Conflict resolution is an essential skill in any setting, and Virginia Tech leaders have recently discovered the effectiveness of peace circles in managing collaboration challenges within their teams. The university organized a three-day educational session called “The Fundamentals of Restorative Justice,” which introduced participants to the principles and practices of restorative justice. This training equipped the leaders with valuable tools for engaging in difficult conversations that arise in the workplace and college environment.
The training was made possible through a partnership between several offices at Virginia Techincluding the Office of Equity and Accessibility (OEA), Office of Inclusion and Diversity, University Ombudsman, Student Affairs, Study Center for Peace and Violence Prevention, and Enhanced Learning with Technology and Online Strategies. By collaborating together, these offices aimed to provide leaders with the necessary skills to address conflicts effectively.
Henry Yampolsky, Assistant Director for Education, Outreach, and OAS Conflict Resolution at Virginia Tech emphasized the importance of not only addressing conflicts but also focusing on how conversations are conducted. He believes that introducing restorative justice to university leaders is a crucial step in creating a community that responds to conflict with strength, clarity, compassion rather than fear or aggression.
The training was led by senior practitioners from reputable organizations such as Katherine Evans and Jonathan Swartz from the Zehr Institute for Restorative Justice and Eddy Smart and Donna Chewning from the Bridge Institute in Roanoke. They focused on facilitating dialogues known as peace circles—a concept rooted in Native American tradition—which aim to restore relationships within communities. Peace circles allow all participants involved in a conflict—supporters, mediators—to work towards understanding each other’s perspectives better while seeking consensus-based resolutions that prevent similar conflicts from arising again.
Restorative justice strategies like peace circles can be particularly valuable in higher education settings where teams often face limited resources, unclear roles, systemic changes alongside emerging trends like rising student costs, expanded alternatives to college education, and growing political volatility. Yampolsky believes that leaders who proactively use conflict resolution methods to support their employees and students are better equipped to protect relationships and maintain morale.
Chelsea Cleary, a prevention of sexual violence specialist with Hokie Wellness, expressed how the training served as a powerful reminder of the importance of relationship building and community connection. She highlighted that addressing tough questions about justice, equity, responsibility, and healing requires strong connections among individuals.
At that to department heads and managers, undergraduate leaders also participated in the training to extend the construction of peace to the student population. Ainsley Cragin, vice president for affairs and policy for the Undergraduate Student Senate, felt fortunate to have interacted with peer-to-peer university leaders during the training. He believes that practicing restorative justice will create a stronger sense of belonging within the university community.
Restorative work not only assists in resolving conflicts affecting individual and organizational performance but can also play a crucial role in reducing loneliness—a prevalent experience reported by almost half of American adults. It is especially relevant for college students who are experiencing higher rates of depression and anxiety than ever before.
The timing of this training was particularly relevant as it provided valuable insights applicable to the student experience. Anthony Scott, director of inclusion and belonging for Student Affairs at Virginia Techemphasized that involving every member of the community in this work unlocks potential for positive change and lasting impact. By embracing restorative justice principles, they aim to build a campus where everyone’s voice is heard, respected, valued—a place where every individual finds a home and thrives.
Later this year, members from the inaugural Restorative Justice Foundations training cohort will host their own peace circles while participating in advanced workshops on responding to harm and engaging in difficult conversations using restorative approaches.
Eddy Smart from the Bridge Institute expressed his excitement about seeing this group lead the way in strengthening an already vibrant community at Virginia Tech through restorative justice practices. Yampolsky is equally enthusiastic about the future of Virginia Techas he looks forward to offering this training to new cohorts on an annual basis. He believes that by involving partners from across the university, they can implement the lessons learned in areas that directly address challenging conversations on campus. Ultimately, these efforts aim to build a community of professionals committed to restorative living.
According to knowledgeable sources, Virginia Tech leaders have taken a significant step towards addressing conflicts and fostering collaboration through restorative justice practices. By equipping their leaders with valuable tools and strategies, they are creating a community where conflicts are managed effectively, relationships are strengthened, and individuals feel supported and valued.
Source: (Virginia Tech News)(https://news.vt.edu/articles/2023/07/oea-restorativejustice.html)