Last week I participated in the National Association of Community and Restorative Justice conference in Oakland, CA. Powerfully held by the local organizing team, every session included recognition of land, ritual and ceremony, music, and art. Keynote and plenary sessions were led by and centered people who live in the work and are most directly impacted by the systems of oppression we are working to transform: women and LGBTQ leaders of color and indigenous people, formerly incarcerated leaders and organizers, children, youth, and grandmothers and grandfathers.
Over 1200 Participants! Over 100 formerly incarcerated folks. About 70 youth! Major Key! #NACRJ
— Taharka Anderson (@kingtaharka_a) June 16, 2017
— Taharka Anderson (@kingtaharka_a) June 16, 2017
“It was (Ericka Huggins) who said we couldn’t be free unless we had the tools to imagine our connection w/ each other” -Angela Davis #NACRJ
— Samantha Lynne Gupta (@samantha_gupta) June 18, 2017
I have typed up the scribbled notes from my personal notebook into this blog post of key themes and quotes in the hopes that some of the wisdom shared in this convening continues to move through the collective.
(Where I have the name of the source, I will quote the material and provide the name. If I do not have the name of the source, I will leave the statement in quotes—if you know the source, please tell me! Statements that are my thoughts in dialogue with the conference are left unquoted as “mine”… in that collective consciousness way.)
Opening Dr. Gail Christopher, Vice President for Policy and Senior Advisor for the WK Kellogg Foundation’s efforts on racial truth and reconciliation processes:
- We are hungry for compassionate response: “We are hungry for compassionate response… … those who carry out terrorist acts have within themselves a devaluation of their own humanity. Be restorative in your posture and say ‘there is so much more here than this act.’” – Dr. Gail Christopher
- On the Both/And of Cultural Healing and Structural Change: “Structures need to be dismantled… and I must say there is something persistent about structures. If you don’t have a replacement, that structure will come back… … (for example) we didn’t address the fundamental consciousness that addressed why there was a need to segregate children based on race, nor did we enforce the rulings that would have dismantled it…” – Dr. Gail Christopher
- On why “transformation” rather than “reconciliation:” “Truth, racial healing, and transformation—its not about reconciliation. Reconciliation implies a going back. Lets get real: we were never together. This country was founded and sustained on a fallacy—its about transformation—its about making it anew.” – Dr. Gail Christopher
Paraphrasing from time with Chris Marshall, Tom Noakes-Duncan, and Ted Lewis on “The Restorative Church”:
- The Paradox of Vulnerability Leading to Life: In Jewish and Christian scriptures, there is the “paradox of vulnerability leading to life.” Unfortunately, our church communities can become “regressive subcultures” that rely on retributive discipline to address disputes and harms—and the ways these two (disputes and harms) begin to hybridize. In Chris Marshall’s book, Beyond Retribution, he relies on two parables—the prodigal son and the good Samaritan—as dialogue partners to show the ways we are called to show compassion to both “offender” and “victim/survivor.” Chris refers to the prodigal son as a “re-entry” parable of what, in that historical context, was a “serious offender.” In Hebrew and Christian scriptures, “God refuses to give up on the relationship God has with the offending party.”
- Communal practices for restoration in churches: [before disputes/harms] (1) prevention, formation of restorative theology/practice, pedagogy; (2) decision-making and discernment; [after harm/disputes] (3) intervention, reconciliation, and problem-solving; and (4) post-incident healing with closure and the creation of a shared narrative.
Paraphrasing the “how to” of a “Restorative University” with Lindsey Pointer, Chris Marshall, Haley Farrar (New Zealand):
Chris described the “restorative university” as one “where all policies and practices impacting and related to staff and students are grounded in restorative principles and values.” This first meant examining student disciplinary policy and working to make “restorative process the default option.” This is always posed as a question—because RJ is always voluntary—but that student disputes and harms are addressed at the “lowest level possible” (when appropriate) with direct participation, facilitated, and with consensus-based conversation about ways that things can be “put right.”
Residence Halls are thought of as “Restorative Communities” and circle practices, trainings, and an ethos/values system of these practices becomes foundational in the Hall. Emphasis is put on building real, invested relationships and investment in the hall: knowing that (imagining a pyramid) (a) relationship building is the base, (b) relationship maintaining is the middle of the pyramid, and (c) relationship repair is the tip of the pyramid. The more energy we put into relationship building and maintenance, the more effective (and less energy) we’ll have to put into repair.
They shared a recent event in which a “drunken party” made the news, and they led simultaneous circle processes on all of the floors (200 people involved).
From Judge Andrew Becroft (New Zealand Children’s Commission) and Judge Heemi Taumaunu (Founder/Presiding Judge of Rangatahi Court of New Zealand):
Judge Becroft said clearly: “a monocultural system will fail.” One successful tactic in New Zealand is “don’t charge” provisions for teenagers to ensure teenage disputes/harms are worked with and maintained at the lowest level possible. The NZ youth offenses and institutionalization graph is OPPOSITE to the graph in the United States (read more about the 2002 Youth Offending Strategy and the graph below, here). Even with these successes,New Zealand still charges and incarcerates Maori people disproportionate to their population.
Judge Taumaunu helped developed a set of courts that are rooted in the cultural practices and beliefs of the Maori. These courts “speak in the language of one’s people” – in tongue and in embodiment, and include elders working alongside judges, ritual, song, food, and time for cultural guidance, support, advice, and encouragement. “Pepeha” occurs in which all participants (including outsiders and visitors) identify themselves with the mountain, river, and tribe they come from as a valued cultural introduction with the goal to affirm identity, belonging, and located-ness in the community. Read more here.
From Mike Hinton and Naida Glavish on the topic of restorative processes in New Zealand and their possibility as collaborative or colonial:
In New Zealand, every case that goes to district court has to be considered for RJ—this is a national law. Yet, RJ is always voluntary. The role of the RJ facilitator is “to create the safe space for a conversation to happen—but its not the facilitator’s conversation.” As for the colonial aspects of RJ in New Zealand, as RJ has become more and more part of the legal process, it becomes more prescriptive and requires certain “check boxes” and timelines are to be met (in the name of “accountability”)—which can be counter to the responsive, improvisational spirit of being with the actual people in the actual room with the actual situation. Furthermore, in an effort to prove the cost effectiveness and evaluate RJ, “RJ over-evaluates based on offender’s behavior and the cost-savings of the process—they are not calculating whether or not the victim can get out of bed and go to work. The valuing is one sided.”
On language, says Mike: “As part of a colonization process, the thing you can take to destroy a people and an identity is their language.” Restorative processes include language.
[You can watch a documentary about Mike Hinton’s role as a restorative justice facilitator with families in New Zealand online via MaoriTelevision here.]
Naida describes that the reason RJ grew in New Zealand is because indigenous people brought THEIR practices into the space of the legal system, filling courtrooms where young Maori people were being tried by non-Indigenous people and demanding to speak to the young people: “We brought our practices from home into the court system… we have the power to deal with issues in our own communities before it gets to the courts.”
In response, a participant was moved to remind us that culture must be at the center of RJ processes. They responded to Naida by saying: “RJ is becoming a ‘trend,’ a process, a protocol, a script. We forgot it is about our principles as related people and getting back into our relationships. This is a lifestyle, not a ‘practice’ or a ‘program.’ We need culture at the center.”
From “White Fragility to Truth and Reconciliation,” paraphrasing from Kusum Crimmel and Arianna Caplan:
Kusum and Arianna explored racial justice and whiteness from the perspective of the common questions of restorative justice: (1) what happened, how did you feel/think then, what do you think about it now? (2) How were you impacted? (3) How was everyone else impacted? (4) What do you need to do to make it right?
Kusum and Arianna relied on Robin DiAngelo’s “white fragility,” as well as her listing of behavior patterns of whiteness, which remind me of the work by Tema Okun. For DiAngelo, these patterns include:
- good/bad binary
- entitlement to experiences of racial comfort
- racial arrogance
- racial belonging
- psychic freedom
- constant messages of superiority
A restorative justice lens keeps our attention on the system of harms that lead to individual behavior. In the words of DiAngelo, “The most effective adaptation over time is the idea that racism is conscious bias held by mean people.” This adaptation keeps us distracted, focused on individuals as supposedly independent moral actors, and perceiving racism as a conscious moral choice rather than the system that we live in.
From “Acknowledging Ancestor Wisdom: Honoring the Roots of Restoration and Transformation” with Jerry Tello, co-founder of the National Compadres Network and Director of National Latino Fatherhood and Family Institute:
There are so many gems from the gifted, funny, sacred storytelling, poetry, and ethical weavings of Jerry Tello. Here are some of the ones that made it through my hand and onto the paper:
- You are the Dreams of Your Ancestors: “…your grandparents had a dream that you would have less suffering and more blessing.”
- On Evidence-Based Practices of Young People: “Our youngsters have an evidence-based practice too. Their practice is: do you see me? … do you see that I am the dream of my ancestors?”
- Restore to What? “When we restore, what do we restore to?”
- If not a Blessing, its Just a Practice: “If you are not connected in some way, not blessed up and prayerful, then this stuff is just some practice.”
- Embrace: “The most significant thing you can do for a child is to embrace them as yours.”
From David Anderson Hooker—quotes posted online and quotes overheard:
“Racial justice must be RADICAL: relationally constructed, authentic, dignified, ideologically transformative, connected, affirming, legitimated.”
On language: “How do we illuminate (an idea/phenomena) without limiting it?”
“On the Spot Responses and Practice Through an Equity Lens” with Cynthia Zwicky and Yaniah Pearson
“How can we turn a moment of conflict into a moment of realization?”
Cynthia and Yaniah were playful dialogue partners in exploring the ways people resist, ignore, and avoid conflicts—especially based on issues of equity—and the work they do to address conflict as a moment of realization in schools.
- The Work is Slow: Yaniah reminded us: “The work is slow.” Even though we long for a 3-hour-training we could provide every person who interacts with young people, that would not be the solution, nor would they become instantly “restorative” in their responses to the world around them. Unlearning what we’ve learned from a society that is retributive and conflict-averse, as well as learning to skills for the moment, as well as conflicts themselves, take time.
- Some Resistance as Lack of Confidence: “What is the embodied experience of someone who says (about an equity problem), ‘It is not that big of a deal’? At the core of it is actually about personal ability—resistance is so often actually a lack of confidence.”
- Maintaining Relationships Makes Repair Easier: Circle processes—ongoing, commonplace, reliable—allow us to make our mistakes sacred and a source of connection with one another. When we have regular places where (teachers) can go and share who they deeply are, those spaces can turn into spaces where they could also say, “Wow, I was a ‘bad’ teacher today, I need support.”
- Listen in Conflict—You’re Hearing Values: They shared a quote from Hildy Gottlieb in the spirit of seeing the potential for realization in the midst of conflict: “When people speak in outrage and anger, when they talk about arguments and conflicts, listen carefully. They are telling you what is important to them. They are telling you their values.”
- When Talking Race (particularly in classrooms, institutions): When discussing issues of race with others, particularly across identities and power differentials, the conversation “requires ground rules, a shared language, and a recognition of power.” Furthermore, “Institutionalized racism has a historical basis. The personal is historical.”
Closing Plenary on “Restorative Responses to Mass Incarceration: Formerly Incarcerated Persons Moving from Margins to Center” with George Galvis, Albino Garcia, Tina Reynolds, Jerry Elster, Julie Arroyo Guzman, and Troy Williams:
Activities that are criminalized are activities that are normal response to experiencing violence: In response to what others called “acting out” or “criminal behavior,” Julie noted, “I was actually having a normal human reaction to experiencing violence.”
Who is leading the movement? Jerry Elster challenged the audience about the RJ movement, particularly, whose voices and experiences are centered, who is considered “expert,” and who is leading the movement. He asked: “Who is leading the movement? Who are the gatekeepers? Let those who have been directly impacted lead.”
In response to a question from the audience asking if the leadership is going to be those most directly impacted, what should those of us with different experiences do as part of this movement. Jerry replied, “This movement is for everybody—just stay in your lane.’
Tina Reynolds shared about her experience of re-entry and her work creating spaces where formerly incarcerated people can be their whole selves: which includes not only them, but their families. She also challenged the gathered community to move beyond tokenizing most-directly impacted people, saying: “We keep being asked to show up rather than asked to be part of.”
Stop Taking Credit for Other Peoples’ Transformation and Inherent Power: She also talked about the tendency for non-incarcerated people to take credit for the transformation of others inside prison: “You are patting yourselves on the back… thinking they didn’t come in with their own power.”
Troy Williams showed his film about his experience of incarceration, which you can learn more about journalism and film-making here.