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Building Restorative Communities: An Interview with Dr Brenda Morrison

An interview with Dr Brenda Morrison, the Director of the Centre for Restorative Justice and an Associate Professor in the School of Criminology at Simon Fraser University.

Location: Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada

Brenda and Camille are smiling on zoom.
Top to bottom: Dr Brenda Morrison and Camille Schloeffel

I was introduced to Dr Brenda Morrison during my travels by a mutual connection at the Australian National University, which is where I studied my undergraduate degree and where Morrison completed her PhD. Morrison has a background in restorative justice and bullying in schools, in which she developed a framework that proposes a continuum of responsive and restorative practices for building safer school communities. Bullying and some forms sexual violence have commonalities, such as how power differentials are used to harm someone and the insidious nature of this harm.

Victim-survivors who report or disclose to their universities can often be met with shame, stigma and more harm. This form of betrayal by a university can cause victim-survivors to be re-traumatised and not feel safe anymore. The detrimental impacts this can have on someone can be significant, and in some cases life-ending. However, despite there being a wealth of research about the benefits of restorative practices to a person's safety and healing, universities still fail to implement it and instead continue on with bad practices.

“Restorative justice should not be implemented as an alternative to retribution.”

In many higher education institutions, it is highly problematic how sexual violence thrives due to the lack of intervention and accountability placed on perpetrators. This stems from the idea that a criminal threshold is required within a university context – the innocent until proven guilty narrative – when it isn’t. Restorative justice is just one option that can be made available for when sexual violence happens, however it is not always appropriate or meeting the needs of victim-survivors.

Restorative justice is not a process that should just be implemented for responding to harm. It should be implemented in a way that also is an option for academic integrity matters – as an opportunity for students to learn, grow, take responsibility and be accountable. This is when we see restorative justice be implemented in a meaningful way in the classroom or academic contexts.

Morrison believes that we need to build a culture of consent that promotes healthy relationships, reasonable expectations and boundaries of each other. A way to normalise healthy relationships and discussions is through engaging in a circle process or something that builds community. These sorts of community-building activities bring people together to have safe and honest conversations with their peers on a relational level.

“Building communities of care is central.”

Morrison shared with me her perspective of creating cultures of safety within a university context. She spoke about how universities are very task-oriented institutions operating in a transactional framework of – if you do well in my class then I'll give you good marks. This highly performative and competitive environment doesn't keep students safe or help them thrive, but it is almost impossible to implement any sort of relational (in connection to others / recognising interconnectedness) practice within these fragmented colonial institutions. Shifting that culture to become more relational is difficult but it is possible and important for us to get it right in order to build more restorative communities.

For someone navigating the institutional space, community care is more than just individualistic counselling sessions or meetings with a case manager in a university sexual violence support office. It's about a person feeling like they have wrap-around support for in a way that is responsive to their needs and that they can identify this community of care.

Universities are colonial, fear-based institutions and we have a lot of culture change to do. Restorative justice is just one part of the puzzle to change these institutions through growing a culture of consent and restorative processes.

You can learn more about Dr Brenda Morrison's important work to create safer, more restorative communities here.

In solidarity,

Camille Schloeffel

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