Centering ourselves in community: Is it time for ombuds to embrace restorative approaches to our work?

By Ryan Smith
Assistant University Ombudsperson, Michigan State University

I started jotting down some notes for this post a few months ago, before the world was turned upside down. The changes and disruptions brought about by COVID 19, the murder of George Floyd, the subsequent protests, and debate around police reform have fundamentally changed the society in which we live. Many of us are waking up to a reality that others among us have been aware of for quite some time, that the old ways of doing things are often rooted in systems of oppression and inequality, and now is the time to reconsider what, how, and why we do many things that we have likely taken for granted. While the public debate around policing continues, we also need to look inward and consider the roles that we as ombuds play in our communities and organizations.

When I tell people that I am an ombuds, this is almost always followed by a puzzled expression and the question “what’s that?” My short answer to this question is that an organizational ombuds helps people navigate conflict with and within an organization. In beginning my post with this, I am providing a simple definition of our work. Conflict resolution work is complex and multifaceted, and ombudsmanry is just one way to approach it. One important constant, something that I must remind myself regularly in my work, is that the overriding value in conflict resolution work is in relationships and human connection. If these things weren’t important to us, we would have no need for conflict resolution work. Human relationships and connections, then, are essentially at the heart of the work we do.

Like conflict resolution work, an examination of restorative practices can quickly lead one to realize its complexity. There are many ways for restorative practices to manifest, although many people are at least familiar with the concept of restorative justice. Typically, when someone causes harm to another person or group of people, traditional western notions of justice would have us consider what rules or laws were broken, and then work to identify an appropriate punishment. Restorative justice, on the other hand, leads us to consider the harm that was caused by our actions, and find ways to repair it. Harm and wrongdoing are viewed in the context of the needs of victims, the obligations of wrongdoers, and of our relationships with one another. Zoom out from this, and one can consider restorative practices broadly, which may or may not be in reaction to harm or wrongdoing. Circle processes can include peacemaking or decision making circles allowing participants to engage with one another in authentic ways. These processes can be focused on decisions or actions that have or will impact a community or its members.

So what does this mean for ombuds? If our role is to help people in navigating conflict with and within an organization, our role is to help people navigate relationships, communication barriers, and power structures. I believe that restorative practices can help us with this. Restorative practices do not require us to engage in formal processes, or to lead restorative conferencing circles. They can, however, inform our approach and orientation to the work, and to shape how we engage with visitors and our community.

This will look different for everyone, but if you are interested in incorporating RP into your work as an ombuds, here are a few places to start:

  • Seek out training. An untrained facilitator of restorative practices, much like an untrained ombuds, can do more harm than good. There are many local and national organizations that you can connect with regarding training, and exposure to various processes and opportunities.
  • Identify your needs. How would you implement restorative practices within your organization? Do you currently facilitate group conversations? Do you mediate in your role? These are good places to start when thinking about how and where to incorporate restorative practices.
  • Identify your partners. Is anyone within your organization currently utilizing restorative practices? Is there room for collaboration? Can you make referrals?
  • Figure out how to incorporate restorative practices while considering the role and scope of your office, as well as the culture of your organization. For some ombuds, facilitating a circle process may be a natural fit, whereas it may not work for others.
  • Understand the roots of restorative practice and stay true to its principles. These are practices that are easily coopted or mislabeled. If you are centering your practice in these principles, make sure you are doing it appropriately. Additionally, it is important to note that restorative practices are not new, and cultures have used these systems for centuries. Work to understand where they came from, and how your own identity interacts with them.

While we all approach our work differently, what unites us are the standards of practice through which we do it. I hope how you can see how the fundamentals of an ombuds role can be strengthened by restorative practices. As we continue to reflect and look inward as individuals and organizations, let’s consider how we can help to build new systems and structures based upon shared humanity, relationships, and connections.

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