Restorative Practices and Literature: An Interview with Lehigh Ph.D. Candidate Sarah Heidebrink-Bruno

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Lehigh Culture & Community / Literature & Social Justice / Teaching


Editorial Note: In my original questions, I conflated the terms “restorative justice” and “restorative practices,” which Sarah clarified for me in her responses. Many thanks to Sarah for educating me on these distinctions.

Where did you first hear of Restorative Justice?

I first found out about RJ when doing research for a seminar paper a few years ago. I happened to stumble upon the website for the International Institute for Restorative Practices, a local organization that trains facilitators in RP.

What exactly is Restorative Justice and Restorative Practices?

Restorative justice is a more holistic alternative to punitive justice within the criminal justice system. Restorative practices, which I use in my work, are an offshoot of restorative justice. In other words, restorative justice is a guiding theory and restorative practices are strategies that we can use to bring about a more just environment. Restorative practices are used to create more open dialogue, build empathy, and encourage accountability.

In what contexts are these frameworks and strategies most helpful for use?

When a harm occurs, we typically think of justice as punishing the offender, but restorative justice asks us to think more holistically about what happened, who was impacted in the community, what they are thinking and feeling, and what needs to be done to make the situation better. When used in criminal cases, it is a way to create a dialogue between the offender and the victim, so the victim has a space to give voice to their experiences and the offender must listen to the impact of his or her actions, and hopefully build empathy with the victim and take responsibility for his or her actions. It can still be paired with punitive measures (fines, jail time, etc.), but it offers a model that allows the community to respond to a trauma and heal together.

Are there any limitations or problems within these models?

Yes, as with all models, RP have their limitations. Firstly, to have a restorative practices-informed conversation, all parties need to consent/ want to be involved. This can be hard for both victims and offenders, because victims might not be at the point in their healing process where they are ready to discuss their experiences, and offenders can often find it difficult to listen to the impact of their actions and take responsibility for the harm they caused. Moreover, with RP, the victim’s and offender’s communities are also involved, so they must also consent to participating in the agreed-upon structure.

How do RJ/RP play into your dissertation and body of research?

My dissertation research focuses on intersectional feminism and restorative practices in key feminist texts from the Women’s Movement. I’m specifically exploring Alice Walker’s The Color Purple and Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time as two aesthetic models for reimagining justice in communities.

Whereas feminist literary critics inspire us to think about how texts impact our social and political relationships on a global level, restorative practices compel us to think about how our interactions can create more equitable relationships on a more localized level.

Restorative practices further encourage us to think about how our choices have affected others, so that we take greater accountability for our actions and learn how to respond more thoughtfully in the future. Therefore, my dissertation project offers readings of key literary texts to show how educators can use restorative practices, informed by intersectional feminist literary theory, to create an intentional, dialogical space that brings a group of people together to discuss the harm caused by an injustice, determine how they might repair the injury, heal the community, and proactively create a more productive future together.

How does literature encourage RJ/RP?

Literature provides a model for us to read and respond to when imagining what justice could look like and how we might build a more equitable community. In other words, literature provides creative fodder for thinking through the implications of transformative justice.

How do you see these approaches fitting into the department’s focus on Literature and Social Justice?

I think restorative practices dovetails perfectly with our focus on LSJ, because it provides a tool kit for thinking through and enacting justice.

How did it feel to lead a workshop on these ideas at the Literature and Social Justice conference?

It was great! I was so pleased and honored that people trusted me and were interested enough in the work that I am doing to attend a workshop at the LSJ conference. I think it was a great learning opportunity, and it inspired me to want to go back to the IIRP to receive further training so I can continue to share this work with others.

What has surprised you about the these models?

Really, what surprised me the most was how simple, yet powerful, restorative practices are. Basically, they teach us how to listen and respond to others (lessons that we hope we all learn in childhood, I guess). I think it’s about reminding us how to be better people, and especially how to be better community members.

What’s a valuable takeaway you’ve received from your work with these practices?

To me, restorative practices are the perfect complement to intersectional feminist theory, as it gives us a way to turn theory into praxis. Both models emphasize the need for dialogue, active listening, empathy, and imagining a better future, while valuing our differences. It’s also just a great model for thinking through how we communicate with others, especially when a conflict arises.


*For more on Sarah’s work come to Wednesday’s at Drown on April 11th in Drown 210 at 4:10pm*


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