Leuven, Belgium, October 2020 – A group of Leuven’s (Belgium) urban security stakeholders – staff of various municipal departments, local police officers, local mediators, representatives of youth associations as well as members of Leuven Restorative City, a network of organisations promoting restorative practices to deal with conflicts –, took part in a training session on polarisation and restorative practices, on 30 September.
This was the first stage of the city’s BRIDGE pilot project due to be implemented in the coming months with the objective of locally preventing polarisation in a sustainable manner.
Interventions by the Mayor of Leuven and the expert Tim Chapman
The session was introduced by Leuven’s Mayor, Mohamed Ridouani, who expressed his interest in the work to be carried out by the municipality to design and implement the BRIDGE pilot project. It is to be noted that Leuven was recently named 2020 European Capital of Innovation for its “innovative solutions to social challenges that engage and empower its citizens.”
Afterwards, BRIDGE expert Tim Chapman, who is chair of the European Forum for Restorative Justice and a reputed scholar specialised in restorative practices, explained why these are a good way to deal with polarisation.
“Polarisation is based on the idea that the other person or community is the problem, and that ‘the other’ is a threat. This leads to fear and a disconnect with the local society. Polarisation does cause harm and suffering,” he said.
Using restorative practices to heal polarisation
Restorative justice is a process through which perpetrators and victims – whether individuals or groups – enter a dialogue to “deal with the aftermath of an offence and its implication for the future”. Tim Chapman explained that three elements are at play in such a process, which must be participative and inclusive: 1) undo injustice, 2) build just relations and 3) sustain just relations.
One way to achieve this is to work with the ‘community circle’ model. Based on voluntary participation, it includes the victim and/or his/her family and friends as well as the perpetrator and/or his/her family and friends and is moderated by a ‘circle keeper’/’facilitator’. In sequences, all the participants can speak their truth but they can also remain silent if they wish.
A practical exercise in working in a multi-agency partnership
The session concluded with a practical exercise in which the trainees were tasked with designing a multi agency strategy to de-escalate a crisis situation based on a fictitious scenario. They had to describe their role, their resources and their working method, and had to name the key stakeholders with whom they would design a sustainable, long-term solution.
The aim of this exercise was multifold:
- to support the participants in better understanding the strengths and limits of their colleagues’ intervention;
- to promote collaborative work among different municipal services and with all the relevant stakeholders;
- to help participants better understand the role and point of view of other stakeholders involved in managing the crisis;
- to facilitate the sharing of different points of views and to build consensus on a common response.
The methodology and brainstorming exercise used for this session will be adapted for other BRIDGE training sessions, including those that will have to be held online because of the current Covid-19 restrictions.
 According to a standard definition of restorative justice (ref. Marshall, 1999).