“The great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us”
– James Baldwin
Restorative justice is about healing. It is a process of acknowledgement which seeks to heal communities and individuals that have been harmed. I settled on this definition after a month of frustration at not knowing confidently what restorative justice means, let alone what it looks like day to day. Although I cannot yet give a Unified-Field-Theory of Restorative Justice, I can name elements of the process that seem particularly useful to me and my work moving forward.
I do not believe that we are bound to our pasts, but every day we breathe in the smog created by our fathers’ sins.
Restorative justice recognizes the inescapable gravity of history. I do not believe that we are bound to our pasts, but every day we breathe in the smog created by our fathers’ sins. Restorative justice is about clearing the smog and freeing us from the toxicity that remains when we don’t fully acknowledge the harm that individuals and communities have endured. Based on my understanding, restorative justice seeks to correct public memory to be more honest and inclusive of those who have been harmed.
As a historian, I think regularly about the power of the stories we tell ourselves about our past and who we are as a people. Our teaching of history often falls short in many ways, but the most glaring error is that we don’t talk about the ugly parts of our history. One of the other fellows, Adam Cohen, asked, “what would happen if all Americans knew about the full brutality of slavery? What would happen if Americans knew about the black political zenith during Reconstruction? What would happen if Americans knew about the history of redlining, suburbanization, and housing exclusion?” I think these questions are helpful in thinking through the importance of public memory. Not only does acknowledging past harms help to legitimize the pain that many individuals have endured, this practice also shapes our public memory which will in turn change how we think about crafting policy moving forward.
“We have paved the way for you, now what will do you with this paved way?”
In addition to expanding our public conscious to heal the harmed and laying the framework for better policy-making, we should tell more accurate histories to acknowledge those who have come before us. Throughout the program we visited several history museums and our group continually asked, “Who is being left out of this narrative?” I think often about heroes who were not hyper-visible but laid down their lives in service of the Movement nonetheless. Leaders like Dr. Roslyn Pope, Bayard Rustin, Pauli Murray, Modjeska Simkins, and many many more whose names deserve to be known. To restore justice to these activists is to make their names known, to learn from their examples, and to continue fighting for justice in their honor. While in Leesburg, Georgia, Dr. Caroline Seay said to our group, “We have paved the way for you, now what will do you with this paved way?”
One of its most glaring shortcomings is that it cannot fix systemic inequality
I believe in the power of restorative justice to heal individuals and communities, but I also recognize one of its most glaring shortcomings is that it cannot fix systemic inequality. Restorative justice will not undo white supremacy and untangle it from the American political and economic systems, but it is a prerequisite to breaking down larger systemic injustice. In the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, “On the one hand, we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside, but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.” Some of the problems facing our society and marginalized communities are so deeply entrenched into our systems that we must think about how to restructure these systems. Restorative justice then, is a first step on our journey and not the destination.
Another important element I am taking from restorative justice is the idea that while we are working to create more just systems, we must center those who have been harmed. Restorative justice, is about empowering communities and giving people their dignity and their voices. When this happens and people who live in the margins of society share power, our future will necessarily be more equal because people at the margins see the world differently and have the capacity to imagine a world that is much freer for all.
This program has challenged me to think about how to center those who have been harmed and to empower communities to create solutions for their future. The principles of “centering” and “self-determination” that are inherent in restorative justice are some of the most important tools I will be taking back to my work. I want to continue to organize communities and empower poor people and black people to mobilize for policy solutions that improve their communities. This is what restorative justice feels like to me. In addition to doing community organizing and thinking through issues around housing and community development, I would like to do more work in the expansion of democracy. Carole Anderson’s lecture on the history of voter suppression in America struck me and reminded me of the power of expanding access to democracy to all people. “Giving people their political voices back and teaching them that their opinions matter is powerfully restorative.”
The month-long fellowship in Atlanta has given me a sense of urgency.
In closing, the month-long fellowship in Atlanta has given me a sense of urgency. I am leaving this fellowship with more theoretical frameworks, interpersonal competency, and practical tools to create change. Each part of me has been challenged during this program and I am better, fuller, and stronger for it. In the words of the Humanity in Action video, this moment in time “needs us to speak out with fire in our blood. Lightning pouring out of our mouths. Wheels spinning above our heads.” The John Lewis Fellowship has equipped and inspired me to do these things. I am going to continue to work to honor those who came before me. I will continue to do this work so that people who come after me will be able to say that there were people in my generation that didn’t fold: who dared to struggle.