The sound of a beating drum and a strumming guitar filled the walls of the auditorium at Felicitas and Gonzalo Mendez High School last Saturday as students huddled around voices singing lyrics about restorative justice.
“Create. Imagine. We community. Inspiring and nurturing family.
A healthy place to support and yield.
Fulfilling the needs our community feels.”
Writing a song was one of the activities included in Circles, a restorative justice youth convening hosted by the Las Fotos Project, a nonprofit photography and mentorship organization serving young Latinas. The event brought together over 100 students, teachers and community leaders to learn about a philosophy focused on dialogue, peacemaking, community-building and relationship-repairing circles as an alternative to punitive discipline.
During one of the workshops, break out groups discussed examples of restorative justice and how youth can apply those in their own discourse and communities. Each group had a circle leader who would present hypothetical situations, like one about a student beating up another student because he was gay.
The circle members then made a poster with one half dedicated to the victim (John) and the other for the offender (Luis).
Each half had two boxes: one labeled “Needs” and the other “Harms.” Cinthia Gonzales-Castro, the circle facilitator and former Boyle Heights Beat youth reporter, asked questions that would help students evaluate the scenario and share related personal experiences.
The poster revealed that both Luis and John were harmed. Though Luis was arrested for his violent act, nothing was done to help him understand why his behavior was wrong—there was no dialogue.
Gonzales-Castro’s group got together and asked each other: what can be done apart from school discipline and police intervention to help even those inflicting violence so that they learn from their mistakes?
“Our community suffers when we don’t deal with the root causes,” said Gonzales-Castro, crying, while remembering friends who in high school began to use drugs, “I ask myself, ‘what could have been different? How could we have made their lives better?’ ”
Although restorative justice is a fairly new idea in the LAUSD, Executive director of Las Fotos Project Eric V. Ibarra believes the idea of talking amongst each other is something that needs to be done everywhere.
“It’s a more natural way of thinking about relationships when conflict arises and getting to the root of the problem. If everyone had circles, the world would be better place.”
The convening was held in partnership with several organizations, including The Greenlining Institute, InnerCity Struggle and Building Healthy Communities Boyle Heights, and was funded by The California Endowment.