Restorative Justice & Its Responsibility to Racial Justice

Fania Davis says it openly and her words are a clarion call to all of us committed to both restorative justice and racial justice:

Just as the restorative justice community has historically failed to adopt a racial or social justice stance, few racial justice activists embrace restorative justice. Calling for a convergence of the two...(the book) urges racial justice advocates to invite more healing energies into their lives and restorative justice advocates to bring more warrior energies into theirs.

--The Little Book of Race and Restorative Justice  Fania E. Davis, April 2019

As the founder of Restorative Justice on The Rise, and as a white woman of privilege, it is imperative that I name the fact that colonization has murdered, oppressed, both seen and in unseen ways--the former an area of huge oversight by White people--and destructed lives of our Black Community outrightly and relentlessly for over 400 years. While Juneteenth celebrates the emancipation of slaves in Galveston, Texas, it is not, as Noliwe Rooks, Cornell Professor, says:

The pretending we've done for centuries needs to come to a halt now. The comforts we white folks have had are on the backs of hundreds of millions, and we are responsible for repairing this egregiously long-term harm.

What can anti-racist white communities do? First, we have to name the reality of the centuries of harms done. George Floyd, RIP, was not the first and sadly not the last to be slayed. The list of lives brutally slaughtered is long and impacts millions of families and communities, and the line of harm goes down generations, 400+ years to be precise. White people have to name it for what it is. And we have to do as Fania Davis emphatically invites: we have to be Warriors and Healers alike by amplifying our voices in alliance with and for Blacks and their rights.

Secondly, we must publicly acknowledge the harms we've caused as part of a white colonized system. We must see clearly our part in the harm. This begins with inner work that is radical and urgent. This means doing everything one can to think about white privilege's impacts. And the implicit and explicit biases we live day to day. It means extensively considering what it has been like to be white in America. And what differences are present as you wake up in the morning, dress for work or school for for your day, and walk out the door. What open doors are you not seeing, that were given to you due to your whiteness? What closed doors and threats do you think are a regular part of a Black man or woman or child's day, due to their Blackness? What are the hard truths about your entitlement that you may not even be aware of? What fears do Blacks have that you do not, and what are you doing to bridge that gap of understanding the visceral, marrow-bone reality of this for our Black Community?

These questions and more are critical and urgent.

Thirdly, we must do everything we can to use the privileges we've been afforded to take action. For example, as the Founder of Restorative Justice on The Rise, it is my responsibility to find ways to utilize the worldwide network we've established together, which is comprised of Black, People of Color, White, Indigenous, Asian, Latinx, East Indian, and many others representing languages, heritages, stories of culture and life perspectives, and all share the same need: to be heard, seen, known, and understood at the depths of their being. And, to use this platform and network to impact policy that is unjust to the extreme. The extraordinary people in our network are why we exist. We have a responsibility to take action that is not just words or slogans, but to commit to a Warriorship of truth and advocacy that is selfless in servant leadership and Beloved Community.

We must drop the defensiveness and listen; we must take responsibility for our own honest inquiry about the past and the present. Just because you as a White are privileged doesn't mean you are being accused of being a bad person. Let's make that clear now. Defensiveness and fragility are selfish reactions to a very large and long term line of violence and what is needed is relentless humility and commitment. For those of us white folks who have been called out, self included, we have to open, not close off, and take the opportunity to recommit to action. One of the more common things I hear from white folks are things like:

  • How am I as a white person responsible for racism -- I didn't hurt anyone and I have Black friends.
  • I'm being accused of using my privilege, when it had nothing to do with race.
  • I asked my Black friend about their experiences and they blew up at me saying they shouldn't have to educate me.

That's just three simple scenarios that seem very common and they need to be addressed bluntly by us as white folks. Where to start? Simply don't make it about you, but that you have everything to do with responsible action. Drop the tendency to put up defenses and open to the minds and hearts of Black communities who are rightfully calling us out individually and as a colonized, broken system.

Additionally and urgently, we must understand there are forces that are served by keeping humanity fighting and separated. The "otherization" of people who happen to have different colors of skin, who happen to identify in ways that are outside the restricting limits of what is called "normal" in Western society, people who pray to Gods that mostly white privileged men do not approve of ....the list goes on and on of the ways, by design, that Colonized structures and domination attempt to control humanity and its narratives. This must end now. In this time many are realizing that the systems in this country (the United States) and our world are not for the people, but for a few who monopolize profit over people and whose objectives are not aligned with democratic principles, even whilst saying they are. This applies also to the race question: who is it serving to keep us fighting and keep us outside of our common-shared humanity (while still acknowledging the violence and reality of the generational impacts and losses)?

The restorative justice movement as a whole has a responsibility in this moment to act. As individuals and as networks, as rising platforms online where verdant dialogues that are blunt and honest are occurring, relationships of trust can be built and rebuilt from a new foundation that activates collective ability to increase the potency of our actions.

The Circle is inherent in all of us--it is a place to build and re build trust, it's a place to do the very hard work of facing discomfort. I imagine that Fania's astute observation about people involved in racial justice not embracing restorative justice might be out of a rightful need to feel immediate results and changes. I can imagine that the restorative justice movement's inability to stand in full for racial justice might be due to our over-arching urgent need to deconstruct our own worldviews that are embedded in our DNA and systems alike--and are white, colonized, and destruction-based to anyone or anything that does not serve its means and ends.

So today on this Juneteenth in one of the most difficult years possibly experienced on this planet, we get to see full force what Thomas Merton called the "Unspeakable": the violence and murder, the broken systems, the racism and injustice directed at Blacks and at People of Color, the slaying of our meek, the targeting of young Black Men and the list goes on. We face life or death in this moment--both quite literally and symbolically as a planet. We have a choice to stand up and rise. We have a choice as restorative justice practitioners to sharpen our swords of truth while equally holding healing spaces of potency for the ability they have to cultivate seen-ness, heard-ness, and to allow true action to result.

Healing does not start outwardly, it starts with individuals and is an inner process that deeply impacts capacity to work outwardly. When we who happen to be white act with fragility, don't linger on that, learn from it, and go deeper inside yourself to identify the spirit of life within you--whether that's spiritually oriented or a tone of deep and trusted guidance, tune into that part of yourself that links to what might be called the Great Mystery--the larger cosmological context that is indeed mirrored in each and every one of us. Go from Fragility to Responsibility.

In 2017 I was in Oakland for the NACRJ Conference, and Fania closed the 4-day event with an incredibly critical invitation, which I will paraphrase from memory (and hopefully accurately), inviting "white community of practitioners in the field to find their roots, their identities, and bring those forth". That remark was critical and I to this day wonder how many people took it seriously. But here we are today, in 2020, and the question arises, how can we work as allies and accomplices for anti-racism unless we reach deeply within our souls to explore the divine perspectives that inform us, that call on us to heal ourselves, love ourselves, and to bring forth the natural healing that arises from our own wholeness and presence, even as it stumbles through the many gates of initiation and loss? Can we hold the violence and destruction, let is pass through us without averting for a moment? Can we show up as RJ practitioners and white folks with roots that extend, like Bamboo, laterally and unified, and that can bend with hardship and return to support the whole?

Becoming a Healer means, as Frankl said, "to endure burning". Joseph Campbell, himself a white person, gave us the gift of the mythological aspects of the Hero's Journey, and becoming the healer through the course of blunt willingness to be humbled on this journey. This is the medicine of planting seeds of potent action.

Restorative justice programs are offering Impact Circles and spaces for critical discussions on white privilege and to hear the urgent concerns and needs of our Black, Indigenous and POC communities. One such program is Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth which Fania Davis was co-founder, and another, Talking Peace. Restorative Empowerment for Youth are hosting youth-led online Impact Circles. Many more are occurring. Fania was and is right, we have to unify to create the balance that is needed to move forward as an empowered, humble, activated movement. We can't bridge the divide she points out without getting brutally honest and that starts with Circles that are held with conditions that cultivate truth telling and respect. They are Circles that are small to ensure voice and choice. They expand and ripple out and empower Blacks and Whites alike, when the hard work of acknowledgment and self inquiry is happening. This is the ground of unified action towards lasting change. This is the ground of dismantling sick, colonized systems once and for all, and for both visioning in, and potently enacting the world we wish to live in that honors the lives of all equally in every seen and unseen form imaginable.

I'm rolling up my sleeves. I hope that you are too.

-Molly Rowan Leach

Founder of Restorative Justice on The Rise. A People's Platform for Dialogue and Resources, Education and Connection, since 2011.


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