By Julia Steiny
Decades ago, Dominic Barter fell for a beautiful Brazilian. He’s English; they met in Europe. Alas, in time she had to return home.
They could only afford one phone call a month. But after about 6 months, they realized that the cost of those calls was about the same as an airplane ticket. So in 1992, Barter went to Rio de Janeiro, believing he’d be going to “that place that you see in all the photographs, with all those beautiful beaches and mountains and forests.” And it was that — “the most beautiful place I’ve ever been, with the most beautiful people.”
But he was shocked to find that Brazil was embroiled in a violent civil war and had been for centuries. He might have expected such civil division in Johannesburg. But who knew that Brazil has 2.8% of the world’s population and 13.9% of the world’s murders? “It’s more dangerous to be young in Rio than in Syria, Palestine, Iraq, and Uganda together.” (He was speaking at a restorative justice conference last June, so Syria’s stats might have changed since then.)
Just beyond Rio’s stunning tourist destinations are the favelas, or slums, on the city’s outskirts. Barter wandered from his girlfriend’s apartment to the shantytown called Santa Mateo, one of the most densely populated square miles in South America. There, gang members use military grade weapons. The Red Cross trains doctors in Brazilian favelas to give them experience with the kinds of wounds inflicted by military weapons.
Barter badly wanted to respond to Brazil’s situation.
So he asked people what he could do to help. To a person they said — carefully, kindly — that he could do nothing. He was a gringo who could not understand the context of the strife. Besides, he didn’t speak the language, and had no relevant skills. Eventually, he couldn’t “bear it any longer” and went back to Europe.
While home, he remembered an incident he’d seen in Amsterdam years before. He was bicycling on a narrow path along a canal and had to stop for a couple ahead of him who were having a fight. He watched and noticed that the less they understood one another, they more they raised their voices. “It was as if their bodies were confused, thinking that the distance in understanding is a geographical distance. If one was on the other side of the canal, it would make sense for the other to raise their voice to be heard.” But they were next to each other. When they finished their argument, he was on his way and forgot about it.
But in mulling over this memory he realized he had a useful tool in hand: listening. He could go back and listen to the people in the shantytowns and elsewhere. He no longer felt helpless. Perhaps all the killing, the fences, the paramilitary activities, the atrocities — perhaps all that was “the volume being raised on something which people have been saying for years and still hasn’t been heard.”
So Barter went back to Brazil.
He learned the language and went back to the shantytown. During the mornings, he and the kids had the streets to themselves. The women were off at work, many cleaning houses. The men were sleeping since they’d spent all night fighting. Police only came around to buy back the guns they’d lost the night before. The kids were suspicious of him since the only reason a gringo would be there was to buy drugs, but they softened since he came with no answers, only dialogue. He learned to be patient about getting responses. “Don’t work in this field [restorative justice] if you don’t like silence.”
His command of the language and his connections to the kids grew a little bit stronger all the time. But “it was challenging when they said something painful. How do you sit with people in their pain, without producing solutions, without brainstorming?” He listened.
“I had been trained that conflict is dangerous. When conflict is painful, you move away as far as you can. Conflict needs to be resolved. It’s threatening.” Both the people having conflict and the conflict itself need to be suppressed, silenced in a way that gives emotional storm and fury no outlet. So conflict grows into cyclical retribution — I hurt you; you hurt me; I hurt your mother.
“Now my challenge was to walk towards conflict.”
Over time, he, the kids and those adults who drew near to their conversation began meeting in circles in which each person is seen and heard. Together, led by Barter, they figured out what simple techniques and mutual agreements worked best to allow the speaking and hearing of painful, heartfelt information. Barter says, “we didn’t realize we were doing Restorative Justice.” Ultimately, though, the protocols were collected and disseminated by Restorative Circles.
Now, decades later, Dominic Barter is a sought-after speaker and a rock star in the small but growing universe of restorative justice. First drawn by love, Brazil had nearly defeated him with its atrocious brutality. But he managed to be an effective reformer — with nothing fancier than listening.