On a Sunday in March 2014, an afternoon basketball game in Chicago among young teens ended abruptly as shots rang out and one of their friends fell to the ground. Luckily, the boy survived, but this incident is like too many others that occur daily in inner city America. The ongoing violence among our youth leaves us to question why this happens. Do the reasons lie in law enforcement, education, economics, parenting, or elsewhere? Or does the structural violence built into deeply racist systems lead "hurt people to hurt people"?
The young people playing ball that afternoon attend a school where we engage in restorative justice (RJ). The next day, we held a peace circle with these boys, each of whom was a friend or family member to the boy who was shot. The feeling in the room was heavy as the circle began. As the circle keeper, I began the process by building relationship and trust, necessary in order to move to the deeper level of sharing and ultimately begin the healing process. Recounting what happened was not easy, but the heaviness was slowly replaced with a sense of safety and a place for the boys to begin to share and process the events, emotions, fears, insights, and sadness about what they witnessed. We moved between talking about the incident to stories that illustrated our strengths, vulnerabilities, and hopes. Empathy was built, which led to an interconnectedness that was powerful.
Afterwards, I couldn't help but wonder, without the circle, how would they have been able to walk into school that morning and engage in their classes. It is practically impossible for our young people of color to avoid victimization by the violent systems of oppression that work to hold them back.
Each time I sit in a circle with young people, I am amazed at their resilience in a world where the deck is stacked strongly against them. They articulate their hopes, dreams, and fears and become empowered to succeed in an unjust world. The space provides opportunities to heal, build confidence, a sense of belonging and significance necessary to work toward a better future.
There's little doubt that our communities are broken. Systems of racial and social control marginalize and criminalize those for which the formal economy has little use. Even with all of the data that shows America's incarceration rate is greater than any other country, we continue to turn our heads, especially given the disproportionate number of incarcerated black and brown people. We become accustomed to pervasive systems of racial inequality in our society. Just as we once accepted slavery, black codes, and Jim Crow laws, we now uphold the school to prison pipeline, racial profiling by police, disproportionate minority contact (DMC), and mass incarceration. Marginalizing black and brown people is part of the American DNA.
It is easy to believe these systems and an "eye for an eye" are the ways to stay safe, with no alternative. But change is possible, and it begins by healing and building relationships, as illustrated in the circle at the school. Restorative justice has the capacity to empower those who have not been empowered in the past. Individuals and communities begin to act collectively, which is necessary in order to challenge the punitive structures that keep our young black and brown boys from succeeding.
Of late, the restorative justice philosophy and movement are finally gaining respect and recognition. After battling an image of being soft on crime or "touchy-feely," RJ is becoming recognized for its principles and values. RJ is understood as a way to shift the punitive mindset, so ubiquitous in our culture. Living the philosophy changes how we treat one another and becomes a "way of being" that embraces inclusivity, community building, empathy, and accountability. It is the antithesis of the dehumanizing, power-based, retributive systems that have been devastating our communities. Punishment and shame shouldn't be the deliverables; people and relationships are the deliverables.
In order to lead to sustainable positive change, it is vital that the foundational principles are learned and remain deeply entrenched wherever RJ is practiced.
Elements missing in our communities, which existed before the age of mass incarceration and the prison pipeline, are a sense of belonging, interconnectedness, and collective responsibility. Jonathan Braithwaite made a valid point that this loss of "a sense of community" is a catalyst for crime and violence (Braithwaite, 1989; Moore, 1997). This leads to increased incarceration, which leads to the breakdown in our communities – a vicious cycle.
The result is an increased reliance on government and state-run institutions. Many believe the public sector exists as a service to society and is the way to have safe communities. This is an illusion. These are the very institutions that fuel the prison pipeline. Instead of turning to punitive systems, restorative justice makes it possible to rebuild our interconnectedness and heal from decades of mass incarceration.
The concept of RJ is not new. In fact, indigenous communities have relied on non-punitive models to address harm for generations. What is new is that many governmental organizations and non-profit entities that have previously supported oppressive systems are claiming to "adopt restorative practices." For one, Chicago Public Schools (CPS) is implementing RJ district-wide as a way to end the school to prison pipeline. Any institution should be commended for wanting to incorporate RJ, but the philosophy should not be lost in the process.
RJ practitioners, community leaders, academics, and experts in Chicago came together to create the document, Grounding Principles of Restorative Justice, to safeguard against any momentum towards a "practice" mentality without the foundational elements. The hope of this collaborative effort is that it will be used by any stakeholders that embrace RJ and want to embed it into their work and lives in a meaningful manner.