1. Center Community & Healing

When we spoke with youth, educators, and parents about what restorative justice means to them, they told us it’s a “worldview,” “a way of being,” an entire approach to community that is “deeply entrenched” in the culture of a school. It’s a philosophical stance, envisioning a world where relationships are rooted in the understanding that we are all learning, growing, and healing alongside each other, in and out of conflict. Participants described restorative justice as a holistic approach to community care and healing that builds upon a foundation of relationships, shared values, mutual support, and key practices. Or in Bianca’s words, “It’s unconditional love,” a sense of community belonging and responsibility that does not disappear in moments of conflict, harm, or community struggle. (Read more about how the On Our Terms team thinks about and defines restorative justice.)


As a society, we tend to put the spotlight on the “wrong-doer” when harm and conflict occur, investing our time and energy into punishing that person and removing them from our communities. Rarely, if at all, do we ask people who have been harmed: “What would help you heal? What makes you feel supported? What might help you feel whole?” Restorative justice asks us to do just that, focusing on the healing needs of those harmed, and collectively addressing root causes of how and why such harm occurred in the first place. No one is disposable in this healing-centered approach, as restorative justice seeks to support everyone involved in moving through and healing from this experience: those harmed, those who have caused harm, and our broader communities.

Simply put, restorative justice is relational work. Students, educators, and parents emphasized the central role of strong relationships and supportive communities in restorative justice work specifically, and their school cultures as a whole. Relationship building with consistency and care creates the trust and comfort needed to try something new, speak openly, and believe that others have our best interests at heart. On the other hand, experiencing restorative practices, like community building circles, provides a structure to keep growing with each other in respectful, caring ways. (You can learn more about practical approaches to building relationships in Make Rituals & Relationships.)

It is these supportive, reliable relationships that make youth and adults feel like they can show up as our full, complicated, emotional selves, knowing we’ll be cared for and have a role to play in caring for others. For many we spoke to, this is the real transformative potential of restorative justice in our schools. As Nori R. put it, “How do we make space for our voices and our feelings to be heard and validated? And how do we honor where other people are at, and collaboratively move towards where we want to go?”

Listen to Community Voices

Hear from students, parents, and educators about why healing and relationships are central to building restorative school cultures.

Work through Contradictions

Vent Diagrams help us reflect on the challenges, complexities, and contradictions of doing this work, and figure out how we can keep moving forward. Here is one of the big tensions we heard from participants about centering healing and relationships in school.

left half of vent diagram, which is a venn diagram with nothing in the center, showing the tension between the two texts right half of vent diagram

School communities need healing

Schools aren’t designed with healing in mind

Talk with Your Community

What does this look like for you and the people in your life? Use the prompts below to explore ideas about healing and relationships with others in your school and communities, laying the groundwork for community understanding and making change. (Check out the Community Conversations Toolkit for downloadable guides for facilitating discussions about this project.)

Make It Happen

The young people, educators, and parents we spoke with shared incredible examples of how they are centering healing and relationships in their schools, as well as visions of the world we must keep fighting for… This is what restorative justice looks like, when it’s On Our Terms.

Build School Practice.

Here are specific ideas about how we can center healing and relationships within restorative justice and culture in schools.

  • Integrate restorative circles and other opportunities for relationship building, sharing personal experiences, and reflection throughout school life, including in classrooms, advisory, staff meetings, and community-wide events.
  • Create community-wide gatherings for reflection and celebration with students, their families, and staff, such as town halls, rallies, and family nights, with an emphasis on strengthening intergenerational bonds, storytelling, and sharing hopes and ideas for the future of the school.
  • Ensure administrators support staff through regular meetings that focus on the changing needs of teaching and support staff. If an administration is able to hold the needs of their staff, it increases capacity for staff to hold the needs of their students.

Nori R. (she/her), school staff: “Every student was expected to lead [a community building circle] at least once before they graduated and so that was scary for some students, but they eventually did it with the support of even their peers. And so… how do you put them in that leadership role with support but also provide them with feedback, right?… I think of that space as a place where we not only built relationships with students but also students with one another. We empowered them [the students]. They were able to use their leadership skills [to lead community building circles]. And it was a space of joy, but also a place where, when there was community wide harm… we could address it in what I like to think of as a safe environment. Students were like, ‘Oh man, our school’s really struggling with this,’ like if there was a fight up the block, away from school, we’ll be like, ‘What happened yesterday? Let’s have a community discussion.’ And students will come up and open up to and even call each other out. So it wasn’t led by the adults right, as like ‘You did this,’ but students were kind of like, ‘We need to protect our community’.”

Demand Policy Change.

Here are some key policies needed to better support our schools in centering healing and relationships within restorative justice and school culture.

  • Ensure that restorative justice training offers a holistic, intersectional approach for school culture, not just as an “alternative to suspension.” Specifically, it should: emphasize the role of community building and prevention; integrate an anti-oppression and anti-racist lens about the origins of restorative justice and its use in schools; and, interrogate power dynamics within schools that may pose barriers to building restorative school cultures (e.g., adult – student hierarchy)
  • Provide and fund restorative justice training for all DOE staff, as well as student and parent leaders in school communities and in citywide positions, including intergenerational training experiences.
  • Allocate specific time and funding to support community-building and healing practices and programs in schools (e.g., expand advisory to all schools, discretionary funding for community events, adult- and peer-led mentorship programs, discretionary funds to provide key support after incidents of harm).