Julia Steiny: The Beauty Of Helping People Feel They’ve Been Heard

by Julia Steiny

This is Part 3 of 5 on Leeds’ efforts to become a Child-friendly city (Part 1, Part 2.)

In 2005, when Nigel Richardson became their Director of Children’s Services, the city of Hull was sometimes called “the Detroit of England.”  Hull sits on the big gash of a river, the Humbert, that cuts towards the country’s mid-section.  For centuries shipping and fishing thrived.  So historically Hull was more tied to the Netherlands, by boat, than to England’s north-south axis, where early railroads passed it by.  The shipping industry’s collapse left Hull with Detroit-like social problems — high poverty, teen pregnancy, drugs, school-drop-outs and the like.

In 2010 I went to a conference in Hull, fascinated by their incredible come-back story.  Yes, it’s seedy in ways, but it has lovely European architectural bones that will clean up nicely as it continues its climb out of dysfunction.  Detroit it is not.

But in 2005, when Richardson came along, the social statistics were dire.  His come-back strategy was to get out to make friends and partnerships among agencies that touch children — police, schools, housing, non-profits.  He explained, “We knew we should be thinking collectively, as a team.  And the question was, what’s it like to grow up in a city like Hull, and how could we make it better?  Children’s Services had already done some really good work using Family Group Conferencing and youth diversion.  But how do you move from being reactive to proactive?  We had a framework.  We had priorities, action steps.  We had all that you’re supposed to have, but we lacked the glue.”

Restorative practices become the social glue.

Restorative practices are a set of simple interpersonal skills and rules that help people hear what each other is saying and maximize the chances of people feeling heard — a sensation in sadly short supply these days.  I think of these practices as sandbox skills: taking turns, speaking from the heart, listening carefully, using “I” statements as opposed to accusatory “you” statements.  (Many versions of these skills are out on the internet; here’s one.)  Hull’s efforts became cumulatively powerful as more and more people used the practices — from agency administrators to front-line workers, from police to social services to schools to families.

Best to illustrate with a Hull story.  Jenny had been the wife and mom of a reasonably healthy family, but over the last 7 years had become a psychological mess.  Messed-up moms are not good for their kids, as you know, but no one’s efforts seemed to help.  She came to the attention of the Hull community police, trained in restorative practices by then, when she threatened to kill herself.

Apparently, 7 years earlier, Jenny’s husband and a neighbor friend got into such a bad fight, the neighbor was arrested.  In the heat of the moment, he’d threatened to kill her.  She’d been terrified ever since, declining mentally and increasingly becoming a worry to her family.  The cop talked her into participating in a restorative conference.  It was also his job to get Jenny’s husband and the neighbors to participate.  In the conference, the neighbor said that the “threat” was an angry throw-away line to which he’d never given another thought.  He was mortified by what had happened to Jenny, but really, it was a misunderstanding.  Jenny heard his sincerity.  The couples mended fences; the women became friends again.  When Jenny ran into that same cop months later, she gratefully reported that the conference had given her back her life.  Imagine the effect on the rest of her family.

Restoratively-trained public officials help families sort things out.

As he developed new partnerships, Richardson got wind of schools also experimenting with restorative practices.

Estelle McDonald, newly-hired head of Collingwood Primary School, was desperate to calm the chaos at her miserable school.  Not thinking anything would come of it, she sent off a plea for help to the International Institute for Restorative Practices (IIRP) which she’d found online.  She returned from lunch to messages that “a mad American” Ted Wachtel, founder of IIRP, would love to talk about spreading the restorative gospel overseas.  Mercifully, IIRP had the capacity to help train Hull’s leaders, who could then train trainers in their respective agencies.

Ultimately Hull officials trained thousands of child-serving “professionals.”  Charmingly, that included parents, grandparents, anyone who dealt with children.

Richardson’s growing group of leaders asked:  “What if the behaviors of the adults changed so the children all encountered restorative behaviors?  What if the ideas of restoration, working with the families, hearing their stories and wishes, wrapped themselves around the lives of the children?  What if restorative practices connected all of us across the city?”

With people talking, brainstorming, learning to resolve conflict productively, Hull came to life again.  The simple-sounding skills, shared by janitor, mom and City Counselor, were changing Hull’s culture.  Families became more functional.  School attendance improved.  Juvenile offenders often made reparations side-by-side with those whom they’d harmed, and in some cases, with the police who’d caught them.

For once Hull commanded positive attention by becoming the first Restorative City in the world, with social-service statistics that were stunningly improved.  The 2010 conference teemed with British police, residential heads, social-service officials and others coming to learn the magic that redeemed once-downtrodden Hull.

But that was also the year Richardson took the same job in Leeds.  Hull is Leeds’ back-story.  The twain shall meet next week.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice.  After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets.  As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008.  She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan.  For more detail, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@gmail.com or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

Julia Steiny
Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist writing about kids and schools through the lens of Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. Currently she is Project Manager for a National Institute of Justice grant to study the effectiveness of restorative conferencing programs now being implemented in six Rhode Island Schools. Steiny is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, the design partner in the grant. After serving a term on the Providence School Board, for 16 years she wrote the Providence Journal's weekly education column. Since 1998, she has consulted with The Providence Plan on data analysis and communications, helping to develop Information Works! for the RI Department of Education and the RIDataHUB. For more, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@youthrestorationproject.org. The Youth Restoration Project has a Facebook page with news and resources on the Restoration movement in the US and internationally.
Julia Steiny