Restorative justice and racial justice, it's creating something; there's nothing to restore here when we've always been oppressed—and this is the story of the kids in our schools, they've always been oppressed.
For the past three years, the Center for Court Innovation has run restorative justice programs in five Brooklyn high schools. All five schools are overwhelmingly Black, and all five had some of the highest suspension rates in New York City.
The programs' staff are embedded full-time in the schools. Their small offices have become outposts—where students drop in unannounced to talk about their problems. When the staff walk the halls between classes, it can feel like they’re exchanging greetings with everyone they pass, stopping to check in when needed with teachers, as much as students.
The approach has paid off. As will soon be documented by Center for Court Innovation researchers, over the project's three years, the number of incidents reported by the schools plummeted, as did suspensions. Along with improving the overall culture of a school, that goes a long way toward interrupting what is often called the school-to-prison pipeline—the relationship between suspensions and later justice-involvement.
But the project had even bigger ambitions. Restorative justice is about accountability and repairing harm. What about accountability for the system that has produced these underserved and essentially segregated schools, and then punishes the kids for reacting to that neglect?
The work was also motivated by a feeling that, with all the buzz over restorative justice these days, the challenge of its insistence on everyone’s humanity risks being lost—much as the radical King is often conveniently forgotten on Martin Luther King Day. For Black Americans, and for the students at these five high schools, what is there to be restored to?
To talk about why there is no restorative justice without racial justice, eight of the members of a very close-knit team sat down with host Matt Watkins for what became a very special episode of New Thinking.
The following is a transcript of the podcast:
Kellsie SAYERS: Our five schools would be classified as underserved schools, so a really high-needs population. A lot of our schools had a lot of students with high levels of IEP, so students who need additional support in order to academically thrive in a standard school.
Our schools were filled with high levels of immigrant populations, so the communities that we worked in were communities that were largely Caribbean-American communities, so a lot of first generation kids from the Caribbean, and with that, we found that our students often were living with people who weren't their birth parents.
They may have been sent to this country, and they're living with the aunt, or cousin, or friend, so not your traditional family environment. Our students often lack the kind of support that you would see in a standard family home, just because of the transient nature in which they were sent into this country.
In addition to that, these are schools who don't have the appropriate number of students to properly run a school, so most of our schools didn't have a social worker. We didn't have many guidance counselors. There weren't a lot of additional services that would be needed for the population that I just described.
Matt WATKINS: And you've got some of these schools are at a poverty level approaching 90 percent.
Kellsie SAYERS: We have schools where, overwhelmingly, our kids qualify for free school lunch. In addition to that is, because they're these underserved schools and underfunded schools, we also had issues in terms of staffing. These are schools with high teacher turnover, so you come to school one year, and 50 percent of the teachers that were here your first year of high school are gone your second year.
And with that said, because you have high turnover and you're underfunded, you have a lot of burnout for teachers. Then you have older teachers who are just on their way out, and they've been educators for 25 years, and they're exhausted from this experience, and they're exhausted from working in underserved schools, and they don't really have much to offer.
There was a lack of adults in the building who I think had the capacity to provide the kind of support this particular population needs.
WATKINS: And then there's also a problem with how "misbehavior" is responded to. These were all schools that had elevated suspension rates.
Kellsie SAYERS: One of the reasons why these five schools were identified for our intervention was that they were amongst some of the highest suspending schools in New York City. In working in the schools, we understand where that suspension came from.
You're underserved, you're understaffed, you're under-resourced. When a child is acting out and you don't have the capacity, the training, or the time to deal with it, then your result is that they have to leave the school community because I can't deal with them. I don't know how to deal with them. I don't have the resources to deal with them, so the best thing to do is to give them time away.
WATKINS: Which can though, in the same way that jail as a response to an offense can make the prior behavior worse, suspension can have the same effect.
Kellsie SAYERS: Exactly, because you're not dealing with the core concerns for why this young person is acting out. Because you feel like even if you ask why—one, you think you know why, because I think some of our schools felt some of our kids were just inherently bad, and they didn't have anything else to offer but this sort of misbehavior. Or, if you ask the question, there's nothing I can actually do about it, so there's no reason for me to ask a question that I can't actually solve.
WATKINS: You guys have now been in these schools for close to three years. Can we talk about how you went about trying to, I guess, change the culture a little bit, if that's the word?
I was struck, when I visited you guys, by how much it just was so apparent that you were all very embedded in the schools in which you were operating in. When I walked the halls with you guys, it's talking to all the students, them coming up to you, the teachers coming up to you, the principal coming up to you and saying, "Hey, I want to flag this for you."
Was that a kind of initial strategy of really showing, "Hey, we're here, we're here to stay," and getting embedded?
Kellsie SAYERS: The approach was a threefold approach for our project. It was community-building, intervention, and investment.
When I say community-building, we use the restorative process of circles to build community in the schools. At each of our schools, there was an advisory program that was developed, which was a class in which it was nonacademic where kids could sit in circle and build community with each other. And build community by talking about their lived experiences, sharing their stories, and a place to really just be themselves without the pressure of a standard academic environment.
In addition to the circles that took place in advisory, we created a bunch of voluntary spaces, which were clubs that included Girls Group, and Men in Color, and the Gender and Sexuality Alliance, and a variety of just different voluntary spaces where young people could be themselves and build community with each other.
Then in addition to building community with young people, we also thought it was important for the adults to build community with each other. Sometimes that was in professional development, sometimes that was a happy hour that we organized, sometimes that was an event that we invited them to on the weekends, just so that they could build community with each other.
In terms of intervention, when that harm actually occurred in the community or when somebody was in need, then we wanted to provide the support to focus on healing and give the individuals who were experiencing this harm or this trouble the ability to process that in what was often a restorative process. Sometimes it was just a conversation. Sometimes it was a mediation using a variety of different skills.
Then the third focus of the project was just investment. We came in with capital, something that the school didn't have. With that capital, we were able to host carnivals, and pep rallies, and take the kids on trips, and provide them with food and parties and all of these things that were unavailable to them because they went to underserved schools.
WATKINS: The day I was there, one word I heard more than once was "grace." How is that a concept that we're trying to introduce into, I guess, the stories that people are telling themselves about themselves?
Xavier CORNEJO: I'll speak on that. I think grace plays a huge role in how we offer forgiveness to students, in ways that systems have just not given them, time and time again.
Grace, to me, is taking into account everything that you've lived and are living through and how that factors into the decisions you make—recognize that you're valid to make mistakes. It's okay for you to make mistakes when, let's say, you threw a pencil at a kid, or you said something out of turn, your anger took over you.
We all do that. We understand you as a human being, as a teenager. When we offer students that grace, it's a way of just recognizing your human capacity to learn.
Maxine GETZ: I think another part of it is that when the teachers are allowed to just feel isolated and feel shame, they then act harmfully towards the kids. Teachers mess up all the time, and if they're just told that it's okay and worked with through whatever they messed up on and given that grace, I think it's so much easier for them to be like, "I'm human. I can apologize to this kid. I can apologize to my co-teacher, whatever. I can apologize to myself for falling short in that moment."
You see that sometimes with specific teachers or students, who for whatever reason have learned how to treat themselves more kindly, are way more able to treat each other with that.
Yesterday, I encountered two kids who were just talking so openly about mental health struggles and therapy and all that and giving themselves the grace to be like, "I've experienced depression”—and publicly, with a whole big group of 15 kids or something—and they're like, "I've experienced depression. This is how I deal with it. This is what I've been taught to deal with it."
In a way that they were letting themselves be broken. I think that to be able to do that, someone had to have really taught them how to do that, and we don't teach them how to do that ever, and I think that that's an important part of the grace element of it is how they can model that for themselves and each other and how, without that, they don't know how to be kind to each other at all or themselves.
Mischaël CETOUTE: I think that a lot of people who go into this work have this idea that the power holder is the people with the titles—the principal, assistant principal—and the first thing that I realized was the people who the children talk to and respect were the people who are most disrespected by the established hierarchy in the school.
School safety agents, the paras, the people who serve them food, the custodians, those were the people who were able to do things and move things and tell you what's going on with X kid, because they were the closest to the kids. But those were the people who the grantees completely neglected in identifying as stakeholders.
When you come into these communities and you try to learn, as opposed to saying, "You're doing this wrong, and here's how you should be doing it," I think it opens you up and opens up the people that you're working with to actually be receptive to what you have to say.
I think our approach on day one, or at least I can say, speak for myself, my approach on day one was literally asking, "What do you need? How can I help?" And for the first year-and-a-half, that was literally just picking up trash in the cafeteria, something that none of the teachers wanted to do, something that none of the students wanted to do, but somebody needed to pick up trash in the cafeteria.
And that action of doing the thing that nobody else wants to do, doing the thing that needs to be done, I think is at the heart of what we're doing, which is paying attention to the actual human beings in front of us and what they need in that moment and long-term.
WATKINS: Well, it's a demonstration of commitment, too, right? It's communicating that message that we're here. We're going to do the shit work that nobody else wants to do if that's what needs to be done.
Mischaël CETOUTE: I think that, and I also think that it's a demonstration of humility in a really important way. When we started this project, Kellsie said something over and over that really grained into my head, which was, "We're guests in this house. This is not our house. This is not our school. We cannot just walk into these people's offices and say, 'You have to do this this way, and you're racist, and you're bad, and you're suspending too many kids.’”
Because in reality, you don't know what's going on in the house. You just got there, you are a guest. And I think that that philosophy and that orientation to focus on the needs of the real people on the ground was really helpful in us getting started in building the community and ingraining ourselves into the preexisting structure.
Quaila HUGH: I think also on that point, you asked about how we went about changing culture. Often, we forget these schools aren't all bad. It's not all terrible. There are lots of people who are working very hard to build culture.
I think something we often talk about on the team is: what is that tipping point of the teachers, or this staff in general, that are working to build a positive culture, but it's just one person here or two people here.
What we did, much like Misch was saying, is just look for where we can help and support so that there is enough energy behind it, so that other people—who maybe started with that energy and don't have it anymore—tap back in to do all the good stuff for this school.
WATKINS: Can we talk a little bit—just so that people have a concrete sense of what some aspect of the work looks like, because the work you're doing is not just about conflict resolution, for example; it's not just about finding an alternative to suspensions—but could we talk a bit about maybe a hypothetical or anonymized scenario, which, in the past, might have been responded to with a suspension, with all the attendant harms that we know about, and then what this alternative, more restorative response actually looks like in practice?
Erica WRIGHT: Specifically, in the second year of the program, my office essentially became a therapeutic office for a lot of kids. It got to a point to where, when kids were on the verge of, if they had reached their peak—maybe they got into an altercation with the teacher or something happened at home and they brought it to school with them, or they got into something with one of their friends—a lot of times our offices were the first places that they would go to, to say, "Let me tell you," you know, the kids they say, "Let me put you on," where they let you know everything what's happening with them.
Because a lot of the times what you see is that these kids don't really want to fight. They just want to be heard. They want to feel like someone is there for them. They want to feel like, "Okay, this thing happened to me, and I need to tell somebody," but when they don't have people there to listen, then it comes out in a violent or an aggressive manner, so our offices became kind of a safe space for them to come to say, "These are all of the things that happened to me.”
And then we'll say, "Okay, do you want to talk to that person?" "Yeah, I'll talk to him." And so we were able to sit with them, I'll be like, "Okay, I'm going to put you in another office. Let me go pull this other student, have a conversation with this other student to get what their side of the story is," and then we could bring them together.
And this is pre-them having a fight, or even having a big altercation in the hallway, or anywhere in the school, or even outside of the school. So, a lot of the times we were able to get these situations before anything could even happen, but that was because we had built a sense of community and a sense of trust with the kids.
They knew that we were there for them, and that what happened in our office, as long as it's not anything harmful, it wasn't going to leave there, and in a lot of spaces in their life, that was not a real situation. Even at home, a lot of the kids, a lot of my students in particular, did not feel like they could talk to their parents or whoever the guardian was that they lived with.
We become like these pseudo-parents and older siblings and these guardians, essentially, for these kids. That was kind of a space that we provided them, outside of doing mediations or harm circles, anything of that sort.
Mischaël CETOUTE: And to add to that, I think another way that we did that—that was on an individual level—but at the community scale, we just amplified the efforts, like Quaila was saying earlier, we amplified the efforts that teachers were making to build positive community already.
In the second year we had a group of teachers who were veterans who wanted to do something fun for the students on the day before break. And they called it Sports Fest, and it was dividing the school into ninth and 12th versus 10th and 11th, and playing basketball and having it be a competition. And we were like, “yes, let's do it! What do you need?”
And it turns out that what they needed was a tug-of war rope, and hacky sacks, and potato sacks for their kids to do potato sack races. And Sports Fest has become a major part of the school culture. Kids look forward to it. It's a recurring thing and they've increased the times that they do it.
And it's also boosted attendance. And it's the kind of thing that, if you're only looking at suspension numbers, you're never going to think about how Sports Fest will prevent fights, Sports Fest will encourage kids to come to school, and you don't have to have it wait until someone does something.
Erika SASSON: Just to highlight that point. What we're talking about, obviously you can hear it in here, is harm reduction in a big, comprehensive, holistic way. And I want to just talk about some of the numbers that show that.
So, in one of our schools the year before we got there, there were 166 incidents and 115 suspensions. And into our third year in that same school, there are 14 incidents and the same amount of suspensions, more or less.
And it's not just about the response, again, to harm. It's about deviating a huge amount of that harm and helping these students build a muscle. A lot of the students will say to Maxine, for example, “If I don't talk to you right now, I'm going to punch somebody.”
And that's, for me, gold on this project, because it means that they have built that muscle to verbalize their feeling about it without actually taking the action. And once you have that happening, someone on this team is going to talk them out of it in some way, and talk to them about something else, and help them move forward from it.
But we really want—that's the social-emotional learning that doesn't really seem to happen in these environments. And that's how you get the huge reduction in incidents and suspensions.
Omar CYRILLE: One of the more exciting things that we will see is—and this actually happened a couple of times, where we'll walk into a room and you'll see kids in a circle and they're just doing their own circle process. And we’re like, “okay, we'll just step out, we'll see how they get it done.”
There are times we allow students to, it goes back to having students have equity in the process, just as much as we do. And sometimes we'll not only have conversations in the office, we'll have conversations in the hallway.
We reposition ourselves to become smaller and allow the students to become bigger. Therefore, we get more information, they become more comfortable, and they feel like they can really come to us and share a number of details.
And they have their pride as well, just like anybody else. But when you don't really have enough money to purchase a bacon, egg, and cheese, you don't have enough to be able to go to the school store, and you're going to go through a nine-hour day and sit through eight to seven classes where you're being lectured at. It's not easy.
You could ask anybody on the team if they didn't have their breakfast or their coffee, how they would react to certain stressful situations. There would probably be tons of suspensions, but, in this case, firings!
So, it is coming with that understanding and realizing: I was 15 at one point, and this is exactly, I'd do the same thing that they would. But now that I do know certain things now that I am older, I can be able to give some game and be able to drop some gems for them.
WATKINS: So to pick up on the holistic aspect of restorative justice that Erica was talking about, I doubt there was a moment for any of you in this room where you were in one of the schools and suddenly realized, "Hey, what we're doing in here is actually racial justice!"
But I'm wondering in what ways doing this work in the schools made the link between restorative justice and racial justice—and the link between what students are bringing in from the outside world and into the school—started to make those links, stronger or more pertinent for you.
Kellsie SAYERS: I think that when we think about these young people and the things that they face inside of school and outside of school, it's directly linked to the history of racism in this country. So, to say that we're going to come into these schools and we're going to support these young people and we're going to invest in them, to me is inherently racial justice work.
These are Black and brown kids who are suffering the consequences of a history of racism within this country and within the larger world. Because we do have kids, a lot of our kids, their roots aren't in America, but the racism experienced by people of color in America is not any different than what they experienced back home in their countries.
So I think for me in thinking about doing racial justice work, I think it is providing these young people with the space to heal with traumas that are beyond them, that are in their bloodlines, that are things that were beyond their lived experience here.
And I think particularly in our schools, in addition to wanting to promote positive school culture and wanting to reduce discipline, I found myself doing this work as wanting to give kids the skills to be better, and to be better beyond the academic environment, but to be better for themselves, and their families, and the families they haven't had already.
Being able to build these social, emotional skills with these young people, I think is inherently racial justice work for these Black and brown kids in which investments like this aren't usually made in their communities.
Erica WRIGHT: Something that, probably a year and a half into doing this work, I was really disgruntled with this idea of restorative justice. I really didn't quite understand still what it was. And for me, I didn't understand it because in this country, the history of Black people in this country, has always been tied to oppression.
So my thing was: if Black people in this country, the history of it—slavery, and you go from slavery to the Reconstruction era, and Black Codes, and Jim Crow, all of these different things—what are we restoring to?
WATKINS: America has never been America to me, right?
Erica WRIGHT: I mean, essentially. So, thinking of this idea of restorative justice and racial justice for me, I feel like restorative justice to me is essentially getting back to humanity. And like Kellsie talked about, Erika talked about, the social-emotional learning that a lot of our kids, they don't get in schools.
And a lot of times they don't actually get in homes in their communities. So I feel like for them to sit in circle and, there's no phones in the schools and you have to talk and have conversations, it's been one of those things to where it's—you see them actually be able to come alive and be able to see their own personalities and create the people that they want to be.
So, I think for me, restorative justice and racial justice, it's creating something; there's nothing to restore here when we've always been oppressed—and this is the story of the kids in our schools, they've always been oppressed.
I had a class, and this was actually a class with students. It was a self-contained class. So, all of the students in my class all had IEPs. So, they had an educational plan. Favorite class.
And these kids literally talked about everything under the sun. And I mean, first sexual experiences, everything. And they would tell some things that me and the teacher would be like, “Uh, I don't really, like...”
But they were so comfortable with doing that with each other. And the kids would laugh. When they left that classroom, they knew that that it wasn't leaving the classroom with them and we can come back and have... We literally talked about everything.
So, the fact that these kids were so comfortable, and the teacher said that, prior to us doing circles in her classroom, she had some kids in her class who never— she'd had them for four years—they never said a word in class!
For them to go from that, to be able to share all of these things about themselves with each other. So, like I said, I think for me, it is just a matter of creating the type of community, the type of space that you want, even when everything around you is contrary to that.
Mischaël CETOUTE: I actually remember that Kellsie asked me that question of: how do I see racial justice as a part of, or in relation to, restorative justice during the interview.
And I remember telling her in that moment that I didn't think that you could extract the two from each other. I don't think you can possibly be doing restorative justice work in the world, or even America, and not be doing racial healing work, because the entire premise, as I understand it, of restorative justice is about connecting humanity, it's about this shared kinship, and the entire premise of racism is the opposite.
If you are trying to build community, then you have to address the divisions within that community. And it made me think a lot when we started this project, just about how racism was this distortion of community, and what we were seeing in the schools was the impact of that distortion.
When you tell people that they're not good enough, when you tell people that they're disconnected, when you tell them it's all “me, mine, and whatever you got going on is your problem,” the result is an environment where everybody has their knives out, ready for the next person. Because if we're all in it on our own, then I got to get you before you get me.
And I think that that piece of it—what the product of racism is, is violence—I think is often lost on people because they have these insular lives in these privileged bubbles, where they get to discuss these issues from an arm's length.
In their mind, restorative justice is a fancy centerpiece, and it's a specific sequence of questions, and it's a specific sequence of seating, and it's not about the fact that there are no Black people in this room because no Black people feel welcome at Columbia University. Or no Black people feel welcome in this particular space.
For them, they're doing restorative justice because they're doing all the steps. And I feel for me, it's really important that we push back against this sort of corporatization and the mainstreaming of Indigenous practices that were originally for and by communities that were discarded.
This idea that you can be doing restorative justice work with all White people, or with all people who live in middle-class backgrounds, or with all people who went to college, and everybody there makes a certain amount of money… That's not restorative justice in my opinion, that is: we want to feel good about ourselves, so we're talking. That's not the same thing.
WATKINS: So, in terms of doing something more than just feeling good because we're talking, it occurs to me, accountability is a big concept that you hear associated with restorative justice.
But you guys don't just want this program to be about accountability for the young Black and brown students that you're working with, who are really the most powerless actors in the system.
You're trying to expand the notion of accountability—expand it into the staff, expand it into the administration, expand it into the Department of Education, which again, I mean, we're talking about deep seated problems in America. So, daunting to say the least. But how do we go about expanding this notion of accountability?
Erika SASSON: I just want to put one piece on that is that we don't really want to expand it to the staff and expand it to the administration. We want to start with the staff and start with the adults in the room. And it should be modeled then for the kids. Like that's all backwards, that we basically start and end with the kids, and we never get to the systems, and we never get to the power brokers.
If it's not there first, then the rest of it is kind of meaningless. So, I've come to this point where I've started to say: I don't want to hear about individual accountability anymore. I want to hear first about system accountability. I want to hear first about adults, adults in the room who are doing their share, and it's going to come from the kids as soon as the adults do it.
But to start with the reverse and expand up is in a way a recipe for a tweaking.
WATKINS: For the same thing happening?
Erika SASSON: For the same thing, I think so.
WATKINS: Well, so, how do you build a perch in order to change the power relations?
You have a little foothold in these Restorative Justice in Schools’ classrooms you have in these high schools, these safe spaces. How do you build the perch to be able to do that?
Kellsie SAYERS: I think that that's been a huge challenge of this project. I think that we have tried in lots of ways to bring in the adults in the building to be accountable for their actions. And we've had some amounts of success with that, but I think it's incredibly difficult.
I think it's for the adults in our schools who were excited for RJ work, they were excited that kids would finally take accountability for the things that they were doing. And I think that we've struggled with holding the adults accountable. And I think that we've been able to do it on an individual level. Maybe we'll convince a teacher to apologize about something or to acknowledge a harm that they caused.
But I think we've not figured out how do you hold an entire system accountable. And I think part of it was partly the design of our project is, this was a randomized study. So, the five schools that we launched our project in, did not decide to be there. So, leadership in the school didn't decide that they believed in the principles of restorative justice and in the principles of holding everyone accountable.
So, I think that in an environment where a school is saying, “I want to sign up for RJ,” maybe we would have more success with adults taking that kind of accountability. With that said, I think we had some success on accountability in the fact that we acknowledged to the young people, that it's not just you, this isn't just your fault.
And I think for a lot of our young people, that's the first time that they heard, “yeah, and they shouldn't have responded to you that way. You shouldn't cuss at your teacher, but also that was incredibly disrespectful, what happened to you in the classroom, and I want to acknowledge that.”
And I think even if we weren't able to hold each of those teachers accountable, those young people being able to hear that what they're feeling and what they're experiencing is real, and it's wrong, is a powerful form of accountability that they haven't had before.
Erica WRIGHT: I also think it's a situation to where, when you think about school districts in general and you go to the headquarters, there are no children in these buildings. They're a bunch of adults. A lot of them who are much older, which is perfectly fine.
But in that sense, they never act, a lot of times they actually don't get to go to the schools. And if they do, it's to do a walkthrough, when you do a walkthrough all of the principals are going to make sure that everything is laid out so nice so that you can think that we're doing this awesome job.
In a lot of the schools that are doing really good jobs. But when you do that, you don't actually get to see what's happening. And they are going to put their best students to go and talk to the superintendent or talk to the chancellor. And of course, they're going to be like, "Oh my God, everything is like rainbows and sunshine. And like our little pots of gold," and that's not real.
So, when you have a system, or when you have a group of people, who run a system that's supposed to be for the betterment of children, but they don't actually interact with children, they don't actually work with these kids. You don't really know what they need.
And so, I think it's very difficult to change those systems because they hear about RJ, or they hear about like a particular behavior plan or something, and it's, "Oh yeah, we're going to give these to the schools! You guys are going to do that!"
But it's like, you don't actually know what these schools need. You've not actually spent time with these kids to see, this is what they need. And then, with that, you're not actually giving them the resources to be able to implement these systems into the school.
And so, in order for us to do this, and to have people in the DOE really understand, they're literally going to have to come and sit in these circles with these kids. They're going to have to actually sit in circles with each other so that they know that, “wow, okay, this is what this is. This is what this is about.”
It's theoretical. It's a paper that they read, or a study that they saw or heard about, and now we're going to do it. But, it's like ... This is something that you have to do yourself. And, if you're not doing it, then how do you know that it's being done effectively, that it's being done right, that it's actually being done? And, like I said, until that happens, who knows?
Omar CYRILLE: We've looked at how to create certain processes, because we do have individuals in these buildings that are really, really great. We can use them to be able to help us as well. And, they tend to sometimes leave. And then all that work we've done just leaves with them.
And so, we've tried to create something to where, whenever we get somebody new, they can slide right in seamlessly. Therefore, we can create that culture, but not have it leave with all the people we created it with.
There are some schools that really want RJ, but they look at it as another way to restore order amongst students and not have accountability within themselves. For example, sometimes we'll get teachers come into the room about a student, but it's more-so a “can you fix this student? Can you talk to this student? And then, we'll write them a pass, and then you'll send them back.”
But, I'm like, "You could probably talk to him and figure out there's something you did." Because when we talk to our students ... "This teacher yelled at me when I wasn't doing anything. This teacher cursed when I was just asking another student for a pencil."
It's just little simple things like that, that teachers are not understanding and not taking the time to ... Now, whether it's capacity, whether it's having 30 kids in your class at 8:00 a.m., and you're not able to really get any type of time, or you're not able to have anybody help out, and sometimes maybe something boils over.
Regardless, that needs to come out with that actual student, because not only have you embarrassed him in front of his or her friends, but now we don't know that you've said sorry. We don't know that this student also wants to be able to fix a relationship that they had prior to you. And, when they send him to us, we're just like, "Okay, we'll talk to the student." But, now you go back to class. What is actually fixed? Is it going to happen over and over?
Mischaël CETOUTE: I think that, if we want to get to a place of system-accountability, we have to start at the top. It cannot be a situation where the kid who throws a fit because their needs aren't being met is being punished, and the people who are systemically denying his parents a living wage, systematically denying his community of the resources that all the other communities get, they get to go home and say, "Well, we gave them a restorative justice program, so if they don't make it work, that's because they're just inherently deficient."
And it completely misses the point that there's no possible way that you can begin to heal the harm that's going on in the schools without acknowledging the harm that's happening to the principals and to the teachers who work in the schools.
When I came in, I came in as a teacher, so I was really sensitive to teacher-bashing, because that's the number one go-to for the last 20 years. And so, my approach was: I'm not going to criminalize and demonize the adults who actually show up every day, because, guess what? They're showing up every day. Yeah, they're problematic. Yeah, sometimes they say things that make me irk and think, “oh, my God, I can't believe someone said that.”
But, at the end of the day, they are showing up every day, and they're not awful to every kid all the time. They're awful to some kids some of the time. And, sometimes I'm awful. I don't know what to tell you. Everybody's kind of awful sometimes.
If you start from this place of, “okay, well, what are you good at, and how do we make you better at what you're good at,” then it's much easier to help the culture shift than coming from this place of, “well, here's all the places where you're deficient.”
Erika SASSON: I was just going to add something, going back to the question of racial justice on this point. We're at the Center for Court Innovation. We do a lot of work in the criminal justice system and the civil justice system. That is the backdrop from which we entered into this work.
So, there's a lot of questions about interrupting the school-to-prison pipeline. But, for me, personally, I'm an attorney, and I was a prosecutor right out of the gate out of law school. I just thought it was interesting that when I was practicing law, and I was prosecuting a lot of drug and gun and gang types of crimes… And, this is in our native Canada, Matt.
WATKINS: You’re outing me!
Erika SASSON: This one's for you and me. We don't get to blame America on this one!
But, literally, when you're a prosecutor, most of your time you're making deals with the defense counsel, so it's not a lot about litigating in court, it's a lot about coming up with a deal. So, mostly there were a lot of Black defendants. But, every time there was a White defendant, and almost without fail, the defense lawyer would say to me, "But, if you proceed with this, this is going to ruin my client's life."
And, I was like, "Well, I met with you this morning about a different case, and you didn't say that at all. You basically never say that to me when there's a Black defendant, so what's going on here?"
I felt that when it came to Black defendants, there was just this expectation that the defense said if I gave a good deal—because I was some kind of soft prosecutor—so, if I gave you a good deal, that's as good as you're going to get, and you should really take it.
That was the kind of advice that I would see given to Black defendants all the time: “Oh, take this. This is a really good deal.” But, if it's a White defendant, there is all kinds of outrage about the harm of the system, and the harm of the prosecution, and all of that.
And you cut to a decade later, and I'm walking around these public schools. Meanwhile, my child's also in public school, but in a public school that looks really different than the public schools that we're working in. And, this public school that we're working in is filled almost entirely with Black children.
It just felt to me that there's this really similar expectation, that this is as good as you're going to get, even if that's an overwhelming mediocrity, even if it's baseline neglect. It's just something that I think connects to what we see in our justice systems.
Maxine GETZ: Part of how that plays out, and connecting to the racial justice side of it, is the immediacy of, kind of like, anticipatory punishment for the kids. The act of them being in school every day and the fact of it is that they're just constantly being anticipatorily punished.
So that when they have the opportunity for a couch for the lunchroom, or a speaker, or improving the water fountains because there's so much lead in the water—the kids have the idea already that they don't deserve it because they'll mess it up, because they've been told so many times that they're the ones who are going to mess it up, when that's just a complete issue of racism.
They are children. They deserve water. They deserve a couch in the lunchroom. They deserve literally everything that the kids at the school that I went to on the Upper West Side, and the school that your kids go to, Erica…it's just assumed that they'll get.
I mean, to your point, we've talked about this: How do you restore anything that they've never had a clean water fountain in their schools? But, that's also to Omar's point that they just want to maintain order in the schools, and they just want the kids to be well-behaved because they put restorative justice programs in predominantly Black schools because they want the kids to be really well behaved, better behaved in those schools. They want them to be easier to manage.
They're not acknowledging all of the things that they have done that have made it impossible to manage yourself in that daytime because you do not have access to water. You do not have access to a bathroom during the times that you want to go to the bathroom. There's nowhere for you to just congregate and sit. There's nowhere for the teachers to congregate and sit.
Everyone's telling you that the way that you communicate with your family is not how you're allowed to communicate in school. Everyone's telling you that the things that you want to talk about or the music you want to listen to is not okay to be talking about. The way that you're keeping your hair safe in school is not okay to be doing. It just brings all that into really harsh relief when a kid is like, "We can't have a couch in the lunchroom because we'll destroy it."
When I went to visit my high school, that they just built a new building for a few years ago, and it was literally the nicest place I've ever been to. They gave tons of couches to those kids, and they give them this insane theater because they love doing their productions of The Tempest with an actual pool!
That's a public school in New York City. They did The Tempest when I was in high school, and they broke through and flooded the entire basement, I think, because of the pool.
And, they just give it again, because they're like, "Oh, you’re kids, you’re going to mess up,” instead of being like, "You get $2,000 one time for one couch. If you fuck this up, you never get that again because we expect you to fuck it up," and without them having to say, "because you're Black kids." That's just how they assume that.
Quaila HUGH: Potentially a tangent, but thinking about restorative justice as truth-telling and storytelling, and thinking about these DOE higher-ups needing to sit in the schools and listen to the kids…
They gave them all water bottles. Every child in the DOE school system was given the Swell—fancy water bottles. And there aren't water fountains in these schools with clean water. And that's my tangent.
WATKINS: Not a tangent!
Qualia HUGH: I just think restorative justice is we need to tell the truth and hear the stories of the kids being like, "We need water, not water bottles. We want to save the environment, but we need water first before we can fill these water bottles."
Maxine GETZ: Can I just say in some schools, you only got it if you had good behavior. So, you only got the water bottle for good behavior that you couldn't use to fill up anywhere.
Mischaël CETOUTE: I'd also like to add to that most African Americans are not lactose tolerant. It is generally understood that if you are Black–
Matt WATKINS: That was my next question, actually. I can just cross that one off...
Mischaël CETOUTE: Yeah, you probably should not be drinking cow's milk. What is the only thing that they offer at lunchtime to this school where 99 percent of the children are Black? Chocolate milk and, I guess, vanilla milk?
Omar CYRILLE: Regular.
Mischaël CETOUTE: Is it regular milk?
Omar CYRILLE: I guess so.
Mischaël CETOUTE: And then, what is the only thing that actually kind of tastes good? Pizza, which is cheese. And so, when you think about just this basic level: who is the school designed for? Who decided that all these Black kids need milk at every meal, you know what I mean?
Matt WATKINS: So, you guys are nearing the end of this three-year project now, and you've just taken this trip together as a team down to Montgomery, Alabama. You visited the work of the Equal Justice Initiative, The Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration.
I don't imagine that it was news what you guys learned down there, but I'm wondering what the impact was of having this experience together near the end of this restorative justice project in the schools that you've been doing.
Xavier CORNEJO: Going into this work, I had the intention of learning about how to heal intergenerational trauma in communities, because it's something that I was informed about just from my lived experience in my hometown. Just recognizing how my family's history in this country is limited—it only goes back a generation or two, starting with my grandmother who came here from El Salvador.
It gave me a bit more perspective and understanding around what that intergenerational trauma looks like, but also recognizing that my struggle is connected to theirs. My community struggle is connected to the schools that I work with.
And again, I think speaking to the point that my colleagues had mentioned: restorative justice is about unification. It is about connecting to a humanness that is about a shared struggle and a shared liberation.
Quaila HUGH: For me, the trip… It made me reflect on how, obviously, we've moved from slavery to mass incarceration, and slavery is very clear-cut: you are enslaved because you are Black.
And I think the way that they are choosing to capitalize on our bodies now is far more insidious because it's like “you are being locked up because you are bad.” And you clearly have a choice over being bad in ways that you don't have a choice over being Black. I think it just breaks up our community in far different ways.
And so, for me, the trip cemented that restorative justice is the only way that we're ever going to achieve any racial justice in this country because we need to continue to build our communities and keep our community strong and keep our faith strong. And I think that's going to be through restorative justice.
Mischaël CETOUTE: I think two things that were really powerful to me is, one, I had this moment where I went to Chick-fil-A right before I left, and it was the most integrated Chick-fil-A that I've ever seen. There were Black people working there, White people working there, Black people eating there, White people eating there.
And this is in Montgomery, Alabama, which, prior to, I don't know if I will be safe there. And my mom was like, “don't get in any cars with any strange White men.” And I'm like, “mom, when have I ever done that?” But it was just this thing of: you won't be safe in the South. And I actually found it to be the opposite.
In my experience, I think New York city is one of the most racist cities I've ever lived in. And I think that not because people will scream n****r at you on the street, but because there's this sort of insidious liberal racism where you're constantly being told, “you should just be happy to be here. Aren't we great? Oh my God, we are doing so well.”
And so, you're constantly being told how you should be appreciative of how liberal and advanced this place is, but then internally, whoa, this feels bad. I know in my soul that that is not how I feel about this interaction, and the power that you have over me is immense.
Whereas in the South, at least specifically in Montgomery, which is a majority Black city with a Black mayor and doing a lot of really progressive things about documenting the history of racism there, there was an honesty about where they had been, and an honesty about where they were trying to go, that I don't feel in New York, I didn't feel in Miami, I didn't feel that, really, in any other city that I've been to. So, I think that Montgomery, and the South in general, they've got something to say.
I'm really grateful that we took that trip together as a team, because I think that this team, for me, has been a really nice support mat where I feel I can fall into my feelings and somebody will catch me. And I think that that might not have been the case if I had gone with a different group of people or if I had gone by myself. I don't know that I would have been able to feel reenergized by it in the way that I did, as opposed to maybe demoralized.
Kellsie SAYERS: I think the trip, for me, brought up a lot of things. I think it made me think about where, as a Black community, I see us today. And I think it often feels, for me, that our generation thinks we're going to be liberated through our individual talents and gifts in a way that there isn't this larger community effort, and there isn't this investment that in order for people of color to be liberated in this country, it's going to take us working together. And it's going to take us believing in something beyond our personal gifts and talents.
And what does it mean to use restorative justice to build that kind of community again? What does it mean to use restorative justice to tell the stories of how our ancestors overcame, and that them overcoming had to do with community, and had to do with faith, and it had to do in believing that it was going to be something beyond you, and that you won't be saved solely by your gifts and talents.
And it just made me think a lot about our ability to have these conversations with young people, and to model for young people that you can invest in other people, even if they don't have the capacity to give you a lot back. So, I think a lot of the work we did in schools was just investing and we didn't expect anything back. And if people disappointed us, it was okay.
Erica WRIGHT: I’ve got a lot of feels. I don't even know. So, I am from St. Louis, Missouri, and I was there when the protests happened for the death of Michael Brown, and I participated in a lot of them. I took a lot of photos and was just there. That was the first time since I was a child that I saw communities come together within the city, and it was so much love.
People—the news and media—just showed, “oh, protesters are looting and all of these different things,” and that was totally inaccurate. People came together and you could go down there in the morning time and never leave because they set up porta-potties, they had food—people donated food, drinks, water, Gatorade. Anything that you needed was there for you to be a part of this moment.
And so, I know that for our generation, we struggle, like what Kellsie talked about, with having that faith, because we hear the stories about what they went through during the Civil Rights Movement, and we see that we do have certain rights and we have certain freedoms.
But it's like Quaila said, and even Misch said, as far as the ways in which racism shows itself now, it's so insidious because it's like, “Imma smack the shit out of you and I'm going to hide my hand like you don't know it.”
As opposed to back in the day where it was like, they served you racism on a platter. You saw it, you know what it was, you know that it smelled like shit, it tasted like shit, but you could see it and now you can't see it. I don't know what it's like to have to be walking in the street and move off of the sidewalk because a White person is coming.
But at the same time, like Misch said, I know what it feels like to be in a space where I'm not wanted. I know what it feels like to be in a space where I have to explain that I'm not here because of affirmative action. I'm here because I'm actually fucking smart and probably I know more than you do.
And so it's like, while so many things have changed, so many things are still the same. And in Ferguson, I saw the people come together for something that was so much bigger than us, but we were missing that spiritual piece so that when that dissipates, when that protest has gone there anymore, people are not necessarily still coming together because “we believe in this thing that is so bigger than us” in the ways in which, in the Civil Rights Movement, they had that.
And to know that they actually lived in a community and the ways in which now we may live, Black people, with each other, simply because segregation is still alive and real, but we're not actually living in real communities where we are taking care of each other. And essentially what we're trying to do in these schools is take care of each other in the ways in which when these kids leave their communities...
And that's not to say that none of these communities are not looking out for each other because that would be false, because they are in a lot of ways. But it's not in the way in which, like when I was a kid, if I was out in the middle of the street, my neighbors telling me to “get your ass out the street.” And if you said something to them, if you got smart or you did anything, they were going to tell you, “I'm going to tell your grandmother.” “Oh no, don't do that.” We don't have that anymore.
And so to be there, in that space, for me it's like, I can visualize a time where Black people, actually, we lived in community with each other, and we loved each other, and we took care of each other in a way in which now we have bought into this very White American ideal that individualism… when it's like, we are a very communal people.
And I need us to get back to that. I want us to get back to that. And I feel like restorative justice is a way for us to get back to that. But we're so limited, because we're in the schools is really limited, and what does this look like for us to do this in whole communities, to bring us together?
And so, I guess, for me, Alabama brought up this idea for me that I've always been very much so about kinship. And I feel like those of us who actually really do want that, we don't actually live in the communities that raised us because we don't feel it. So, I guess I just feel like RJ is a way in which we can get back to that.
WATKINS: So, final question to put the cherry on this amazing conversation: As I said, you guys are near the end of this three years of work. Obviously, somebody can't replicate the work that you guys have been doing, and so much is based on the quality of the people in this room.
But is there advice that you would have, lessons you've learned, that you would share with people who want to try to set up something, at least, sharing in the spirit of what you guys have been trying to do in these schools?
Xavier CORNEJO: Something I would say to someone entering this work is: pay your dues. Coming into communities like the ones that we have, similar to what many of us have been saying now, Kellsie said that we are guests in these houses. And so, don't move in there expecting to be the landlord. Don't believe that you have it all figured out for people because you see it from the outside, looking in.
You have to be in community with people. You have to ask everyone, from the disempowered to the empowered, to understand what the lay of the land is.
Omar CYRILLE: One thing I would say is: don't come into the work to feel sorry for people—just get the job done.
Maxine GETZ: I think my biggest takeaway from this whole thing, agreeing with all of you, is just the importance of listening. I mean, as a White person doing this, the importance of listening and just, I don't know sh… stuff.
The way that they put restorative justice programs in predominantly schools with students of color, you've got to be thinking about how you can grapple with your own stuff so that you can show up for kids in a way that honors and celebrates daily their identities, so that I can be a White person who can talk to kids about what it's like to be Black.
Kellsie SAYERS: I'd say to do this work, you got to do it from a place of love. And I think that that requires a lot of grace. And Erica mentioned this: know when to tap out.
You've got to acknowledge your limitations and step back and say: “that's all I can give right now.” And acknowledge you might've tried your best, but this just may not be for you.
Mischaël CETOUTE: First thing I would say to someone who is interested in doing RJ is to find the log in your own eye. That's obviously a reference to what Jesus says about finding the log in your eye before taking out the speck in your neighbors, but I think it works on multiple levels in that, as long as you are in community with other people, there's going to be things that you do wrong, that you have to own.
And if you can't do that piece, then no one's going to want to sit in your circle. They're going to sit in that circle and be like, “ah, last week he did this, and now he's talking all this fancy stuff about being in community and being in love—la la la, I'm not buying it.”
The second thing I would say is that healing doesn't take place in isolation. And the wounds that you are trying to heal from can only really begin to breathe when you allow others to see them. And I think we live in a society that often tells us to hide our damage and to hide our wounds, and obviously it's not safe to do that with everyone. But if you find the people who you can show your wounds to, that is a huge piece in actually healing.
And the last thing I have is specifically for my White brothers and sisters: I have always recognized that I have White blood in me. I look in the mirror and I'm a Black man and I'm treated like a Black man, but I do not look like someone who is West African, from the continent.
There is a lightness to my skin, there's a lack of kink to my hair, that I can only attribute to a French slave master at some point. For me, knowing that at some point in my family's history, somebody sold their own kid is really, really paramount to understanding what slavery was about.
And so, the question that I would have for White people who are interested in doing this work is: how many slaves did your family own? If you can't look into that, then it's going to be very hard to look into the eyes of a kid who's suffering, because all you're going to see is your own guilt and your own lack of self-reflection.
Maybe your family's new to the country, you came here in the 1900s, or you've never had slaves. How have you all benefited from the White power structure that exists? That's a question that everyone should be asking themselves, but I think it's a question specifically that if you look in the mirror and you think that you're White and you feel that you are White, you really got to ask yourself a lot: How have I benefited? How have my ancestors benefited?