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Chicago Students Build Safe Space, Practice Restorative Justice

Chicago’s restorative justice movement frames a future that is not solely about survival.

When people ask Elma Dzanic what she does for living, she says her answer – she’s a restorative justice specialist – gives most people pause. She does her work for Umoja, an organization that’s been working with high school-age kids in Chicago’s South Side since 1997. With in-school programming and a six-week summer internship called Community Builders, Umoja teaches students to define and create safe spaces in a society that condones and normalizes the violence in their communities. The staff also directly addresses conflict as it arises in the school, working with students through restorative justice: restoring broken relationships, building new ones, repairing harm and providing resources to support those involved in conflict.

“I grew up in Bosnia as a refugee after the war,” Dzanic said. “I know why this work matters from my own experience. You don’t have to go to post-conflict zones to see it – you just have to come down here. These kids get stuck in survival mentality.”

Indeed, the death toll in Chicago outpaced that of U.S. troops in Afghanistan in the summer of 2012. Dzanic told Truthout about watching one of her students walk to the Community Builders meeting space at North Lawndale College Prep one morning from her car, when she was stuck in traffic. She said he was looking over his shoulders with nearly every step.

“They’re thinking, how do I survive to see the next day?” she said. “That’s why we’re here—trying to get them to see past today. Think past today, next week, and ask where do you want to go, who do you want to be? We’re here to help them access that. We’re helping them envision the future.”

In Umoja’s vision, Restorative justice in schools means that no one is treated like a criminal; everyone involved in a conflict receives equal attention and emotional support for resolution to establish accountability and get to the bottom of the problem. As opposed to out-of-school suspensions, which have been shown to increase dropout rates, or arrests for breaking school rules, Restorative Justice tactics demand students’ effort and participation in conflict resolution while keeping them on school grounds.

Umoja has peace rooms for mediation and counseling in two schools – hoping to increase the number to four by next year – where hard work can take the place of out-of-school suspensions. It’s clear that most interpersonal issues among her interns come from past trauma that’s been left to fester, Dzanic told Truthout.

“Our students did a few activities where they were really triggered, and it’s obvious that they don’t feel comfortable sitting with sadness or depression,” Dzanic said. “But what we see is if we don’t deal with it, it comes out in spurts and in explosions. Students are like, ‘When I was 7 … .’ And we say, ‘Yeah, that was seven years ago, and you’re not dealing with it. You’ve never been given the opportunity to really deal with it, and here’s what that looks like. ‘ “

Restorative Justice is an answer to mass incarceration and to an increasingly punitive school system. Schools are often complicit, conditioning students to become prisoners by unnecessarily bringing them face to face with police to resolve problems that otherwise would mean a trip to the principal’s office or the peace room.

Community Builders interns meet every day for six weeks in the summer from noon to 4:30 PM in one of North Lawndale College Prep’s libraries; it has a wall of windows and a row of low bookshelves in the middle surrounded by worktables. The space is not extraordinary, but the security it offers is palpable.

“In the first three weeks [of Community Builders], three-fourths of students have experienced some sort of a traumatic event in their lives,” Dzanic said. “You’ll hear, ‘I didn’t have a place to sleep last night,’ ‘I haven’t eaten for two days,’ ‘My cousin got shot, and I’m late because I was at the hospital,’ ‘I’m going to be absent because I’m going to a funeral.’ It shows up in different ways – outbursts, shutting down. One student lost a best friend in a shooting at a carwash in the first week.”

Dzanic is masterful in her role; she is at once an authority figure and a confidant. She commanded the room’s attention, keeping summer restlessness at bay, while one student, Kewanna, 15, rested her head on her shoulder with familial ease.

Kewanna was running a fever and completely exhausted during the week Truthout spent some time in the classroom but didn’t contemplate missing even a day of the program. For Dzanic, this unequivocally signifies the importance of the in-school safety net.

And with the city’s massive public school slaughter earlier in 2013, which called for the shuttering of 54 public elementary schools mostly serving low-income communities, many younger students are losing important spaces and being consolidated in already-strained institutions in communities with the greatest need for social services.

“When there’s so much instability in other parts of their lives, what message are we sending to young people when we say your school no longer exists? The door has been locked?” she asked.

In many cases, the organization is working to fulfill needs the Chicago Public School system doesn’t have the capacity to satisfy. Umoja envisions a model of school counseling that provides emotional and academic support in tandem as a part of disciplinary action when it’s truly necessary. And this solution isn’t just important for Chicago teens; in 2002 the United States had a juvenile incarceration rate five times higher than the next-highest rate in a developed country.

When Kewanna was in eighth grade, her father was shot and killed in gang crossfire on his way to the corner store to buy juice for his children. It’s a story she rarely tells but is feeling compelled to share more and more since the beginning of the summer.

“Way before I was born, he was a gang banger. But after that, he got himself together,” Kewanna said. “My daddy walked out there, walked out there in the midst of the gun violence, and my daddy got hurt. My friend came in like, ‘Your daddy just got shot,’ and I told her to stop playing. I couldn’t believe it. And she said ‘No. For real,’ and I could tell she was serious because there were tears coming from her eyes. You could just hear the gunshots outside.”

Now, Kewanna says she has trouble connecting with anyone within and beyond Community Builders. Still, she’s a regular visitor in Umoja’s peace room in her school to deal with her temper and is beginning to see what this agonizing effort to communicate could mean for her.

“There are kids out here really struggling whose parents can’t provide for them,” Kewanna said. “At the age of 15, they’re taking care of themselves and I think [Community Builders] can really help. The difference in peoples’ lives is that it would help them to talk about it. If someone has this much frustration, they have to talk to someone. Because if they don’t, they’ll build it up and the pain will take over. I’ve learned you have to let them know how you feel.”

This kind of trauma isn’t limited to Community Builders interns. But for lots of other students in Chicago and around the country, they’re being addressed in entirely different ways. In 2003, more than 8,000 kids were arrested in Chicago public schools, according to an Advancement Project Study. More than 40 percent of those incidents resulted from unarmed assaults or batteries in which no one was hurt – and sometimes just threats. Between 2000 and 2004, Denver Public Schools had a 71 percent increase in the number of students referred to law enforcement for disciplinary infractions instead of handling problems in school.

For kids seeking the sort of outlet Kewanna described, Chicago public school counselors are scarce and overworked, hampered by administrative duties. At the same time, out-of-school suspensions that leave young people unoccupied and with fewer options to deal with problems constructively or access emotional support are becoming more common.

“Currently, we are just setting our young people back,” Dzanic said. “We are feeding them into the school-to-prison pipeline without giving them an opportunity to reflect. There’s such a focus on, say, a law that’s been broken – what you did wrong. This program is about the harm that’s been caused, and it’s not always focused on repair.”

In Edward G. Foreman High School, students facing out-of-school suspension can trade ten days at home with nothing to do for hard work in the peace room and just a few days of in-school suspension.

“The more that we put kids out of the building and out on the street, the less likely it is that they’re ever going to come back,” Umoja CEO Ted Christians told Truthout. “High School might be one of the last institutions for them. And if we lose them there, the next institution that will catch them is the criminal justice system.”

Indeed, in Chicago’s North Lawndale neighborhood, 70 percent of men between 18 and 45 have been incarcerated. Community Builders aspires to interrupt the pattern by teaching kids alternatives to the violence around them through restorative justice.

“Where the school system is coming up short is what to do when we accomplish the goal of keeping young people in the building,” Christians said. “How do we equip the school for students who have been in altercations and need interventions? Restorative justice is the real answer. You’re teaching them what it takes to behave, not just laying out the rules, and helping them understand what it takes to be a part of this community.”

As Umoja’s model makes clear, the organization believes that helping students feel safe is a major part of getting them to open up. The students Truthout spoke with said that they feel safe in their communities outside of Community Builders. But as conversations progressed, it became clear that their definition of safe is as barebones as they come.

“We play games related to safe spaces,” Brianna, 14, told Truthout. “One day they gave us maps of all the neighborhoods and had us put a red squares around the areas that were unsafe. And you know how many red boxes there were? And hardly any green boxes. People even picked police stations as being unsafe. If you really think about it, you know nowhere is safe. But looking at that map with all that red was really shocking.”

Students also discussed an activity from their first meeting, in which they were asked to stand if any of a series of statements applied to them.

“They asked, ‘Have you ever been threatened and didn’t come to school the next day?’ And two people stood up,” Brianna told Truthout. “You wouldn’t want anyone to know you were scared, so for them to open up like that was shocking. I feel like I would be judged if I were to do that. But I realize nobody judged them or anything.”

In week four, they prepared to bring their newfound safe-space knowledge to Youth Organizations Umbrella Inc., a program for elementary students just north of Chicago, in Evanston. There, they facilitated peace circles and introduced the tactics they learned to create and define safe spaces to the younger kids.

This is part of becoming what CB terms Safe Space Keepers, which Lavarise, 16, told Truthout his community needs more of.

“It wouldn’t be as violent here – people would come and talk instead of using guns, before it gets to the killing and shooting,” Lavarise said. “Some people think that talking isn’t going to get them anywhere when it actually does. I am never violent. But before, I would just snap and yell, and that wasn’t getting me anywhere. I know you don’t have to fight. Talking about it makes you feel like you’re important, heard and safe.”

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