Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Justice at Home: It's All About the Circles

Susan Cherry from the Community Restorative Justice Center in St. Johnsbury visited the Davies Memorial Library on May 15 to talk about her work and show us her take on "restorative justice" -- which she explained has a 27% success rate, pretty good compared to the 10% rate for traditional prisons. Library director Jen D'Agostino and I (Beth) discussed this afterward:

B: As Susan Cherry started her talk on Restorative Justice at the Davies Memorial Library in a diverse group of listeners, I wondered whether she was going to talk about what prison is like or the presence of drugs in our community. I guess those are on my mind often, along with how we "notice" the arrests in our community because they are names we know, in our own paper. I was surprised when she started off instead by turning "us listeners" into a circle of "storytelling" -- about emotional moments in our lives. So that's what her group is trying to "restore" in their justice process! Were you surprised, too, Jen?

J: I was surprised at that as well, Beth.  When Susan came into the library before the presentation started, I had the chairs in rows as they usually are for a speaker.  She asked if we could put them into a circle instead.  One of the things that strikes me most is the way she focused on modeling the idea of open communication (learning how to listen and being able to sit in a circle for better eye contact) and how it relates to the feeling of community.  I appreciated learning to model that type of behavior. I especially liked the idea of people taking a more active role in their own communities rather than relying on law enforcement to enforce the rules.  I wonder if this would have a more positive impact on the way people see police as well.  What do you think?

B: Thanks for provoking some thought about the role of community police with this, Jen. I agree, if we become more active in choosing how we want our communities and neighborhoods to thrive, we are sure to reduce the antagonism toward the police as well. Maybe the circle really is the symbol we need: recognizing our connection most of all. This has been my "season of life" for understanding that every family can suffer the tragedy of someone behaving illegally, whether it's drug-related or "teenage stupidity" or the very sad cases of embezzlement that we see more often now, as more people panic under financial stress. I think the restorative justice presentation reminded me in a new way that framing things as "us and them" may be easier to do, but doesn't always give the best results. What do you think we might explore as a result of these insights? Can you imagine Town Meeting in a circle, or a board meeting? What was your hope for Susan Cherry's visit with us, Jen?

J: I like the concept of a circle as a symbol of community.  It changes the notion of "us vs. them" into the idea that we all rely on each other, that not only are we responsible for figuring out the positives in our community and making them thrive, but also understanding the negatives and finding positive solutions. The circle also emphasizes that it's a constant, a thriving community doesn't plateau and rest.  It's in motion- it's always a work in progress, which personally, I find exciting!  

I asked Susan to come in to continue the inspiring discussion started by Pat Shine and her LSC students about Community Justice.  I felt open communication about the topics addressed that night (racism, LGQBT issues, poverty, etc.) were imperative to building a strong, supportive community.  These are topics that tend to be discussed in broad ways and I’ve always believed that becoming more familiar with unfamiliar leads to a better understanding and acceptance, thus a stronger community. I had envisioned an evening with Susan that would be related to poverty and prison.  And while that was certainly touched upon, I think the most important thing I walked away with was the concept of using listening as a prime tool to encourage respect among neighbors.  Again, that circle concept: more listening encourages more respect, more respect encourages more listening.  Susan showed that it can happen in all facets in life, and I’m excited to use it to figure out where this can go next!

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