fbpx

Adding Voice Upstream

Chris Fitz
Executive Director, Community Engagement

I was on a family hike with my wife and kids a few weeks ago. We descended a wooded trail into a beautiful glen, hearing the ever-louder creek and its gushing current below. But reaching the bottom, we found human-made trash strewn on the bushes and trees around us. Broken boards, twisted roofing, television sets, and yes, even a kitchen sink. A flood had literally scattered the contents of homes more than a mile downstream. We were struck sober and dumbfounded from the imprint of nature’s violence months later.

At Advoz, we see the impact of another kind of violence scattered downstream. Violations in schools and around our community end up at our doorstep months after they occur, often leaving behind a traumatic imprint on those involved, directly or indirectly.  And the “cleanup,” like at our creek-side trail, is a lot more difficult and costly after the flood has spread its damaged goods for miles downstream.

One of Advoz’s founders, Lorraine Stutzman-Amstutz, recounts a formative story in which she was asked to mediate with two boys who tried to fight at their school. They had been immediately suspended when the administration learned of their plot.

“What have you learned?” Lorraine asked.

“Not to fight in school,” one of the boys said. They admitted to planning another fight, but this time, out of school.

Lorraine then asked them why they wanted to fight in the first place. As it turned out, there had been a genuine misunderstanding. The disrespect that one of the boys had heard was false. In fact, the younger boy had looked up to the older. The ice was broken. And the two agreed to sit beside each other for a week at lunch and send the message to their friends that the fight was off, saving face and making peace at once.

As the two were leaving the room in a lighter mood, one stopped at the door, turned to Lorraine and asked, “hey, how come we didn’t see you before we got suspended?”

That’s a question we are increasingly asking ourselves and our partners, especially in area schools. What preventative, responsive and restorative actions are we taking before reacting with isolation, punishment and shaming?

“How come we didn’t see you before we got suspended?”

Youth after restorative dialogue in their school

Approximately 1/3 of Advoz’s restorative dialogue cases originate from area schools. Because of time delays, many participants from these incidents refuse to participate in a restorative process. Our downstream vantage position often fails to serve those involved in the original violation. Both schools and those challenged in their system always have a fresh stream of crises to keep them busy. With increasing social isolation and tech-related dysfunctional responses to conflict amongst our youth, a new vantage point is needed to help face the inevitable floods our communities face.

One recent case we facilitated illustrates the challenge and the promise. A sophomore with special needs becomes agitated in class, lashing out and pushing her teacher. She is charged with simple assault and leaves the school district. More than a year later, Advoz sees the case. Much has happened, but the student and teacher have never gotten a chance to address the incident directly. Both agree to a restorative dialogue which happens outside of the school. And the student, now a junior, her family and the teacher emerge with a sense of closure.

“We had a clear path forward. At the end, there was closure, a sense of healing,” the teacher recounted.

The teacher, who is also a coach at the high school, is talking with Advoz about how we can work more closely with his school.

“We can use more restorative justice. Advoz plays an important independent role, different from our school or law enforcement.”

The nationwide epidemic of school threats and shootings, has woken public attention to the need for preventative work. But this violence is symptomatic. In 2017, 28% of Lancaster County students, grades 6-12, reported being bullied in the past year, up 50% from 2015, according to the state PAYS survey. Clearly a more holistic approach is needed to work upstream and build a culture of peace in our schools and community.

In conversations with school officials, we often hear from staff overwhelmed with lacking time, energy or money for intentional work to improve school culture. Meanwhile, others downstream—in police, courts and prisons—face the impact of violence and trauma downstream with a limited toolset that often isolates and shames those involved. They too benefit from complimentary, restorative approaches.

Just two years into its merged work, Advoz has worked with more than 900 people in restorative dialogue, mediation and training. All that has been accomplished with support from many of our visionary readers who value the unique role Advoz plays in healing the harm of violence and preventing it.

Last year Lancaster County spent $68 million on public safety and court-related expenses. As our annual report attests this year, we have offered a transformative, complimentary alternative to the services around us, all for a tiny fraction of that cost. And we’re not sitting passively, waiting for the next incident. Here’s how our programs work together:

1. Downstream: Restorative Justice enables people to find healing from harm and make things right after an offense.

2. Midstream: Mediation invites participants to resolve active disputes as they emerge.

3. Upstream: Training equips people and institutions who are often using our other services with skills and forms for handling conflict and discipline before it washes downstream.

Advoz has extensive history working downstream. Continued satisfaction surveys show that people experience healing, relief and empowerment in restorative justice and mediation. Just last month, we received a note with a donation from an anonymous participant (below).

  Our upstream training and educational work is just as rewarding, but more challenging to sustain. Yet, existing relationships with courts and schools situate Advoz ideally to address those underlying needs with training education. 

“Advoz” is a name derived from Latin and Spanish, meaning “adding voice.” The merger of mediation and restorative justice programs has empowered us to look beyond the crises that come our way each week and ask, how can we add voices to the equation that keep this from happening to the next youth? The next victim? The next family?

As a member of Advoz’s network, we invite you to add your voice upstream with us. Here are a few ways:

1. Think about your school, business, congregation or other group to consider how Advoz could help build a restorative culture of peace there, and give us a call to discuss training ideas;

2. Might you have training skills that you could offer to our community? If so, we’d love to hear from you. Go to www.advoz.org/volunteer to let us know of your interest to help;

3. Make a monthly donation to Advoz online at Advoz.org —> Donate or with your billpay system. There may be ways to multiply your impact like a company donation matching program, minimum IRA distribution or naming Advoz in your will or estate plan.

Peacebuilding scholar-practitioner John Paul Lederach suggests that “Voice” equals “power” + “meaning.” Like my family’s excursion on the flooded trail, we can all meaningfully participate, picking up the downstream items we find or walking upstream. But no matter how you contribute to Advoz’s work, you are meaningfully empowering untold hundreds more in our community.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *