EngagePerspectivesCommunities of Practice at Penn: Restorative Practice
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Communities of Practice at Penn: Restorative Practice

Our final episode in the series on communities of practice features a conversation between Dr. Lia Howard and Pablo Cerdera, associate director of Restorative Practices at the University of Pennsylvania. Pablo shares about how he and his colleagues at Restorative Practices work to provide a safe, confidential, supportive space for all parties involved in incidents of harm. He talks about circle practice as a way of strengthening connections in a community to prevent harm as well as to endure conflict when it inevitably happens.

To shape our thinking here, we are using the definition of a community of practice created by the nonprofit, Campus Compact. “A community of practice is a learning community or collegial network, defined as a group of people who share interest in an area of inquiry, and engage in collective learning about that issue as it relates to their work or practice. Through discussions, joint activities, and relationship building, the community of practice develops a shared and individual repertoire of resources, skills, and knowledge to use in their practice.”

Excerpts from edited transcript.

Lia Howard: So how can we learn together about our community as citizens and what practices best facilitate that learning? Our guest today is an expert at promoting healthy relationships between people, bringing accountability in situations of interpersonal harm, and emphasizing the inherent work worth of all individuals and our interconnectedness. We are looking forward to hearing today from Pablo Cerdera, associate director of Restorative Practices at the University of Pennsylvania.

Welcome, Pablo. Thank you for the deeply important work you do at Restorative Practices at Penn, the university’s Center for providing safe, confidential, supportive resources for all parties involved in incidents of harm. The past couple of years have been so challenging, and we are very interested and curious to hear your ideas about the Penn community and advocating for students across campus.

So, Pablo, could you tell us a little bit about yourself, including your background, working in the criminal justice system and your role as the associate director of Restorative Practices at Penn?

Pablo Cerdera: Well, I want to say thank you so much for having me and for that lovely introduction and I really appreciate everything that you shared. And I think you articulated in a lot of ways the core ideas that we try to embody in our practice. I first learned about restorative justice in undergrad in a course that targeted the system of mass incarceration and restorative justice was framed in that context as a non-punitive way to deal with hardened communities and in a way to help promote meaningful accountability that did not contribute to the conflict.

And I was immediately taken with this philosophy, to this practice. First of all, because it seemed like just an approach that could work in what seemed like a really intractable problem, an approach that could help make meaningful change in a social issues that mattered to me. And then I was incredibly lucky after undergrad to get a placement at a place called Civil Rights Center in Minneapolis, which had a program called the Youth Education and Restorative Services Program, where I served as an AmeriCorps Promise Fellow, and then later worked there as a case manager.

And I was working, managing the nitty gritty, unsexy parts of restorative justice and doing logistics, scheduling, taking notes at conferences. And I learned so much in that context about the broader philosophy of what restorative justice, restorative practice is all about, especially what it means in terms of community, which is incredibly relevant to the conversation The idea that restorative justice is not just a diversion program from the criminal legal system that we did do diversion work with the Minneapolis Police Department and also within school districts in Minneapolis to fall on, but that it was also a philosophy about being in good relations with other people and that you could really have a deep, meaningful impact outside of the criminal system. To prevent harm from happening and to make communities more resilient in the face of harm when it does inevitably happen. So that was my background in the orientation that I brought to this work and as I mentioned, I started here and back in January, 2020, just weeks before the pandemic So you can say these have been challenging years, as you said earlier, they certainly have been.

But I felt really able to connect with the community here, both because of the practices that we engage in in various ways, but also because there was a real hunger. I found coming in even before the pandemic, especially afterwards, for people to be in a relationship with others. So that takes me to what do we do, what do I do in my role as associate director for Restorative Practices at Penn?

The mission of our program is to work with students and faculty and we do work to proactively promote good community. We use a variety and facilitation techniques and concepts to help people build communities, make decisions, celebrate victories, process challenges, learn together in ways that promote equity of voice and deep listening to one another. Circle practice, for example, is something we do a lot,I talk about this a little bit more later, that helps people come together and have deep and meaningful conversations.

We also work to respond when harm has been done? And so we facilitate cases that involve student staff and faculty. These are everything from pieces that might otherwise go to my colleagues in the office for conduct investigation all the way through to pieces that might otherwise be handled by the Office of Equity. Until now, two cases involving sexual review are the alternative pathway for folks who are interested in having a non-punitive approach to resolving and addressing harms of that nature.

We also address things that fall outside of any code of conduct, whether it’s the Title IX policy and the clear sexual misconduct office of misconduct policies. Folks who have experienced harms that fall outside of those areas can also come to work with our office to be supported in doing so, what resources around those who’ve been harmed or to be supported in the very difficult process of being accountable to the harm that we’ve caused.

So these are some of the different areas that we actually facilitate, cases that I love to do. The proactive community building cases, those are always a lot of fun. And I also find a great deal of satisfaction in helping people navigate situations of harm whatever direction they occupy, whatever place they occupy a situation, and then finally do lots and lots of training.

The team is just me and my colleague Hanan Ahmed, we are the full time folks on the team, and so we love to do workshops and trainings with partners across campus staff, partners, faculty and students. To share these skills as well and help people think about how to live in restorative ways, how to be in a relationship with the rest of the community.

Lia Howard: Well, I can speak with so much enthusiasm for your workshops. We have definitely taken advantage of your skills and training and really appreciate that. And Pablo, thanks so much for answering that question, and I can imagine our students will really appreciate hearing a little bit about your journey and what led you to this work. And then as always, I appreciate the many different terms and ways if you’ve been thinking about this work so thank you.

But I want to think a bit more with you now about the Penn community and what it looks like from your vantage point at Restorative Practices. You’re an expert at mediating interpersonal conflict and healing harmful dynamics between individuals and their community. How does this influence your approach to our community of students, of faculty, and of staff at Penn?

Pablo Cerdera: And so really excellent question. And I appreciate the way that this is framed because as I mentioned, the restorative philosophy really has a strong foundation and the concept of community in the idea of being in right relationships with other people. And part of this is because many restorative practices draw their inspiration from indigenous ontologies and life ways.

There’s proximal connections to Inuit peoples and other northwestern nations, but it also reflects and inspired by Maori people and other indigenous people around the world. And one concept is prevalent across many of these worldviews is the concept of reciprocity and the importance of being in relationship And so when we talk about community, I really like to think about, I think sometimes we speak really abstractly and metaphorically about community.

We are all members of the Penn community, but what does that actually mean practically for us? And for me it’s those webs of interrelation and interdependence that means that that make community something real as opposed to just a concept. Right. So there’s that kind of alumni community. Absolutely. But what does that actually mean? It means that there’s an opportunity to reach out, to support, to make a connection, to have a conversation. Those are those are the kind of concrete ways in which we relate to one another.

So there are these distinct layers of our community, right? As you mentioned, students faculty and staff. There’s also all of the people who fall under one of those categories who are also entering embedded into we with the broader community, who I think we also need to think about and take into account. So when I think about the community, I think of many overlapping communities, lots of circles and waves that lay on top of each other and link and mesh with one another, which is also really relevant when we’re doing healing and accountability work, because it’s important for me to think not only about the people who are most directly involved.

So our processes center on them, but also where are all of the what are all the levels of connection through shared academic interest? Because people are in the same student group as people occupy the same physical spaces because people are part of the same intellectual project. There are all these ways in which people might find themselves in community with one another that might be super relevant to meaningfully addressing a challenge or harm or conflict.

So I think that that’s a big part of how I think about our communities as students, faculty and staff. It’s again, to reiterate, it’s about this interconnection and reciprocal obligation of restorative justice. We oftentimes talk about what we’re trying to do, what we’re doing, restorative practices, restorative justice work is identify and address all our needs and obligations. What we want to understand is why crimes have happened or are happening.

What needs are present for everyone involved in our community and then obligations, who needs to do what? Who has the obligation to address those needs? And we all, wherever we sit in a community, we do have obligations to ourselves and one another. So, again, that’s a bit about how I think about community in general and the way it plays out here.

Lia Howard: Thank you so much for thinking of community as webs of connection. I’m going to think about that for a really long time then the way that you’ve complexified our understanding here of community. Thank you, Pablo. So your website notes three tiers of restorative justice and several proactive and ongoing practices involved in the work. And I just want to read from your website, you say the tiers are number one, build and strengthen relationships. Number two, to respond to conflict and harm. Number three, reentry support. So, Pablo, can you talk a little bit more about how you see the tiers working within the Penn community and the specific proactive and maintenance practices that are involved in each stage?

Pablo Cerdera: Yeah, that’s an excellent question. It’s a great way to think about more specifically about what we actually do. Let me start by disambiguate two phrases that I’ve been using a lot, and we’re using many interchangeably that I want to be really clear about the distinction that will help explain these stages. So I’ve been saying restorative justice and restorative practices.

Restorative justice is an older idea, it is an older term that was popularized in the seventies, eighties, really, and it’s referring to the application of all these philosophies that we’re talking about, about harm, needs, obligations, interrelationship, specifically in situations where there’s been an act of harm. Someone has done something that hurt somebody else. You’re trying to respond to that in a good way, a way that helps everyone move forward in a healthy way, in a positive way, and that addresses those needs.

Restorative practices is a term that we use to describe the application of those ideas and philosophies in a broader sphere of context. So when we talk about the proactive work of building and strengthening relationships, that’s restorative practices. It’s using some of the same facilitation techniques like circle practice or restorative conferencing. With the idea of basically helping prevent harm as opposed to simply responding to it.

So my program is restorative practices at Penn, which means that we do both, right? We do the proactive work, we do reentry work, but we also do that restorative justice work of responding to conflict and harm. So I think that’s helpful. Hopefully to some degree, the two terms that I use somewhat interchangeably. So when it comes to building and strengthening relationship the idea to go back to that metaphor of webs of connection, when we do proactive community building work to strengthen relationships.

I like to think of it as tightening that web. Helping people become more consciously aware of the relationships they already have and have a deeper set of relationships. So that harm is less likely to happen when we have strong relationships in the community, we are less likely to behave in what we might broadly call antisocial ways, ways that are harmful to the community.

And harm will happen no matter how strong community that is. So it helps the community be more resilient in the face of harm. So a lot of what that actually looks like is proactive circles. So circle, to speak a little bit more about that, is ultimately a facilitator approach to facilitation and also approach to community on a deeper level that values equity or voice and equal participation.

And to speak about it in the simplest possible terms really quickly. Circle involves sitting together in a circle, as it sounds like, and having two people who are serving as circle keepers, raise open ended questions that are relevant to the community. Whether it’s because it’s the decision that needs to be made, a concept that used to be a part of an event that needs to be processed.

Right. So in this case, we’re talking about separate from a situation of active harm and then you go around the circle and every individual in that space is to answer the questions, to speak to what they’ve heard so far, uninterrupted. You just go around in a circle, however many times are you allowed to let people really share openly and vulnerably and invite everyone else to listen to other people.

There’s a lot more to it. Things that we do to help really set the stage and create a container where people feel as comfortable as possible to be honest, open, and vulnerable. But what it really does, and especially relevant in the higher ed context and to be frank, the Penn context, is it helps people exhale. It helps people slow down a little bit and helps people shift their mindset away from deliverables and towards relationships. And so by having a deliberately slow, methodical, intentional process where we spend a lot of time arriving at speaking about shared values, setting norms, setting intention, and then giving each and every individual the opportunity to speak as much as they need to about whatever
topic is at hand. It really encourages folks, feedback that I’ve got, especially here, is it encourages folks to listen, to really listen to and see and connect with in whatever form makes sense for them, the other people that they are already in community with on a deeper level. And so I think that that’s a big part of what we do is doing that proactive relationship building to help people that we don’t just you circle in circles.

One of my favorite ways to do it is to help people slow down, recognize the connections they have and see each other with a fuller, a fuller vision of each other’s humanity. It increases a sense of care, a sense of belonging that also helps transform things from a sort of hypothetical community to a much more embodied practical community for that person who like, yes, maybe they’re in your department or maybe they’re in your class, or maybe you live on the same hall as them. Can turn them from someone you recognize and who you are in “community” with to somebody who maybe you’d ask for help if you needed . Or somebody you can talk to about a challenge you’re facing or a question you have. Somebody who might want to share with you, with you all of these things that can help people feel more interconnected and feel more supported and all of those things feeling more interconnect and supported. And so having strong relationships are some of the best protective factors against, first of all, harmful behavior and including inclusive of harmful behavior to oneself of all different kinds. And so that’s why I think ideally that would try to live this out. 80% of our work should be in that tier one, building and strengthen relationships. Now, as I mentioned earlier, there’s two of us at all times. And so I guess we could each take roughly 20,000 people and try to do that community building work that needs doing with them.

Obviously that’s not really feasible, which is part of why do those workshops and trainings because there’s a lot of great ways to do this community building work for yourself. It’s also super helpful across power differentials to talk about students, staff and faculty. There are some inherent sort of structural differences in terms of power and position that exist between those roles like access to resources.

They have different positions in the hierarchy at the University and circle work across those boundaries can be really valuable to help people be in good relationship with each other. So that’s a big part of what we do and where I like to spend a lot of my time. But we also have to do the work because no matter how strong we are, conflict will happen. If you have two people in one space, eventually there will be conflict, just disagreements about what needs to happen or how it needs to happen.

That’s inevitable., all over the place, and harm happens too. Harm is something that can is preventable. But it does happen and will continue to happen. And so it’s really helpful to be able to have established procedures about how we do intervene once the harm has happened. Once conflict has broken out, not in order to quell it, but in order to or to reverse it either, but to address it or freeze it’s often used in restorative justice work is the idea of supporting people to move forward in a good way. And the process of a restorative facilitation when harm has happened is again the 80-20 rule plays out. We spend about 80% of our time in what we call pre conference meetings these are one on one individual conversations with all the stakeholders. So people who are involved in the situation, which means that people who are harmed, who are responsible for the harm and, and also very often other relevant members of the community, folks who are connected to the situation or to the people involved or who have some stake in what happened or what needs to happen in order for folks to move forward.

And in those pre-conference meetings, we spend a lot of time helping people think through, unpack what happened, what were the contributing factors, how did the people get themselves involved in that situation? And then really significantly, what are the needs that exist now? Right. This harm happened. The situation happened. What needed by the people who are involved?

What are the accountability needs of the people responsible? Are there learning needs? Do they need support in order to make it so happen again? What are the needs of the people who have been harmed? Do they need an apology? Sometimes. Many times they don’t. Do they need restitution of some kind, symbolic or material often? That’s right. And so we actually in these situations will go through and parse out what the harm was.

We have a system of identifying harm and breaking it out into four major categories. We talk about material and physical harm. This is the sort of most straightforward harms things like a stolen laptop or a broken hand or lost time. We talk about emotional and spiritual harms, those would be feelings of sadness, anger, pain, fear that someone might experience when harm happens to them.

It’s also, you know, spiritual harms that can take many different forms, but a shorthand way that I sometimes use to really boil down what that concept means is it’s that harm that we can experience when our understanding of ourselves and the world in our actual experience become disconnected from one another. There’s a space, a gap that once between who we think we are and how we think the world is and what we see, what we do, what happens around us.

And that can be often experienced as a very profound spiritual conflict. So that’s what we talk about, spiritual harm. There’s also relational and communal harms, damaged relationships, broken trust, or fractured friendships. And finally, we talk about individuals involved in these processes, about inflamed, structural and historical harms. These are those harms that aren’t just about what happened in that moment between the individuals there, but harms that activity that inflame preexisting structures, histories of harm or other oppression.

And so a lot can be said to unpack that concept. But a shorthand way I also use and describe this is it’s the distinction between calling someone a jerk and using something like a racial slur or using violent gendered language to talk to or about someone referencing some sort of serious harm or historical event both of them are mean things to say to someone, but one is predominantly emotional or relational on the other is not just about that relationship.

It reactivates, deploys,. this much larger system history of personal and communal harms as the moment we came here. And the reason we take the time to unpack and identify these different types of harm is because different kinds of harm acquire different kinds of repair, different needs arise from these different forms of common. And so we in our response process for responding to harm and conflict will go through those different kinds of harm with all the parties and work with them.

Think about what are the needs that arise there and what power do the people who are at the table have to take action to address those. So that’s been a bit of an insight into what we actually do with our restorative processes, our sort of justice processes, and how this actually happened. Those processes almost always conclude with a joint session, and that’s an opportunity for the people involved to have a facilitated encounter with one another, either directly or indirectly, and to say what they need to say and what they need to ask and collaboratively build a plan to address needs really and group way.

So that’s a bit of what is involved in those processes. They take time. They’re intensive, they involve a lot of conversation, a lot of meetings. But I find that the outcome and its processes, one way we’ll see that through is a much deeper understanding. Of the harm, much more meaningful accountability for the people call home. And honestly, a great deal of deeper satisfaction for the people who were harmed when versus when the person is just punished rather than take when that person takes on the responsibility of the events or the harm that they’ve caused the people who are finally that that last tier that you highlighted with is reentry support.

And that’s also really important. Sometimes the accountability process might require that someone spend time away from other means, whether it means leaving the university or just taking time away from a club or class or group, sometimes taking some space and having a period of separation is important. Also, restorative processes aren’t the only things that are happening here.

Folks are suspended. That happens. Folks take medical leaves, that also happens. And so reentry support of any of those situations is thinking about how do we circle around this person who in some cases has done harm, which is why they left. In other cases, just we’re disconnected from them. So for some other reason. But how do we think about circumstances of their departure and the circumstances of their arrival to help make that return as smooth and supportive as possible? So we’ve done fewer of these. And you’ll notice if you if you look on the website, the reentry support is the smallest piece, but it’s really critical because if we don’t think about reentry in a restorative way, regardless of what the reasons for why someone left was, we’re much more likely to have additional harms happen down the line.

Lia Howard: Well Pablo, thank you so much for walking us through the different, very intentional ways you think about practices at Restorative Practices. I really appreciated all the different ways you, for example, dice out harm, what kinds of harm, the ways you talk about circle practice and really thinking about what you would orient people towards relationship versus task. Really fascinating processes. I appreciate you telling us more about them.

So I’d like to reflect with you to end our time together. If that’s okay. The past two years have been deeply challenging. We are witnessing attacks on democracy abroad, causing much uncertainty both internationally and domestically. We are coming out of a pandemic which has altered the way we live and work. We have been exposed to tragedies like the murder of George Floyd and chilling anti-Asian hate crimes yet we have witnessed widespread protest marches where people of all races have joined together to decry these deep injustices.

We’ve experienced political toxicity polarization and even an insurrection on our Capitol building in Washington, DC. Yet we’ve also seen a record amount of voting and political participation All these things have influenced the way we as U.S. citizens think about our U.S. community and have rippled out to affect the way we think about can as well. In short, living and community is both challenging and invigorating, deeply painful, yet at times deeply rewarding.

We want to examine what are some of the challenges and joys of your work with the Penn community. So Pablo, what are some of the things that have been challenging these past couple of years, and what have been some of the things that have brought you joy, hope, and encouragement?

Pablo Cerdera: I really appreciate this question, and I think it’s a great way to wrap up our conversation. Thank you again for the time that you’ve given me. I think that these past years, starting again, as I said, just when I began here at home, has been fraught with challenges. I think the pandemic plays a really critical role in them for all sorts of reasons.

People have experienced extreme, deep, personal losses over the past few years. People have experienced also, even those of us who have been lucky enough to not be touched as personally by the pandemic has been witnessing the fear and the suffering and the loss around us. And so I think something that I notice as I was orienting myself in building relationships here at Penn, everyone’s tank was zero of everyone where I was working. And talking, especially over my first year here, which took me over the summer of 2020 to 21 school year. Everyone I talked to, students, staff and faculty were running on very little emotional energy that we all spent. So everyone I spoke to felt very stressed and very stressed, just having a really difficult time and that’s hard on its own. But add to it the fact that none of the preexisting challenges that we have relationally, socially and globally went away.

So there were things that people with all the things that we had to do anyway in terms of work and life were more difficult for more tired of stress, had less energy. And those are and also things like the impact of structural and systemic racism. Right. We’re hitting new levels of intensity and striking deeper chord with people. So I’m very aware and have been struggling in that area for a long time.

Some people who really hadn’t been as consciously aware of these deep histories and structures of oppression and so we see things like the uprisings in the summer of 2020 are not unrelated to the experiences that we are collectively having. So I think we have a lot of challenges that in fact that there are a lot of parties that have a lot of conflicts that happened and conflicts escalated to a new level because everyone’s reserves were really low.

During my first, still to this day but especially in my first year, I did. And so I think that was something that was really hard. It was also difficult in some ways to build relationships and build communities when I hadn’t actually met most of my colleagues or a lot of the students in person. That was very hard in a lot of ways. I have to say, I was a real skeptic before the pandemic about the power, the capacity to do deep relationship building, rebuilding restorative work over the phone or over zoom.

And I am a total convert at this point. I actually this wasn’t what I was planning to say, but I will say, some real hope, joy, and encouragement in how well people rose the occasion to do the work of the community and building relationships and making sure that when given the opportunity and the right supports, even in this pandemic context, even in the digital scope of the that was wonderful.

I also think that I have seen the excitement with which people have grabbed hold of especially the community building more of the sort of practices of how their efforts have been to implement in their own areas and the really beautiful and powerful experience that I’ve had sitting in a circle of people having these conversations, meeting and making connections with all sorts of people across campus all sorts of people who I feel proud to be part of the same community.

And so that’s something that’s great. Brought me a lot of joy and a lot of hope. The fact that there is an awareness, right, that we need to make changes means the changes in the way that we are in the relationship with each other. We need to make changes how we think about our obligations to ourselves with one another and in the ways that we choose with the status quo that has been hurting people, has been doing harm.

And that is a real interest that a lot of people have in trying to do things differently in a way that honors all of our humanity. So that’s incredibly helpful and is a lot of fun to be with friends and colleagues and students and doing that work for them.

Lia Howard: Well, thank you so much for joining us, Pablo Cerdera. We have enjoyed our time with you and again, are so grateful for the ways you serve and care for the community. This concludes our series on Communities of Practice.

Join us this summer for a special episode of The Park, hosted by ten students from Icarus. I’m so happy to pass the baton to them for this special episode as they take an interdisciplinary look at social isolation and its impact on personal and community wellness. Until then, take good care.

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