Thursday, October 30, 2014

Building a case for restorative justice in Tama-Toledo

From Toledo, IA
Building bridges in the wild
(Rural east Marshall Co.)
In my ongoing work for Eastern Mennonite University, I've helped coordinate the technology aspects of the "Real World Restorative Justice" webinar series, and this past spring I taught a 3-week course on restorative justice at Grinnell College. These have helped keep alive my passion for restorative justice.

(For a primer on the field of restorative justice, see here.)

Meanwhile, over the past two years of living in Toledo, Iowa, I've been looking for opportunities to plant seeds, spread the word, and maybe even get some small restorative justice project started. But when it comes to institutional settings where restorative justice is often employed - criminal justice and public schools, for instance - I haven't found an opening. That's been frustrating at times, particularly when incidents that come up in the local community could be, in my estimation, better handled with a restorative approach.

But something else is going on in Tama-Toledo which gives me the sense that the "fields may be white" for a restorative harvest. Like many rural communities in areas heavily supported by agriculture (i.e. most of the Midwest), we're struggling with how to survive and perhaps even thrive in conditions drastically different than they were 30-40 years ago. But here in town we have cause for cautious optimism for our economic prospects: A major beef processing facility is coming online in the next week or two, Iowa Premium Beef.

Despite my qualms about the "big-ification" of agriculture and our national food system, I'm trying to be a pragmatic optimist about the whole situation. This plant is opening, it's backed by a major investor with deep pockets, and the company has made every indication that they're serious about being a contributing member of the community and working with cattle farmers in a close geographic radius. I'll take them at their word on that.

And this company and its workers are going to change the face of Tama-Toledo (and surrounding communities) in a whole host of ways.

Part of what that change means beyond the potential economic benefits of having a major new employer operating in the community is this: cultural diversification. Iowa is a vastly white state, but with the diminishment of the small family farm and the rise of industrial agriculture (meat processing plants in particular), racial/ethnic/cultural diversity has started to make its way even to rural Iowa, and Tama-Toledo is no exception. (Tama Co. has the added dimension of having within its boundaries Iowa's only Native American community, the Meskwaki, who also happen to be one of the county's largest employers.)

With any influx of non-dominant culture groups, conflict is nearly inevitable: in neighborhoods, at school, at the workplace, etc. But as the conflict transformation field teaches, conflict can and should be seen as an opportunity, and restorative justice is an approach to conflict which has cross-cultural sensibilities built into it. And the guiding philosophy and practices of restorative justice are such that, beyond a mere conflict resolution tactic, it should rightly be seen, as practitioner Fania Davis points out, "a positive [school, criminal justice, and community] climate strategy." It is a positive relationship- and community-building approach to addressing wrongdoing and harm, and it can help change cultures for the better.

If we're to seek out ways to be a hospitable, welcoming community, "Looking toward the future," it can't be business as usual as its been for the past 50 years. We're in a new economic reality and we're in a new cultural reality, and those two are related. Therefore, our status quo attitudes and practices that have worked in the past must be re-examined, questioned, and adjusted accordingly to work well in and with these new realities.

In order to be a welcoming community that seeks to integrate well its new members, inviting them into the journey of promoting flourishing and wellbeing for every member, across the various cultural backgrounds, restorative justice could be one piece of a larger, positive strategy to become that kind of community. Let's hope we recognize and seize the opportunity before us.

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