A Northwestern student’s guide to living res...

A Northwestern student’s guide to living restoratively

How do we hold each other accountable without policing one another? These are the questions changemakers are tasked with when crafting a new society while still existing in America. Criminologist Howard Zehr, in a 2009 article, “10 ways to live restoratively,” lists antidotes to that struggle. He presents examples of restorative and transformative justice as ideological frameworks to mend harm and conflict outside of punishment and the state.

These frameworks are important for the Northwestern community. As we work to defund our campus police, we must begin to imagine together how we want accountability and harm reduction to function on our campus. Below, I talked to Northwestern community members about what these steps mean to them and how they practice them at NU.  

“Real community safety is not created by increasing criminalization. Different harms need different responses.”


Photo courtesy of NU Community Not Cops Twitter

1. Envision yourself and your relationships as part of a web

“Relationships have to matter,” said Soteria Reid, a senior in SESP. “They’re not transient and not transactional.” 

In order to live restoratively, you must focus your energy and time on relationships. Relationships are often transactional—we make connections so that we can receive something in the future. But viewing yourself as part of an interconnected web as opposed to an individual directly challenges this system. 

Practice at NU: Don’t view your peers as networking opportunities. Focus on building relationships to sustain one another through this time.

2. Be aware of the potential and actual impact of your actions

Often, we avoid accountability when we excuse it with good intentions. The guide “Intent vs Impact: The Seeds of Microaggressions” from Rogue Community Colleges distinguishes impact from intent as “what we mean” versus “how the message is received.” Often, intent is shrouded in our own privileges, and our impact becomes harmful. For example, when someone refers to Black people’s hair as “ethnic” or “exotic,” their intent may be to express admiration, but in reality, they are perpetuating the fetishization aspect of anti-Blackness.

Practice at NU: Take a self-awareness or self-identification workshop at Northwestern through Peer Inclusion Educators or Sexual Health and Assault Peer Educators (SHAPE). Or, read more about it in Readings for Diversity and Social Justice.

3. Acknowledge and seek to repair harm 

Reid laughed and said she had a lot to say about this subject. “To me, that means to act with honesty, integrity, and humility,” she said. “I think it emphasizes and highlights how important it is to value other people more than your own comfort.” Check out the comfort zone, learning edges, and danger zone toolkit at to chart your own comfort zones. 

Practice at NU: Participate in restorative dialogues, but remove yourself if your presence might be harmful. Try to avoid using the police or reporting systems to handle harmful situations like COVID violations, discrimination, or group disputes, and lean on your community to protect you. 

4. Treat everyone respectfully

Treating everyone respectfully, especially when they harm you, is a difficult task. When abolitionist Mariame Kaba spoke at Northwestern, she spoke about how the ability to forgive is radical: “Real community safety is not created by increasing criminalization. Different harms need different responses.” Kaba developed the transformative justice framework to advocate for and encourage forgiveness in the face of interpersonal harm, abuse, and violence without relying on the state. One example would be building community members’ skills to interrupt violence while it is happening.

Practice at NU: Check out NU Bystander Intervention training and practice calling folks into accountability. 

5. Involve stakeholders in decision-making 

The decision-making process can feel much like the myth of trying to get a seat at the table. What really matters is practicing ensuring equity throughout the decision-making process.

 “Determine who’s going to be affected by the decision you’re making and let them know what’s going on,” Reid says. “Do your best, with the best intentions, to make sure those who are going to be the most affected by these decisions are deeply involved in the process.”

Practice at NU: Do more than just having a Diversity and Inclusion chair. Make decision-making more accessible to people outside your exec boards. If possible, move to a more horizontal leadership structure— move away from hierarchical positions like executive boards and presidents and begin to share the load with all consenting group members. 

6. View harms in your life as opportunities

It seems counterintuitive for us to view potential traumas through a positive lens. To Mao, this frame resembles the “I hope you can get over this or let this go defense.” The wording here could use an update think of recovering from trauma as more of a moment of acknowledgement for the ability to move forward. 

“Don’t shy away from thinking about harm and process it. Try to experience times of strife and address it,” Reid said. 

Practice at NU: Find time to sit with yourself and process life experiences. Follow people at Northwestern like Zaria Howell (@earthmamaa) or Liz Curtis (@ccurtise), who practice radical care, mindfulness and healing. 

7. Listen deeply and compassionately to everyone—even those you disagree with

Rob Brown, the director at SJE and trained restorative dialogue moderator, especially resonated with this point.

”Listening to those we are in disagreement or conflict with compassionately is important to invite in divergent points of view that disrupt utopian and performative notions of inclusion,” he said.“Sometimes this notion is critiqued… but to reject carcerality is to acknowledge that there is value in all of us and no one is worthy of disposability.” 

Practice at NU: Try to listen in groups, relationships and even class to those speaking without thinking of a response ahead of time. Try going to CAPS events to enhance your listening and sharing abilities through being vulnerable. 

 8. Engage in difficult dialogues 

Eden Strong, a junior in the School of Comm, had questions about how we mitigate harm: “We all have to be on the same page and operating with similar core principles.” They continued, “So how do I go about and maintain an abolitionist lifestyle even when I’m engaging with people who don’t have my best interest at heart?”

How do we move forward from difficult dialogues? Honestly, we need to have the dialogues first to find out. Each conversation will go differently and we have to question, is the goal of these to mitigate harm or repair it?

Practice at NU: Participate in programs like Sustained Dialogue or Active Listening workshops with NU Listens. Practice just listening to those in your community without thinking of something to say in response while they speak. 

9. Don’t impose your “truths” on others 

“I think we are starting to see that with people reporting people for COVID stuff to people who are essentially police.” said SESP senior Eliza Gonring “And it’s because they wanna have complete control over another person’s actions. In a sense, that’s people imposing their truths and their views on to people. That’s why people default to ‘I’m going to hold people accountable—’ you can’t. You can tell people how they impacted you or others… you can’t force them into accountability, because then that’s not accountability.” 

Practice at NU: Check in with folks on all sides of a conflict, not just yours, in order to proceed in a way that’s healing for everyone. Use the community as support, call on folks who are willing to shut down COVID violations as opposed to the police.

10.  Sensitively confront everyday injustices

White supremacy, the patriarchy, classism, and all other forms of oppression (sizeism, ableism, nationalism, transphobia, heterosexism, etc) are pervasive systemic inequities. Identity and power dynamics determine what folks need for healing to proceed. Understanding how these dynamics cause harm brings us one step close to liberation from the categories society forces us into.

Practice at NU: Support groups like NU Community Not Cops Fossil Free NU NU Abolition, Students Organizing for Labor Rights Northwestern Graduate Workers and  NU Dissenters, as well as groups working for liberation in Evanston and Chicago.

It’s more than venmoing for mutual aid (but continue to do this). We need learning that leads to action and community-building, and theory that leads to practice. Hopefully, this guide provided some steps that you can start taking towards a state-less, more restorative life.


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