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Life Arts    H2'ed 6/23/14

Bob Koehler on Justice with Healing at Its Core

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Instead, as Spicer wrote, "all the students, when they received the talking piece, agreed that the situation was a big misunderstanding. Some began to share stories about situations they were dealing with and others in the circle were able to relate by sharing their stories. . . .

"After the closing ceremony, each of the students shook hands and even hugged each other as they were preparing to leave my office. They did this without any adults prompting them to do this, which showed their sincerity. Once we concluded the circle, the adults decided to allow them to blow off some steam and play basketball. And the students who were the main ones in conflict were on the same team!"

"This is a glimpse at what it means to build lasting peace: to transform the volatility of hopelessness into deep and real connection between people. I visited Fenger recently and talked to five of the student peer jurors -- who have become ambassadors of peace in the classrooms and hallways -- and I will write more about this in future columns.

"We are family," said Ana, one of the peer jurors. "Right here. All these people are here for me. We understand -- we go through the same stuff."

JB: Reading this gave me goosebumps! How do you get schools to sign up? Are they typically resistant or eager to participate? And how do you get cases that might work well within the peace circle context to avoid getting plunged into the black hole of traditional justice bureaucracy?

BK: You don't get schools to sign up, you get people. And people sign up -- become passionate about RJ is more like it " decide to devote their lives to it -- because they try it and have an "aha" moment and know it makes sense. People who are part of very troubled -- broken -- systems, such as public education and juvenile justice, have a desperation that pushes them to look beyond bureaucratic, punishment-based, zero-tolerance solutions. That's why people who work in these areas, along with social workers and other members of helping professions, make up such a large percentage of RJ practitioners. They're at the cutting edge of psycho-social disaster.

Bringing RJ into a school is more than just implementing a program. It's fostering a shift in consciousness. Struggle with traditionalists is inevitable. Sometimes higher-ups in the system will reluctantly give RJ a try at one school or another, but grow dissatisfied because it doesn't work quickly enough. Turning the whole system around is slow-going indeed, but we're making inroads.

JB: So, let's say that I'm a parent in an at-risk school and I decide to try RJ before throwing up my hands in despair. What's the process? How precisely do I get involved and bring Restorative Justice into the school setting?

BK: It's not precise. You have to make use of your connections in life. Are you friends with any of the teachers? Do you know the principal? Are you involved? You have to sell the idea. I think most people in the Chicago Public School System have at least heard of RJ. You should also take training yourself. This is absolutely essential. Hold a peace circle at your house! Hold one every week! I recently took training with Community Justice for Youth Institute, which is highly regarded in the Chicago area. Everyone interested in lasting change should familiarize herself/himself with RJ work and peace circles. You have to go into this knowing you can never give up.

JB: Exciting but scary. When you say, "Hold a peace circle at your house!" I'm assuming that I, or anyone else for that matter, would need training before actually convening a peace circle. For any readers for whom this idea is enticing, can you talk some more about what the training was like: how long it lasts, who conducts it, what you do once you're "trained". Are you busy holding weekly peace circles at your house? What does this look like?

BK: This is a wide-open, creative process. People hold circles for all kinds of reasons. I've done lots of training and the duration varies, but it usually lasts several days. The training I just completed lasted four intense days (9 a.m. to 4 p.m.). It's a definite commitment. You learn the tradition and rituals associated with circles. You learn about "creating a safe container" -- that is, how to make a circle a safe place for people to speak about difficult matters. This takes a lot of work. Much of circle training is about how to build trust in a group setting. Once again, this is not precise.

Every person is different. Every time you hold or participate in a circle, you are amplifying your training. People and their relationships with each other are infinitely complex. Last year several friends and I started holding what we called "community-building circles." They're on hold right now but I hope to renew them in the near future. One remarkable aspect of circles is that it matters little whether, going in, you know some or any of your fellow participants. The idea of the circle is so respectful toward all present that you know you will be given a chance to speak -- and be listened to -- even if you are a stranger to the rest of the group. You will not be a stranger by the time it's over.

JB: Maybe when you get back into it, you'll invite me to one of those "community-building circles", Bob. What else can you share with our readers that we haven't talked about yet?

BK: Absolutely, Joan! To me, peace circles and RJ work are my largest source of optimism about the future. I'm committed to spreading the word about them any way I can. Here's a link to one of the columns I wrote about peace circle work that, I think, gets at their essence somewhat. Peace circles have their origins in indigenous cultures around the globe and reverse the flow of teaching and information. It's not the "civilized" world giving "primitive" people computers and tennis shoes and automatic rifles. It's the world's tribal people drawing the rest of us back into the circle of life.

JB: I completely get why you're so jazzed by Restorative Justice, Bob. YES! Magazine has had a few articles on the subject recently [see below]. No wonder this all sounded familiar to me. It was a pleasure talking with you again. I'm looking forward to holding you to that invitation to join your personal peace circle!


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Joan Brunwasser is a co-founder of Citizens for Election Reform (CER) which since 2005 existed for the sole purpose of raising the public awareness of the critical need for election reform. Our goal: to restore fair, accurate, transparent, secure elections where votes are cast in private and counted in public. Because the problems with electronic (computerized) voting systems include a lack of (more...)

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