The R.A role gets a makeover
As a CA, I’m often peppered with a range of questions – what happened to the green vests? Do lanyards really work? What does CA even mean? Can I drink in the lounge? The answers in order are: a shakeup never hurts, lanyards do work, it stands for Community Advisor and yes you can drink in most of the lounges. The biggest change seems to be remarked on less, but is integral to how the process of actually CA’ing goes. A new process of “restorative justice” has been enshrined as the central principal of being a CA, with some interesting implications. Some people might be unsure as to how it all works. I can’t speak for what every CA sees in it or what the broader institution of Res Life really intends, but from my own personal experience this brand-new methodology is bound to make for a great experience on all sides.
So what does restorative justice mean in practice? Most simply, it’s a shift from asking about what rules are broken to what the impact in the community is. It’s changing emphasis from tossing the book at people for minor code infractions to instead having a good conversation and working from there. This was already essentially best practice for CAs up until this point, but it’s now been institutionalized. In other words, it wasn’t just an out-of-the-blue shift. One of its best features, in my humble opinion, has been its allowance for individual CAs to figure out how to make things work in their own way, with plenty of support to make sure it does.
The primary focus of this approach is making sure that our fellow students and our campus community gets the most out of restorative justice. It’s striving to give people the respect they deserve. Obscure and poorly understood rules that are enforced unflinchingly by a higher authority is high school stuff. We’re all adults, and it’s not a crime to forget about quiet hours and get a bit rowdy. Of course, there is potential harm to the community in that – for example, if people are trying to sleep or study – but it’s not world-ending, and the most effective thing is making sure that the harm stops. Along the same vein, it would be pretty bloody impossible to memorize the entire Community Code unless one was being paid to do it. However, it’s pretty easy to stop and think “OK, is this going to piss off my neighbors?” The restorative approach relies on basic social and moral awareness, which I hold an abiding faith in. I’m personally an adherent of the idea that pretty much everyone fundamentally wants to do the right thing by others, and the restorative approach makes this way simpler. Of course, lots of people goof it. That’s about as fundamental to human nature as the desire to try and do good. When people mess up, the process around it is pretty forgiving and open. It’s focused on helping people understand where they goofed, what they did wrong, what the community harm was and how to make sure it doesn’t happen again. My personal view on restorative justice is that it ultimately aims (intentionally or not) at making everyone involved, CAs included, better and more virtuous people.
From my end, I can say that there are other immense benefits of the restorative approach. First and foremost, it cuts down drastically on paperwork. Excepting really horrendous instances, we end up having to do less paperwork. It’s also a positive because for most restorative stuff, carrying it out actually helps us build relationships with people. Nobody becomes a CA unless they want to make a whole bunch of friends, and the restorative approach makes that much easier. As mentioned before, the restorative approach was already something that lots of CAs were incorporating into their practice, but this just makes everything even more streamlined. It also makes the job less awkward. I can say that it’s easier to talk to people who have made minor mistakes if we both know that the issues are going to be treated in a way that isn’t aimed at making their life harder. It’s also really rewarding to connect with people on a personal level and work out a fair solution. Having a good discussion and figuring out how to go forward makes me feel better, and I’ve left some conversations feeling pretty damn happy. When it works – and it works – the restorative approach leaves me feeling like a happier, better, and more positive person. It rewards the parts of my personality I like the most.
Of course, the whole thing is still a work in progress. There’s been a whole wave of change in the way Res Life handles things, and there have been a lot of good discussions about how it’s all going to work out. Even starting out, I was worried that I wouldn’t have the personal social skills, charisma or sense of justice required to make it work out. The whole model is really open-ended, and I was worried that I’d stumble and mess it all up at some point without the kind of direct guidance that the Code provides. Yet after a few weeks, I can say that this openness is perhaps the best part of the restorative approach. Different things are going to work for different people, and I’ve found some capabilities within me that I wasn’t really sure I had. Evidently Res Life knew, though! In a tradition dating back to Aristotle, the restorative justice method rewards personal growth on all sides and promotes development of virtue, honesty and mindfulness in all parties. It’s an exciting year to start off a CA career, and I’m pretty excited to see the rest of it.