What is Restorative Justice? This has become one of the questions I have answered the most in the past four and a half months of my internship with Upper Ninety. When I initially heard this term, it sounded a little like a utopian phrase to me. In the United States, we are not familiar with the idea of restoring humanity and dignity to someone who has wronged us. We are strictly a retributive justice system, which means our system focuses on restoring justice by punishing offenders to the same extent of the crime they committed. (Of course, what is an adequate and equal punishment is left up to those in power to identify.) This means that for people who are not in power or allowed an opinion, the scales will always be tipped in the direction of those with the power.
Restorative Justice, on the other hand, comes from a place of connectedness and personal responsibility. Restorative Justice practices and processes are focused on “healing the victim and undoing the hurt; healing the offender by rebuilding his or her moral and social selves; healing communities and mending social relationships” (Wenzel, Okimoto, Feather, and Platow, 2008).
Here at Upper Ninety, we use the term “Team Circles” to describe the circles we run at practice. Team Circles are based on the Restorative Justice Circle model, an indigenous approach to relationship-building and problem-solving that champions equality, justice, and empathy. Our students respond well to this approach and become very protective of the values and guidelines that give them freedom to express themselves and tell their story. For many of our students, Team Circle time serves like an intervention. Many of our students are dealing with or have experienced the very issues and topics we bring to circle for discussion. The students are given a chance to look at issues and scenarios from an introspective place and evaluate how they wish they would have or could have responded or felt. While it is a useful intervention tool, Restorative Justice Circles can also act as a preventative measure for youth.
This semester I was given the honor of creating and leading our first ever student circle training. The coaches and long-term volunteers took time to look at all of our students and nominate eight students in our program who we believed would benefit the most from this training. We looked at a range of students, from those who showed amazing leadership abilities, to those with multiple discipline issues. We wanted the circle training to not only be a leadership opportunity, but also a type of preventative measure for some of our students who struggle to respond well to authority figures and structure. We gave the students the ability to accept or decline the training nomination. In the end, we trained four committed students from differing backgrounds, with unique needs and individual strengths.
We used our weekly training days to talk about what it means to be a leader in our communities, and how the practices we utilize in Team Circle can be applied in many different situations and for all types of issues. On top of dissecting the power of being heard and making room for others to be listened to, the students had to come up with topics and questions that we could use in future circles. They worked as a team to decide what kind of circles would work the best in different settings and with different age groups. Each time we met to plan a circle, I watched the students switch from squirming, untamed energy-filled teens, to focused problem-solvers. I am not going to lie and say we never had failed training sessions, especially during STAAR testing week (Any teachers out there feel me?!), but by the end of the semester I saw a shift in their ability to listen and respond with maturity.
The students had the chance to create and co-facilitate Team Circles during our trip to the elementary school that feeds into one of our high schools. They took the planning process very seriously, and when it was time to lead Team Circle with the younger kids, they were amazing. The pride and excitement of being called to step up and have people rely on them to be positive role models was tangible. All you had to do was look at their serious faces and heads held high to realize that in the process of them trying to be role models for younger students, they were changing their own stories. Prevention does not always have to look like scaring kids with horror stories of what could happen if they choose the wrong path. It can look like providing the opportunity for youth who have been told they are destined for failure to stand up and tell their own story with their own words. Maybe youth just need to be told that they can make all the difference in their communities for that breakthrough to happen.
Adrienne is a Program Assistant at Upper Ninety. She is currently a master’s student at the University of Texas School of Social Work.