Recognizing Community, Recognizing Its Members

By Bill Boyle

October 27, 2015

One of the more promising antidotes to the alienated individualism of the “ethic of achievement” in schools lies in the use of Restorative Practices.  As I’ve written previously,

“We tend to look at schools through the ethic of achievement. Students’ purpose is to achieve success, and this success is measured by grades and test scores. Part of the hidden curriculum in this view is that students are valued in accordance to their level of achievement. This valuing is not overt, but it is nonetheless real. And achievement becomes the means to garnering future economic success. This, again , reinforces a privatized view of student as consumer, and sees the purpose of schools as being the production of economic achievers and consumers.”

The theory underlying Restorative Practices, on the other hand, is based on the use of the lens of community rather than the competitive lens of achievement as the view through which we see our relationships in school. This theory understands that the root of learning is the same as the foundation for being human- that is, that belonging trumps everything. That this sense of belonging is a fundamental necessity in learning. If I feel that I belong, that who I am matters and is honored, then I will engage as a responsible member of this community. Education, in this view, is not about the individual success that leads to greater “status” and an increased income and ability to consume. Such “success” functions to create the illusion of independence and thus distances us from the necessity of the context of community. Rather, Restorative Practices correctly imagine students as being dependent upon the nexus of relationships that occur within the context of school. It imagines that, rather than being a pathway out of community and abstracted from place, the purpose of education is to build and strengthen the social capital of community. These practices recognize and leverage the necessity of our interdependence with the people involved in our community, and thus require us to learn the skills needed to function within the communities we live within.

And all of this is crucially important.

But it doesn’t address what we mean by “community.” And a definition of “community” that isn’t explicitly broad will end up reducing community to being defined as people.

So join me in thinking this through a little.

If we define community as a nexus of interdependent relationships, that is, those relationships that we are dependent on for thriving, then community certainly includes, but is not limited to, the human. In addition to the people we are connected, knowingly or not, we are also clearly dependent on, among other things, the air we breathe, the water we drink and the soil we grow our food in. I don’t think I need to point out that currently our dominant culture commodifies these “members” of our community in a way that obscures our dependence on them.

And how is this working for us?

Let’s explore a local example. The governor of Michigan has appointed an emergency manager to the city of Flint.  This move, and the law that allows for it, eradicates community participation under democratic elections and replaces it with an autocracy that prioritizes the value of economic efficiency over all other values. As a result, one decision that the emergency manager of Flint made was to save money by no longer getting quality water from the Detroit Water and Sewage Department, but instead to pump it from the local and polluted Flint River as a means of saving money.

The result?

As told by the Detroit Free Press:

“Mona Hanna-Attisha, a researcher at Flint’s Hurley Medical Center, analyzed blood-lead level information collected as part of a routine screening process, and found that the percentage of Flint children with elevated blood-lead levels has increased significantly since the city started pumping water from the Flint River in April 2014. In some ZIP codes — those considered most at-risk — the percentage of kids affected by lead has doubled.”

And how much lead is safe in children?

“The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that there is no safe blood-lead level for children. Lead poisoning causes a host of developmental and behavioral problems in exposed children. It is irreversible.”

A decision based on economics, one that was made outside of the bounds of community, has lead to the poisoning of Flint residents that has disproportionately affected its children.

Clearly, the adults of this community are dependent upon each other. Clearly, the children of this community are dependent upon the adults. And clearly, all are dependent upon the quality of their water. So each of these are important in the health of this community. Each of these need to have a voice that is heard.

The practice of community building and restoration always involves hearing the voice of the “Other”- those voices that would otherwise go unheard, unseen, that are marginalized sometimes in ways that we might be unaware of. So community building and restoration always involves seeing what we haven’t seen before, and hearing what we haven’t heard before. How, then, do we include the voice of the Other when the Other can’t speak? How do we include the Other when the Other isn’t human? Who, in this case, will speak for the Other?

The fact of the matter is that, when we are interdependent, the Other will always speak. The water in Flint is now speaking loud and clear.  It is speaking through its toxicity. It is making its needs clear in the symptoms that it creates, in the damage it is doing. Children who are marginalized in a school  speak through their misbehavior or disengagement. Poor water quality speaks through lead in the bodies of children. Poor air quality speaks through lung pollution. Poor soil speaks through drought and the addiction to chemical fertilization, which leads to poor water quality, which leads to poisoned children. The Other will always speak, and will always  scream for us to recognize our interdependence with it through symptoms that affect our health and the quality of our communal life.

So the issue isn’t the “speech” of the Other, but it is our ability to listen.

The first step is recognizing this interdependence.

The second is to listen for it.

Restorative Practices are a fairly new movement within schools, but they are not new. We look at them as progressive, and they are in our times, but they are actually based on the traditions of the indigenous Maori of New Zealand. As practices they go back to what has worked within community for thousands of years. In this sense they are deeply conservative. And conservative really means “to conserve” those things that “work.” (I put this in quotes because in our times, what “works” is often reduced to that which is economically expedient.)  The most “conservative” communities are always those indigenous to place. Their ways are the ways that necessarily “work” in accordance with place. If we are to live on what the Native Americans call Turtle Island and we have named America, we should probably look back to some of the traditions that have worked here for thousands of years. In fact, until relatively recently, most humans have necessarily acted with the awareness that we are always dependent upon the sources of our life that sustain us, the non human elements that make up our community. Chief Seattle famously put it this way:

Man did not weave the web of life, he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself.

All things share the same breath – the beast, the tree, the man… the air shares its spirit with all the life it supports.”

We used to recognize that all of the members of our community, human and non-human, are “sacred.” By this I don’t mean anything spiritual in a woo-woo way. I mean something much different, something very concrete, and, in the deepest sense, something very practical.  Parker Palmer said that the sacred is, “That which is most worthy of respect.” People, specific, concrete, living, breathing people, are most worthy of respect. The children we work with are most worthy of respect. The air we breathe is most worthy of respect. The water we drink is most worthy of respect. Anything that we are interconnected with is necessarily most worthy of respect. These are sacred. And one way or another, we always pay the cost for any disrespect. We always pay the price for treating the sacred as profane, for making a commodity of anything that is sacred.

How to live and work with this awareness?  How to teach with this awareness?

Again, how to include the voices of the ignored?

I wish I had all of the answers.

But there is little doubt in my mind that we need to begin to educate in a way that builds and restores a holistic view of community. We need to resist the commodification of our teachers and schools, of our children, of our earth. We need to develop the means and skills of combining Restorative Practices with a strong grounding in Ecojustice. This work is all of ours, just as the consequences for not doing so are consequences that we all will face.