Is Generative Conflict Possible?
In this episode, host Deepa Iyer speaks with restorative justice practitioner Yuko Uchikawa about conflict resolution, accountability, and healing in movements and organizations.
LEARN MORE ABOUT YUKO UCHIKAWA
Yuko brings over twenty years of experience providing trainings for communities and organizations to transform conflicts, understand secondary trauma, wellness, and self-care.
I see accountability as holding people responsible for what they’ve done, but with a lot of encouragement and support, so that it is not a negation, it is not a punishment… The way that our culture is right now, accountability has become terrifying. When you are held accountable, it feels like, ‘Wow, this is huge. If I don’t do it right, I’m going to be excommunicated from my community that I love.'
Deepa Iyer: Hello, everyone. This is Deepa Iyer, and you’re listening to the November 2021 episode of Solidarity Is This. If you’re new, welcome to our community, and please don’t forget to subscribe. For our regular listeners, we’re so grateful to you for continuing to tune in and to share these episodes with your networks and your workplaces.
The Solidarity Is This podcast offers a space to understand and grapple with both the possibilities and the complexities of practicing solidarity during this unique time in the United States. As we near the end of this year, we want to invite at you to please take a look back at the archives, where you’ll find a range of topics. In particular, I want to lift up the episodes over the summer, which were hosted by Anna Castro and Sean Thomas-Breitfeld, who explore immigrant rights, LGBTQ organizing, the role of philanthropy in supporting social movements, and more. Please check them all out.
In this episode, I’m in conversation with Yuko Uchikawa, a restorative justice practitioner and mediator. I’ve wanted to bring Yuko on to Solidarity Is This for a while now because she’s been a tremendous resource and guide to me over the past year. She’s helped me understand better the dynamics that are happening in organizations and movements, including conflict and accountability, trauma and healing, white supremacist culture, and cancel culture. As disruption and agitation are occurring in our society more generally, they’re also showing up more in our nonprofit and movement spaces as well. One approach that can be helpful is restorative justice, and that’s the focus of this episode of Solidarity Is This.
In my conversation with Yuko, we touch upon the components of the restorative justice approach, identify what happens in a restorative justice circle, and distinguish this method from transformative justice. Yuko herself is a circle keeper. She brings over 20 years of experience providing trainings for communities and organizations to transform conflicts, understand secondary trauma, wellness and self-care. She’s a certified mediator with the New York State Unified Court System and her training and mediation is through the Center for Understanding in Conflict. I hope this conversation is useful to you, thank you for listening.
Yuko, I want to thank you for joining the Solidarity Is This podcast.
Yuko Uchikawa: Thank you for having me. It’s a great opportunity and such an honor.
Deepa Iyer: I want to actually start off by asking you a question, I don’t think I know the answer to this, even though we’ve known each other for a little bit, which is what was your point of entry into restorative justice work?
Yuko Uchikawa: I began my work as a self-defense instructor. I’m a martial artist, and in my dojo there was a self-defense program to become teachers. I became a self-defense instructor and we taught the model called empowerment self-defense. That’s where my journey started. During that time, one of my participants asked me, “Well, this is great stuff, but what if I’m in a conflict with somebody and I want to create a boundary or resolve it, what do I do?” That got me thinking about, “Oh, that’s a really great question, what can I do about that?”
Then I ended up getting a master’s from Columbia in conflict resolution. After that, I picked up mediation as a way to do that, as a practice. In the time that I was mediating and really seeing what mediation does, which really is an amazing model to put out fires, but as I was doing mediation, I realized that there’s something missing, which is really a larger framework of how do we even prevent these hot fires from happening. That’s when I discovered restorative justice and was really floored by the whole thing, because it’s so much about really looking at the whole system. It’s a really way of being, what does it mean to be restorative and how do we mitigate and address conflicts in a restorative manner. It’s not just putting out the fires, but really getting to the root cause.
Deepa Iyer: Thanks for sharing that. It’s really helpful to understand how you’ve moved along this trajectory. The concept that I want to start with is actually around conflict and how harm and. I think that for many of us, I can speak for myself even, there’s this desire to avoid conflict and to actually not engage in it. At the same time, conflict is ever present, whether it’s in a movement or a family or an organization or any set of relationship. I’m curious if you can help us think about conflict and how we can orient ourselves to it in a way that allows us to look at the possibilities of generative tension, which is a real idea that I’ve been hearing about particularly from Black leaders, around how it is important to sit with generative tension and not to walk away from those conflicts.
Yuko Uchikawa: Definitely, as human beings, we do avoid conflict. That’s sort of our default, most of us. Even if we compete and try to win, that’s also avoidance because we’re not really hearing the other side, for example. I would argue that whether or you are competitive or accommodating or compromising or totally avoidant, it’s all a way of avoidance. I think it happens because, I mean, think about when you have done wrong, what happened and we were punished. We are in a society where we don’t have much imagination around how to resolve conflict in a way that really bring in justice on both sides, both the harmer and the harmed. So of course we’re going to avoid it, we don’t want to be punished in that way.
Punishment right now, in this moment, can look like a complete cancellation and a push out. We often use the tools that, as Audre Lorde says, the master’s tools, to replicate harm within our communities, by pushing out. We’re intolerant, we can’t hear anything that goes against what we believe because our beliefs are strong and they are important. It’s coming out of passion and good intention, but we are unable to hold that tension of difference. We push people out and that’s a horrible suffering that people feel when they are particularly pushed out of a community that they have been invested in.
Deepa Iyer: I really appreciate that. That actually helps me understand why we avoid conflict, because we don’t want to be punished. I think sometimes there’s also, perhaps people use the terms interchangeably, punishment and accountability. It seems that it is important if someone has harmed you that they take some measure of accountability. If you’re raising up a conflict, you want the other person to say, “I acknowledge it. I will make amends.” Can you talk a little bit about what are the parameters of accountability so that it doesn’t go to punishment?
Yuko Uchikawa: I see accountability as holding people responsible for what they’ve done, but with a lot of encouragement and support, so that it is not negation, it is not punishment, but we bring people in. Sonya Shah, a wonderful practitioner in restorative justice, talks about how accountability is really about saying, “I choose you to be in relationship,” but if we’re in relationship and we have harmed someone but we want to make amends, or we’re coming to the terms of walking towards it, then we need to really look at the relationship and strengthen it. We want to hold people accountable, but with a lot of support and encouragement so that they can step into accountability.
I think what’s happened so much is that the way that our culture is right now, accountability has become terrifying. When you are held accountable, it feels like, “Wow, this is huge. If I don’t do it right, I am going to be excommunicated from my community that I love.” It goes from being blamed to being shamed, to being pushed out. That’s a really hard place to be and so accountability feels terrifying. In a way, people don’t want to even step into it, you know?
Deepa Iyer: Right.
Yuko Uchikawa: We do need to think about accountability in those big terms, but also in small ways. How do we take smaller, daily accountability so that we practice taking accountability and-
Deepa Iyer: What would that look like? What are some of those practices?
Yuko Uchikawa: Yeah. Some of those practices would be that if you see something, you just say, “Hey, it’s my bad, I’m sorry,” being able to say that, or on the other side, saying, “Hey, can I just talk to you about something? That hurt, could we talk about it?” Just naming it so that it’s out there, but not in these huge ways, not in the punishing, shaming ways, but just privately, when it happens, immediately, as soon as possible, directly. Have the muscle and have the courage to connect.
Deepa Iyer: I hear that, I hear that. What happens when you want to actually say, “I’m hurt,” but you’re in a situation where there’s a power imbalance and it’s really difficult to tell someone who’s your superior or who might be a public authority figure that you’ve been harmed, how do we create a culture where people feel like there are pathways to doing that without putting themselves on the line, so to speak?
Yuko Uchikawa: I think that might be where methods like restorative justice come in, where community involvement matters and community comes in, in order to support this process and so that the person is not isolated on both sides, the harmer and the harmed. But particularly, what does the harmed person need? That is the central question and the principle of restorative justice.
Deepa Iyer: What does restorative justice look like, and what is the difference between restorative justice and transformative justice, which is another term that people often use.
Yuko Uchikawa: The key difference, from my understanding, is that transformative justice is abolitionist in nature and that they don’t bring in the state. In terms of restorative justice, it often lives in state institutions like schools and courts, places that a state is heavily involved. When I am working at the school, the government’s right there, the school safety agents are right there, who are, in New York, part of the police department. Transformative justice folks would not go to schools and would not bring in any state agencies or even therapists, for example, but transformative practice is to really lean into the community.
Deepa Iyer: As a restorative justice practitioner yourself, can you share a little bit about what happens when say that you have been called in to offer support in a series of difficult conversations? How do you position yourself?
Yuko Uchikawa: Restorative justice circles have a path, like any methodology, it really has a structure. If you can imagine a circle with four quadrants, we begin at the top right, the first quadrant, of getting people acquainted. We have to start always with getting acquainted, doing a check-in, understanding where people are in mind, body, heart, and spirit. Then the second quadrant, underneath to the bottom right, is building relationships. We delve into more questions and understand what’s going on, for example, that would be asked in that quadrant. Then the third quadrant, which is lower left, it is to address issues. Well, what happened? Well, this happened. What have you thought about since, if the incident happened a while ago, and who else is impacted, and the hardest thing about this?
After that, if we are ready, we go to the last quadrant, top left, which is to come together and figure out action steps. The action is very last. When you think about when something happens, where do we go first, as human beings?
Deepa Iyer: To fix it.
Yuko Uchikawa: To fix it. We go to the top left quadrant, the last step of restorative justice, to figure out and do something. It’s often coming from a really good place, we want to fix it because someone’s suffering. We want to address it right away and make it go away, make it better, make it right, but often that fails. I’ve seen that fail over and over. We basically spend most of our time on the left hand side, addressing issues and going straight to the action, back and forth [crosstalk 00:13:44].
Deepa Iyer: Right, the relationship, yeah.
Yuko Uchikawa: Right, skip the relationship, skip the exploration of what happened from everyone’s perspective, because conflict doesn’t have this one story, there are many, many stories, many truths that live together. That’s the tension that we have to sit with and we’re reluctant to do that. We have to surface that tension. The other thing about the circle is that it really slows us down if we do it this way.
Deepa Iyer: We’ve talked about individuals, we’ve talked about organizations, so now I want to take it to the community standpoint, because one of the ways in which restorative justice is often brought in now is when there is, for example, some sort of harm that happens in a particular community. I’ve seen this a lot in conversations around hate violence, for example, where there’s this conversation around, “Well, we don’t need to involve the state, we don’t need to involve law enforcement, we don’t need to involve the justice system.” Can you talk a little bit about both the potential of using that model and also some of the limits of using it?
Yuko Uchikawa: I think the potential is to arrive at a true healing place where both the person harmed and the harmer can heal in ways that are best for both of them, because often the person who harmed, because of the punishment, don’t get a chance to really talk to the person that they harmed and have the chance to restore it, to apologize, to take accountability. I think without that, it’s very difficult to heal from what has happened. For the person who’s been harmed, as much as you want someone to be punished in a traditional way, to have them be held accountable by being punished and going to prison, for example, that kind of system does not allow you to say what you really want and need.
I have seen folks say remarkable things of what they need to people who harm them. It’s not about being locked up, it’s about doing something for them. They are asking folks to be better, they’re asking folks to do something for their own lives. When you give an opportunity to the person harmed, what do they really need to be able to move through this, which means to heal? I think it’s an opportunity to be imaginative and get to the heart of how am I going to heal from this and how is this person going to help me to do that, and vice versa.
Also, the community being there, it allows the community to speak and uplift both sides of what they’re trying to do and that it is being witnessed. Then that way, they are there to help you throughout so you’re not in isolation to try to heal, whether you’re harmed or you harmed someone. Sometimes being in a circle with someone who harmed you or someone who harmed your family, your loved ones, is absolutely inappropriate. It is not going to work, it is not going to heal. Especially if a person who harmed is not going to take responsibility, it would be disastrous to bring people together. We have to be really careful around when and how to use something like restorative justice when harm occurs in that extreme level.
Deepa Iyer: As we start wrapping up, just want to reiterate some of the things I’ve learned from you, or continue to learn from you, Yuko, which are if we’re using or choosing restorative justice as an approach, then the people that are harmed have to be utilizing an approach not of punishing, but of being heard, saying what they need, and also interested in healing that relationship. The person, or persons, who allegedly did the harm, have to come with the position of, “I’m going to take responsibility for what I can, I’m going to do whatever I can to make it right, and I too want to choose healing and repair.”
Yuko Uchikawa: We have to remember that it is the process and it takes time. In a circle or two, that may not happen, but we do need to give each other that room to grow and to process it.
Deepa Iyer: I can imagine that as you engage in so many of these circles that obviously it’s a lot of energy to give and take and absorb. How do you care for yourself?
Yuko Uchikawa: Now, self-care is really important during this time. I really have been urging practitioners to do as much as they can to metabolize all that we absorb. I think we’re absorbing a lot, all of us. We have to really take the good stuff and then take out the bad stuff.
Deepa Iyer: That’s great.
Yuko Uchikawa: I’ve been really thinking about that and thinking about rest is resistance. We need to rest in order for us to be able to resist, and so we have to create a culture where rest can be okay. Maintaining connection with my other practitioners and colleagues, sharing our successes and our frustrations is really important, and also to work in collaboration with others. That has been key.
Deepa Iyer: I think my final question to you is if an organization wants to identify a restorative justice practitioner, where could they go? Is there a cohort of folks that can be reached out to, some sort of clearing house? What would you suggest?
Yuko Uchikawa: Yeah, there’s an organization called Restorative Justice Initiative, RJI. They are kind of a clearing house and they have a lot of information around practitioners and all manner of RJ events of interest to folks that want to do or want to hire RJ practitioners.
Deepa Iyer: Thank you, Yuko, for all that you do, for how you show up for many of us and your support, and also just all of the wisdom you bring into the spaces that you’re a part of.
Yuko Uchikawa: Thank you, Deepa. No, it’s been such a pleasure being in conversation with you.
Deepa Iyer: I’m so grateful to Yuko Uchikawa for joining me on this month’s podcast and for sharing with us tools and language that can benefit individuals, organizations, and movements. Please check out the notes for this podcast where we’ll share links to resources. You can check everything out at www.buildingmovement.org.
As this challenging year draws to a close, my wish for all of us is to rest more, or to rest at all. We’re all shouldering a lot, and I hope that you have time and space to return to self over the next few weeks through rest. I want to share a part of an interview with Tricia Hersey, who is the founder and curator of The Nap Ministry. She talked about what it means to rest in a podcast and interview she did recently with GPB, and here’s what she said. “I would give people permission to reimagine what rest can be. Resting is anything that connects our minds and bodies and souls. Resting could be daydreaming, resting your eyes. It can be a longer shower in the morning. It could be not return the text immediately, detoxing off of social media and technology. From a biological standpoint, when we rest, our brain is doing so much beautiful work.” We’ll share the link to that podcast interview so you can hear more from Tricia Hersey as well.
Until we speak again, please rest and take good care of yourselves and your communities. This is Deepa Iyer with Solidarity Is This.
- The idea and process of accountability must be shepherded with care. Yuko says: “I see accountability as holding people responsible for what they’ve done, but with a lot of encouragement and support, so that it is not a negation, it is not a punishment… The way that our culture is right now, accountability has become terrifying. When you are held accountable, it feels like, ‘Wow, this is huge. If I don’t do it right, I’m going to be excommunicated from my community that I love.’”
How does Yuko’s reflection on accountability sit with you? What are ways to bring accountability into relationships and organizations through the lens of healing and solidarity?
- Yuko shares information about the restorative justice circle that she and other practitioners utilize. Here’s more on Circle Process Graphics & Handouts from the Living Justice Press.
- Yuko also emphasizes the importance of rest: “Rest is important, and it’s not selfish to rest. And so we have to create a culture where rest can be okay.” How do you plan to focus on rest as a practice of care and resistance?
- Listen to an interview by Leah Fleming with Tricia Hersey, founder of The Nap Ministry, about the liberatory power of rest: “From a historic perspective, rest can be a form of resistance.”
- The Restorative Justice Initiative is a NY-based network of RJ practitioners, advocates, and community members. Explore their website for more resources and readings related to restorative justice.
- Healing Justice Project
- Impact Justice
- National Association of Community and Restorative Justice
- Zehr Institute for Restorative Justice
- A Healing River video series, Heartspeak Productions
- Beyond Prisons: A New Interfaith Paradigm for Our Failed Prison System, Laura Magnani & Harmon Wray
- Conflict Is Not Abuse: Overstating Harm, Community Responsibility, and the Duty of Repair, Sarah Schulman
- The Little Book of Race & Restorative Justice, Fania Davis
- “Punishment is Not Accountability,” Kate McCord, Virginia Sexual & Domestic Abuse Violence Action Alliance
- The Transformative Power of Restorative Justice (podcast), Vox Productions
- What is Accountability? – This video series from the Building Accountable Communities Project features transformative and restorative justice practitioners discuss how accountability is enacted. Featuring Mia Mingus, Priya Rai, RJ Maccani, Esteban Kelly, Sonya Shah, Shira Hassan, Elliott Fukui, adrienne marie brown, Stas Schmiedt, Lea Roth, kai lumumba barrow, Martina Kartman, Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, nuri nusrat, and Mimi Kim. Created by Project NIA and the Barnard Center for Research on Women. Produced by Mariame Kaba, Dean Spade, and Hope Dector.
- Full list of additional media available at the Restorative Justice Initiative.