The Restorative Justice approach to community building, conflict and life itself all operate on the assumption that everyone has needs that deserve to be honored. Highlighting needs in circles of conflict is particularly vital, as the intention to honor needs offers a path towards healing, accountability, and repair. Identifying and sharing needs prior to and during a conflict circle communicates what is most important and what is needed from other participants in order to feel satisfied with the outcome. This can help shift the focus from blame and criticism to a more collaborative approach, where both parties are working together to find a solution that meets both of their needs. A community or circle that meet needs fosters a space of emotional and physical safety. Participants in an RJ circle are regularly encouraged to build awareness of and confidence in their own needs. However, what really are these needs we reference so casually? How do we identify them? How are they different from wants, demands, and expectations? What needs are reasonable?
To kick off my exploration of the concept of needs, I tapped a lazy “what are needs” into my phone. Soon enough I was listening to a podcast episode titled Wants vs. Needs from the Unf*ck Your Brain podcast. In the episode, host Kara Loewentheil details how having needs for others to meet gives away your power by leaving your well-being dependent on other’s ability to meet said needs. For Kara, it equates to treating others as an “emotional vending machine”. Instead, we need to focus on meeting our own needs. This perspective plays into an individualist, pull yourself up from your bootstraps type of mentality that disregards the realities of moving through conflict and ignores worldwide, historical and contemporary traditions of community support. It also disregards the healing power of speaking your needs and having them be honored.
By contrast, author, doula, facilitator and Black feminist extraordinaire Adrienne Maree Brown frames healing and needs as related to power and autonomy. For Adrienne, naming one’s needs and having them met is a way to feel sovereign after harm. They explain that power over one’s own life needs to be returned to oneself when it has been violated. In experiences of harm, the person harmed experiences a lack of sovereignty and someone else's lack of respect for their core needs. Therefore, for healing to occur, these needs need to be reclaimed and honored by the collective. “I feel healing when I’m able to hear my inner voice and hear the boundaries I need and honor those,” they explain. “I am living a sovereign experience over here and I get to determine what’s going to happen.” Adrienne equates healing to the practice of speaking out and honoring their own needs. Needs are defined by one’s needs to feel safe and sovereign. Now, how do we identify these needs?
The “Ecosystems of Healing” training from our friends over at Impact Justice lays some groundwork for identifying needs. They pull from a needs framework from Jasmyn Story, Honeycomb Justice Consulting, and the Restorative Justice for Structural Harm/Historical Harm Training. Impact Justice maps out needs into four categories: physical, emotional/spiritual, relationship/communal, and structural. Physical needs include (but are not limited to) air, food, water, shelter, bodily safety, finances, and time. In holding a circle, this needs included bathroom and stretching breaks. Emotional and spiritual needs include acceptance, affirmation, peace, warmth, clarity, creativity, and growth. Relational and communal needs can include a sense of belonging, connection, love, and care. In holding circles, honoring emotional, spiritual, relational, and communal needs all highlight the importance of taking the time to build a safer space through integrating icebreakers/check-in questions and building community agreements as a group. Structural needs include those recognizing social structures, which create economic, legal, political, and cultural needs. For example, due to structural and systemic racism and our nation’s culture of violent policing targeting Black, Indigenous, People of Color, hosting a circle in close proximity to a police department might mean it’s an emotionally and physically unsafe environment for BIPOC folks in particular. Another example is the importance of hosting circles in buildings easily accessible by public transportation and those of varied physical abilities. Recognizing the cost of transportation and offering reimbursement for travel could be a meaningful way of meeting participants’ structural needs.
Impact Justice suggests that while in community, we share and map out our needs in these four categories to demonstrate the “abundance of support” present. Healing circles present an opportunity to share these individual needs and work to collaboratively meet one another’s. We all are connected to a variety of resources and possess many skill sets. Rather than playing into individualism and considering our needs to be something only we can meet, bringing our needs into community spaces fosters autonomy, community building and healing.
By Marisa Weinstock