Updated: May 20, 2021
Personal reflections from Leontia McKenna
It is almost reaching a year since I took on the new and exciting task of STARS project lead. This was a completely new role to me, prior to this I worked as the Outer West Family Support Hub Coordinator. The family support hub was a project I had also lead and developed within Community Restorative Justice Ireland. I still find I haven’t been able to entirely step back from the project; currently I am still acting as co-chair and remain involved in the delivery of this vital family service. I know the project inside out, developed the community mapping resources and grew CRJI’s core and associate membership in the early days of the family hub work. The project is now being further developed and coordinated by Nicola who I’m sure will bring her own unique talent to this well used and important family service.
Transitioning to the Striving To Achieve Restorative Societies, The STARS project has been a huge leap and an entirely new experience, one which I have thrived on, both my raising awareness of restorative practices and its application in the community to supporting participants to lay restorative foundations and assisting with the delivery and design of training. There is a saying by John Assaraf, “A comfort zone is a beautiful place, but nothing ever grows there”.
For me, this year, this could not be more accurate, I have always been aware of the power and benefit of restorative work, it would be impossible not to, my father and family were huge advocates of the approach. However, I have found that STARS has afforded me the opportunity to become more reflective, aspects of the introductory training looks at crime and the local community and how it is addressed and how responses to this have changed over time.
Thoughts of the past
In my days growing up in West Belfast (for reference I am a proud Andersonstown woman, the community’s response to crime and wrong doings was largely influenced by the presence of our recent conflict. The criminal justice system was seen as a participant in this conflict and the police as the state enforcers. Our community looked inward to republican armed groups to deal with crime and other such matters. This created effectively a formal and informal system of justice and something that has left a huge legacy in terms of violent attitudes to dealing with crime in the community. Dealing with this context was the rational for developing restorative responses that would make interventions based on non - violent techniques. Part of this was also trying to heal the hurt that existed in my community from the brutality that is conflict; in the first instance violence damages people.
When I look back, in many ways as a community we were ignorant to trauma, ACEs (adverse childhood experiences) was not on our radar, now with the knowledge and information we have now, it is clear that how this violent response led to trauma, community exclusion, escalation and was not an empowering experiences for anyone affected or involved nor did it address any of the underlying issues, such as the poverty, deprivation, lack of investment or social capital in the area, etc.
Through my work on the STARS project I became more aware of the underpinning practices, frameworks and key themes around restorative practices, such as the labelling theory, the role of shame, the restorative lens.
Having just read about the recent death of a young West Belfast man due to drugs, this has spurred me to write this blog post, something that I have been procrastinating about for quite some time.
STARS and personal events
Shame! It’s such an emotive word, it’s powerful, complex and in many cases toxic.
I speak from experience, for when I talk about how trauma is evident in our community post legacy, few are immune from this.
In 2015 I received a phone call to inform me that a son of a close family friend, a child, just 14 years old, had started running with a “bad crowd”, taking drugs, getting into trouble with the Police and was becoming “known” in the community. Approximately a year later a relative approached me to tell me that they were a heroin user and had hid it from the entire family and wanted to reach out for support. This is for me where the real response is at, restorative practice allowed me the framework, values and principles to apply in a real life issue.
For me, 2020 could have been the most difficult year yet as we grow to understand the long-term impact of trauma. A close family member took their own life due to an ongoing battle with mental health illness. This brought mental health issues right to the fore. Three months later another relative was found dead, in his early twenties, he had also been battling his own personal demons and addictions for a number of years.
This is just an example of the losses experienced by me, and how my family have been affected. However I know this is a much wider issue within my community, we alone are not the only ones impacted. I am deeply heartbroken and saddened by the above events, but I am not ashamed by these, in many ways I am still trying to come to terms with what has happened, my restorative experience kicking in again, always try to start with “what has happened”.
I worry that for many there is a shame attached, whether it is addiction, drugs or mental health and that shame can often prevent people from speaking about their experiences, seeking support, helping each other through these dark times.
My restorative training has helped me a lot in reframing my thoughts and challenging my own perceptions of shame and to eventually share my personal experiences with others. I believe that we all have a moral obligation to collectively support everyone in our community, particularly those who are vulnerable and at risk.
I encourage people to do whatever is within their power whether that is reaching out for help and support, lobbying politicians, holding statutory services to account, or speaking out against the criminal gangs exploiting and harming our communities. We need to be a restorative community, this means creating a safe and supportive non-judgemental environment, which promotes accountability and empowerment, so that we can address individuals needs in a way which will not cause any further harm, helps build resilience and connection.
There is an African proverb which roughly translates as “it takes a village to raise a child”, so I say come on village, cherish, support, love, our young people and community members, show them they belong in our community, that they are connected and where we can help and nourish them.