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Sunday, August 17, 2014

Restorative, not Punitive, Responses to Youthful Wrongdoing (interview)
After more than 25 years as a civil rights lawyer and racial and social justice activist, Dr. Fania E. Davis entered a doctoral program in indigenous studies and apprenticed with traditional healers around the globe, particularly in Africa. Since receiving her Ph.D. in 2003, she has been engaged in a search for healing alternatives to adversarial justice. Co-creator and director of Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth, Dr. Davis’s honors include the Ubuntu award for service to humanity and an award for excellence in restorative justice youth programming from the National Association of Community and Restorative Justice.

Why did your ideas about justice change when you worked with indigenous healers?

From childhood, I have followed the way of the warrior. I was born and came of age in Birmingham, Alabama during the 50’s and 60’s when apartheid-like conditions prevailed. Two close friends were killed in the Birmingham Sunday School bombing in 1963. 

All this set me on a lifelong quest for social transformation. As a child, I was a civil rights activist. As a college student, an anti-racist activist. Later, a womanist standing against male chauvinism. An internationalist against imperialism. A socialist against the evils of capitalism. A black woman fighting to save my sister from a legal lynching. A militant against racial violence in the U.S. and racial apartheid in South Africa. 

As a civil rights trial lawyer fighting against racism in the courts, I had been trained in either/or, right/wrong, guilty/innocent, splitting ways of thinking and being in the world. On cross-examination we are trained to demolish our opponent. Being a lawyer gave me training par excellence in binary and oppositional ways of thinking and being.

After almost three decades as bellicose warrior-lawyer-activist, I became so burnt out that, through a series of dreams and synchronistic events, I ended up closing my law practice, enrolling in a Ph.D. program in indigenous studies, and apprenticing to a South African traditional healer as part of my field research. I intuitively knew I needed an infusion of feminine, creative, healing, and spiritual energies to re-equilibrate. 

After coming home from Africa, I discovered restorative justice. It was an epiphany for me to see this new paradigm of justice emerging on the historical stage. A new but ancient way of doing justice. 

Learning about RJ integrated the lawyer-warrior-healer in me. Prevailing retributive justice harms people who harm people to show that harming people is wrong. It adds to the original harm. Harmed people go on to harm other people. Harm replicates, metastasizes. 

RJ seeks to interrupt this vicious cycle by healing the harm. RJ is a justice that is not about getting even, but about getting well. A justice that is not a battle ground but a healing ground. A justice that seeks to transform broken lives, relationships, and communities rather than damage them further. A healing justice rather than a punishing justice.

This is the same kind of justice that Mahatma Gandhi talked about – that act alone is just that does no harm to either party to a dispute. And the same one MLK talked about - “Justice is love correcting that which revolts against love.” The same one that Cornel West talks about when he says “Justice is love expressed in public spaces.”

Learning about RJ was a transformational moment on a personal level. For the first time, I was no longer raging against the evils of the world. I had something to be for rather than against. I could practice being the change I wanted to see in the world.

How could parents and teachers use restorative justice in their homes and classrooms? 

Parents are routinely invited to participate in conferences or circles used in lieu of out-of-school suspension. They also participate in re-entry circles. Some students have reported they are doing Circles in their homes with family members. See this video for an example of parents’ participation in a Circle at their child’s school.

Teachers can do Circles during advisory periods. (Ideally all classrooms in the school are doing Circles at that time.) Teachers may be trained to engage in restorative conversations and impromptu conferences to handle classroom disruption on the spot. 

Teachers can facilitate or prepare their students to facilitate classroom circles on such topics as generating shared values, check-in and check-out circles at the beginning and end of the year, day, or semester, setting and reviewing objectives for the period. 

Circles can also be utilized in the classroom for celebration, discussing a topic (academic or more social), or to address any issue of concern. Teachers can also teach restorative justice classes. Here is a link to a video that illustrates an advisory circle:

What impact has restorative justice had on youth in the Oakland area?

As noted above, after returning from Africa and completing my dissertation, I learned about restorative justice. Struck by the promise of this approach, I co-created Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth (RJOY) in 2005. RJOY’s mission is to promote restorative justice principles, practices, and policy shifts in Oakland’s schools, communities and juvenile justice system.

RJOY’s work has resulted in systemic shifts in Oakland toward race-conscious restorative responses to youthful wrongdoing. 

Our first middle school pilot’s successes were unparalleled - reducing suspension rates by 87%, eradicating violence, eliminating teacher attrition, and improving academic outcomes­­. This led the Oakland school system to adopt restorative justice as official policy system-wide in 2010.  Today RJ is at 30 schools in Oakland with a budget close to $1 mill.

At RJOY’s current demonstration site, Ralph Bunche High School, a continuation school, student suspension rates fell by 74% and referrals for violence by 77% in two years. Racial disparity in discipline was altogether eliminated. Mid-point during the current academic year, Bunche H.S. has so far had no suspensions or fights. District outcomes are also dramatic. Suspension rates fell district-wide by 52% in one year. Instructional days lost by African American males decreased 75% in the last three years.

Children in Oakland, considered one of the most violent cities in the nation, are today learning a new way of navigating conflict through Restorative Justice. 
  • Girls who have been long-time enemies become friends after sitting in a Peacemaking Circle. 
  • Instead of fighting, students come into the restorative justice room and ask for a talking piece and Circle. 
  • Students with a 0.0 GPA and multiple incarcerations and suspensions who were not expected to graduate not only graduate but increase to a 3.0-plus GPA, with some honored as class valedictorians. 
  • Youth report they are doing Circles in their home, with their families. 
  • Graduates return to their schools to ask for a Circle to address conflict occurring in the community. 

What sorts of staff and resources are needed to start a school-wide restorative justice program?

Full implementation of a whole school restorative justice program takes 2-4 years. The first step is to assess the need by reviewing school levels of suspension, expulsion, and school-based arrests. Are they higher than they should be? Is there racial disparity in the school’s discipline practices? 

The need for Restorative Justice can also be assessed from dissatisfaction by students or staff with current practices and the school climate. Can members of the school community recognize the need to rethink exclusionary school discipline? How are you engaging them in creating the vision? 

Generate interest through education and engagement. 
  • Using the Circle process with its strong focus on relationship-building, create the space to hold conversations on the destructive impact of exclusionary school discipline practices and on restorative justice alternatives. 
  • Create spaces to allow multiple and diverse stakeholder voices to be heard. 
  • Involve skeptics to the degree possible in planning for a stronger initiative with broader support. 
  • Describe Restorative Justice as a method that promotes a positive and orderly school environment, a method for students (and all members of the school community) to learn and practice self-discipline, empathy, and accountability. 

Taking responsibility to make things right after harm has occurred is often more challenging and usually more effective in changing behavior than sitting in detention or being suspended. 

Restorative Justice also works because it creates a strong, values-based community, intentionally promoting peer-to-peer and intergenerational relationships based on trust and respect. 

Consider parent and community involvement. A thorough, inclusive and collaborative visioning and planning process is critical to successful implementation.

Next, plan a series of training and coaching sessions, ideally facilitated by already trained school staff (RJ Coordinator, Dean, or Vice Principal). If this is not yet available, training and coaching can be done by experienced consultants or community-based organizations. 

Teachers, counselors, school security officers, administrators and other adult staff attend a 2-day training before the beginning of the school year to introduce them to Restorative Justice principles and practices and prepare them to implement them in the classroom, hallways, cafeteria, etc. 

 In addition to the Level 1 training, do more specialized trainings of staff in charge of discipline in RJ alternatives to exclusionary school discipline and re-entry strategies for students returning after suspension, expulsion, or arrest. Train students in promoting and facilitating Circles to mediate student conflict. 

Additionally, create a learning community, carving out time on a recurring basis, monthly at minimum, possibly during the school’s regularly scheduled professional development sessions, to identify and reflect on what is working, what are areas of growth, and what tweaking is needed in the school’s implementation of restorative practices.

In the way of staff, most schools need a full-time employee, often a Restorative Justice Coordinator, to implement the practices as well as train and coach other school staff in implementation. 

This role can also be played by an Assistant Principal or Dean. This position is also responsible for collecting and evaluating data. 

In Oakland, most of the RJ coordinators at 30-odd Restorative Justice sites are hired by the schools or have a consulting contract with the school district. There is also a district-wide Restorative Justice Manager with a small staff that is hired by the district.

What role does mindfulness play in restorative justice practice?

Our primary practice is sitting in Circle, whether to create shared values, to build community, to celebrate accomplishments and grieve losses, or to repair harm. Before beginning, it is important to get grounded and be fully present in order to bring your best self to Circle. 

Breathing exercises or meditation set our intention to be fully present and engaged in the restorative work. It helps us to maintain a higher level of awareness and presencing. 

In order to show up in a good way for our youth, we need to be able to separate ourselves from the stresses of the day. We also want to model this for our youth. We want to be grounded and centered in our interactions, especially for youth who are traumatized. 

We frequently find ourselves in relationship with youth who are triggered due to trauma and much of of our work is helping to de-escalate. We also want to model this for our youth. 

When the urge to respond to harm with more harm arises, mindfulness helps to distance oneself from those reactions and provide the space to reflect on a healthier response. This is particularly important for those of us who work with chronically traumatized students. 

Compound trauma often results in a state of hyperarousal where the amygdyla is activated and their brain is so busy scanning the environment for threats they are not in a state where they can learn. Using breathing exercises, meditation, yoga or other mindfulness techniques help move them into a state of relaxed alertness where readiness to learn is optimized. 

Do you have a personal mindfulness practice, and if so, how does it help you in your work?

I aspire to meditate on a daily basis. This does not happen as consistently as I would like, but I’m about 80% there. I follow my breath for about 30 minutes every morning. I also have a regular yoga practice.


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