We All Deserve to Heal
A Closer Look Creative Mediation’s Restorative Dialogue Program
As a society, we are conditioned to believe that difficult conversations are too hard to have. That taking the time to share our individual perspectives with those that we might have hurt, or those who opinions matter most to us, are not worth the effort. However, with the help of Creative Mediation at Wilshire Community Services, those difficult conversations are no longer impossible. In the case of Creative Mediation’s Restorative Dialogue Program, the willing participants can find a way to connect, find forgiveness, and make things as right as possible for themselves, their loved ones, and those they have hurt.
We recently had the opportunity to discuss the program more with longtime Creative Mediation Volunteer, Alicia Lara, whose love for and dedication to the program has helped to relieve many burdens and supported many families through the most difficult conversations, and thereby empowered them to move forward and heal.
What is your background and how did you start volunteering with Creative Mediation?
I retired in 2014 from full-time work where I was a Human Resources director for a public agency. I was still interested in working part-time and opened a consulting business. At one point I had a client that I thought could benefit from mediation. I had previously been involved with Creative Mediation before, back in the 90s. I took the training then and I did some volunteering for a bit, but then full-time work and kids became too much so I stopped. I had been involved in their restorative justice services, so I was familiar with mediation. The reason why I sought to use mediators is because they are neutral third parties and I knew that, even though I’m neutral in human management, I felt it was beneficial for an outside mediator to still come in. I contacted Creative Mediation about that, and the conversation just went in a different direction. I signed up to take the Elements of Mediation training as well as the Advanced Mediation courses. That’s how I got restarted and I’ve been volunteering ever since and that was in 2016. They were looking for a steering committee to reestablish the Restorative Dialogue Program and that’s when they found out I did this before.
What is the Restorative Dialogue Program and who does the program aim to serve?
When a youth who comes into contact with law enforcement for committing an offense shows remorse for what they did and they want to make things as right as possible with the victim, whoever the victim might be, this dialogue process (called a restorative conference) can be a way to do that. First, the youth is referred to RDP by a probation department or sometimes a judge makes a referral. Then there is a vetting process that staff goes through with the youth to explain the program, ensure that they are sincere and that they really do want to make things as right as possible. Then a mediator will come in, with just a snapshot of information beforehand, and mediate with the youth, their family, and the victim if they are willing to mediate. There is a very structured dialogue process that we follow, and we ask very specific questions that have been developed over time—everyone gets asked those same questions. There are two phases to the process: the first is where the victim and youth meet with the mediator. Then in the second phase, we ask how to make things as right as possible and try to come to an agreement.
Another huge part of the process is to have dialogue with the youth’s family. What we find is often the family does not talk about what happened, how it happened, or why it happened; there are usually details that haven’t been shared. These parts of the process have been the most moving for me, just because they are really discovering that they can talk about hard things, like how the youth’s actions affected the family members, not just the parents but the siblings too, and what they have had to deal with because of what the youth did—they get to have that conversation. In my experience, the youth are always remorseful, and they always want to make it right. We provide a way for the family to have this conversation without immediately shutting down or defaulting to avoiding it or getting angry and pointing fingers. The way the questions are worded allow for the mediator to provide that space, guide the process, and keep it on track. The dialogue process centers on family forgiveness and focusing forward without having to carry what happened with them forever.
What are some of the questions like?
For the youth, we ask things like, “What happened?” “What were you thinking about at the time?” “What has happened since?” “Who has been affected by what happened and how?” And finally, “What needs to be done to make things right?”
To the victim, we ask things like, “What did you think about when you realized what happened?” “What impact has it had on you and others?” “What’s been the most difficult thing for you?” “What needs to happen to make things right?” “What needs and concerns do you have because of what happened?” “How did it affect you?” And lastly, “What ideas do you have about making things as right as possible?” The youth must agree to the last question, we always want to make sure that they’re comfortable with it beforehand.
These types of questions allow them to open up and share what their experiences were like from their own perspectives. Unlike regular mediations, where we ask certain questions based on how the conversation is going, this type of mediation stays very structured. It has been shown to be very effective for everybody involved because they are the right questions to ask. They keep everyone on track and prevent taking the conversation into an entirely different direction that may hurt the youth who is trying to make amends. It also feels safer for the victim to meet with the person who harmed them in such a structured, supported space. This specific process helps to separate the “deed from the doer”—the youth did a wrong thing, but their actions do not define them as a person. They have the power to make right choices moving forward.
What do the youth get out of the experience?
My observation has been that there’s a weight lifted off their shoulders. Sometimes they apologize; finding a way to make things right is really relieving for them because they know they’re mending as much as possible, they can’t change what they did, but they don’t need to keep wearing it and remembering what they did over and over again.
The victims are often very generous and forgiving and are agreeable to allowing the youth to make things right. I’ve seen victims offer work to the youth so that they can pay off the cost of what they did. It’s a real powerful experience. The youth can then move on with their life and not be defined by the offense. I give them kudos for being brave enough to go through the process and talk about it, because that is a hard thing to do. I’ve seen parents express surprise at certain things that were going on that they didn’t know, when they find out these other details, their perspective completely changes. Everybody that participates in it appreciates participating and clearing the air with one-another. From my perspective, people are grateful for the experience because you’re not really given that opportunity in any other situation. They get to tell their story and we offer them an opportunity to be listened to with empathy.
How does the work that we do at Creative Mediation fit within the larger scope of this work in the community?
The program is funded and supported by SLO County Probation. Services are for anyone 10-18 years old. One of the most important parts of restorative justice is when the youth gets to feel like they’re part of the community again. It’s a learning process for everyone and they get to learn that you can reach out and try to make things as right as possible. We all make mistakes. It’s a healing opportunity for the community and it takes the youth to be brave enough to go through the process, stay flexible, and open-minded. The more we can do this kind of work with youth, the more we reduce recidivism. We have all done something we regret and wish we hadn’t done, and we all deserve to be released of this burden, we all deserve to heal. I can’t speak highly enough of the youth that are willing to go through with the experience.
There was this one instance, where the mother of a youth we were working with found out something about the night of the offense, which she had no idea about because the youth hadn’t shared with her, and it completely changed her perspective on how her son was in the situation he was in and what happened. It appeared very healing and eye-opening for both. The tough stuff brings people closer, it’s really special, opening your mind to new perspectives.
How have these services evolved or changed during COVID-19?
Well, we had to switch to Zoom, just like everyone else. As mediators, we were all nervous about the shift because so much of mediation and communication isn’t words, it’s body language and subtle movements, feeling the energy, reading the room. We weren’t sure how we were going to do that over Zoom, but it’s worked. It’s convenient for people because they don’t have to leave their house. They’re in a safe space already, and we try to make the Zoom room feel safe so that they’re more comfortable. It seems that those who have participated in it have gotten something out of it. It’s different, but the pauses and the hesitancies also send a lot of messages too. Sometimes the youth and their families share a device because they only have one, and we ask for privacy for when we want to speak to one at a time. Everyone seems to honor that, and it seems to work.
Do you have a favorite memory that you care to share?
It never ceases to amaze me when people share their love with one another. One of my favorite things I hear from the teens is that they want to spend more time with their families or parents and do more fun things, whether that’s watching a movie, or going to a picnic, or to the beach, or taking a walk. I think the parents don’t really know beforehand how much their kids want one-on-one time with them. That has been an eye-opener for everyone, but it keeps happening repeatedly. I think that is a reminder for me as to how busy we are and how much we forget. Teens are going through so much and they tend to withdraw, and you just don’t know how to talk to them. I think parents who choose to go to parenting classes are brave. I’m always an advocate for teaching parenting skills starting in kindergarten! I’m amazed that they can find the time and motivation to do it. I didn’t go to parenting class, and I wish that I had because I could have been a better parent.
I have a vivid memory of one youth who was maybe 11 or 12 years old, and for the first time in his life, during this mediation, the mother told him that she loved him. It was heavy. She admitted that he reminded her so much of his father, who she wasn’t with, that it was difficult for her to see who her son was. I’ll always remember that one, but there are others that have been special. It’s just beautiful to see them focus on the family part—they’re struggling, but they’re trying. Looking to determine what they need when they’re not having a good day helps timing of conversations. It might be some of the first instances of where the youth’s wants and needs are ever addressed. They feel a little bit more empowered. We’re there to support the families in finding a way to connect and relate to each other better.
Is there anything else you’d like to share that we haven’t talked about already?
The staff at Creative Mediation are so amazing. I think that’s why I’m still there. They are so supportive, and they treat one another with so much respect. They know each other’s intricacies and they find a way to work together. Everybody is just very gracious to one another. They are the glue that holds everything together. We have some tough mediations, and we get to debrief each of them with staff if need be; they help us by walking us through some self-care stuff. They have allowed us to tell them what we need as mediators and help develop the program with them. At the beginning of the pandemic, they were hosting regular meetings just to talk and check-in with them which was helpful especially when no one really knew what was going on. It’s a real special group of people.
When they say “creative mediation” the creative part is real! What they’re doing is they’re staying flexible to the needs of the community; they’re keeping an eye on what’s happening and are trying to be responsive to those needs. The programs have expanded to meet those needs of schools and other organizations.
Thank you Alicia for your time and dedication to Creative Mediation’s Restorative Dialogue Program and the individuals and families it serves! To learn more about Creative Mediation, visit our website at https://www.creativemediation.org/ or call (805) 549-0442 x 2219.