The other side of the story

Sophy Irwin works for NIACRO in Belfast, Northern Ireland, to reduce crime and its impact on people and communities. Here, she talks about a project called Get Real, which is supported by the European Union’s PEACE IV Programme and managed by the Special EU Programme Body. Get Real works with the six strands of hate crime that are recognised in Northern Ireland – racism, faith and religion, homophobia, transphobia, disability, and sectarianism.

The first opportunity that I got to use restorative practice interventions was with the female perpetrator of a race hate crime. In an ideal world, we would have also received a referral to work with the victim of this crime. We would have seen each individual separately before bringing them together for a restorative conference; a very powerful situation where the victim and perpetrator each get to tell their story to one another, and harm can be repaired. Unfortunately, it is rare that both victims and perpetrators are identified and referred to us.

When I started my job, I could see the value in giving victims of hate crime a voice and space to process what had happened to them, but I wondered how exactly it would work with perpetrators. I had learned from my psychology training that the reasons behind people’s actions were often complex and multi-faceted, yet for this job I was told to only focus on the harm that the perpetrators had caused. What if their past is just so complex and ingrained with prejudice? Surely you have to focus on more than the harm they have caused?

Humanising people towards positive change
The first few weeks of our sessions are first and foremost about building rapport and helping the person to trust you enough so that they will open up and work with you through the process. We then ask them to tell us, in their own words, what happened. We do not challenge them at this stage, we simply listen and let them tell their story from their point of view.

Once we have heard their side of the story, we look at who might have been impacted by their actions. We use open ended and Socratic questioning techniques to allow them to think, and to explore things they might not have considered before. Sessions last around an hour, but besides that, we do not put a time limit on how many sessions each individual will get. We work in a very person-centred way and each individual who comes to us moves through the process at their own pace. Some people have already considered the impact of their crime and can move quite quickly through the process. For others, sitting down with us can be the first time they are considering the impact their crime might have had.

As is often the case when thinking about who has been impacted by the crime, it was easier for this female perpetrator to see the harm she had caused to herself first. She recognised that she had fallen into bad company, bad habits, and that she needed to make changes to her life. What stood out the most with this case was the shame that she carried as a result of the offence. At the beginning, she struggled to talk about the offence and could not bring herself to repeat the racist words she had said that night. The shame that she carried, and the limits of her own mental health, meant that her process and learning was slow. She needed the time, and it was worth the wait.

Gradually, she moved to a place where she felt able to look at the harm that might have been caused to others, in particular, the victim. With no access to the victim, we can’t know how the victim felt, or how they might have been impacted. We can only look at and explore all the possibilities, with the hope of creating empathy within the perpetrator.

Through facilitated discussion, we watched her recognise the harm she might have caused. She spoke of how excluded the person could have felt, how unsafe they might have felt. She was a mother herself, and thought about how if the victim has children, they might then be afraid of their children being victim to racism. A moment that sticks in my memory is when, after speaking as though the person had moved from another country to live here, she realised they could have been born here.

At the start of the process she often dismissed and excused her racist language, and would say things like, ‘that’s how I was brought up, people talk like that where I live’. She told us how she hadn’t told her friends the reason she was on probation, because she was so ashamed. We got to watch her move through the process and come to a place where she now pulls her friends and colleagues up on their racist language and has conversations with them about why it’s not OK to say things like that. Furthermore, when she realised that her victim had not been named on the police statement – had been left out of the process, and had likely been offered no support – I saw her do a complete 360-degree turn. She was shocked and displayed sincere empathy for her victim. She moved from a place of not wanting to ever see or have contact with the victim, to wanting to reach out and say sorry for her actions.

It is through this process of humanising people and creating empathy and compassion that we see positive change. The other part of my job places a big focus on exactly this – educating people on minority groups within society, humanising people, and creating empathy and compassion.

Facilitating difficult conversations
Our eight-week education programme is delivered to different community groups across Northern Ireland, the border counties, and within the Northern Ireland Prison Service. The programme challenges prejudice and intolerance by creating opportunities for honest and open discussion. Participants are supported to open their minds, to see things from a different perspective and to deal positively with diversity. We offer groups the opportunity to welcome in a guest speaker, so they have the opportunity to meet with an individual from one of the minority groups. We find that, whilst it’s good to be able to have discussions and learn from us about minority groups, it is very powerful to hear from someone’s lived experience.

I really enjoy this part of my job. I love having the opportunity to facilitate difficult conversations. I love being able to help challenge and shift perspectives. I love seeing people gain the confidence they need to enable them to challenge prejudiced views and behaviours.

Given the nature of our job and the different elements of it, there is no such thing as a typical day. Our training is delivered once a week over eight weeks. At our busiest we have had four groups per week, taking place all over the country. The groups often commence at different times throughout the months, so we could be delivering session 1 in the north of the country on Monday, session 5 in the south on Thursday and session 3 in the east of the country on Friday. It can be frantic, and you have to be organised as you aren’t always in or near the office to pick up resources or paperwork.

I live in the northernmost part of the country so when we have a group south of the border, I would spend five hours of my day in the car. With all of that in mind, we also have a lot of admin work to do, mixed with fitting in our one-to-one restorative interventions. The weeks can be very busy! Whilst I am disappointed that my job is currently Zoom-based and I am working from my spare room instead of in different communities, I can’t say I miss all the driving.

Working with hate crime is not something that I had ever considered or planned to do. My passion is working with mental health, helping to alleviate distress and improve wellbeing. However, I quickly came to see how invaluable the experience from this job would be. Whilst studying for my MSc Applied Psychology (Mental Health & Psychological Therapies) we did a module on ‘Professional Issues’. This module raised awareness of the many things that psychologists must consider whilst working with humans. We touched on things to consider whilst working with people from different cultures, people with disabilities, people with different sexual orientations and people who are transgender. Whilst the learning and awareness I gained from that module was useful, I feel lucky to have had the opportunity to learn so much about people from minority groups in our society. The different, complex issues they face are so important to consider in order to understand people and help to improve their mental wellbeing.     

The ’other’
Our job is about increasing awareness and understanding, shifting perspectives, and revealing the other side of the story. I want to know why people behave the way they do, why they think the way they do, and what things can be done to make positive changes to their thoughts and behaviours.

Our group discussions are unlike many discussions that people are used to having. Something we pride ourselves on is being able to create a space where people feel comfortable and safe enough to open up and talk about sensitive topics that may be personal within the room. We cannot talk about these things if we do not address the prejudice and biases that each of us have within us.

I love getting to see people have the realisation of, ‘Why do I think that?’. I once heard a young person say, ‘I’m sectarian, but I don’t know why… I just know that I don’t like the other side’. It is more common than I ever thought it would be for people to think, ‘I don’t like that group of people, but I don’t know why’. For some, they know the reason, perhaps they remember a bad experience they had, and they can attribute that to their dislike of the group. I find that that is easier to overcome – working towards opening their eyes to seeing that not all members of that group are the same.

However, I find that it becomes more difficult when negative thoughts of ‘the other’ have been formed through years of hearing negative opinions from family, friends, and those whom we look up to and respect. It’s more difficult still when these thoughts and attitudes are reinforced through the news and media. When all a person hears is negative, derogatory stories and opinions about ‘the other’ from those whom they love and look up to, especially from a young age, it is much harder to open people’s eyes and show them a different perspective. During our group training sessions, it sometimes feels impossible to shift perspectives and open minds when you are faced with people who are so fixed in their beliefs. This is hardly surprising when you realise that they have only spent a total of six hours with you trying to show them another side of the story, but a lifetime with people they love and respect, who have shaped how they view ‘the other’.

This ‘other’ that I refer to here can be any ‘other’. Any person or group of people who are different from us, and whom we might not like, understand, or feel comfortable with because of this difference. In our group discussions, the ‘others’ that we talk about are those of a different race (nationality, ethnicity, skin colour); those with different religious backgrounds to us; those who are from a different community background here in Northern Ireland (Catholic or Protestant); those who have a disability, be it physical or mental; those who are transgender, and those who have a different sexuality to us.

I don’t always come away from sessions thinking I have shifted everybody’s thoughts and opinions about ‘the other’. It would be foolish to go into a session with those expectations to begin with. My job is to show people that there is another way to look at things, that there is always a different side to the story that you just might not have had the opportunity to see yet. And yes, whilst some people might be stuck in one negative mindset toward ‘the other’, Social Psychologist Jennifer Eberhardt makes a good point: ‘Benefits accrue from nudging people to talk about race and consider the harm a thoughtless judgement can do.’

We all have prejudices and biases, every one of us. We all hold negative thoughts and beliefs about different people, for many different reasons. The problem arises when we act on these negative beliefs and seek to cause harm to those that we do not like or agree with. Acknowledge your prejudices and biases, try to understand them, and try to keep your mind open to different perspectives, and different sides of the stories that we hear.

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