By Mark Vander Vennen
I am a huge Bob Dylan fan. One of his great songs is called “Dignity”. Here are a few selected lines:
Fat man lookin’ in a blade of steel
Thin man lookin’ at his last meal
Hollow man lookin’ in a cottonfield
Wise man lookin’ in a blade of grass
Young man lookin’ in the shadows that pass
Poor man lookin’ through painted glass
Somebody got murdered on New Year’s Eve
Somebody said dignity was the first to leave
I went into the city, went into the town
Went into the land of the midnight sun
Searchin’ high, searchin’ low
Searchin’ everywhere I know
Askin’ the cops wherever I go
Have you seen dignity
So many roads, so much at stake
Too many dead ends, I’m at the edge of the lake
Sometimes I wonder what it’s gonna take
To find dignity
I was in Detroit last week—the home of Motown—at a conference, and for me both Motown and the conference brought to mind Dylan’s lament about dignity. Here is why.
One of the real pleasures of my work at Shalem over the years has been to watch and participate in the growth, development and maturation of the field of Restorative Practice. That growth and maturation were evident at the conference, entitled Strengthening the Spirit of Community, sponsored by Black Family Development Inc. The conference was attended by over 600 people, most of whom are working to implement restorative practices in schools and school systems across the U.S. It was an inspiring event.
It is often said that the field of restorative justice or restorative practice is strong in practice but somewhat thin in theory. What I found heartening at the conference was the evidence of development in the area of theory.
What is restorative practice? Here is my definition: “Restorative Practice is a way of thinking and being, where the focus is on creating safe spaces for real conversations that deepen relationship and build stronger, more connected communities.” Shalem is deeply engaged in restorative practice, not only through our FaithCARE, Centre for Workplace Engagement, EduCARE and Restorative Families work, but also through our attempts to inscribe restorative principles into how we relate to one another as staff members. We seek to live it out in our daily and work lives. We seek to be proactive in strengthening relationship and preventing conflict, but also responsive in successfully working through conflict when it happens.
That’s fine. But what is it, actually?
At a conference workshop, John Bailie, the President of the International Institute for Restorative Practices (with whom we work in close partnership, especially their Canadian office), proposed this definition: “Restorative Practices is an emerging social science that investigates human relationships in communities.” I like that. The science is “emerging” because it doesn’t exist at the moment. And in our day, when communities are being torn apart by polarization and anger, and when social media, rather than connect us, seems to contribute to today’s conditions of unparalleled isolation, that science and that practice are more needed than ever.
But Bailie went further and deeper, and this is where Dylan came to mind. The title of his workshop was “The Science of Human Dignity.” He noted that it is a profoundly human desire to experience dignity in our relationships with others. And he identified three deeply human basic universal needs which, when experienced, make up the experience of dignity. They are the need to belong, to have voice, and to have agency in one’s own affairs (that is, the capacity to have an impact or make a difference).
Restorative practice is focused on all three of these needs. In our engagement with others, we invite people to belong, to exercise their voice, and to make a difference. Laying these three needs at the foundation takes us far beyond the Enlightenment-generated, false conflict between “individualism” and “collectivism”, reaching deeper instead to faith and Indigenous traditions, and crossing cultures. They speak to the fact that we are wired by our Creator for relationship—literally we die without relationship. Isolation and loneliness are now greater predictors of early death than smoking or obesity (see my previous blog, “The Ministry of Loneliness”). But our Creator’s intention is not just that we have relationship—it is also that all people experience dignity. And Bailie is making a proposal as to what creates the experience of dignity in relationship.
John Bailie’s reflection is but one contribution to the emerging articulation of the theoretical underpinnings of restorative practice. There are others, and there are many capable thinkers in the restorative field. I am encouraged by attempts to ground proactive restorative practices in the emerging theories and science of human flourishing and well-being. But I will be chewing on Bailie’s formulation for some time. And I invite you to download Bailie’s paper, entitled “The Science of Human Dignity” and do the same.
Maybe Bob Dylan could find dignity here.
Mark Vander Vennen, MA, M.Ed, R.S.W. is Executive Director of the Shalem Mental Health Network.