My very first exposure in Restorative Justice was not until I was sitting in a class when a student walked in at the start to discuss a course offered at John Marshall Law School in this discipline. She went on to explain that much of the work surrounding the class is done outside of the classroom visiting schools and working with at-risk youth. At the time in my second year of law school, and having spent more than enough time stuck sitting behind a desk, all I heard was work done outside of the classroom and I was hooked. I enrolled in Restorative Justice for the spring of 2015 semester. I had no idea that what was about to be taught and later practiced by me would change my thought process for the remainder of my life.
The John Marshall Law School Restorative Justice Program began in 2011. I enrolled in law school in the fall of 2012 and throughout my time at John Marshall the program had already been in existence. Looking back the program was well promoted with flyers, announcements and emails but I never took notice. This is not uncommon for law students to be focused only on the core courses or their outside work in hopes of having it all develop into a job one day. So my first day of Restorative Justice class I was in disbelief hearing about many injustices done to groups of individuals not only in Chicago but across the country. For example, learning that 1 in 3 black males will go to prison during their lifetimes, was an astounding statistic. Coupled with the fact that many of these formerly incarcerated black males will never obtain a steady job due to their imprisonment, and it is no surprise why there is a cycle of poverty and imprisonment.
So the course that began with me questioning much of the lessons, such as the significantly higher rate of imprisonment of minorities, turned into an enlightening experience and altered my viewpoint specifically towards at-risk youth. I will carry many of these teachings throughout my life. In the fall of 2015, I received the opportunity to continue with the Restorative Justice program further in a fellowship role, where I have worked at Marine Leadership Academy and Richards Career Academy.
I grew up in a sports family and was fortunate enough to go on to play and coach a sport in college. I found a sense of purpose and comradery in sports when surrounded by a group of people working towards a common goal. It was natural for me to migrate towards the athletic teams at Marine and Richards high schools, and I began working with the student-athletes and administrations at each school. My goals with the students are to not only provide them with ways to get recruited by colleges, but more importantly, focus on setting short and long term goals to achieve by working cohesively with their peers. Bringing students together in this setting promotes a sense of purpose. By having students work collectively towards common and individual goals provides them with a feeling of belonging. There is no simple solution to helping break the reoccurring problem of imprisonment and poverty, however, a foundation by building a sense of community and encouraging involvement may set our youth on a restored track.
These at-risk youths not having a sense of community and feeling without a purpose is a persistent problem that I have encountered. While students may not necessarily need a sports team to bond and grow, many would benefit from a mentor or someone simply willing to listen to their concerns and experiences. I hope the students I am working with feel a sense of purpose and pass this on to others around them to help build a stronger community.
Brian Duffy is part of The John Marshall Law School Restorative Justice Project, currently working at Marine Leadership Academy and Richards Career Academy with school administrations and at-risk youth. He is in his last semester of law school.
I first learned about restorative justice when I was a junior in high school. My school had the only high school chapter of Students for Sensible Drug Policy (an international grassroots organization aimed at ending the War on Drugs), and through that I learned about restorative justice, specifically the work of Mariame Kaba. As many of you all know, Mariame Kaba has long been an advocate of restorative justice, and she has helped organize many successful projects that put the needs of Chicagoans first like Project Nia, The Chicago Freedom School, and We Charge Genocide.
After I came to the University of Chicago, I wanted to continue doing similar work. Over the summer I had been the sole organizer of the 44th Ward on the Northside for President Obama’s reelection campaign, and I felt like I had the skills necessary to build something on campus. I started out by unsuccessfully trying to organize a group focused on juvenile justice, but succeeded in founding a chapter of Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP) on campus. And while some of SSDP’s work kept me in contact with the RJ community, like hosting a movie event with Project Nia my second year, I still had very limited knowledge about the real work of the Chicago restorative justice community.
Before this past summer, I had a limited understanding of restorative justice. I understood RJ as something only incarcerated youths or young people in schools would ever need. I also did not really know what went on in the rituals and practices of circles. I did know it was something that could be really powerful in transforming a person’s life, but I viewed RJ as a practice that could only be used in a certain context.
The Shriver Fellowship administered by the Institute of Politics gave the other fellows and me the necessary support and freedom to really try to make an organization that addressed the needs of Chicagoans, and I pushed for restorative justice to be central to our mission. I remember during one of the first couple of weeks I sent around a paper published by Project Nia that outlined organizations that are examples of successful alternatives to youth incarceration—Precious Blood being one of them. No one really responded to the email. And as we moved on from that moment, I forgot about it—little did I know how big of a role Father Kelly would end up playing in welcoming me and our organization into the restorative justice community.
As Jimmy mentioned in last week’s post, Father Kelly was gracious enough to lead us in the four day circle keeping. Just as important as his training was his invitation to the Restorative Justice Hub that he leads. Through the Back of the Yards RJ hub meetings, his monthly RJ Café, and the citywide RJ hub, I have met RJ advocates throughout Chicago working in all different sectors towards the same goal: the creation of a restorative community. The idea of a restorative community is indicative of my changed consciousness regarding the work of restorative justice. It marks a transition from a limited view of RJ work as focused on at-risk youths, to an expansive view of RJ as a philosophy and practice that anyone and everyone could benefit from.
There are so very few spaces in our daily lives that are similar to the space that restorative justice creates. Circle allows for people to open themselves up to others, to listen carefully, and to feel valued and appreciated. This is something that I know everyone can benefit from, not just incarcerated youths and those in conflict. And now as a trained circle keeper, holding circle is something that I can both advocate for and organize myself. I especially want to begin to hold circle in our UChicago community that I know would benefit from a space to talk and to hear others. I hope that the work of the Chicago Peace Corps can help contribute to realizing the dream of a restorative community.
Ivan Parfenoff is the Executive Director of the Chicago Peace Corps and Circle Keeper at Chavez Multicultural Academic Center. Ivan is a fourth year student at the University of Chicago, where he is pursuing Bachelor of Arts in Philosophy and History, with a specialization in the Black Arts Movement and the Harlem Renaissance.
Thank you for your interest in the inaugural post in the Restorative Justice in Back of the Yards section of this blog! We are excited to launch this space as a forum for the community of restorative justice practitioners to share descriptions of our programs, advice gained from our collective experiences, and ideas about what is needed as we try to foster a restorative community in Back of the Yards. Each week readers will hear from a different organization working in Back of the Yards; in these first posts each organization will state its specific mission, describe the work in which it is engaged, and spotlight a particular member of their organization. These weekly posts will culminate with the December 8th Citywide Day of Healing with partner organizations providing circles in a variety of locations throughout the community.
CPC spotlight: Jimmy McDonough
Along with everyone else in the CPC I was fortunate to be circle trained by Father Dave Kelly of Precious Blood Ministries of Reconciliation this summer. Starting on the first day of school for Chicago Public Schools I began to meet with students to talk about their experiences at school. Sitting with my students in circle has been a remarkable experience. The challenges to circle keeping are manifold, including finding ways to engage students in new ways, attempting to maintain fidelity to restorative practices in circle, and using language that is inclusive and understandable for the students I work with. Together with my fellow circle keepers Ivan and Gracelyn, I found that friendship was one of the topics that my students responded most to: all were interested in talking about what it means to be a good friend and how they wish their friends treated them. Goal setting exercises, which were requested by Chavez administrators to help students understand the importance of attendance and good grades, were more difficult to discuss in circle. My fellow circle keepers and I struggled to find ways to talk together about individual goals, opting instead to meet with each student one-on-one to talk about school. Looking forward, I’m most excited about the ways that I think the circle can help our students form a more restorative school community that incorporates more explicitly the voices of students and young people in general. On top of this, I look forward to being able to help to provide University of Chicago students with support as they work to engage in a more meaningful way with our fellow community members in the South Side.
The Chicago Peace Corps was founded by a cohort of students at the University of Chicago in the summer of 2015. The CPC mobilizes youth, communities, and volunteers with conflict resolution skills to create a restorative community and dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline. Currently the CPC partners with the Restorative Justice Project at John Marshall Law School to hold peace circles with fifth- and seventh-grade students at Chavez Multicultural Academic Center. Additionally, the CPC is in the process of establishing a tutoring program to support students in reading and math and expanding understanding of restorative justice within our Hyde Park community by holding peace circles for university students.
This past week, the members of the Chicago Peace Corps completed an intensive training in circle keeping with Father Kelly at the Precious Blood Ministry of Reconciliation. During the four-day training we experienced a wide variety of circles, learned about the various applications of peace circles, and the impact they can have on individuals and communities. It was a truly transformative experience and gave us a real glimpse of what a restorative community looks like. We are so thankful to have had this opportunity and can't wait to put what we learned to use in Back of the Yards schools this year!