Recently I bought a week away on a retreat in Scotland or France with a well-known painter, sharpening up my brushwork and enjoying a few days’ peace and quiet in the great outdoors away from the rigours of family and work life. Well, the first part may be right. I did, indeed, purchase a week’s getaway, but in terms of artistic acumen, I’m afraid I was left rather at the back of the line when this was being given out. Granted, I can dash off a recognisable owl and elephant in crayon for my youngest, and my potato stamps are not too shabby, but beyond that, I have little to offer in the field of fine art. So why the holiday?
I could spend some time here explaining the surge of adrenaline (only mildly exaggerated by two glasses of complimentary – or warm-up – prosecco) that overtook me at a live auction I happened to find myself in, and at which I silently had promised myself not to bid, at any cost. Of course, my wife was at home, and the excitement got the better of me and the old left hand shot up repeatedly as I reasoned that maybe there was some latent artistic chromosome in there somewhere, and even more far-fetched, that I would be granted the week’s leave of absence to try and unearth it. But I’d rather explain the very good cause for which I was relieved of this week’s (and next week’s) date -night money.
The Centre for Peaceful Solutions, run by the dynamic Maria Arpa, is an organisation which aims to change the way we manage conflict in the world. By turning debate in to genuine dialogue (through their so-called Dialogue Road Map), Maria’s dream is to transform the way we as a society manage disharmony and dispute, through peaceful mediation rather than violence and power-broking. And she is not starting with easy wins, either. The money raised last week, through an evening of live mediation, community theatre, inspirational testimony and a sale of artwork created by prisoners, will go towards funding a two-year project in HM Prison Dartmoor. Staff and prisoners will be trained in mediation techniques in a bid to force a paradigm shift away from reoffending and towards mending relationships. Lofty aims indeed in a prison branded ‘the prison that time forgot’ by a former chief inspector not so long ago.
But this is Maria Arpa we are talking about. A force of nature who seems not to know the meaning of the word no. Maltese by birth, she recently locked horns with Angelina Jolie when screening for the Hollywood star’s film meant that Maria’s long-awaited beach wedding was moved at the eleventh hour, making headlines on the usually peaceful and secluded island of Gozo. Of course it would not do for a peace campaigner to cause a big fuss, but Arpa is not without a sense of humour. She even recently offered to mediate divorce proceedings for Jolie and estranged husband Brad Pitt.
And the process is as powerful as this woman’s personality. Peaceful solutions, or mediation, restorative justice, whatever you care to call it, is remarkable in its simplicity. At its core is the philosophy that victims should be heard, and that all parties in conflict should be involved in its resolution. As the Centre’s website explains: ‘the parties retain control over the decision-making, and work at their own pace, in language they can understand.’ This seems so obvious, and yet too often these days, aggrieved parties in all sorts of contexts turn instinctively to litigation, blame and vengeance. Restorative processes aim to do exactly what is implied in the name – restore relationships and empower those who are suffering, without – crucially – the need for winners and losers.
Of course, this sounds oversimplified, and the mediation we watched live on stage was performed by actors rather than those with a real axe to grind. We watched a very convincing dialogue between a man imprisoned for GBH and his wife, who had been left to fend for herself and his children with little help and no money. The tense situation was mediated by Maria herself and her partner David, and reached a relatively calm conclusion but only after an hour of patient, often painstaking listening and what appeared quite a manufactured, artificial process. And as someone who has done some training in restorative justice, this is exactly the point – the process is rigid (although experienced practitioners make it appear less so), but it has been proven to work.
One particularly striking technique, which is also a feature of effective counselling, was in the mediators literally echoing the words of the disputes. Amazingly, when Nick’s assertion that he was ‘frustrated, really frustrated’ was met with David’s reply: ‘What I’m hearing is you’re frustrated’, he did not react as one might anticipate, with a ‘No s***, Sherlock’, but actually with the relief of someone who was actually being listened to, often for the first time.
The benefits of a restorative approach include reduced rates of recidivism, increased empathy and a more democratic society, and there is a real hope that if applied effectively, it could make a real impact in reducing bullying in schools, something we are working towards in my current school.
There are, of course, sceptics, and certainly we are on the beginning of the road to what I hope will be a more humane approach to conflict resolution in all its forms, be it in the extreme arena of violent crime, or on a day-to-day level in the playground of our schools. As we enjoyed a vegetarian dinner courtesy of Ottolenghi, and I heard the impassioned testimony of one ex-con-gone-straight, I couldn’t help but feel there was something about this that might just work. And I might just need some conflict resolution if I take up that week away and leave the kids at home.