moving restorative justice from margins to center: what i learned

This past weekend, I went to Oakland, California, to attend the National Association of Community and Restorative Justice‘s annual conference, this year titled, “Moving Restorative Justice from Margins to Center: We’re The Ones We’ve Been Waiting For.” It was a truly incredible experience. I’m grateful and humbled to have been able to learn from some seriously visionary and creative activists. This conference was where you can find the people who have ideas so big and daring, it’s a little bit scary. It’s definitely scary to people who are invested in the status quo, which is what made it so awesome! Here are some of the lessons from the conference that resonated most strongly with me, and that I imagine will stick with me for a really long time.

What it looks like to actually center indigenous voices and honor indigenous land and practices

An important part of the conference was not only moving restorative justice from margins to center, but moving indigenous people from margins to center, and giving thanks to them for giving us restorative justice practices and for allowing us to be on their land. Many of the keynotes and breakout sessions were led by and centered on indigenous people. Many of the non-indigenous speakers paid tribute to the indigenous roots of what we call restorative justice practices. We also began each day with a performance and prayer/reflection by indigenous artists.

I think an important part of centering indigenous voices at this conference, beyond (obviously) actively inviting and elevating indigenous speakers, facilitators, and artists, was acknowledging the importance of spirituality and ancestors for everyone. In so many “professional” spaces (conferences usually fall under that category), intellectual pursuits and spiritual or emotional pursuits are completely divorced from each other. This is typical in my Euroamerican, white-dominated world, which is obsessed with rigid, hierarchical dichotomies. One of the most important dichotomies, which forms the basis for the rationalization of a lot of inequality, is the reason/emotion binary, in which they are mutually exclusive and reason is privileged.  Additionally, it’s more than commonplace for ancestry and history to be dismissed in a world ruled by people who would rather forget the atrocities their ancestors committed, even though it is important to remember and honor history and ancestors for both political and spiritual reasons.

It was really, really powerful to be in a space where spiritual practices were invited in, where spirituality and emotionality were not dismissed, and where folks who have strong cultural connections and spiritual practices were not asked (or ordered) to leave those parts of themselves out of the space. It was space that doesn’t usually exist in my world, and, I would guess, in many people’s worlds. It was so much more affirming and rich than a typical professional or academic setting.

How physical space shapes and reflects our understandings of justice

One of my breakout sessions was titled “What Justice Looks Like: Architectures of Connection, Youth Healing, and Empowerment,” led by Deanna Van Buren of Designing Justice  Designing Spaces and Barb Toews of the University of Washington. They talked about how architecture is usually under the control of wealthy, powerful people, and how that has affected the architecture of our centers of “justice.” One example they gave was the courtroom. A typical courtroom reflects the adversarial and oppressive criminal justice system. There are two sides, and only one can win; the judge is elevated physically and professionally as the ultimate expert; the community is invited to watch but not participate; even more importantly, the victim/survivor of the crime is not able to participate. Courtrooms are also usually ugly (sorry if you are a courtroom interior designer), with drab carpets, little natural lighting, and stuffy furniture.

doesn’t looking at this stress u out!!! bleh!

Barb and Deanna have done lots of research, both with people who have committed crimes and have been imprisoned and with people who have been the victims of crimes, about what folks need in a physical space to participate in a restorative or transformative justice process. Almost everyone said they wanted natural lighting, big windows with a view, access to nature, comfortable furniture, books, places to be alone, places to be social, kitchens. If we really care about addressing harm, rather than being vindictive and punitive, it’s important to face the realities of what makes people feel safe. It’s important that spaces in which justice is purportedly carried out meet people’s needs, which would promote healing rather than spitefully punish people.

What it means to bridge the gap between feminist movements and restorative/transformative justice movements

I attended a breakout session called, “Limits and Promise: Utilizing Restorative Justice to Address Gender Violence.” It was led by four women doing incredible work, both in conducting research on the efficacy of restorative justice and in practicing it. One of them, Mimi Kim of Creative Interventions, pointed out that carceral feminism, rather than anti-incarceration feminism, has tended to dominate feminist responses to sexual and gender-based violence. It’s important to consider how we can merge feminist politics with restorative justice practices when, for so long, carceral responses have been an important part of legitimizing the issue of gender-based violence to sexists and non-feminists. Feminists and women struggled (and still struggle) to have gender-based violence taken seriously by police, lawyers, and the public, and so I understand why it’s difficult to let go of the carceral response when it’s the one that feels like real power in our hands, for once. But even if pro-incarceration feelings are relatable or understandable for some, that doesn’t make them right.

It’s also important to note that pro-incarceration feelings are, in some ways, a privilege. My people (East Asian and white) are not disproportionately imprisoned, brutalized and murdered by the police, kept in debt by fees to the criminal justice system, or permanently relegated to a life on the margins by a felon status. Prisons weren’t made to house our bodies. It’s much harder to revel in locking people up for survivors of gender violence who are black, Latinx, brown, and/or indigenous, whose communities have been and continue to be ravaged by mass incarceration.

Mimi Kim and another speaker, Kalei Kanuha of the University of Washington School of Social Work, both have done direct service work with community-based justice programs for people who have perpetrated violence. This kind of justice aims to change behavior and make amends, rather than punish. It also allows different communities to hold their various members accountable in ways that are most fitting for that community. For example, Kalei Kanuha’s work was with Native Hawaiians; the program she was a part of used specifically Hawaiian cultural values to address violence, and it confronted colonization as a source of violence. Community-based transformative justice means that we can account for people who perpetrate violence who may also be victims of it themselves. If feminists truly want to end power-based personal violence, and I believe most of us do, we need to accept that perpetrating carceral violence just deepens the wounds that already exist.

Why we must address violent crimes, in addition to nonviolent ones, with restorative justice

It’s low(er)-hanging fruit to argue that we should implement restorative justice processes for nonviolent crimes than it is to ask that people find compassion for those who commit violent crimes. But, as Danielle Sered of Common Justice argued in her talk, “Accounting for Violence: A Survivor-Centered Approach for Ending Mass Incarceration,” we must address violent crime if we want to end mass incarceration. The simple fact is that people commit violent crimes. We can’t just ignore that.

More importantly, though, is that a) mass incarceration does not increase safety, and b) mass incarceration is built upon a racist narrative about the imminent violence we all face.  To the first point, incarcerating someone who caused violence, particularly in communities where structural violence has created poverty and violence, does not mean safety for people in that community because the structural factors that make violence very difficult to avoid remain unchanged. Restorative justice offers a way to change relationships among community members that can change those structural factors.

As for point B, in much the same way that we use “national security” concerns to rationalize Islamophobic violence and racist state action,* we use the fear of black bodies, particularly masculine black people, to defend practices that result in black people dying, being imprisoned, and being disenfranchised. But, in fact, we don’t all face imminent violence. Most of the people who most benefit from (and cling to) mass incarceration practices are people who are at the lowest risks of violence: white people, in high income neighborhoods.  These are also the people who are most frequently framed as victims, particularly white women. Because this racist narrative about who perpetrates and who is victimized by violence persists, our society continues to consider certain populations disposable.  In a justice practice in which survivors are centered, it will be clear that most victims of violence in the United States are not white women, but young, black men. Until we can address violent crimes in restorative or transformative justice practices, people will die because of that myth.


The necessity of love of others and love of self to heal individuals and structures

To heal the wounds of colonization, genocide, slavery, white supremacy, and mass incarceration, we need love and compassion to infuse everything—every policy, every procedure, every institution, every interaction. Nobody knows exactly how to fix every problem. It will never be possible to create a blueprint for a revolution well in advance, meticulously planned and executed. Change is slow, messy, and complicated. But our principles, if we stick to them, can guide us. Our compassion can guide us. I was struck and moved by the people of color and indigenous folks at the conference who really wanted to forgive white people and colonizers for the violence they/we have perpetrated.  If groups of people, who have been enslaved, murdered, raped, tortured, brutalized, and, in some cases, wiped out, can find a way to want to forgive the people who committed those acts against them, then we all have it in us to forgive and act with compassion instead of vindictiveness.

In summary, this is what I learned and what I believe: our actions should ALWAYS be about healing, accountability, behavior change, giving people reasons to care about each other, believing in the capacity of all people to not harm others, growth, survivor wellness, and community. Exile of any form—physical, social, emotional—is always harmful. Always. It does not end or prevent violence; in fact, that punitive and carceral response creates more violence. I’ll end with one more quote, from Leonard Peltier, an unjustly imprisoned Native American activist: “I don’t know how to save the world. I don’t have the answers or The Answer. I hold no secret knowledge as to how to fix the mistakes of generations past and present. I only know that without compassion and respect for all of Earth’s inhabitants, none of us will survive—nor will we deserve to.”


*(if we really cared about national security, don’t you think we’d care about making people’s lives better in places where they rightly think that the United States is the fucking devil??)


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