“What is a new reality and how do you build it?” is one of our most frequently asked questions. A new reality is one in which participants have “more voice, more choice, and more responsibility.” There are as many approaches to building a new reality as there are stars in the sky. Therefore, the best way to explain a new reality is to provide successful examples. In this four-part series, we spotlight efforts in Kortrijk, Belgium to build a new reality by changing the way people work, learn, and deal with family conflict.
A mother and son embark on a hiking trip.
The son loses his balance during a challenging vertical climb. His mother grabs him before he tumbles several feet below, to the rocky ground. Relieved that he is safe, she clutches him tight. It’s been a long time since she held her son to her breast. She can still feel the little boy in the lean skeleton of the man he is becoming.
He shrugs off his mother. She’s always holding on to him too tightly. She always nags him about what he’s doing, who he’s with, and where he’s going. Doesn’t his mother understand, he’s a man now? He didn’t want to come on this camping trip anyway. He misses his friends back in the city. He resumes the climb.
A Mother and Son Story
Hours later the sun dips below the mountain peaks.
Mother and son join similar families around a campfire. Their muscles ache. But it’s the good kind of tired, the soreness that comes from stretching and rebuilding lost muscle memory. Volunteer coaches trained in restorative practices guide the conversation around the day’s events and insights gained. The light and heat of the campfire elicit radical honesty.
When it is her turn to speak, the mother says to her son with tears in her eyes: “I know that you are a man now. But I am still your mother. I still need to hold you and know that you are okay.”
“Your love suffocates me,” the son responds, with tears in his eyes. “I love you, but I need space to figure out who I am and what I want to do with my life.”
She agrees to give him space. He agrees to allow her to hug and fuss over him occasionally. Mother and son have clarity and understanding, where there once was silence punctured by occasional fights.
Restorative Practices Meet Outward Bound
Wies Vandenbulcke told me the bare bones of the mother and son story during a cold, rainy morning in October.
I imagined the bits about their thoughts and emotions about the experience, because I’m a storyteller.
Wies leads Forta Kuné, an experimental initiative in Kortrijk, Belgium that combines family support counseling with wilderness experiences such as camping, hiking, and canoeing in the mountains.
Deriving its name from an Esperanto phrase meaning “together strong,” Forta Kuné is part of a constellation of programs administered by Oranjehuis, a local nonprofit organization that adapts restorative practices to serve at-risk youth and families in West Flanders.
Forta Kuné focuses on families who want to actively work on creating sustainable parent and child relationships by removing them from their old habits and environments.
“For example, if you have a father and son who fight, you may have a mother who is the peacemaker,” Wies said. “If you put the father and son in a situation without the mother, they have to go back to the basics with each other and in nature.”
Every activity in the wilderness experience, such as kayaking or bicycling, is designed for two people. A volunteer coach checks on the pair’s progress and identifies suitable challenges they encountered that can be used as springboards for further discussion. Together, they learn to develop a positive space in which the parent and child can be speak and be heard, respect each other’s position, and create a path forward for the relationship.
“Sometimes, it’s easier to talk about something when you are doing something active together, rather than sitting in a circle facing each other,” Wies said. “It’s restorative because they can restore their bond by doing things together. When a parent makes time for their child because they want to fix their broken relationship, it sends a very strong message.”
Kortrijk Builds a New Reality
I spent a week in Kortrijk and Amsterdam to learn more about innovative approaches to building a new reality that emphasize decentralized power and participatory decision-making.
Specifically, I’m interested in experimental models that address families in crisis and workplace relationships. Family and work are ripe for exploration because they are the places where we spend the most time and where we invest the most. They are also areas where interpersonal power is expressed and sometimes abused, and therefore, offer the greatest opportunities for healing.
This was my second visit to Kortrijk this year. I first came to Kortrijk in May to attend the International Institute of Restorative Practices’ world conference, which focused on employing restorative practices to achieve community well-being and resilience.
I also believe that geography shapes destiny.
Similar to my work in Detroit, I wanted to know more about Kortrijk’s character and why it created a form of restorative practices that combines nature and activity. Kortrijk’s approach to restorative practices rarely takes place in a stuffy conference room with stale coffee. The Belgians like to get out and move.
Kortrijk’s mixture of modernity and Old World immediately captivated me. Yet, I also learned that beneath its veneer of prosperity and beauty are families in crisis.
Wages are stagnated while the cost of living continues to rise. Families are working harder and spending less time together, while seeing no increase in financial wealth and stability. A housing crisis has reduced options for low-income families and, in the worst cases, leaving a lot of young people homeless. Some young people are turning to drugs and social media to ease feelings of alienation and loneliness.
Like the mother and the son at the beginning of this article, some residents are standing at the edge, grasping for connection with their families and sense of purpose.
Finding Meaning in Forta Kuné
We gloss over our imperfections in the United States by posting highlight reels of our lives on social media.
In Belgium, I spoke to parents who meet once a month in frustration, humility, and grace to discuss their problematic relationships with their children. One mother showed the group a photo of her children calmly watching television. She said a year ago such a photo wouldn’t have been possible due to the behavioral health issues of one of her children, which keep the rest of the family entangled.
Another parent showed me a photo of a meal that her teenage son had made earlier that week. They had been fighting for over a year. He couldn’t say the words to reconnect, but he could cook a meal. A teenage girl told me that she felt unloved by her parents and was afraid to return to them after her stay at Oranjehuis ended.
These families are in crisis, but they are inching toward healing. I briefly share their stories here to show that they aren’t different than you and me. We just don’t talk about it, because we are afraid of being vulnerable, scared and less-than-perfect.
However, the more I observe and engage with these models in Kortrijk, Detroit and in my own life, the more I realize that we can’t change the world until we change ourselves. The macro and micro are interrelated. Thinking that there is no relationship between how we treat our children, and the people we elect who set policies that govern the care and education of all children and families, is where we run into trouble.
I chose to write about Forta Kuné because its very name contains a message for all of us: “Together, we are stronger.”