Racial Justice and RJ: Volunteers Speak
By Christine Colascione
Anne Louise Wagner has been a reparative panel volunteer with BCJC for several months, after first volunteering with the Youth Services Court Diversion Panels for many years. Anne Louise completed independent work with restorative justice and conflict resolution while studying at SIT and continues to work with experiential learning and conflict resolution through her role at High 5 Adventure’s Edge of Leadership Program.
Megan Grove began volunteering with the Brattleboro Community Justice Center through her degree program at SIT in Peacebuilding and Conflict Transformation, during which she completed an eight month internship at BCJC. She then continued to intern as a reparative panel assistant and has assisted BCJC in mediation, training and restorative counseling as a freelance consultant.
Both Megan and Anne Louise also work with Lost River Racial Justice, a currently majority-white Brattleboro-based racial justice organization which works uniquely within our rural and small town contexts to transfer power and resources to black, indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) communities. Many forms of restorative justice have been practiced by native communities long before beginning to be implemented by the U.S. It is imperative to stay educated on the racist history and present of our current criminal justice system, and make sure that as restorative justice expands and begins to overlap with the current system, that an absolute rejection of white supremacy both internally and externally are actively employed throughout the restorative justice process.
I have asked Anne Louise and Megan a series of questions about the connections between racial and restorative justice:
What intersections do you see between racial justice and restorative justice?
Anne Louise: “The School to Prison Pipeline is an obvious one. Also, restorative practices work against some pieces of white supremacist culture, such as fear of open conflict, either-or thinking (victim vs. perpetrator), and power hoarding. We have to be careful, however, because white supremacist cultural components (for example, paternalism) can show up on reparative panels!”
Megan: “I think both restorative justice and racial justice are rooted in equity so when the word “justice” is used it is not a one-size-fits-all approach but it recognizes each individual’s experiences, needs, and desires. In my view, both restorative and racial justice view justice as something we achieve together in the mantra of “we are not free until all of us are free.””
Have you seen racial justice in action at BCJC?
Anne: “Not at BCJC, however I have an example from another local panel. A black community activist & organizer from Brattleboro came in and got a chance to share their story of why they were arrested during a protest, the differential treatment they received compared to white protesters, and impact the event had on their children who were present, and the long-term complication and challenges. Everyone on the panel agreed racial-bias was at play based on law-enforcement’s behavior. Their process was fast-tracked and the fee was waived; panelists wanted to limit emotional energy required by activist of color.”
Megan: “I think both restorative justice and racial justice are rooted in equity so when the word “justice” is used it is not a one-size-fits-all approach, but recognizes each individual’s experiences, needs, and desires. In my view, both restorative and racial justice see justice as something we achieve together in the mantra of “we are not free until all of us are free.”
What do you see as the biggest obstacle towards increasing restorative justice across the country?
Anne Louise: “The general public needs to trust that it works. Punitive punishment (revenge) mentality makes things seem fair based on people’s current mindset around “justice” [but it isn’t].” Additionally, people need to develop their conversation skills – ability to disagree, ask hard questions, address conflict, be honest and vulnerable, hear other perspectives, developing awareness, etc. Lastly, affected folks [other than the client] need to be more present in process! This is so important but rarely occurs. Everyone needs to be invested/involved!”
Megan: ‘I think there are still a lot of folks who see restorative justice as “letting people off easy”, so perception (or, really, misperception) is huge. I have heard multiple people who, after going through a RJ process, say they thought this would be easier than the alternatives but it was actually more challenging because it made them face themselves, their actions, and their communities. And RJ is more holistic because it not only looks at one incident but at what factors led to it, what can be done to try to make amends, and what plans need to be put in place so a similar incident does not happen in the future. RJ is proactive and preventative. People need to see RJ in action for themselves and they have to want it and push for it. RJ will not work as well if it is implemented from the top down; it must come from the community level up. And since RJ requires different stakeholders from many different sections of society, it can be challenging to get that “buy-in”.
How can restorative justice help dismantle institutional racism in our criminal justice system?
Megan: “This is a huge question and I don’t think restorative justice alone can do it; yet I will try to answer what I think RJ can provide. The principles of restorative justice and restorative practices show us that individuals do not make choices in a vacuum; we are all products of our environments and we have all been affected by systems outside our control. By acknowledging that many truths exist at once, RJ recognizes that people are affected by their environment and factors beyond their control and they can take responsibility for their part in their choices and behaviors at the same time. Where criminal justice sees people as individuals who broke laws against the state, RJ sees people as members of communities who are accountable to and responsible for one another. RJ can help dismantle institutional racism by treating people as human beings who are not disposable and whose lives have been shaped by systems, culture, and history. In the case of U.S. society, this means that African Americans, Latinx folks, Asian Americans, Native Americans, trans folks, folks with mental health issues, folks with disabilities, (and the list can go on and on) face more challenges that white, straight, cisgender, American men. We cannot treat all people equally because that would mean we all have had equal opportunities and starting points. We must treat people with equity, taking into account the ways certain groups in society have been disadvantaged and oppressed for centuries. And, honestly, I don’t think our criminal justice system can do that. I think change will take uprooting the entire system as it exists now and coming up with an entirely new one. The best way to fix a corrupt system is to rid ourselves of the corrupt system and start anew.”
Anne Louise: [Restorative Justice] is a piece of the puzzle, and lessens senseless records that impacts someone’s life trajectory. (I.e. School to Prison Pipeline). White folks are confronted with privileges when you hear people’s stories who are targeted because of the color of their skin. Community-Wide, [restorative justice] leads to community connection, sharing, understanding, and talking about the hard things.”
Lastly, what sustains you in doing this work? What are you hopeful about?
Anne Louise: Connections with others, relating to each other’s challenges and struggles. I see myself in all of the clients and learn with them. Allowing someone to be their whole self – not just “accused.” Clients share about this interest in woodworking, free-style skiing, mentoring young kids, dreams of being a doctor, etc. Opportunity to look forward with them to the future with excitement, not just on the past with shame.
Megan: I am hopeful because of the seemingly small things: the question that elicits a new thought for someone, the change that happens when someone truly hears another person’s side of the story for the first time, the moment when someone catches themselves in a negative/punitive pattern and alters course. I am encouraged by the many people in their daily lives who recognize that conflict is inevitable and natural and that they can approach it as an opportunity. I am sustained by fellow practitioners in the work who encourage and uplift me and with whom I can share my fears, hopes, and mistakes.
Interested in getting involved with Lost River Racial Justice?
Please contact: firstname.lastname@example.org or join their facebook group
Interested in getting involved with Brattleboro Community Justice Center? Please contact Mel at email@example.com
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Words from local people involved in restorative justice.