Even though much of my work is literally TOO BIG FOR WORDS, occasionally I am inspired to write, and this is the place for that. Feel free to join in the conversation. Thanks for reading.
At a time when the news is nothing but negative — mostly showcasing the darkest corners of our society — I’ve got some uplifting news about events happening here in Sweet Home Chicago. While the headlines focus on harm, experts in restoring that harm recently gathered at the Oak Park Public Library for a Restorative Justice Youth Conference to share inspiring stories of communities creating safe spaces for repairing trauma and restoring justice. OPPL is one of the first Restorative Libraries in the country, paving the way for better communities. We were a gathering of teachers and students, police officers and people with records, elders and newbies, student deans, spoken word artists, bridge-builders, circle keepers and community organizers, telling tales of restorative practices being used in prisons, schools, libraries and all kinds of community places. You just need to hear THIS story. Here are my takeaways:
*The more I know about you, the less likely I am to harm you.
Many of our crises come from a lack of understanding. Creating safe spaces is a proven way to interrupt violence. Restorative justice circles are built by developing trust over time, practicing “listening hard," engaging in real storytelling, and focusing on reinstating relationships. When I know you, I can relate to you. Once I know your story, the risk of me hurting you dramatically decreases. Folks, let’s lean in!
*Ask: How do you feel? and What do you need?
Instead of that tired, old, automatic “How are you?" greeting, why not try a new inquiry — and then listen intently for the response. The best teams are made when everyone feels free to speak, there’s no judgment, and true equity is achieved. Without knowing how people feel or what they need, how can we possible relate? There are so many unheard, silenced voices in our culture; it’s heartbreaking. Give them room to share feelings and needs. And in place of the antiquated “eye for an eye” system of punishment, we need a mindset shift; we need to see eye to eye, to sit in circle, to be face to face and connect heart to heart. We are human beings who need to feel seen and heard, to know each other — it’s time to remember how to be human again. When we meet crisis with compassion, we are on our way to creating a Culture of Care.
*Acknowledge our Elders and those who Contribute
The most soulful parts of the weekend were the opening and closing circles, where we were all seen, heard and connected. We invoked our elders, the indigenous people whose land we now occupy, and those along the way who have added value to our lives. In all of these ways, we felt the web of interconnection — in sharp contrast to that terrible sense of isolation we feel outside of safe spaces. One of the most poignant moments was when Stephen Jackson asked the panelists to name individuals who had guided, inspired, uplifted, and loved them. Hearts broke open with gratitude. There wasn’t a dry eye in the room. It turns out that not one of us successfully navigates life solo; we absolutely cannot pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps. We can’t become ourselves by ourselves. We need each other, which our ancestors knew so well and we seem to have forgotten.
*Know the Story. Those closest to the problems are closest to the solutions …but furthest from resources and power.
From the very beginning, human beings gathered in circles, as peers. The current system of “justice” (AKA “the industrial prison complex”) is broken, ineffective, and UNjust. Furthermore, when it comes to history, much of what we’ve been taught is missing, hiding, or ignoring critical truths. Controlling the story, resources, knowledge, and access to them is a “Power Over” model that succeeds only by distorting truth, inciting fear, and controlling resources. (Sounds scarily familiar, right?) True Justice mandates Empowerment: True leaders empower and engage the people as experts of their own life-lived experience. They hold the solutions. Let’s get busy empowering them and connecting them to resources. Solutions will follow!
*How can I create opportunities to open doors for others?
Story after transformative story included a moment where one human being said to another: “I could see you being a leader… You are smart… You are ready” — where one person poured energy, inspiration, hope, and love into another — helping them to see that another way was possible. This is an easy way to connect with another human every single day. See them, say something. Mentors matter, BIG time. Be a mentor, open a door, whisper hope. You are needed.
*If each of us was held responsible forever for the worst thing we’ve ever done, we’d all be in big trouble!
Just imagine! Know that restorative justice is not about abdicating accountability. Instead, this model relies on proven techniques of forgiveness and empowerment, which are far more successful than our current system of punishment. We are caught in a cycle of violence and trauma, held in place by blame and shame. The US has the largest prison population in the world and the highest per capita incarceration rate! This system is NOT working! Schools practicing RJ replace archaic punishments of suspension and demerits with curiosity, empowerment, compassion and forgiveness. Involving students in the solutions is better for the entire community!
*Always approach things from a position of possibility!
Times of chaos are also great opportunities for creation, given an open mindset. Check out the list of incredibly creative responses to the challenge of violence in our city (below). Reading these stories, feel into the energy of “What’s possible?” Success stories shared included these necessary ingredients: WILL + OPPORTUNITY + SUPPORT + KNOWLEDGE + LUCK. At a time when politicians and police are throwing up their hands at the epidemic of violence — restorative justice circles creating space for understanding in our schools and toughest neighborhoods are working! Imagine what’s possible when we shift our mindset from “I can’t; it’s impossible” to “What else is possible?”
*Question laws that question our worthiness.
Did you know there are more than 48,000 laws, rules and regulations across the USA that keep people imprisoned far beyond serving their sentences, limiting their access to voting, employment, housing?! Heartland Alliance has been a successful advocate questioning laws that question our worthiness. They believe that society is better for everyone when even the most vulnerable among us can participate, prosper, and reach their full potential.
*It’s gonna take time. Immeasurable means invaluable.
Implementing a more equitable, human-centered approach requires a paradigm shift — and it’s going to take time. Restoring harm in restorative justice circles cannot be measured; the impact of this work is beyond measure. A young man who works on the South Side shared his reaction when RJ was first proposed to him: “What’s this corny circle crapp?” Now, he says, “IT WORKS!” In the words of other peace circlers, “If you give Life a chance, it will evolve you, move you forward.”
Of all the stories I’ve heard over the past two years, these provide me the most hope. A deep bow of gratitude to Stephen Jackson and his team at the Oak Park Public Library for hosting such an inspiring weekend! What a privilege to be in circle with these courageous, compassionate change-makers!
LINKS: Learn more about some of the amazing people and programs who participated:
The YMCA of Metro Chicago's Bridging the Divide program was developed to help build understanding between youth, law enforcement officials, and other community members — offering opportunities for dialogue through cafés, peace circles, and the exchange of photos and stories. Over the course of the partnership, the YMCA and the Chicago Police Department developed a toolkit to help improve youth and police relationships. (https://www.ymcachicago.org/programs/youth-safety-and-violence-prevention-bridging-the-divide)
Fearless Leading by the Youth (FLY) activates youth and surrounding communities in Chicago via: community organizing training and workshops, historical-cultural workshops, and mentorship programs to create revolutionary social change. (https://www.facebook.com/FLYleaders/)
Circles & Ciphers is a hip-hop infused restorative justice organization led by and for young people impacted by violence. Through art-based peace circles, education, and direct action we collectively heal and work to bring about the abolition of the prison-industrial complex. (http://www.circlesandciphers.org/)
Heartland Alliance provides housing, healthcare, jobs and justice services to over 400,000 people in the US and around the world, and leads state and national policy efforts to promote lasting change. (https://www.heartlandalliance.org/vision/) One of its many endeavors is Restoring Rights and Opportunities Coalition of Illinois, which successfully passed one of the strongest reentry bills in the country (HB2373), which will allow thousands more Illinoisans the opportunity to seal their record so that they can better find jobs, housing, and go to school. For the 4.1 million Illinois adults with a criminal record, this will be a fundamental shift in opportunity. (https://medium.com/@HeartlandAllianceRP/2018-we-are-up-to-the-challenge-30dec157ca22)
READI Chicago (Rapid Employment And Development Initiative) is an innovative response to reduce gun violence that connects people most at risk of gun violence involvement with paid transitional jobs, cognitive behavioral therapy and supportive services to create viable pathways to a different future. Launched in the fall of 2017 with a goal of reaching 500 men (to date, 377 have been engaged!), the program reaches across North Lawndale, Austin, West Garfield Park and Greater Englewood. (https://www.heartlandalliance.org/press_release/heartland-alliance-announces-innovative-program-designed-to-reduce-gun-violence-and-provide-economic-opportunity-for-those-at-highest-risk-of-gun-violence-involvement/)
A Greater Good Foundation significantly impacts the lives of youth everyday by developing their mind, body, and spirit via a residential extended learning community that focuses on social-emotional learning, financial literacy, community service, and post-secondary college/career navigation. Their goal is to build Chicago’s first private boarding school serving high-risk youth, creating a safe and engaging environment for young people from low-income families to become vulnerable discovering themselves and grow up to become individuals who embody love, courage, and prosperity! (https://www.agreatergoodfoundation.org/)
Pamela Purdie from Alliance Building Inc. and Precious Blood Ministry of Reconciliation (https://pbmr.org/staff/pamela-purdie/) was our wise elder in the room.