Author: Noor Etienne-Richards
As ‘Black History Month’ 2023 comes to a close, this article aims to critically analyse the current state of Black History Month. ‘Black History Month’ in the UK is a powerful display of the contributions made by Black people to history, art, politics, science and much more. However, the authenticity and impact of ‘Black History Month’ are greatly limited in two core ways: Firstly, our understanding of Black history is too often focused on events directly linked to Western colonisation, such as slavery and the American civil rights movement. This in no way encapsulates the richness of Black African history before imperialism. Secondly, superficial celebrations of ‘Black History Month’ can often act as a guise to sweep to one side the real problems disproportionately affecting the Black community. With this article, I hope to inspire a deeper understanding of Black history in a way which is not directly linked to imperialism. I will also discuss how to make Black History Month far more meaningful by having real conversations with the aim of repairing cultural and racial harms.
As a brief sidenote, it is important to clarify what is meant by ‘Black’. The concept of ‘race’ and ‘racism’ was a product of the European Enlightenment period from the 17th – 18th century (Bouie, 2018). This period promoted a colour coordinated method to determine the value of humans, thus humans were grouped based on superficial phenotypical characteristics and placed on a hierarchical scale of least valuable to most valuable. Thus, in many ways the term ‘Black’ may be considered a term without real meaning, referring to the visible similarities in skin tone but disregarding the differences in histories, cultures, and experiences. Nevertheless, in this article, when the words ‘Black’ or ‘Black history’ are used, I am specifically referring to those of African descent and African History, and within the first section, the terms are referenced to touch on history before the interception of colonisation.
The origins of ‘Black History Month’
The origins of ‘Black History Month’ (BHM) stem from the U.S. and was started by African American Historian, Carter G. Woodson. It initially began as ‘Negro History Week’ and was a way to recognise the contributions made by African Americans to U.S. history. This later developed into a month in 1976 (History, 2010). This celebration later travelled to the UK and was implemented by Akyaaba Addai-Sebo in 1987 and is celebrated every year in October with the aim of facilitating an understanding of Africa and those of African descent (Enahoro, 2023). Similarly, to other weekly and monthly celebrations of marginalised communities, BHM recognises the achievements and journeys of prominent Black figures. It gives us the opportunity to celebrate multiculturalism and diversity. It also gives space for deeper intersectional analyses of humans and the history of humanity which can help to explain the differences in our own experiences and how we perceive the world.
‘Black History Month’ in Practice
Although in theory, the intention behind BHM is positive, this is not always well translated in practice. This is due in many ways to a lack of genuine knowledge and understanding of the community that is being celebrated. In an ethnographic study of the treatment of Black students during BHM, Doharty found the experience was not as positive as one might initially assume. Black students faced a combination of micro- invalidation, micro-insults, and micro-assaults. Doharty argues that this was a clear reflection of the wider societal structures that frequently uphold similar responses to marginalised communities (Doharty, 2019). There is also the element of a lack of knowledge surrounding how to teach and communicate ideas around Black and African history. 74% of primary and secondary schools ‘do not’ or ‘rarely’ teach Black British History (Siblon, 2005). Thus, in recent years BHM has become a superficial display of support for mainstream Black (often African American) political figures such as Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks. It is important to highlight this is not necessarily bad because these are people who should be celebrated for their tireless work in promoting human rights. However, this can become harmful in two ways: a) when the celebration is limited in scope, and b) when the celebration is paired with inaction.
The Issues surrounding ‘Black History Month’
BHM does not go far or deep enough into Black history. It references Black history in the confined bounds of violence and struggles at the hands of dominant capitalist imperialist ideology, thus ignoring the true richness of African history. For example, many people have no knowledge of the Dogon people in Mali who had extensive cosmological knowledge about the Sirius star system, which later became known to the Western world (Nwabueze, 2022). During the 15th and 16th century the city of Timbuktu was a hub of world leading research and a religious centre. Timbuktu held a plethora of schools and universities teaching Islamic studies, medicine, mathematics, astrology, and law (National Geographic, 2023). Another example of the unknown abundance of African history is the powerful Kush Kingdom located in Nubia which lasted for over 14,00 years. The Kush people were massively successful traders, and the Kush Kingdom was rich in gold, emerald mines, ivory, incense, and farmland (Sikainga, Collins, Spaulding, Al-Shahi, & Sabr, 1999). These brief examples show the extensive depth of Black African history, most of which is unknown to the large majority of people, and never reaches wider society, even during BHM.
The second way BHM can be problematic is when it is used as a celebratory facade to distract from real harms plaguing the Black community. Often BHM can be used as a screen which suggests that because there have been significant strides made in Black civil rights, we magically live in a utopic society where racism, both, institutionally and individually, do not exist. Sadly, this is not case. The ground-breaking Lammy review shed light on the disproportionate treatment of Black people throughout the criminal justice system (Lammy, 2017). Black men specifically are disproportionately and significantly more likely to be arrested and imprisoned compared to their British White counterparts (Lammy, 2017). There is evidence of institutional racism within the Metropolitan police department (MacPherson, 1999). This creates feelings of distrust towards core institutions and results in these communities feeling marginalised. Similarly in Education, there is a vast amount of evidence of teacher’s negative assumptions and perceptions of Black children tied to their race, leading to their underachievement (Gillborn & Mirza, 2000). Shockingly, these problems tied to structural racism can even be found in the healthcare system, with Black women being 3.7 times more likely to die during childbirth than their White counterparts (MBRRACE-UK, 2022). Researchers argue this could be due to unconscious bias, stereotyping, and gaps in communication (American Heart Association News, 2019).
Therefore, when discussing BHM, we must not ignore the very real problems that exist in the world today. Reforms must be made in the form of laws, policies, and changes to the way we view the world and each other. Just because positive steps have been made, does not mean equality exists. This is applicable to any marginalised minority groups which have a time period devoted to celebration – the celebration is fundamentally diminished if it is paired with the complacency of both minority and majority groups. The difficult question becomes ‘how can we make ‘Black History Month’ even more meaningful?’ It is clearly a massive obstacle to overcome, however a step in the right direction can be found in the core principles of restorative justice. Most notably, the teachings of restorative justice can help us facilitate genuine conversations and listen to the real voices of those who are impacted and the steps necessary to repair the harms experienced historically and now.
American Heart Association News. (2019, February 20). Why Are Black Women at Such High Risk of Dying From Pregnancy Complications? Retrieved from American Heart Association: https://www.heart.org/en/news/2019/02/20/why-are-black-women-at-such-high-risk-of-dying-from-pregnancy-complications
Bouie, J. (2018, June 5). The Enlightenment’s Dark Side: How the Enlightenment created modern race thinking, and why we should confront it. Retrieved from Slate: https://slate.com/news-and-politics/2018/06/taking-the-enlightenment-seriously-requires-talking-about-race.html
Doharty, N. (2019). ‘I FELT DEAD’: Applying a Racial Microaggressions Framework to Black Students’ Experiences of Black History Month and Black History. Race Ethnicity and Education 22(1), 110-129.
Enahoro, N. (2023, September 27). Akyaaba Addai-Sebo: the shocking conversation that led him to start UK Black History Month. Retrieved from The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2023/sep/27/akyaaba-addai-sebo-the-shocking-conversation-that-led-him-to-start-uk-black-history-month
Gillborn, D., & Mirza, H. S. (2000). Educational Inequality: Mapping race, class and gender – A synthesis of research evidence. London.
History. (2010, January 14). Black History Month. Retrieved from History: https://www.history.com/topics/black-history/black-history-month
Lammy, D. (2017). The Lammy Review: An independent review into the treatment of, and outcomes for, Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic individuals in the Criminal Justice System. London: Lammy Review.
MacPherson, S. W. (1999). The Stephen Lawrence Inquiry. London.
MBRRACE-UK. (2022). Saving Lives, Improving Mothers’ Care: Lessons learned to inform maternity care from the UK and Ireland Confidential Enquiries into Maternal Deaths and Morbidity 2018-20. Oxford: National Perinatal Epidemiology.
National Geographic. (2023, October 19). A Guide to Timbuktu. Retrieved from National Geographic: https://education.nationalgeographic.org/resource/guide-timbuktu/
Nwabueze, T. (2022, December 27). The Dogon People of Mali and Their Connections to the Stars. Retrieved from Linkedin: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/dogon-people-mali-connection-stars-temidayo-nwabueze-1f/
Siblon, J. (2005). Black is also British: An investigation into the needs and opportunities for developing Black British history within the schools curriculum in Northamptonshire. Northamptonshire Black History Project and University College Northampton.
Sikainga, A. A., Collins, R., Spaulding, J., Al-Shahi, A., & Sabr, M. e. (1999, January 25). The Kingdom of Kush. Retrieved from Britannica: https://www.britannica.com/place/Sudan/Ismail-Pasha-and-the-growth-of-European-influence
Author: Upasana (Sana)
A vibrant world of Black Culture
With the fervor of Black History Month underpinning London life, it is an exciting time to be involved with the many activities and events taking place to recognise, acknowledge and raise awareness about black lives and diverse ways of being.
When I walked into the Black cultural market in Brixton on a Saturday morning, I was ready for this. I was ready to encounter new narratives, ideas, art, and culture that would add new dimensions to the way I think of identities and nations and broaden my understanding of the world around me. I left that evening with a lot to ponder about, and the importance of carrying on the ethos of engaging with diverse histories.
Challenging single narratives
I stopped at the book stall. The book covers were vibrant and colourful with images of black women and men, and maps of different African countries. This felt different and new, making me pause to think of the absence of these books around me.
All throughout my childhood I was exposed to Euro-American authors. Blonde hair and blue-eyed characters would bake scones, pluck apples, play in the snow and had dogs named Charlie. I loved these stories, they took me to worlds that were new to me, introducing me to different names, faces, places and words. But that was all I was ever exposed to. In school and college, sociological theories, psychological frameworks and therapeutic models were largely Western, taking me along the same path, with the same story. While my passion for the arts and humanities was only strengthened, somewhere at the back of my mind there was a constant murmur. A voice compelling me to look beyond these stories (Adichie, 2009).
‘I always felt that I looked so different from the characters in the story,’ said Natasha1, author of one of the books at the bookstall. Born and brought up in London to Jamaican immigrant parents, Natasha grew up reading British authors. While she is British and connects with the culture, she was always looking for answers to her identity. ‘What is Jamaica like? Why do I never read about it in stories? I had so many questions,’ she said.
I resonated with Natasha. Both of us were looking for different narratives introducing us to alternative ways of being, including the diversity in Euro-American countries, which are equally culturally vibrant. To move away from the single narratives she grew up on and introduce readers to the pluralities in histories and cultures, Natasha started writing children’s books on Jamaica. ‘This book is a beginning, to encourage other authors of colour to write, to tell different stories, introduce new voices and celebrate diversity.’
Power and empowerment
Underlying the celebration of Black History Month and the narration of stories, is the idea of power. Black voices have been silenced for decades because of dominant power structures. One set of actors were in a position to dictate who deserves basic rights, whose voice matters and who continues being in a position of authority over others (Carty-Williams, 2020). Some stories are silenced and marginalized, while others continue to shape knowledge and life worlds.
To address this power imbalance and create more equitable spaces for voices to flourish, initiatives like Natasha’s help in reclaiming silenced histories and untold stories. It empowers and humanises black culture and people to break free of the years of disrespect and rejection. The very possibility of owning one’s story and having the ability to freely write, speak and publish is often beyond the imagination of these communities, a distant dream. ‘Even if I write children’s stories, they are powerful,’ said Natasha. A whole new generation of young people exposed to these narratives will be sensitised towards diversity and inclusion and accept and respect cultural differences.
Beyond Black History Month: Transcending Hope
I walked back home, deeply reflecting on all the authors and stories I had missed out on. But equally, I left with a sense of hope and liberation. The Black History Month had opened a window of opportunity to people like Natasha who wanted to initiate change and make a difference to the everyday realities of communities. A single story can be powerful, but multiple, plural and diverse stories are empowering and liberating. I only hope this ethos continues and we continue to engage with alternative histories beyond the Black History Month, because that is the journey to meaningful change.
Carty-Williams, C. (2020). Publishers want more black authors. Why have they silenced us for so long? The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2020/jun/11/publishers-want-more-black-authors-why-have-they-silenced-us-for-so-long
Chimamanda, A. (2009). The danger of a single story. (video). TED Talk. https://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_ngozi_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story.
Indira, R. (2020). Lending voices to the marginalised: the power of narratives as alternative sociological discourses, 69(1), 7-16. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/epub/10.1177/0038022919898999
This article was written by: Noor Etienne-Richards
The ability to vote (freely, equally, and accessibly) is the cornerstone of democracy in the UK. It allows people of all ages, genders, races, and socio-economic backgrounds to have a voice, and contribute to the change they want to see in the society around them. The more people that vote, the more representative and reflective changes in society and the government will be. Each individual vote gives weight to important societal changes, policies, and laws. It can be the difference between feeling supported by the government or feeling insignificant and alienated by society. Furthermore, voting redistributes power into the hands of the people, it enables us to hold those ‘at the top’ accountable, and to engage with issues ‘we’ feel are vital, whether that be surrounding climate change, education, human rights, immigration, the economy and much more. This article was written to promote ‘London Voter Registration Week’ (LVRW) from the 18th-24th September 2023 and aims to highlight the importance of voting, by encouraging everyone to register to vote, especially ‘under-registered and under-represented Londoners’.
Without representative voting, a small minority group is given power to shape society in a way that impacts society. Whether that be positively or negatively – these are the voices that represent us all. There is a plethora of data that demonstrates a negative relationship between particular social demographics and the number of completed electoral voting registrations and voting rates. This is particularly true in London, which has one of the lowest voter registration rates across the United Kingdom (Mayor of London, 2022). Individuals from ethnic minority groups are slightly less likely to register to vote and to vote, than their White British counterparts. Statistics on the percentage of those who have completed voting registration are 84% for white ethnic groups, and 75% for Black ethnic groups (with Black Africans being the least likely), furthermore, in many South Asian and Chinese ethnic groups, women are significantly less likely to vote than men (Uberoi & Johnston, 2022). Additionally, individuals living in socio-economically deprived areas are also less likely to register to vote and to vote, which often stems from feelings of isolation from the mainstream political sphere. Some other demographics that have low levels of voter registration include those from LGBTQ+ communities (particularly trans and non-binary individuals) and those who are deaf and disabled.
Young people between the ages of 18-25 are some of the least likely to vote, based on polling data from the general election in 2019, only 54% of young people voted, compared to a much larger, 77% of people aged 65 and over (Uberoi & Johnston, 2022). Young people (of any race, class, gender, sexual orientation, etc.) specifically have the potential to eliminate, what many academics deem the ‘crisis of representative democracy’ through registering to vote and engaging with the world around them. A common myth based on the perception of these statistics is that young people are apathetic, indifferent or are just not enthusiastic about politics and society however, this could not be further from the truth. This idea is heavily dependent on how one measures political participation, when purely focused on voting, rates amongst young people are low, however, there is evidence of young people participating politically in other ways such as signing charitable petitions, donating to charity, volunteering and discussing political opinions online (EACEA, 2013). This sends the clear message that young people care about their communities, so why don’t they vote?
A key reason for this is based on these groups often being systematically excluded from politics through poverty, socio-economic marginalisation, and a lack of opportunities for political competence. Therefore, it is important to spread awareness about voting, to gradually remove the many daunting voting barriers in place for many young people and marginalised communities. It can be a complex task to navigate the world of voter registration, questions such as, ‘Am I allowed to vote?’ and ‘How do I register to vote?’ can deter many young people from voting, but all this information can be easily found here – https://www.gov.uk/register-to-vote. Another important reason for low voting levels amongst young people is an intrinsic distrust of the government, and the feeling that even if they did vote, no one would truly listen. Recent data shows that only 23% of people say they trust the government to put the interests of the people first (British Social Attitudes, 2020). Although it is valid to feel this way, not voting can perpetuate a never-ending cycle of marginalisation and isolation. By not voting, important opinions and perspectives are not considered, thus there is the potential for laws and policies to be made which will not consider the impact on everyone in society. Registering to vote marks the beginning of an important journey of speaking out and showing who and what you support and oppose.
At its core, empowering communities is at the heart of democracy. By registering to vote, young people take on the rewarding opportunity to shape and strengthen their community on a political and local level, not only for themselves but for future generations. An interesting study by Settle, Bond and Levitt, found that meaningful connection to one’s community not only shapes a person’s journey through adolescence but also their political participation and has positive implications on one’s role in society (Settle, Bond, & Levitt, 2011). Thus, this is an incentive for young people to register to vote, not only will you positively shape the world around you, you will also help to create a generation of adolescents who are eager to have a political voice. The research by Settle et al, also puts a responsibility on us all, to create communities and environments which ensure all under-represented communities feel comfortable and confident in sharing their voice and registering to vote.
FRED is a youth-led campaign that aims to enforce the restorative justice values of ‘Fairness – Respect – Equality – Dignity’ (FRED). The FRED campaign supports our vision to build the first restorative justice postcode in SE16 through social action in the form of blogs, campaigning, and providing high-quality volunteering opportunities for young people.
For more information, please go to:
British Social Attitudes. (2020). Democracy: Brexit, the pandemic and trust and confidence in government. London: The National Centre for Social Research. Retrieved from British Social Attitudes.
EACEA. (2013). Youth Participation in Democratic Life: Final Report. London: LSE Enterprise Limited.
Mayor of London. (2022). Survey of Londoners 2021-22: Headline findings. London: Greater London Authority.
Settle, J., Bond, R., & Levitt, J. (2011). The Social Origins of Adult Political Behavior. American Politics Research 39(2), 239-263.
Uberoi, E., & Johnston, N. (2022). Political disengagement in the UK: Who is disengaged? House of Commons Library.
This article was written by: Lorenzo Izzi
In a world in which the entire human knowledge is available from a device in our pocket, the risk of over-simplification is around the corner regarding the news. The main objective of this article is to give an overview of the attempted military coup in Russia by the Wagner group, by giving a holistic explanation of the event. It will therefore start by giving a context to the Wagner group, explaining its origin, its fit into the power structure in Russia, and its role in Russian military operations, including the invasion of Ukraine, and it will create a guide to understand future events as the tension is likely not to stop here.
Yevgeny Prigozhin and the Wagner group, origin and goals
Wagner is a self-defined “private military company” (PMC) that acts in close ties with the Kremlin, the building in which the president of Russia resides. However, its private nature gives it a special role in Russian military operations. It is not known precisely when this company started to exist, but its first international appearance was in the first stage of the Ukraine invasion in 2014 (when a dispute over Donbass and Crimea was settled). After that, Wagner is reported to have assisted Russian military operations in Syria, Venezuela and various parts of Africa. Since we don’t know much about the origins of Wagner from the literature, we need to draw on the sanctions imposed by the European Union, in which Wagner’s founder is identified with Dmitry Utkin, “a former Russian soldier adorned with Nazi tattoos” (The Economist”). The economist reports he allegedly named Wagner after Richard Wagner, Adolf Hitler’s favourite composer.
However, as with every project, the Wagner group needed funds and that is where Prigozhin becomes relevant. Prigozhin started his career in the food sector, holding many restaurants and organising diplomatic meals for President Putin and the head of states that visited Russia over time. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, he took advantage of the wave of privatisations that Russia was undertaking to save its real economy and got involved in various businesses in the 90s that granted him a place of power in the Russian economic system. Nonetheless, it is widely believed that the role of Prigozhin in the Wagner Group was very lucrative at the very start, as he managed to take possession of oil fields in Syria and diamond reserves in Africa through Wagner and the involvement of his businesses (The Economist). Various violations of human rights have been reported by the Wagner Group as well, such as violence towards civilians and harassment towards peacekeepers and aid workers (Office of the high commissioner for Human Rights in the United Nations)
Wagner and the Russian military
Before putting into context the role of Wagner in Ukraine, and subsequently the causes of the rebellion, it is worth reflecting on the nature of the Russian state very briefly. In fact, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, a few portions of the population took advantage of the political situation and became extremely rich and powerful, including Prigozhin. These groups of people, usually referred to as the Russian oligarchs, therefore control certain sectors of the Russian economy and, as already stated, Prigozhin controls a very big part of the food industry in Russia. Most of these oligarchs want to maintain their wealth for as long as possible and they conveyed that the best way to do so is to support Putin’s regime, providing security in exchange for power. It is vital to understand that the power of Putin’s regime therefore comes from the legitimisation of the oligarchs, and that is why Wagner’s rebellion has been quite noisy in the news, as in the past oligarchs or influential people opposing Putin’s regime have not managed to undertake any concrete action and were often found dead in mysterious circumstances. However, this time Prigozhin, having behind this big network of private militaries and mercenaries who are not the direct dependencies of the Kremlin, and taking advantage of the involvement of the Russian regular army in Ukraine, managed to take control of Rostov-on-Don quite easily and start to move towards Moscow. This historic event in the Russian Federation is already relevant per se, but understanding where this comes from will help us to assess its importance for Russia, Ukraine, NATO and the West as a whole.
Wagner is deeply involved in the war in Ukraine, as it has fought in Bakhmut, determining the outcome of the battle (The Economist). Meduza, a Russian news agency based abroad and opposed to Putin’s government, reports that Wagner has been the most terrifying Russian military division for Ukrainians, as its determination, power and cruelty have been of great problems for the Ukrainian army (Meduza). Therefore, his high involvement in the battlefield in one of the most embarrassing wars for Russia in terms of military losses and outcomes made Prigozhin aware of battlefield issues amongst soldiers that weren’t necessarily clear to the Kremlin, such as the need for ammunition for the Russian military, especially in light of the heroic Ukrainian counter-offensive. Therefore, Prigozhin, which is protected by his private army, started to make some noise in the previous weeks to get what he wanted from the Russian minister of defence. A few days ago, though, what he received was a minefield on his way back to Wagner military camp in Ukraine and allegedly Russian planes striking over Wagner.
Another point to raise is that the Russian army receives orders directly from the minister of defence in Russia, Sergei Shoigu, which at that moment was in Rostov-on-Don; therefore, Prigozhin’s anger was likely directed at Shoigu as well and therefore the main reason why he headed to Rostov was to have his head with his own private military company. In addition to that, Wagner has been ordered to stop being a private military company and to be fully integrated into the Russian army, under the control of Shoigu himself.
Looking at Prigozhin’s words themselves, it is clear that he was aiming to cut off Shoigu’s power more than anything else as that constitutes a fundamental threat to his control of this PMC and his wealth; however, he never mentioned Putin in his speeches. At this point, while the world was looking at the news to understand what was happening in Moscow, Prigozhin suddenly stopped his move and headed to Belarus after the mediation of the president of Belarus Lukashenko, who somehow managed to convince Wagner to stop there. Although the reasons for this withdrawal are not yet clear, there are some things that this event helped us to understand.
Lessons to understand any future event.
The first and most obvious lesson we might derive from this event is that Putin’s regime is weak, as a PMC managed to march within 200km from Moscow practically without any resistance, a dissident oligarch managed to threaten the status quo, and most importantly, he managed to tell Russian people the reality about the war. It is important to understand that, in Russia, information is controlled by the government, and the narratives about the causes of the war are not quite the real ones.
To justify the war in Ukraine, Putin claimed that NATO and Ukraine were planning an invasion of Russia and therefore by attacking first, the Russian Federation would have made sure that this could have never happened. He also stated that he wanted to de-nazify Ukraine as Russia once managed (during the Soviet Union era), with the biggest “patriotic war”, as it is now called in Russia. However, Prigozhin, the day before the rebellion, released a short video in which he stated that these reasons were lies that high-ranked Russian officials and people in power were telling the world, providing detailed evidence for that. He said that Russia doesn’t believe in the mission of de-Nazifying Ukraine, as Russia released a big number of members of the Azov group (a part of the Ukrainian army that is usually associated with right-wing ideas) in exchange for Medvedchuck, a former Ukrainian pro-Russia MP who was supposed to become the new president of Ukraine if the murder of Zelensky took place. In that video, which was released on the 24th of June 2023, what we can notice is a powerful and influential man, who is somewhat expert on battlefields as well, accusing high-ranked generals and politicians to be “bastards that sent Russians to die because they wanted glory”. Using this rhetoric in Russia is quite unusual and dangerous, and the fact the entire Wagner went away without consequences and that fighting did not take place are all signs of weakness by the Russian state. This means that negotiations had to happen with the mediation of Belarus because Russian elites knew that they were not powerful enough to fight Wagner and the casualties would have been way too high, especially considering the war in Ukraine. The Russian government wouldn’t have had any problem undertaking a bloodshed in the street of Moscow if they thought it was worth it (if we think about the number of casualties amongst the Russian oligarchs that opposed the war in Ukraine we can presume that the Kremlin is not worried about sending killers to murder those who are aligned), therefore the fact that this did not happen and that all charges against Prigozhin were dropped, means that the Russian government is well aware of its weakness.
For Ukraine, this is good news, as it means that with the counter-offensive, which started a few days before the rebellion, and Russian weakness and confusion, they will be able to push back them even more and foster those kinds of rebellions inside Russia even more. As President Zelensky stated, victory for Ukraine means conquering back the entire land that was occupied, but to do so, the strategy is to push back the Russian military and politically, creating discontent. Therefore, the Wagner rebellion might be the first sign that the implemented strategy will be successful in the long term.
Every time I read about Open Dialogue, I see the ethos of restorative justice in its principles. Open Dialogue is a ‘social network approach’ in which clinicians work as a team (minimally as a pair) with patients (clients) along with members of their family, friends, colleagues, support workers, neighbours or any other persons they wish to involve. The focus of treatment represents a shift from individual psychopathology to empowering social networks for a relational approach to recovery, involvement of the same team in the care pathways of people wherever they go and adapting the care processes according to the clients’ needs (Mosse, 2019). This approach, pioneered in Finland, is different to much of mental health care in the UK, but it has been discussed for many years with interest by several NHS Trusts around the country and is now being implemented in the UK. It is unique and innovative and has recorded striking results in Finland, Germany and parts of the USA. For example, in international non-randomised trials, 72 percent of those with first episode psychosis treated via an Open Dialogue approach returned to work or study within two years, despite significantly lower rates of medication and hospitalisation compared to treatment as usual (Stockman, 2016).
Open dialogue and restorative justice share foundational principles of healing, rehabilitative goals and dialogic relationships to allow for diverse individuals to find meaning and the space to recover. While there are many definitions of restorative justice, the overarching understanding of restorative justice is that it is an ethos. As an ethos, it is not only a methodological tool for the restoration of harm and rebuilding relationships, but also encompasses a sensitivity to and an orientation towards the values, principles and ethics of respect, equality and community collaboration. There are 4 foundational principles that Open Dialogue shares with restorative justice:
The “individual” as more than labels
One of the key foundations of the ethos is the acknowledgement that individuals are complex beings who are shaped by socio-political, cultural and economic factors. To slot people into arbitrary categories of “good” and “evil” limits the possibility of justice and a journey towards healing because it forecloses the possibility of conceiving of a solution and the capacity to build a relationship with the “other.” While this does not mean that there is no harmed party and a harming party in a crime, practising restorative justice enables both parties to interact and converse and see each other beyond the boundedness of the crime. It allows the offended person
to ask unanswered questions and explain the impact that the crime had on their life. It also gives a chance for the offender to reflect on their actions, make amends and work towards refraining from causing future harm.
Open Dialogue involves a radical shift from the traditional psychiatric treatment model of labelling and giving meaning to people’s experiences such as diagnosing them with schizophrenia or psychosis. These diagnoses are based on narrow definitions that lead to a predetermined pattern of treatments or interventions to ease the symptoms (Waddingham, 2017). What the Open Dialogue approach offers is the time and space to engage with someone’s own meanings and the many different meanings that already exist in a family/social network. It would be easy for practitioners to talk ‘about’ the person, to take an expert position and puzzle over what would be best for them. ‘Witness thinking’ in Open Dialogue orients practitioners to a more ethical way of being with people. It demands that they do their best to be alongside someone, to figure things out together. It’s about nurturing a relationship and calls for a recognition of the autonomy, wisdom and personhood of those they are trying to support (ibid.). Dialogic and relational space
In restorative justice, there is a shift from a punitive stance to a dialogic intervention. The traditional approaches in criminal justice are like monologues framed within bureaucratic systems which are often experienced negatively by people who feel that they are misunderstood, not heard or treated with dignity. Restorative justice instead focuses on a relational approach, where the conversations, interventions and nature of relationships between different parties is co-designed and co-produced by everyone (Gavrielides, 2022). Restorative justice assumes the existence of “social liaison” that bonds individuals in a relationship of respect for others’ rights and freedoms and recognises people as agential beings who can take responsibility for their own actions.
Open Dialogue is based on these values of reframing the therapeutic space and the involvement of the client. It aims to shift from an expert-led diagnostic language to discovering ways out of crisis, new openings and agency through a dialogue involving social networks and the therapeutic team. Clients are seen as agents who have the capacity to generate new emotions and construct narratives with others in their lives that can help in healing. The underlying principle is that rather than focusing on expert-led treatment and intervention, clients are given the space to speak, reflect and co-create interventions with a group involving family members, friends, caregivers and medical experts.
Crucial to the idea of creating a dialogic space is the ability to relinquish power and the desire to have one’s social will and authority prevail in a relationship. Applying restorative justice principles requires the practitioners to reflect on their own impulses, thoughts and actions and change the way they use power to dominate or influence other individuals (Gavrielides, 2022). This requires a continuous conversation with oneself and a more active integration and learning of how to respect and respond to diverse people’s opinions and thoughts in a way that is rehabilitative and healing for everyone.
Similarly in Open Dialogue, the idea is to re-shape patient and professional hierarchies, where the therapist’s job is not to offer authoritative expertise, but to respond and say what it feels like to hear the things being said. In this therapeutic space, the therapist is a ‘conversational artist’ having ‘an expertise in asking questions from a position of “not knowing”’ to allow ‘locally’ constructed understandings and vocabularies (Anderson, 1992 as cited by Moss, 2019, p. 12). This not knowing involves a shedding of unequal power dynamics in healthcare and embracing new modes of relating, knowing and being-with clients that gives everyone an equal space to co-construct the healing process.
There are core principles underlying restorative justice, but the beauty in this approach is that it is flexible and always open to new values and interpretations. While this aspect may be criticised for being un-scientific and lacking clarity, the notion of justice and collaborative approaches in the interest of all parties cannot be bound by rigid rules and meanings (Gavrielides, 2022). The idea of an intersubjective and dialogic space requires a constant shift, fluidity and reconfiguration of actions, interventions and communicative strategies to allow for an impactful and meaningful process of healing and recovery that suits the needs of the parties involved. Since it is based on lived experiences and is a way of being and doing in everyday life, defining restorative justice to a narrow understanding will itself be an injustice to the dynamic and diverse realities and experiences of people.
Open Dialogue is an approach that is also acknowledged as constantly evolving. It has no fixed frames of reference or meta-language and does not claim to hold answers to the complexity of emotions and experiences involved in the process of recovery or treatment. Rather, it derives its strength from the idea of recovery as arising between the productive, emotional and reflective interactions among diverse groups of people (Mosse, 2019, p. 6). Every immersive period with different stakeholders in the therapy has its own trajectory and conceptualisation of what counts as healing. It involves a practice of “being with” others and an “aliveness” that exceeds our existing categories and styles of thinking (Stevenson, 2012, as cited by Mosse, 2019).
In adopting its foundational principles and values, I believe the Open Dialogue approach embraces the ethos of restorative justice. Embracing this ethos allows for a kind of psychiatry and mental health treatment that fosters interactive meaning-making, a responsiveness to each other’s experience, the ability to reflect on an awareness of our emotional selves and co-creating healing and restorative interventions. While an understanding of restorative justice and its application in models like Open Dialogue is an ongoing process, these approaches are remarkable and heartening developments that have the potential to contribute towards gentler, more respectful and impactful models of care and restorative change.
Anderson H., Goolishian H. (1992) The Client is the expert: A not knowing approach to therapy. In Therapy as Social construction, McNamee S., Gergen K. New York:Sage Publications.
Gavrielides. T. (2022). Introduction to Restorative Justice Art: Four steps to restoring mental health, London: RJ4All Publications.
Mosse, D. (2019). Reflections on Open Dialogue in mental health clinical and ethnographic practice. In Emma Gilberthorpe, (ed.) Anthropological Perspectives on Global Challenges. (ASA Monograph Series). New York & London: Routledge.
Razzaque, R., Stockmann T. (2016)An Introduction to peer-supported Open Dialogue in mental healthcare. BJPsych Advances, 22. 348–356.
Waddingham, R. (2017). Some of the things that excite me about Open Dialogue. Behind the label. https://www.behindthelabel.co.uk/open-dialogue-excites-me/