What was the activity?
It can be difficult for students to find and use their voice, and to feel they are heard by those in positions of influence within a university. When difficult situations arise, students may struggle to find ways to articulate their concerns within existing structures which can result in dissatisfaction, disaffection and disengagement, that, in turn, can contribute to factors that widen the awarding gap.
Using techniques drawn from restorative practice, I worked with a colleague in the Warwick Law School, Dr Amanda Wilson, to create the opportunity for student leaders to have a student-led ‘brave’ space (Perez-Putnam, 2016) to articulate their concerns. Our first circle addressed concerns about gender-based violence on campus with further ones planned on topics such as racism and transphobia.
Two students, who had already taken a Law undergraduate module in restorative justice, were given two hours training by a restorative justice facilitator to give them the knowledge, skills and confidence to hold a ‘climate circle’ (Karp, 2019) to discuss an issue which was causing considerable discussion and concern on campus. Another student, who was a trained rape counsellor, was also invited to attend the meeting to manage any student disclosures or distress. It was felt it was important to use student facilitators to create a student-owned space.
The two student facilitators were lead members of key student societies active in campaigning against gender-based violence. They chose eight students who they felt had influence in this area and had a range of different perspectives. The students who attended the meeting were assured that the meeting would be completely confidential and nothing would be shared without the consent of all present. The meeting was in part to share concerns and in part to problem solve together ways forward. Although what happened was confidential, the proposed structure for the climate circle followed the technique suggested by Karp, employing a restorative circle technique to give every participant an equal space to speak without interruption.
The participants are seated in a circle with two facilitators also forming part of the circle. A question is asked by the facilitators and each participant answers in turn after the person next to them has spoken, the talk moving around the circle. When the final participant has spoken, a further question is asked by the facilitator and the participants again answer in turn. This continues once more. At this point, the focus turns to problem solving and the participants are invited to answer in any order, provided they ensure others are also able to share their views. The group is able at this stage to formulate some recommendations for next steps and can agree together if this is to be shared outside the group and if so, with whom and by whom, how and when. After the discussion comes to an end, a closing question is asked of the circle (participants answering in order).
Suggested questions to be answered by participants in order:
• Introduce yourself and tell us one thing that helps you feel like you belong to this community
• Tell us about a time when you felt heard and what about it made you feel heard
• Share one key concern that brought you to the circle today
Problem solving (participants can answer in any order)
• Share one thing that you think we can do together to rebuild trust?
• What’s one thing from this circle that you have learned that you didn’t already know?
How did it impact you or your students?
The activity was extremely successful, and students all reported high levels of satisfaction with the experience, with all agreeing that they would recommend it to a friend, with a similar space being suggested for areas of concern around race and around transphobia. Some sample student comments include the following.
Student A: “It felt easy to speak honestly in the space.”
Student B: “I felt heard by others and able to say what I wanted to say.”
Student facilitator A: “The circle structure helped me ensure everyone had a time and space to speak. It was a difficult topic but everyone was respectful and listened to each other.”
The evidence suggests that having this space to share concerns can enable problem-solving in relation to issues that widen the awarding gap and otherwise disadvantage marginalised groups.
Any advice for others?
Having students as facilitators is worth the time required to train them, as student participants reported they felt able to speak honestly without staff members present. The training also gives students additional skills, training and confidence which benefits them. Although it was not needed, it was reassuring to have a third student available to manage any distress caused by discussion of a triggering topic, leaving the two facilitators to oversee the discussion. The technique is easy to replicate and has been used subsequently with staff around a difficult topic. It can be used when there is general concern about a topic, or perhaps when there is an issue which might cause controversy; a circle can create space for a range of participants to use their voices and feel heard. Providing this space respects the variety of views held by individuals and empowers individuals to recommend next steps.
Karp, D.R. (2019) ‘Restorative justice and responsive regulation in higher education: The complex web of campus sexual assault policy in the United States and a restorative alternative’ in Restorative and responsive human services. London: Routledge, pp.143-164.
Perez-Putnam, M (2016) ‘Belonging and brave space as hope for personal and institutional inclusion,’ Teaching and Learning Together in Higher Education, 18. http://repository.brynmawr.edu/tlthe/vol1/iss18/2