Restorative Justice

The Art of Restorative Questions

We live in a punitive culture. We are so used to punishment as the go-to solution for any behavior we want to change, that it can be difficult to imagine other options. A group of artists, organized by Project NIA, are here to help us.

When it comes to discipline and punishment, we seem to be reaching a tipping point. The number of people incarcerated in the US has become so outrageously large, that bi-partisan support (a rare thing these days) is building up behind criminal justice reform. People are (re)considering alternatives to incarceration, particularly for non-violent crimes. In schools, too, it has become clear that a largely punitive approach to dealing with behavior “problems” has only led to more problems. Schools hand out unconscionable numbers of suspensions and expulsions. This disproportionately harms low income Students of Color, exacerbates the large opportunity gaps that already exist, and fosters what has come to be known as the school-to-prison pipeline.

In response, we have seen rapid growth of the restorative justice movement, which offers a radically different approach. Restorative justice asks that we make a paradigm shift in the way we think about “crime” and “misbehavior.” As Dr. Carolyn Boyes-Watson at the Center for Restorative Justice at Suffolk University explains,

“Rather than privileging the law, professionals and the state, restorative resolutions engage those who are harmed, wrongdoers and their affected communities in search of solutions that promote repair, reconciliation and the rebuilding of relationships. Restorative justice seeks to build partnerships to reestablish mutual responsibility for constructive responses to wrongdoing within our communities. Restorative approaches seek a balanced approach to the needs of the victim, wrongdoer and community through processes that preserve the safety and dignity of all.”

Within this realm, practitioners have developed a wide range of “restorative practices” — such as victim-offender dialogues and peacemaking circles — often drawing on conflict resolution practices from indigenous societies around the world. But restorative justice cannot be reduced to a set of practices. It is a way of thinking about and approaching conflict. It requires a shift in how we relate to one another. It is about developing a restorative culture in our schools and communities.

If this seems daunting, a new arts-based campaign offers a simple, but powerful, starting point. The effort was catalyzed by Project NIA, an influential Chicago-based organization dedicated to “participatory community justice” (which encompasses restorative justice as well as more systemic approaches like transformative justice). Project NIA brought together a group of (mostly) Chicago artists to create restorative justice posters. These stunning posters feature “restorative questions,” drawn from the work of Margaret Thorsborne.

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The posters, and the questions they pose, are deceptively simple. However, if we were to truly use these questions as our starting point to address crime, violence, and conflict, we would find ourselves veering far from the punitive path. To ask someone who has been harmed, “What is needed to make things right?” is to privilege healing over retribution.  To ask someone who has done harm, “Who do you think has been affected by what you did?,” is to assume that learning and growth are possible.

All posters are available for public download. Print out your favorites and hang them in your neighborhood. I’m definitely going to be putting some up in the schools I work with here in Salt Lake City, where restorative practices are just beginning to gain traction. If you take a photo of the posters you hang, you can share it with the project by emailing it to transformchi2013@gmail.com.

Shifting from punitive to restorative approaches to justice and discipline will take more than learning new practices. It will require what Jeff Chang calls a “collective leap of imagination.” Fortunately, catalyzing our imaginations is something many artists excel at. As it says on the restorative posters website, “Artists help us to imagine new worlds. Let’s keep imagining together.”

 

 

New Book: Disrupting the School-to-Prison Pipeline

Just last week, Senator Dick Durbin oversaw a congressional hearing on disrupting what many are now calling the “School-to-Prison Pipeline” — a web of systems that are pushing low-income students, students of color, and students with disabilities out of the public schools and into the criminal justice system. This historic move by Durbin is only the most recent result of years of grassroots organizing and advocacy, and a positive sign that there is political will to do something about this disturbing trend. But what will it take to disrupt this pipeline?

disrupting-school-to-prison_223Some possible answers can be found in a new book, which I am personally very proud to announce: Disrupting the School-to-Prison Pipeline from the Harvard Educational Review. Four colleagues and I have been working for the past year editing this volume, which brings together the voices of scholars, educators, students, lawyers, funders, and incarcerated individuals. With a wide range of perspectives, these fabulous authors illuminate the multiple faces of the pipeline and offer real-world, workable solutions. To get a peek inside the book CLICK HERE.

Part one of the book starts in the education system, looking at the way that discipline policies, racism, and other structural forces are creating “prison-like schools” and failing our students. But we are also introduced to alternatives — for example, a round table of youth, educators, and community members describe their work instituting alternative disciplinary policies under the rubric of restorative justice. Part two follows those who have been pushed out of traditional schools into the realm of alternative schools, juvenile detention centers, and prisons. Here we see how, in these carceral spaces, education becomes both a mechanism of control and a means of liberation. Finally, part three takes a step back to ask what kind of broad efforts might address the pipeline on a national scale — including grassroots organizing and transformative justice.

In between longer essays and scholarly articles are the voices of those most affected by the pipeline — public school students and incarcerated youth and adults. These poems and short essays offer some of the most troubling and the most empowering moments in the book.

I have had an amazing time working with many of these authors, and I am thrilled the book is out. Please spread the word — a movement to end the pipeline is growing, so join in.

Authors: Starcia Ague, Kathy Boudin, Kathleen B. Boundy, Joseph Cambone, Seth G. Cooper, Christopher Dankovich, Bobby Dean Evans, Jr., Jane Hereth, Mariame Kaba, Joanne Karger, Paul Kuttner, Daniel J. Losen, Kavitha Mediratta, Erica R. Meiners, Pedro A. Noguera, Douglas W. Price, Elizabeth A. Reid, David H. Rose, Derek R. Russel, Michael Satterfield, Peter Sipe, Sabina E. Vaught, Alejandro G. Vera, Lewis Wallace, and Robert Wilson.

Editors: Sofía Bahena, North Cooc, Rachel Currie-Rubin, Paul Kuttner, and Monica Ng