual violence movement and models that exist today pose their own barriers to an RJ model and community-based approaches to ending violence. By creating services which lean heavily on partnerships with the legal system and its resources (restraining orders, jails, police) and individual support, the status quo emphasizes separation and survivors are often served in isolation from their communities, natural connections, and supporters. Strategies such as therapy, support groups, and direct advocacy aid survivors without creating opportunities to include the people in their lives who provide the most direct support — family, friends, neighbors. Additionally, programs that support survivors rarely offer assistance for the people causing harm. Yet, so many devoted advocates know that many folks remain in regular contact with the parties who are causing them harm — living together, co-parenting, sharing friends and workplaces.   

It is clear that there are limitations, gaps, and failures of our current models. As we envision and develop new models, we need measures of success that are based in the reality of violence intervention. The expectation cannot be that RJ eliminates violence all together, as no other domestic violence intervention is expected to do this. There is always going to be a level of risk in the work of trying to interrupt cycles of violence, as there are when law enforcement is involved, when courts are involved, and when advocacy is engaged.  

This work will require existing providers – including those with our own lived experiences of violence – to learn new skills, explore and unlearn old assumptions, and to do self and community accountability work ourselves as we apply these practices with others. It will require humility in the face of profound challenges and an openness to true community-based methods, including RJ, as steps towards a violence free future. 

We believe RJ is an essential component of the path forward that does not rely on incarceration and police and that prioritizes community strength, healing, and safety. It is not RJ alone — we need to create an ecosystem that makes restorative justice possible and that reflects the true meaning of community-based models. We need to invest in organizations that are creating opportunities for collective action when violence occurs; support and resourcing for all people impacted by domestic violence; opportunities for accountability; and practicing and strengthening connection with our support systems.  

The CHAT Project has had its own lessons to learn about being a survivor-centered and community-based program when survivors and families, from the very beginning, challenged our assumptions about what this program would be. When survivors asked us for things, we had not ourselves envisioned, we were willing to build and create with them. While we have been adapting and responding to the present needs of families, we are also learning that our initial assumptions, goals, and measurements have limited our flexibility and we want to share this lesson as others express interest in building new RJ programs. 

The work of RJ has greatly been influenced by the contributions of indigenous ceremonial practices of being, gathering in circle, and conflict resolution. Circle is the primary way that CHAT practices RJ. CHAT is committed to recognizing this history and how it contributes to how our work and values are shaped. We recognize the importance for RJ programs to name and learn this history. 

During our pilot period, survivors have requested a variety of responses and we see all of these as the opportunities and the practices required for community-based restorative justice to be possible and to grow: 

  • Restorative justice processes with the person who caused harm or used violence 
  • Restorative justice processes with people who avoided, co-signed, or denied violence  
  • Healing circles with children and other family members 
  • Help getting ready to hold their own family circles at home  
  • Community circles– Spaces to connect, learn together, and build relationships with other people from their communities 
  • Accountability Conversations with the person causing harm, safe discussions in which to address the violence they are causing and how to stop it   
  • Guidance for people supporting a survivor — resources about violence and tools for talking with a survivor without causing more harm  

The CHAT Project created opportunities for RJ in an environment without the foundation and conditions needed for such an option to thrive. What we discovered is that RJ and much more is needed. For all the organizations, advocates, and communities excited about and interested in restorative justice, let’s not recreate the same problems which are built into our current systems when constructing new RJ programs. We do not want to seek an alternative to the criminal legal system that applies a one-size-fits-all model as a solution for a complex problem. We want to create abundant opportunities that can meet the wide variety of needs of survivors and their communities.