Sanibonani Kayla, Matt, Reagan, Simone and Sohee:
I greet you in the ancient way of the Zulu people of South Africa. Sanibonani is translated as I see you. I see who you truly are. I see your gifts. I see your spirit.
I love this greeting and use it often with our youth here in Oakland. So much of what we do in restorative justice work involves seeing one another, and especially seeing our youth, no matter their behavior in the moment. We reflect their goodness back to them until they begin to recognize it in themselves.
You are all powerful storytellers. With passion, you captured truths from your own personal experiences, recounted facts, and expressed personal values. You drew me in and made me care while making cogent points about restorative justice.
Matt, you invoke the agonizing story of a childhood friend who had been bullied for so long by classmates that one day he lost it and wrestled down his adversary, only to receiving a harsher punishment than those who bullied him. After his return from out-of school suspension, nothing changed—the same group continued the bullying. Your piece invites us to re-examine unthinking school discipline systems that focus solely on rule-breaking and punishment, respond to the original harm with more harm, and fail to get the backstory to ferret out causes of the behavior. In your friend’s case, the victim was re-victimized and the situation cries out for an approach, like restorative justice, that emphasizes bringing together everyone affected by harm to addresses needs, causes, and obligations, and an approach that collaboratively comes up with a plan to heal the harm as much as possible.
Reagan, in a well-written narrative that is wise beyond your years, you write about how in the second grade you defended yourself against a classmate’s karate kick by blocking it with your own. Had it not been for the intervention of a caring teacher who asked for your story, you would have been suspended for fighting just as Matt’s friend was. This reminds me that restorative justice is not rocket science. It’s something many educators already do naturally. Restorative justice just names it. Instead of something individuals might do at a school, caring and values-driven behavior like your teacher’s becomes intentional.
Simone, in a moving and beautifully written prose, you share your brother’s story and offer the reader compelling reasons to rethink punitive school discipline practices. Your story recounts how the vocational high school’s decision to suspend your brother, who was struggling with substance and emotional challenges, set off a chain of events that ultimately harmed not only him, but also his school, his family, and the community. What happened to your brother is emblematic of the untold consequences of suspension overuse. Your community was less safe when your brother was unsupervised because your single-parent mother couldn’t afford to stop working, and he was getting into trouble. The school was hurt because every day your brother was absent the school lost precious Average Daily Attendance resources and incurred court costs. And your family was living with stress and worry about your brother.
Kayla, you shared an important story of how your brother went through a purported restorative process at his school after he and classmates got into an argument—but it was done in a way that did more harm than good, perhaps even scapegoating your brother. It’s a cautionary tale to restorative justice practitioners to be faithful to the model. Does the process effectively address everyone’s obligations and needs? Does it include everyone affected by harm? Do all affected persons collaboratively come up with a plan to make amends and heal the harm as much as possible? Is the model fair and respectful to everyone? If the answer to any of these questions is no, the process probably isn’t restorative and may do more harm than good. You wisely balance your brother’s story of restorative justice gone bad with how it was successfully used at your school to heal the harm caused by students who publicly bashed the school.
Sohee, you are a visionary. Your piece about how restorative justice might be used to help overcome ethnic and racial divisions rife in your own community addresses a subject that needs urgent attention. The international restorative justice movement is about 40 years old, and while there are thousands of books, articles, and essays written about it, you’ll find only a handful of writings that touch the subject of race. Though this is finally beginning to shift, we have historically been a justice movement without a racial justice lens. Given the nation’s changing demographics, how we remediate racial inequities and overcome racial divisions are pivotal questions that will determine the success or failure of the restorative justice movement. You put it so well when you imagined a community we could create where all of us would be respected and accepted for who we are.
It has been such an honor to have this conversation with each of you. I’m deeply moved by your wisdom. We as adults need to learn better recognize and tap it. You are the experts on what works with our children. Hearing your stories has allowed me to see you, in the Zulu way.
I am grateful.