This week, after the Nonviolence Report, Nonviolence Radio broadcasts a recording of a keynote speech from the Association for the Contemplative Mind in Higher Education’s 2017 conference featuring Dr. Fania Davis. As a founder of Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth, Davis is also a legal scholar and a decades-long activist in the civil rights anti-racial violence, anti-apartheid, Black liberation, women’s, prisoner’s, peace, socialist and anti-imperialist movements. In this episode, Davis talks about the power of restorative justice — as opposed to retributive justice — to heal and bring together communities fractured by violence, racism, fear and rage.
What is restorative justice? It is a worldview, rooted in indigenous principles, and a theory of justice that emphasizes bringing together everyone affected by wrongdoing to address their needs and responsibilities and to heal the harm as much as possible. To heal the harm as much as possible. It is a worldview rooted in indigenous principles and a theory of justice.
Our prevailing justice system is based on a Roman notion of just desserts. If I do harm, the scales of justice become imbalanced and the only way to re-balance is to do harm to me.
Restorative justice invites a paradigm shift.
The three questions retributive justice asks are, “What rule was broken? Who broke it? And what punishment is deserved?”
The three questions restorative justice asks are, “Who was harmed? What are the needs and responsibilities of everyone impacted? And how do all impacted come together to address needs and responsibilities and heal the harm?
By drawing on her strengths as both a (wisdom, spiritual) warrior and a healer, Davis has helped bring about massive changes in the Oakland public schools. The use of restorative justice practices has raised graduation rates, drastically decreased the numbers of suspensions and absences and is starting to loosen the tight grip of racism on the education system and our society. The possibility of genuine healing depends on making space — creating a circle — where every voice matters and every voice is heard.
Stephanie Van Hook: Greetings everybody and welcome to Nonviolence Radio. I’m your host, Stephanie Van Hook. We’re going to start today’s show with a brief Nonviolence Report from Michael Nagler, and then we’ll go into an interview with Dr. Fania Davis on the power of restorative justice.
Michael Nagler: Greetings everyone. This is Michael Nagler with the Metta Center and I’m bringing you a brief news and resources report again today. I’d like to begin in a way that I sometimes do by holding up someone who has just passed, to memorialize an Ursuline nun named Dianna Ortiz. She joined the convent when she was 17. 1987, she moved to Guatemala to work with the Indigenous Mayan communities. She was abducted and subjected to horrendous treatment and finally made her escape and came back to the United States where she struggled for years to get justice.
One of the sisters who knew her says this, “Dianna walked through the very worst of hell and came out with love. Her legacy is for us to be nonviolent. Her legacy is a witness to nonviolence and to love in the face of evil, and to redemption. That’s her legacy, to teach us that that’s possible.” So, there’s a meaning to the tremendous suffering that Sister Dianna went through. And she has just, at the age of 62, passed away from cancer.
Well, to move onto other and brighter things, I’m happy to report that the capital of the Confederacy, the State of Virginia – it is official: they have just abolished the death penalty. They were the first southern state to do so. They were also the state that carried out executions more than any state in the Union, even Texas, I understand. And now it’s interesting that Justice Sotomayor is arguing for abolishing the federal death penalty, which has been drastically overused by the outgoing president.
Another good development of a legislative kind is that Congresswoman Barbara Lee of California, who is really one of the members of the Peace Caucus, she has actually introduced H.R.1111 which is the Department of Peacebuilding Act. This is a process, a struggle that has been going on for just about as long as there has been a United States of America. And we’re hoping that now with the new administration, something may come of it.
When America was founded, or shortly thereafter, there was a proposal that there be a Department of Peace. And that never happened. Instead, there was a Department of War, later called the Department of Defense. The idea being, of course, that war is the only way to get defense.
I might also mention on the environmental front that Greenpeace is sending ships right now to the Indian Ocean to stop whaling and other depredations on the ecosystem of the Indian Ocean which has been very, very hard hit. So, knowing Greenpeace, there will be interesting developments to watch for there.
In Myanmar, there has recently been a one-day general strike that was the 22nd strike in protest of the recent military takeover, the coup. They staged this strike despite the government’s veiled threat that the path that they were on would lead to a loss of life — and that is not an empty threat because one 20-year-old woman has been killed along with several others.
Here’s an interesting development. Notes from Underground. After seven long months of digging under the cover of night, London activists created a 30-meter-long series of tunnels which they now inhabit. They settled into them at the end of January. The idea is to prevent the construction of a railway which would destroy five international protected wildlife areas, 108 ancient woodlands, 33 sites of specific scientific interest, and 693 local wildlife sites. They brought with them enough supplies to last months and they do not plan to leave any time soon. They warned that if the National Eviction Team – that is, the police unit that’s responsible for this kind of removal – tries to remove them, it could cause a cave-in of the tunnels.
So, this is a specific nonviolent protest where you put the opponent in the situation of having really to kill you if they don’t proceed. It’s a drastic step. I hope that these activists from London have relayed up to it with the things you’re supposed to do. I imagine they probably did; petitions, other kinds of representations, milder strikes, and so forth.
Now, indigenous youth in Vancouver, Canada are protesting the Trans Mountain Pipeline by occupying the lobby of 11 insurance companies that are insuring the pipeline. And that’s interesting because we know that the shift to protesting and disrupting banks is what has led to great successes with the mountaintop removal in the Appalachians. And Quaker action has been developing that process where they realized protesting the companies wasn’t working, they protested the banks that fund the companies and immediately they got a successful conclusion. This is a version of that, where you go to the insurance companies.
Now this episode I’m about to give you is a happening and also a resource. Here’s the background. It has been five years since Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission issued a ground-breaking report. It promised sweeping changes, but none of them almost have materialized. So impatience is growing amongst the indigenous communities. And the indigenous communities in Canada have been very active.
As people watch recent events such as the struggle in Wet’suwet’en territory, Black Lives Matter, the Mi’kmaq fisheries dispute, and the usual delays and implementation on a national action plan to help stop the genocide of Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women, coming up in March, March 4th, the Mir Center for Peace and Indigenous Services at Selkirk College in Canada is honored to be hosting a Toronto-based Ojibwe author and journalist. Her name is Tanya Talaga. And this is part of their annual Truth and Justice Speakers series. Her talk – and this is how it’s relevant to the event we’ve just been describing, is called, “Rights Before Reconciliation.”
I want to just make a brief comment on that idea, “Rights Before Reconciliation.” It may well be appropriate at various times to ask that some action be forthcoming from the opponent, some kind of warrant of good faith before you enter into negotiations. But the concept of rights, as Gandhi showed, it can be a little bit problematic.
Gandhi felt that if you pay attention to your responsibilities, the rights would take care of themselves. And the advantage there is that you would be doing constructive action on your own rather than requiring other people to do something. So, that’s just a thought. I’m not saying this is a bad thing to do or that you shouldn’t go and listen to that talk on March 4th at the Mir Center. One of the professors there is a good friend of ours, Randy Janzen, who’s a real expert in Unarmed Civilian Peacekeeping.
Let me go a little bit further abroad now. Max Bokaev, a man in Kazakhstan, has served a five-year sentence for organizing nationwide rallies, protesting changes in the land code that would encourage the selling and leasing of land to foreign nationals. This is one version of a very typical type of action undertaken by people to stop colonization of one kind or another.
Now, the interesting thing here, soon as Mr. Bokaev got out he announced that he would be organizing more nationwide rallies as nothing had changed since his imprisonment. When you look at the indomitable courage of people in Myanmar, people in Belarus, also in Tunisia and many other places in the world, particularly in Myanmar where they have been met by live ammunition fire, by water canons, teargas, and everything imaginable, you see that people just carry on sometimes.
This is what used to be called, in the context of the Central American struggles, “Fermesa Permanente.” I guess we would translate that as, “Undying stick-to-it-ivness,” or something like that.
Just to share with you a couple more resources: there’s an incredible new resource that I’m very happy to mention from the people at Beautiful Trouble. And it is called, “BeautifulTrouble.org/toolbox.” I haven’t finished checking it out, but it looks very comprehensive. It has strategies for organizing, strategies for every level of nonviolent action written by people who have a really good track record in this area. So, there you go. It’s BeautifulTrouble.org/toolbox. And I think there may be an exclamation point after toolbox, which would not be untypical of the folks at BeautifulTrouble. There’s also, of course, has been for some years now, a book with that title. And of course, it was a motto of John Lewis.
Now, there will also be, from NonviolentConflict.org, a webinar with our two pioneer authors, whom we often talked about on this program and elsewhere. That’s Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stefan. These are the authors of, “Why Civil Resistance Works,” that groundbreaking study on the statistical difference between the success rates and the times to success of nonviolence and nonviolent campaigns. Just to remind you, their study showed – they studied something like 300 episodes or campaigns which were aimed at regime change — the study showed that the nonviolent one, and this is strategic non-violence, you know, non-violence, the non-violence ones were twice as effective 1/3 the time. And they always led to greater democratic reforms even if they “failed” to dislodge the dictator.
So, that is our report for this episode. It is just the tip of the iceberg. I’m happy to say there are many, many more events and episodes going on. But that will hold us for now. Thank you very much and look forward to talking with you next time.
Stephanie: You’re at Nonviolence Radio. I’m your host, Stephanie Van Hook. One of the most important forms of constructive program today is rebuilding the way that justice is performed. This work requires a change, not only in systems of justice, but also how we think about how human beings learn, change, and grow. Taken together, we have a recipe for nonviolent action. You address a key structure and uplift a new story of human nature that underlies the possibility of something more effective and humane.
On this episode, we’ll hear from Dr. Fania Davis, founder of RJOY, Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth. It is a recording from a 2017 keynote she gave at the Association for Contemplative Mind and Higher Education’s annual conference and we have their permission to use it. Learn more about the ACMHE at ContemplativeMind.org. And of course, more about the work of RJOY and Dr. Fania Davis at RJOYOakland.org.
Angel: Dr. Fania Davis has been a legal scholar, an activist for decades. She has been active in the civil rights anti-racial violence, anti-apartheid, Black liberation, women’s, prisoner’s, peace, socialist and anti-imperialist movements, just to name a few. Her work has propelled her to ask this question, “How do we heal from structural and interpersonal trauma?”
As a civil rights lawyer and social justice activist with a PhD in Indigenous knowledge, Dr. Davis has attempted to answer this very question by co-founding and directing the organization Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth. Punitive school discipline and juvenile policies activate tragic cycles of violence, incarcerating and wasting lives for youth of color. Founded in 2005, this organization works to interrupt cycles of violence and trauma by promoting institutional shifts towards restorative approaches that actively engage families, communities, and systems to repair harm and prevent further offending. So, without further ado, please welcome the divine Dr. Fania Davis.
Fania: That was a unique and beautiful and divine introduction, the likes of which I have never experienced before. Thank you so much, Angel. I am grateful and honored to be invited to the 9th Annual Association of Contemplative Mind and Higher Education, C-Mind conference, to speak about restorative justice, contemplative practices, radical healing, and racial justice. I love the conference theme, “Contemplative practices and its intersections with compassion and justice.”
I want to honor you all in the audience for choosing to be here today and for choosing to do the work that you do in the world. I’m sure that many of you do what you do and are here today because you see and feel deep compassion for the pervasive harm and suffering in our world. Suffering on personal levels, on spirit levels, on family levels, community levels, ecological levels. Harm caused by individuals, institutions, social structures, and by systems and histories and legacies of colonization, slavery, and genocide.
Suffering caused by the 1 percent and by policymakers at the highest levels that perpetuate climate chaos, white supremacy, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, poverty, health, wealth, education, racial disparities, gun violence, Islamophobia, mass incarceration, crimigration, disability discrimination, racial and police violence, and more. So much suffering.
You see all this suffering and you’re committed to reducing the suffering in the world. Whether you’re a contemplative mind practitioner, an educator, or a social justice activist, or whether you stand at the intersections of some or all of these fields. Again, for your commitment, I give thanks. I also wish to honor the Ohlone people. When I came, I offered tobacco. These are the ancestors of this land, of this beautiful land, from the San Francisco Bay to Salinas Valley.
In invoking their name, we affirm that we stand on an occupied land. We ask permission to walk upon it. And may we walk upon it in ways that honor them their peacemaking and healing wisdom. In invoking the Ohlone, we also affirm our awareness that the king and Christian missionaries of Spain appropriated this land and committed genocide on its people with the blessing and legal authorization of the Vatican papal decrees of 1452 and 1493.
We honor the Ohlone again with the awareness this is an occupied land. This is a post-genocidal land. And perhaps, not ‘post’ quite yet. Like the original harm of slavery, we have yet as a nation to tell the whole truth about this genocide. Do our schools teach the Doctrine of Discovery? Do we and our children know that it was these decrees from the Pope that launched and justified the horrific system of colonization which dehumanized, diminished, debased, and destroyed, killed-off Native peoples considered subhuman pagans by the Vatican and colonizers?
We have yet to tell the whole truth about, take responsibility for, and make amends for this unspeakable genocide. Our nation tends to point the finger of blame at other nations that it accuses of genocide and pervasive human rights. But as an African proverb says, “Be careful of pointing because three fingers are pointing back at you.” We are a nation born in the blood of unspeakable terror and trauma of slavery and genocide. These are original wounds from which we have yet to heal. And because we have not healed, this original trauma perpetually re-enacts itself, albeit in different guises. To paraphrase Bryan Stevenson, “Slavery and genocide are not dead. They are only evolving.”
In this connection, I want to also acknowledge the people of Santa Cruz because in 1994 they declared the second Monday in October, Indigenous Peoples’ Day. This act of decolonizing our history is an important step, albeit a first step, small step, but nonetheless an important step on the road to healing our original wounds.
In my elder years, I’m coming to realize the importance of embracing both the warrior and the healer in me. When hearing the word warrior, a lot of people say, “But Fania, c’mon now. You’re talking about war. You’re talking about militarism. Warriors are aggressors. Warriors respond to harm with more harm.”
Many often associate the word, “warrior” with harm. But when I use it, I use it in the mystical sense, perhaps, you could say. I use it in its higher valence. Not warrior as a purveyor of harm, but warrior sage, wisdom warrior, spiritual warrior. Today, there is a growing realization that if we are to have a future, we must all become healers. All of us. Every single one of us that walk this earth. This is our historical imperative. History is demanding that all of us learn to be present to ourselves, to our families, to our communities, to the earth in ways that bring about healing and wholeness rather than in ways that bring about discord, domination, devastation.
We are experts at causing harm of all sorts, as I mentioned earlier. We must become skilled as healers. But equally important, we must walk in the world as brave ones who together stand up to and take on systemic institutional structural and historical juggernauts of harm. It takes bravery and courage to do that. It takes fearlessness to do that.
It is important that we not engage in a binary exercise of embracing the healer but rejecting the warrior or vice versa. Embracing both, harmonizing what we often view as opposites or even oxymorons. Indeed, today, in so many ways, we are called upon to move beyond binary ways of thinking and knowing that split and fracture our world. But rather to embrace more holistic ways of knowing and being. And of course, it is indigenous knowledges and spiritualities that are beacons leading the way.
Restorative justice – do you know about restorative justice? Great. This justice is more concerned about getting well than getting even. It is more concerned about increasing social peace than deepening social conflict. It is more concerned about broken lives than about broken laws. It sees justice as a healing ground, not as a battleground.
What is restorative justice? It is a worldview, rooted in indigenous principles, and a theory of justice that emphasizes bringing together everyone affected by wrongdoing to address their needs and responsibilities and to heal the harm as much as possible. To heal the harm as much as possible. It is a worldview rooted in Indigenous principles and a theory of justice.
Our prevailing justice system is based on a Roman notion of just desserts. If I do harm, the scales of justice become imbalanced and the only way to rebalance is to do harm to me.
Restorative justice invites a paradigm shift.
The three questions retributive justice asks are, “What rule was broken? Who broke it? And what punishment is deserved?”
The three questions restorative justice asks are, “Who was harmed? What are the needs and responsibilities of everyone impacted? And how do all impacted come together to address needs and responsibilities and heal the harm?”
Restorative justice has indigenous origins. And the imperative to heal rather than respond to harm with more harm is what is central. Restorative justice has diverse applications. We use restorative justice in schools, in the justice system, in communities, and also to heal historical harm.
Restorative justice is a justice that seeks to respond to harm, not with more harm. It seeks to respond to harm with healing. Our justice system responds to harm with more harm, exacerbating harm, multiplying harm. Restorative justice seeks to break those cycles of harm. It is practiced in schools, in the justice system, and it is also practiced to heal historical harm.
In our schools in Oakland, my organization Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth, started a program in the schools and after just a couple of years, we saw that suspension rates dropped 55%, from 7.4% to 3.3 percent. For Blacks suspension rates, which are always much higher, dropped from 14.1% to 7.3% and for Latinos and Latinas, 5.4 percent to 2.3 percent. Basically, what we did instead of suspending and kicking out young people who caused harm in schools was to do circles, restorative justice circles to address the harm and to heal the harm instead of exacerbating it.
Graduation rates after three years of doing restorative justice increased 60 percent in restorative justice schools versus 7 percent in non-restorative justice schools. Reading levels increased 128 percent in restorative justice schools versus 11 percent in non-restorative justice schools. Chronic absence rates decreased 24 percent in restorative justice schools versus 62 percent in non-restorative justice schools. The four-year dropout rate decreased 56 percent in restorative justice schools versus 17 percent in non-restorative justice schools.
We have been successful in interrupting the racialized school-to-prison pipeline. Between 2012 and 2017 there was a 55 percent decline in suspensions, but disparities persist. The racialized school-to-prison pipeline refers to the fact that today, especially within the last 20 years, children are being criminalized. Young children even as early as five years of age who may have a temper tantrum are taken out of the classroom in handcuffs by police. You know about the school to prison pipeline, you know? Yeah.
All of normal adolescent behavior is criminalized so we started using restorative justice instead of suspending and instead of expelling students. And this has really – it’s starting to break the school to prison pipeline.
Okay, so why don’t we just have a conversation. Anyone have any questions or comments? Yeah, over here. Mm-hmm? Yes.
Audience: I was hoping you would be willing to define the word indigenous in the ways that you’re using it.
Fania: In the ways that I use it, when I refer to indigenous, I’m speaking of cultures and ways of knowing and being that are pre-colonial, that are pre-capitalist, and that go back very far in time. Whether we’re talking about the indigenous peoples of this country, Native American people, the indigenous peoples of Asia, of Africa — and indigenous peoples, they affirm their connection with all that is, with the earth, with the waters, with the plants, with the animals, with the stars.
This is opposed to living in bifurcated and fractured and broken worlds. They experience their connection with the cosmos, with the earth, with one another, and restorative justice is based on indigenous ways of doing justice, of repairing harm once harm has occurred. Anybody else want to talk about – yeah?
Audience: Thank you so much. I’d like to hear a little bit your journey, going from law training, which emphasizes retributive justice as you talked about. And given the kind of early life experiences of injustice and incredible unfairness in our society, how you move from that to indigenous and restorative-styles of justice, because that seems to be an incredibly key transition that has so much to do with the things that we’ve been talking about here.
Fania: Well, I would say that after about 30 years of being a trial lawyer, fighting racism in the courts, about the same amount of time, or longer, being an activist, a fighter, a warrior in the more militaristic way — after years of defending my sister who had been captured during a manhunt and arrested, and stood trial for her life but was freed because of a massive international movement. After my husband was almost killed and I was almost killed when the police entered our home. After seeing my friends be killed in Birmingham, Alabama. My response being to join every possible movement there was in my day to fight against injustice, to fight against racism.
After about 30 years of that anger, I felt out of balance and literally became ill. I knew intuitively and from dreams and synchronicities that I was being invited to bring more healing and creative and more healing energies into my life. And through synchronicities, I was led to a PhD program at the California Institute of Integral Studies, where I was able to travel to Africa and apprentice with a healer there by the name of Vusamazulu Credo Mutwa, and was initiated as a healer.
Then I came back and as I said, I couldn’t find a job doing the healing work and had to go back to lawyering. But then I found out about restorative justice, which is a healing justice.
Audience. Thank you so much.
Audience: Good evening Dr. Davis and thank you for being here. I want to ask you how
restorative justice manifests on the ground in a very tangible way in the Oakland schools. What happened to produce such amazing transformations among the Oakland youth and the statistics that you just shared with us?
Fania: What happened was that instead of kicking kids out, you know, when they were disruptive, when they had a fight in the cafeteria, when they had a cell phone and wouldn’t turn it off – instead of kicking them out of school, expelling them, we put them in circle. We brought them closer. Instead of pushing them away when they engaged in minor misbehavior, we brought them closer. We did a circle process with them.
And the circle process involves just talking about what happened — you know. What happened? If you hurt somebody, what’s going on with you? Like say Tommy who was cursing out a teacher. You could hear him all the way down the halls. The principal came. The security came. The restorative justice coordinator came. He was aggressively yelling at a teacher and he wouldn’t stop.
The principal said, “We’re going to call your mother.” He says, “Go ahead, call my mother. I don’t care about her.” And then the restorative justice coordinator said, “Are you okay?” That question calmed him down. He was just railing at the teacher, railing at the principal, railing at the restorative justice coordinator, until the restorative justice coordinator said, “Are you okay? Are you okay?” And that calmed him down. That sort of took him out of his back brain.
And then the restorative justice coordinator took him to the restorative justice peacemaking room and had a conversation and learned that the young man’s mother had been missing for the last two nights, that he was actually taking care of his younger siblings and getting them up, dressing them, feeding them, and getting them off to school. And when he was in the classroom, he had his head on the desk. When the teacher yelled at him three times to sit up straight – he didn’t respond the first two times. The third time he just jumped up and got into her face and started yelling at her.
And the teacher, because she had been actually assaulted by a youth the year before, was afraid the same thing was going to happen. And none of this came out until the restorative justice coordinator talked to him. The principal wanted to just suspend him, simply because he had violated the rule against being disrespectful to teachers. And that’s the zero-tolerance policy that applies in non-restorative justice. If you violate the rule, then you’re going to be punished for it.
The principal wanted to punish him because he violated that rule, but the restorative justice coordinator said, “Can I try something else? Can I try something else?” And he did. And he got the story out. If he had just expelled the student or suspended the student, we never would have known the truth. Not only that, if that student had been suspended, he would have been much more likely to have been incarcerated, right? And so, keeping kids in school is a good way – is the best way to break the school to prison pipeline. And to interrupt policies of mass incarceration.
So, what happened with this young man was there was a circle. Instead of punishing him, they used the circle process. The teacher came, the mother was found, she came. And the principal was there, and the young man was there. And the teacher told her story about how she had been assaulted the year before; she thought the same thing was going to happen again. And that’s why she got very angry at him. Of course, he responded negatively when she was responding so intensely.
And the teacher apologized and said next time she would be more discrete and maybe take the child out instead of fronting at him and yelling at him in the classroom in front of all the students. The boy apologized and explained his story and offered to help her for the next two weeks with chores to make it right. The mother, she apologized, and she took responsibility for the whole thing and recommitted herself to going back to drug rehabilitation counseling.
And the young man did well after that and went on to graduate. But that’s an example of how the circle process works. Instead of pushing the kid away when wrongdoing happens, you bring the child in closer.
Audience: Hi. I’m curious, I know one of the other groups that experiences disproportionate levels of incarceration are people who experience mental illness. I’m curious if your work is in any way doing restorative justice work with young people or other community members who are struggling with mental health and potentially at risk to be incarcerated at disproportionate numbers.
Fania: You know, restorative justice is not a panacea. It has amazing results and impacts and findings. But it’s not a panacea. And if a child needs some more specialized intervention for mental illness, then we need to refer that child to a physician or a healer of some sort. But typically, problems that are caused by mental illness are not suitable for restorative justice processes. More specialized intervention is needed.
Audience: I’m wondering if restorative justice helps surface that mental health issues are at play more so than a retributive justice model, or if you’ve had any experience with that.
Fania: I think sometimes youth who are stereotyped, you know, as having some sort of mental illness or aggression, just extraordinary aggression or withdrawal, when they’re mistakenly diagnosed in that way, when they participate in these circle processes, it becomes clear that they just need some loving. They need to be seen and heard. But I can’t think of any examples right now where youth that we thought were mental – had mental issues were able to find the specialized intervention that they needed and the circle process.
Basically, what happens in circles is that you embrace one another. You feel a sense of oneness, a sense of belonging. Everybody’s voice matters in the circle. We use a talking piece. And the talking piece is circulated from person to person. And only the person holding the talking piece can speak from the heart and with respect. Everyone else listens with respect and from the heart.
It’s amazing because sometimes youth who are 14-years-old and in the 9th grade sit in a circle with the mayor. We’ve had these kinds of circles. Or with the police chief. And they can feel that their voice, at least in that circle process, matters just as much. Because that process promotes
that, and that talking piece is an equalizer in that way. And sometimes youth who never speak, speak and feel – at the end of the circle they’ll say, “You know, that was a really, you know, good circle.” And they clearly find their voice in spaces.
You know when people really want to listen to you, your truth comes out. And your wisdom just sort of effortlessly flows out of you. And that’s what happens in these circles. Youth who ordinarily don’t speak very much feel that they are being invited, that the space is open, and they feel safe enough to speak.
And then we have a ceremony too. We usually open with some sort of ceremony. And it can be like a movement process that Michelle just did. Or it can be silence, or it can be, depending on the participants, a prayer. The whole point is to mark the space as a special one that we are about to enter. You know, where you will be heard, and you will have voice. And we will be present to one another and connected to one another in ways we don’t ordinarily feel connected.
And so, ceremony. The ceremony can be almost anything, as I said earlier, that marks the space as a special and sacred one. And we have a ceremony too that ends the circle process, to sort of bookend it. And we have a centerpiece. The centerpiece reminds us that there are no sides when conflict happens. There’s only one focus and one center and that is to find some healing.
So, the centerpiece, you might call it an altar if you look at it. We usually use African cloth. And there are the elements, air, water, fire, earth. And, you know, if it’s a circle of Black young, Black boys, Black young men, there might be pictures of young Black men who have been lost, you know, to gun violence. Whatever the circle is about, you’re going to find things in the center of the circle that reflect that.
You also start the circle – well, you start with ceremony, and then you do some trust-building exercises. And then you – well, actually, you set a foundation of your values. How are we going to be present to one another today? What do I need to feel safe in this circle? What do I need to be able to speak freely? Well, it may be that I need non-judgment. I need people to suspend judgment. It may be that I need honesty. It may be that I need everyone to see the best in all of us. So, we create a foundation of values to do these circles. And we also make decisions by consensus which means that there’s not a majority rule. Everybody agrees. You may not 100% agree, but if you can live with it.
So, yeah, this is the circle process, which is the main process that has been used in lieu of kicking kids out, suspending kids, and expelling kids. We use these circle processes which children and young people really take to, you know? Like fish to water. And that’s why we see the incredible outcomes that we’ve seen by using the circle process.
Audience: Thank you for being here and speaking to Indigenous truths in multiplicity. I’m Cindy Verai. I’ve spoke some truth of my own indigeneity, origins being of the Ilocano people of the Philippines and settling here in the United States. One of the tensions that I feel with some of the restorative justice practices is that there’s an irony. Because so many of our brothers and sisters in indigenous communities have felt abandoned by others who have experienced the multiple ways that colonization has maintained its truth with other people of color in our communities.
I’m just wondering if you might be able to help me enliven that irony with some sense of humor with it, because I’m struggling. I struggle with that truth that there’s an abandonment when we’re engaging practices of restorative justice, there’s no elder of the lands that these practices are engaged with. Or these dead bodies that are being shot and left. There’s no invitation of bringing some who might have a better sense of connecting the bodies that we’re losing in our communities with the lands that have been also shot up in many ways.
Fania: I feel like – I want to get closer.
Audience: Yeah. So, I just –
Fania: Yeah, yeah.
Audience: I guess I’m just looking for some – how do we hold that real truth? I’m seeing this and I’m thinking, “Now I have to go get certified in restorative justice practices?” And I’ve shared with some of my fellow friends here that there’s other ways that I’ve experienced that and what people, I guess, are calling that. But I don’t – we don’t use that language. There’s humor in there for me.
Fania: I really hear you. So, restorative justice isn’t always practiced in honorable ways.
It’s not always practiced in ways that honor its Indigenous roots. In some cases, it’s just kind of commercial – what’s the word? It has no heart. It can be practiced in ways that are without heart, without spirit, that are very mechanical and that just don’t really honor the beautiful indigenous roots.
It can be very, very frustrating, I’m sure. Especially for a person – and I’ve seen it, you know, who do have indigenous origins. And you know, the restorative justice movement, actually, in its first 35 years was mostly white. Yep. And when I found out about restorative justice and discovered that there was nothing written about race in restorative justice and no real embracing of its indigenous roots, I knew that I had my work cut out for me. Yeah.
And from that moment, I became really invested in and committed to changing that. My comrades and colleagues in Oakland were also very involved in the transformation of the restorative justice movement. The first conference I went to was, I think, 2011. And I went there, and I hardly saw any people of color. There were no speeches, either plenary or breakouts that addressed race or the indigenous roots of restorative justice. And I got together with the few people of color who were there, and I said, “We’ve got to change this.” And we did.
I just want to encourage you to stay on this path. Because you have beautiful indigenous traditions of your peoples. Bring them into the circle. Bring them into the work. And you don’t need anybody’s permission to do that. [Applause] And I just want to honor you and honor your people and honor your traditions and thank you.
Audience: So, a year ago last July my community suffered an intense trauma of a Black man in our community being literally left in pieces by an officer named Tayler Radford, who shot this man unprovoked and left him in the streets for an entire community and children to be traumatized by. And I worked with his family around creating a campaign. I just want to say his name because his name was “Jerry” Williams. And I wanted to ask what restorative justice looks like when the perpetrator of the violence is unilaterally backed by the police department
and the structures and city and the district attorney and all of the system behind him.
We also saw the best of our organizing community and also the worst. We had a lot of pain in our community as a result. And I just wanted to ask for advice on how we can – our movements can show up for each other in desperate and traumatic times like that.
Fania: When the person causing harm does not take responsibility for that harm, restorative processes are not appropriate. Because we would never bring into a circle someone who’s been harmed once only to sit across the person who harmed them, will harm them again. So, restorative justice isn’t always appropriate or possible. In this kind of case, organizing in the community, having healing circles within the community. It’s not always possible to have that encounter with the person who is directly responsible for causing the harm.
But it’s possible sometimes to bring in surrogates. If the person who caused the harm is not taking responsibility, then maybe another police officer will come in to stand in. It would take a very brave police officer to do that. But we do have situations where if one party isn’t taking responsibility or does not agree to come into the circle, then we will use surrogates.
But I can see healing circles happening in the community and with the family. Not necessarily encounter circles with the person causing harm. And if you do have encounter circles with the surrogate instead of the person who caused the harm – I’m very sorry to hear about it. What community was that?
Audience: This is Asheville, North Carolina.
Fania: Oh, really?
Audience: Yeah. And [unintelligible]. So, they ended up ruling that there was a state law that
precluded the district attorney from being able to file charges against the police officer. And so, we supported the family throughout the process of hearing that news, including actually really encouraging the family to go through those steps. They were so traumatized and so hurt they didn’t want to go anywhere near a courthouse.
And so, there was a lot of just kind of in the trenches, direct service, just bringing them meals, a lot and love, a lot of healing, you know, spiritual support, right? And then once that was clear, we did a press event. We unveiled the pictures of Jerry’s body, which was literally – his arm was blown off. And the mother really wanted to show that photo.
Fania: Yeah. Like Emmett Till’s mom.
Audience: Yeah. And there were people who were against that. And we just went with what the mother’s desires. And it was incredibly powerful. She cried, deep, public lament at these pictures of her son in pieces on the ground. And then a year – you know, we had the year anniversary in July. And so, the community rallied around the family again to direct anniversary events and a press event.
But to be honest, our organizing community has been wracked with just the pain and the trauma and just restimulated trauma and some divisiveness in the community around it. So, it’s something that really rocked our community. And I don’t know that without some kind of restorative process that our community, our organizing community will ever be whole.
Fania: Well, you can start circles. You may not have everybody involved – all the major parties
involved. But even if it’s a circle of only six or seven, you can start these healing circles. And it may be that others will come in. But just coming together to mourn, to express anger, rage, and to talk about how we heal — a circle is a process that can hold all of those emotions when properly facilitated.
Audience: Yeah. Thank you.
Fania: You’re welcome.
Audience: I just wanted to bring up one thought on this: when I hear about the little gaps between the way things work, is that I’ve been working a lot lately with NVC and I think in situations where there’s so much enemy imagery, that nonviolent communication methods would be a way to start there with acknowledging enemy images, beginning to work on the empathy. The stuff we’ve been talking about today, about seeing each other as human beings who are just doing tragic things to get our needs met, and the tragedy of that, that we don’t have any more skillful way or compassionate way to get where we want to be. I think that would be a piece of a lot of the healing.
Fania: Yes. And creating circle spaces, creating these safe containers where we reopen values, that becomes a foundation for how we’re together and creating spaces where we are present to one another in ways that bring healing and are consciously and intentionally present. And that we work hard to be present in that way is what is needed. Creating these sort of liberated spaces of circles where we work to heal rather than harm is something that is encouraging to me.
And I see these circles happening. They’re spreading. They’re certainly doing that in Oakland. Oakland is – our schools, I think, almost 60 percent of our schools now have restorative justice programming. And our justice system is also adopting restorative justice. And we’re working now to create an entire restorative city in Oakland.
Thank you so much. I just want to say thank you for being the healers that you are. Because as I said earlier, history is calling upon us to be healers. And also, to stand against injustice and the massive harms that are happening daily around us. So, I just wanted to honor you. And may you – may the way be open for you to be successful in your work as healers. And as your work, as perhaps warriors, as well. Thank you.
Stephanie: You’ve been listening to Nonviolence Radio. We want to show appreciation to ACMHE for giving us permission to use Dr. Davis’ keynote from their annual conference for the show today. We also express our gratitude to our mother station, KWMR, to all the stations that syndicate our show over Pacifica and elsewhere, to Matthew Watrous, Jewelia White, to our listeners, and in remembrance of the Coast Miwok and Ohlone people on whose land this show was produced and aired. Thank you everybody, until the next time, take care of one another.
Transcription by Matthew Watrous.