Community Accountability in Restorative Justice

by Brenda Nolan


11/4/2019

Free public presentation on restorative justice and dialogue with Lauren Abramson, 1-3:30 PM Saturday, November 16, in Boston. For more information and to register, go HERE.

The Massachusetts Conference United Church of Christ Restorative Justice Task Team, in collaboration with Unity Circles, is bringing Lauren Abramson, Ph.D., to Boston on November 16, for a presentation and dialogue on community accountability and restorative justice.  


Unity Circles was founded in 2012 by Valleria Miranda-Ferrick as a grassroots effort to engage youth in being change agents in their community. Driven by Restorative Justice principles and community efforts, Unity Circles has served over 700 youth in five Boston Public Schools with the support of local university interns and volunteers and in-kind donations. In an effort to sustain and expand its work to more youth, Unity Circles established itself as a 501c3 in 2019.

On Saturday, November 16, 2019 Unity Circles will be having their inaugural fundraiser to support current programming and new developments. In 2020, Unity Circles will be rolling out a Community Accountability apprenticeship program that will teach 18-25 year old young adults to hold informal and formal community accountability processes to reduce harm and address violence in their communities.
 
As an organization Unity Circles is committed to engaging and training youth to be active participants in healing and transforming their communities. They envision thriving communities where cycles of violence are replaced by cycles of intergenerational leadership grounded in holistic healing, resilience, and transformation. Unity Circles engages youth through in-school and after-school programming, circle-based curriculum, and restorative justice youth leadership trainings.  
 
I was inspired when I spoke with Valleria Miranda-Ferrick about her commitment to the well-being of the youth in her community of Boston, what brought her to found Unity Circles, and their development of an apprenticeship program to teach young people skills to hold community accountability processes to reduce harm and address violence in their communities.   I could see how Lauren Abramson’s background, commitment to the well-being of people, understanding of emotion, and use of community conferencing in neighborhoods and communities to help them identify and solve their own problems and conflicts was a match with Unity Circles vision and core values. 
 
Lauren Abramson's education is in animal biology, psychology, and neuroscience.  She understands what people need to thrive from a biological perspective and a neuroscience perspective.   Lauren was a part-time professor of child psychology at John Hopkins University, had done research on how emotions affect health and illness, and had worked in communities around early childhood and mental health for many years.  All she had done, was doing, and wanted to do came together when she heard about community conferencing.
 
Lauren learned about community conferencing from her colleagues in New Zealand and Australia who had learned from the Maori in NZ and brought it to Baltimore, MD.  In 1995, she became the founding director of the Community Conferencing Center (now Restorative Response Baltimore), one of the most innovative and long-standing community-based restorative justice programs in the United States.  Now, with her broad and deep experience in RJ facilitation, program development, training, and theory development, Lauren, the founding director of Community Transformation in Baltimore, MD, remains committed to bringing innovation, inclusiveness, and impact to transformative justice and community building.
 
Lauren sees "restorative approaches as the biological-moral imperative of our time." I am grateful that Lauren could see the benefits of community conferencing and could bring them to U.S. communities along with her commitment to our well-being as human beings.  I appreciate her knowledge of emotions when harm happens and how structures for restorative dialogue can help us move through the hardest of emotions when we have been harmed or done harm. I appreciate her stories about those with whom she has walked as they grapple with the hardest experiences of harm and deep loss. To have community processes and people who can accompany us through experiences of harm is truly a gift to our well-being as humans.  Being human is a gift we give each other.  
 
I appreciate both Lauren’s and Valleria’s courage to trust our humanness and capacity to find solutions to our own problems with each other.  I appreciate the native American wisdom that has gifted us with circle practice; and the wisdom of the Maori in NZ who have gifted us with community conferencing.   I appreciate Dominic Barter who developed restorative circles in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro. I appreciate all who are learning, using, and developing structures to help us find our ability to be human with each other.   We are in desperate need to find better ways to live in community with each other if we are to survive at all as a species.   
 
Lauren notes that "changing our culture from one focused on punishment and prison to one focused on accountability and learning is not easy to do."  We start early when we don’t help children build their capacity to speak and listen to each other when they are in conflict, and don’t allow them to find their own solutions that develops their competencies to be human with each other.  Instead, and sometimes subtly, we teach them to rely on authority to decide who is right or wrong, good or bad, and who deserves to be punished. Our culture teaches children at a young age not to use the capacity for empathy they are born with and to lose their sense of agency in the process.  Sometimes children are punished for not being empathic. I find this painful to watch. I know we can do better. 
 
Restorative approaches to conflict and harm provide a structure to talk and be heard.  This is really important. In Community Conferencing the structure of the questions moves the participants from the past, through the present, and into the future. Those who have caused harm get to talk about what happened; those who have been harmed get to talk about how they have been impacted; and when they reach a point of collective vulnerability, they can decide what needs to happen to move forward, repair the harm, and prevent it from happening again.  We need structures to help us talk and listen to each other if we are to live with each other in a good way. We need to develop the ability to be with strong emotion in ourselves as well as others--not something U.S. culture does well. We need facilitators who can hold the structure when strong feelings exist so we can hear what is most important to each other and move on to care for each other in a better way than we did before. We need to find ways to move beyond the hostility and resentments we hold that burn us up and separate us from each other when we have experienced harmed.  
 
When I think of Lauren Abramson, there are several things that stand out that I find important about her work.  First, she acts from a vision of finding ways to be human with each other that will help us survive and thrive as a species.  This is desperately needed. She recognizes our need for respect of our full range of affect and our agency.  She acknowledges that every community has its own wisdom and capacity to solve its problems, and that when we act from our own agency, we are more likely to keep our agreements with each other.  As humans, we need to belong to each other. Both conflict and harm are a normal part of life and we need structures to help us move through both conflict and harm--in our families, neighborhoods and beyond.  When we have disagreements, we have habits of turning to authorities instead of turning to talk with each other. We need to change this and we need to start young (Unity Circles). When we are known to each other, when we experience care from each other, we are less likely to harm and more likely to help each other.  What Lauren has done in Baltimore, has helped communities be human with each other, build trust with each other, help each other. Unity Circles is doing this in Boston. We need to do this everywhere.      
 
The MA Conference UCC Restorative Justice Task Team hopes that you can come to both Unity Circles Inaugural Fundraiser from 10-12 pm to celebrate their history and new visions for the future; and or to the free public presentation and dialogue with Lauren Abramson from 1-3:30 PM on November 16. For more information and to register, go HERE.
 

 
 

Brenda Nolan



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