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Relational ways of working: Dalhousie University

Over a few days spent in Halifax and over two interviews, I was able to speak to a wide range of people working to end campus sexual violence at Dalhousie University.

  1. Jennifer Llewellyn, the Director of the Restorative Research, Innovation and Education Lab (RRIELab); Associates Melissa MacKay and Jake MacIsaac; and visiting fellow Dr Holly Northam OAM (who is also a Churchill Fellow from Canberra!).

  2. Lyndsay Anderson, the Sexualised Violence Advisor in the Office for Equity and Inclusion of Dalhousie University.


Location: Dalhousie University, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada


Melissa, Camille, Jake and Jennifer sitting smiling in front of a sign that reads: 'Restorative Research, Innovation and Education Lab'.
Left to right: Melissa MacKay, Camille Schloeffel, Jake MacIsaac and Jennifer Llewellyn

Restorative Research, Innovation and Education Lab (RRIELab)

The Restorative Research, Innovation and Education Lab (RRIELab) is a hub for researchers, policymakers and practitioners to come to learn, explore and expand new applications for a restorative approach. It acts as a virtual hub to connect people internationally as well as a physical lab for researchers, partners and communities to convene and work together.


Jennifer Llewellyn, the Director of RRIELab, is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, and the Chair in Restorative Justice at the Schulich School of Law at Dalhousie University. Llewellyn was especially welcoming when I planned my visit to learn more about restorative justice in practice as she also brought together two Associates, Melissa MacKay and Jake MacIsaac. MacKay has extensive experience working in higher education administration, specialising in a restorative approach on issues of inclusion, equity, sexualised violence and curriculum development. She currently works in restorative justice in the criminal justice system. MacIsaac is the Assistant Director of Security Services at Dalhousie University where he focuses on promoting restorative approaches within campus security and with other campus stakeholders. He comes from a youth justice background, having worked in Nova Scotia's largest restorative justice agency.


Llewellyn, MacKay and MacIsaac were a part of the team that facilitated a restorative justice process at Dalhousie University’s Faculty of Dentistry in 2015 to address climate (perceptions about ‘how it feels’ to work there) and culture within the faculty. This process was in response to female dentistry students filing complaints under the university’s Sexual Harassment Policy after they became aware some of their male colleagues had posted offensive misogynistic, sexist and homophobic material about them in a private Facebook group. The team’s final report, which details the restorative justice approach that was implemented in response to these behaviours, is an example of how restorative approaches can be used to address harmful behaviours within an institutional setting.


Llewellyn described the approach to the dentistry incident as deeply connected to feminist relational theory. Feminist relational theory talks about how relationships with people, institutions, networks and structures shape our experiences and behaviours of power and oppression. In this way, restorative justice aims to work across all places and spaces with the whole community and at all societal levels, rather than just focusing on one area. Llewellyn spoke about campuses as ‘communities’ and emphasised the need to build strong, healthy learning communities rather than focusing solely on the campus’ response to sexual violence. This is the idea that all members of the community must be part of the solution to build healthy and safe communities, including those who use harm. To put it simply, she says:

“The story about bad people doing bad things needs to stop.”

- Jennifer Llewellyn


This sort of monster lurking in the shadows narrative that continues to thrive is not helpful and is, quite frankly, an easy way out for people to look away and not address the issue head on. Institutions often don't want to believe that their system and culture facilitate this behaviour. However, campus communities are complex systems that create systemic, cultural and relational norms that underpin these sorts of violent behaviours as normal. This is why Llewellyn, through RRIELab, is trying to be proactive rather than reactive by working with partners to try new ideas and put evidence into action quickly.

“Restorative approach insists you can never do the response without the structural work and you can’t do the structural work without the relational work.”

- Jennifer Llewellyn


While relational theory underpins a restorative approach to addressing harm, this relationship-building is something that institutions tend not to do well, if at all. In recognition of this institutional barrier to embedding restorative approaches within the system, Llewellyn spoke about the importance of building coalitions. Through coalitions of people working through a relational and restorative lens, you can build policies, programs and procedures based on restorative principles. Llewellyn is a strong believer that restorative justice principles and objectives must be in all spaces at university - inclusive of the classroom, security and residences.


We need structures set up for people who do use violence and cause harm but who are asking for help. If we don't have these in place then we are basically leaving them to navigate their accountability journey alone, when we could be intervening to support them to recognise what they have done and meaningfully reform their behaviour.

“If we don’t create a culture where people do put their hand up and say, I think I caused harm' then we have failed.”

- Jennifer Llewellyn


The tension between restorative and punitive approaches
“There are a lot of activists, survivors, students and institutions that want punitive approaches and responses.”

- Melissa MacKay


MacKay used to work in the Human Rights and Equity Services area at Dalhousie University, and worked very closely with MacIsaac and his team in Security Services every day. She spoke about how these areas of the university uniquely collaborate in positive ways by taking a principled approach to reduce harm on campus. When she was in this role, she was responsible for developing the university’s sexual violence policies - and it was during this time that the clear tension between students wanting punitive responses, rather than restorative approaches to addressing harm, came to light.


This tension between restorative approaches and the desires of many students, activists, victim-survivors and administrators is also clear in Australia. So much so that in my experience developing our training module for student leaders on Responding to Disclosures of Sexual Violence (Alleged Perpetrators), we received questions as to why we were promoting people to talk to perpetrators of violence in the first place. However, preventing sexual violence and creating sustainable positive change it is a lot more complex than only punishing perpetrators. Our training helps student leaders to safely respond to disclosures from people who may have perpetrated sexual violence and discuss the importance of accountability and recognition of harm caused. Having these discussions is actively rejecting the myth that people we know would never perpetrate sexual violence and only outcasts do that. The issue isn't necessarily the restorative practice, but is the way that administrators implement it in a harmful and colonial way (top-down exertion of power and control over the process) that is not best practice, and therefore unsafe.


While I agree that punitive elements in addressing on-campus sexual violence are absolutely necessary, I also believe that there is a spectrum of violence and harm, and that there should be a range of options. Having restorative approaches is inherently decolonial within a colonial system and helps to build an inclusive community where everyone is valued, connected and engaged.


A Human-Centred Approach to Security on Campus

Restorative practice is a relational way of working. MacIsaac and his team learn about what students need and want, and then seek to make services more coordinated and focused on these needs.

“We’ve been moving slowly to remove the silos.”

- Jake MacIsaac


MacIsaac spoke about his perspective working in security services on campus and how his team takes a human-centred approach. They seek to foster human connections between people and the campus community, and restore choice and autonomy to the people they support. They work to understand what people need each day and focus on those needs, rather than asking people to retell their story (i.e. a sole focus on reporting). They also try to take that human-centred approach with respondents (perpetrators of violence) and don't paint them as monsters. While these are hard conversations to have when promoting accountability and taking measures to keep victim-survivors and the community safe, it can be done in a way that still treats respondents as a whole-person.


I asked Llewellyn, MacKay and MacIsaac about their perspective on student leaders and supporters wanting to seek justice when they find out about an instance of sexual violence in their community. This is because I have witnessed student leaders seek to reprimand peers who have perpetrated violence, even if that is not what the victim-survivor wants (usually when the perpetrator is in a student leadership position and holds a position of power). This tension between being survivor-centred, but also being a leader seeking to set a no-tolerance culture, has been something that is particularly prevalent (in my experience) within student accommodation settings.


Llewellyn, MacKay and MacIsaac spoke about how there is a lot of pressure and responsibility on the shoulders of student leaders that can lead to this sort of scenario occurring. Their advice was for these student leaders to focus on creating that community of care and support so that they are focusing on the unmet needs of their peers, without interfering in a victim-survivor's choices about the person who harmed them.


Students bear the brunt of the impact of the lack of action by institutions to address sexual violence meaningfully. This often leaves students feeling like they cannot do anything except stand up and yell because people are being hurt and the institution isn't doing anything about it. However, it is this collective action that has been the main catalyst for change across Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia. This is why my Churchill Fellowship research is dedicated to bringing these activists to the fore and connecting us to continue to build an international social movement to hold universities accountable, everywhere.

“Making connections across the silos can bring better community support in the way we care for each other.”

- Dr Holly Northam


Camille and Holly sitting smiling in front of a sign that reads: 'Restorative Research, Innovation and Education Lab'.
Left to right: Camille Schloeffel and Dr Holly Northam OAM
Camille and Lyndsay smiling in front of a picture frame with a poster that reads: 'You are not alone. Sexualized Violence Policy'.
Left to right: Camille Schloeffel and Lyndsay Anderson

Human Rights and Equity Services

“If you get enough students protesting for change then something will happen.”

The next day I was able to speak with Lyndsay Anderson, the Sexualised Violence Advisor, which is a role that sits within the Office for Equity and Inclusion at Dalhousie University. In this role, Anderson oversees sexual violence prevention and response for faculty, staff and students. She also implements their Sexualised Violence Policy in working with victim-survivors and respondents through a reporting process.


The sexual violence office includes Anderson and two student positions, which are funded through the province of Nova Scotia. This funding is linked to a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the provincial government of Nova Scotia and its ten universities. Within this MOU, the government has a pot of funding for prevention work that universities can apply for. In Dalhousie University's case, this also includes funding for them to hire students to lead the facilitation of their bystander intervention training program, Waves of Change.

“I make myself available. It’s a personal practice and principle of mine to be available to students.”

While Anderson can't be an activist in her role, she certainly advocates for the rights of victim-survivors on campus and uplifts others who are activists themselves. I personally found it extremely powerful for someone in her position to speak openly about how she wants to hear what is not working and collaborate with students to make positive changes on campus. The way that Anderson makes herself open to speak to students and activists, and how she feels like she benefits from their activism, is starkly different to my experience with university leaders as a student activist in Australia.


Anderson specifically referenced the OurTurn National Action Plan and how their scorecardsystem comparing university responses to sexual violence helped Dalhousie University improve. This leveraging of activist reports calling out Dalhousie University has turned out to be a catalyst for change within the university community.

“We are talking about how to provide information to people who perpetrate harm to not doing it again and to understand their actions.”

I asked Anderson about her perspective on addressing people who use violence following my discussions at RRIELab. She reaffirmed many of the views of Llewellyn, MacKay and MacIsaac. In her role she is focussed on looking at the harm caused and providing options to address this, rather than solely punitive outcomes. For example, the reporting pathways include investigative options (civil) or non-investigative options (restorative justice). This language of ‘non-investigative’ rather than the more common phrase of alternative helps to legitimise restorative justice as an equally valid option to a civil process.


Other ways Anderson and her colleagues are addressing sexual violence on campus is through their new program, Man|Made, which is a five-week psycho-educational group for male students that provides weekly facilitated conversation and peer modelling around healthy masculinity and sexuality. This new initiative is also alongside a new role for a respondent (perpetrator) advisor to be hired so they can have a specific person who is responsible for working with respondents and leading prevention and intervention initiatives to promote accountability and prevent future harm.


I learned so much during my visit to Dalhousie University, especially about how to promote accountability, build restorative communities and reduce harm. We are particularly behind in the Australian university sector in embedding restorative justice approaches on campus. There must be more investment in specific prevention, intervention and response programs targeted towards men and perpetrators of violence, and more meaningful efforts to change behaviour rather than turning the other way. Because universities are so reluctant to these sorts of programs, it is worth exploring the options for Australian governments to establish pools of funding to support new initiatives. Unfortunately, it is unlikely that many universities will fund these initiatives themselves, meaning governments also have a role to play in changing the misogynistic culture that exists across campus communities.


In solidarity,

Camille Schloeffel


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