As the founder of Mobile Loaves and Fishes (MLF), a nonprofit dedicated to serving the homeless in Central Texas, Alan Graham knows a thing or two about the importance of conflict resolution.
A few years ago, MLF launched its latest initiative, the Community First! Village, a planned community in Austin that provides affordable, permanent housing and a supportive community for men and women coming out of chronic homelessness. Bringing people from different backgrounds and circumstances together in a residential setting has required that MLF take an active role in helping residents navigate certain issues with one another.
“The more I learn about Restorative Justice and Restorative Practices, the more I learn how critical of a tool it can be in a community. We’re helping people learn how to live with other people, and that’s not an easy thing,” he said.
Graham acknowledges this is true for any population and points to his own family vacation as a micro-example of how we all have to navigate these interpersonal relationships.
“What I noticed with my family of 5 while we were on vacation is that we’re a mess,” he said. “But we usually don’t fight it out [when we disagree], we argue it out. We dialogue it out with respect for each other. If you’re raised in the prison system or on the streets that approach is not part of your culture. That’s where Restorative Practices comes in, and it’s an incredible tool.”
Graham will be a keynote speaker at this summer’s Be the Change Conference, where he will speak alongside the man who introduced him to Restorative Practices, Sherwynn Patton of Life Anew Restorative Justice. The two met at a conference in Boulder, Colo., at a time when Graham was seeking new ways to respond to the needs he was seeing at Community First!
“The Restorative Justice conversation hit our radar at that time, and it really was as if God put Sherwynn and [his wife] Kim right into our path,” he said.
Recently, MLF began to incorporate Restorative Practices into the day-to-day operations of Community First!, and the community has support from a full-time employee of Life Anew who is leading restorative groups onsite for the residents. Graham says they are already seeing an impact from the work, with more productive dialogue occurring between residents.
Graham believes continuing to grow this work as they intersect with other service providers and community groups will have a tremendous effect on the people they serve, as he says it’s crucial that we find ways to pair traditional clinical or rote methodologies with relational approaches.
While Graham says MLF does not have a formal working relationship with schools, he does believe that educators play one of the biggest roles in creating impact through Restorative Practices.
“We believe very fundamentally that the single biggest cause of homelessness is the now catastrophic loss of the family structure that we are seeing in our world. If you want to mitigate what you see on the street corners, you have to go upstream the river and get to the source,” he said. “I can tell you that the family structure is at the beginning of that flow. If we don’t catch our children early on in the foster care system or education system – and become an intimate part of their lives so that we can help form and nurture them in a holistic manner – they’re going to end up living with us (at Community First!) down the road, after they’ve spent years on the streets experiencing drugs and incarceration. So, the weaving of the thread of Restorative Justice goes back to our youth and our children. If we don’t go back and start with the children, we are going to continue to struggle in this country.”
Join us this July 15-17 at Be the Change and hear from Alan Graham and other keynote speakers, like Sherwynn Patton of Life Anew Restorative Justice, Chief Troy Gay of the Austin Police Department, and Austin’s “Musician with a Message” SaulPaul!