Macaulay To Establish Restorative Justice Practice with New York Peace Institute: A Chat with Dean Byrne

Starting in the Spring, the Macaulay Honors College will initiate a new partnership with the New York Peace Institute in the wake of student concerns about increased tension and the spread of hate across CUNY campuses in recent weeks. With this new initiative, Macaulay hopes to “collaboratively and empathetically build solutions that will move the [community] forward” via selected and trained student Restorative Justice Fellows and Mediators overseen by a faculty Restorative Justice Coordinator.

Established in 2011, The New York Peace Institute is a non-profit dispute resolution organization offering conflict resolution, mediator training, and restorative justice services by teams of trained experts. It’s affiliated with organizations such as the United Nations and NASA and other higher-education institutions like Brown University, The University of Michigan, Oberlin College, New York University, and now the Macaulay Honors College.

While it’s true that the practice is entirely new at Macaulay, the concept of mediation — characterized by intervening in a given dispute with the intention of resolving conflict — is hardly novel to Dr. Dara Byrne, Dean of the Macaulay Honors College. 

“[I’ve spent] decades of my life in higher education, listening to students, particularly listening to young people and the people who serve young people about their experiences, what they know how to do, and what they don’t know how to do,” Byrne reminisced. “And a common thing that would always come up: There are a lot of people with good intentions that don’t actually know what to do when something goes wrong.” 

The Dean noted that these very formative years of experience with friction eventually led her to the New York Peace Institute’s doorstep on Macaulay’s behalf. 

“When I got to Macaulay last year, I read a report by a diversity advisory committee that did a survey, looking at people’s experiences around race, identity, inclusion, and the way that they felt,” Byrne stated. And I thought, well, how do you do training and programming and all of these kinds of things when people have been hurt? And so I spent some time last year looking around at who does interesting things around that. And the New York Peace Institute came up.”

Through this partnership, the idea is that the New York Peace Institute will not only train and assist Macaulay with conflict resolution but also enable and nurture a cohesive and empathetic community for years to come.

“It’s not [solely about] conflict resolution. It’s really about the part before that,” Byrne explained. All of us play a role in building and maintaining a trusting, healthy kind of community where if conflict happens, the practices are in place to be able to address that instead of what many of us do — either cancel or stay silent and look in the other direction.”

And when dissension does arise, Dean Byrne is confident that Macaulay and its student body will have the tools going forward to settle discourse through a meaningful, restorative model. 

“I think [restorative justice] is a really beautiful thing. Even if you and I were not specifically and directly harmed by something that happened in our community — the fact that it happened in our community actually harmed us all. And so it shifts your mindset from: That didn’t happen to me. It’s not my business. It’s not my responsibility. To: It happened to one of us, several of us, and all [of us] now have to go through a kind of a process to reconcile with that and help the community move forward.” Byrne claimed. “One of the core things about a community is this idea that we trust each other and we believe that we belong…What restored work does is focus on the skills and tools and conditions of a community to be able to repair harm and rebuild trust when it happens as opposed to alternative methods, which is to take the people who might have caused a harm and move them from a community altogether.”

Equally crucial to the ethos of Dean Byrne’s vision for restorative mediation is the concept of collectivized intervention and direction — a democratic principle that seeks to lend voices to the broader Macaulay community in shaping what particular resolution(s) might befit an ensuing conflict instead of through one singular individual, or group of individuals, with centralized and disproportionate authority in matters of interest.

“We all need to feel empowered to play a role. And the goal is for this part to be an important part of empowering particularly students since [students] often experience the most harm. Power in resolving that, right? So if you empower the people that are most vulnerable, then you’re really onto something,” Byrne affirmed. “Distribute the power and the ownership so it’s not faculty and staff making the decisions — really! Students are in charge as well and get to determine and share how they want this to look…And that’s what the New York Peace Institute is going to help us with.” 

One part of the restorative justice framework is guided workshops and community-building circles, facilitated by Student Fellows and Mediators, that seek to initiate challenging conversations to help students better understand the disagreements at hand — regardless of whether they agree.

“The foundational work is grounding a core group of champions, if you will, in intensive learning about what this is and what this does. Having the bravery and the preparation and the support from other brave souls to be the lead in bringing in another way of addressing climate…these circles give people, particularly students, the opportunity to facilitate very difficult dialogues and practice the art of guiding people through difficult dialogues,” Byrne expressed. “The goal is not to get people to agree. That’s the hard part about being in college — people don’t necessarily agree with you. But that doesn’t mean I need to rob you of your sense of safety.”

As for prospects in the restorative justice space and beyond, Dean Byrne is all but doubtless of the Macaulay spirit to create change for the better. 

“I think one of the most important skills for the future, especially as we continue to navigate deeply, richly diverse communities, work, life, and so on is building up our resolve to be part of the solution and not part of the group of people that look the other way. I’m excited about what it means to offer a different way of equipping young people for the future that they’re going to inherit — one where they get to safely practice with professional guidance and with a restorative coordinator who’s deeply dedicated to student organizing and student leadership,” Byrne gushed. “I’m super excited about that because if [Macaulians] are going to really lead the world of tomorrow, like I know [they] can, this is the thing that people are going to be excited about…So I’m hopeful that this is a good first step in getting to that kind of campus culture.”

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