Each Other’s Angels - The National Conference on Restorative Justice

We are each other’s angels,
And we meet when it is time,
We keep each other going,
And we show each other signs…

(lyrics from “We Are Each Other’s Angels”, written by Chuck Brodsky, and recorded by David LaMotte*.)

Hundreds of “angels” of justice and peace from around the world gathered in Raleigh, North Carolina this week for the National Conference on Restorative Justice. Angels from Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Canada, Italy, England, and South Africa . . . angels from more than 20 states across the US . . . all gathered to exchange ideas, to listen, to learn, to share stories, and to both encourage and challenge one another in our collective work for restorative, healing ways to address the harms caused – to victims, to offenders, to families and to communities – by crime, violence, racism and oppression. It was three very intense days of dialogue that will take a while to process and absorb. Over the coming days, I’ll share stories of some of the people I met in Raleigh and their work in restorative justice, criminal justice reform, prisoner re-entry and related areas.

To begin, here are a few:

FAITH COMMUNITY PARTNERSHIP: Duane Beck, Pastor at Raleigh Mennonite Church, is the chair of the Community Corrections Task Group, for Congregations for Social Justice (CSJ), an interfaith, multi-racial coalition of 35 congregations (representing over 45,000 members of Christian, Jewish and Muslim faith communities) in Wake County. Together, they engage in public policy advocacy in two areas: affordable housing and “better community corrections policies for those leaving the prison system and searching for employment and housing.” They have hosted a forum for employers to learn about the value of hiring people with criminal records, and have worked with North Carolina legislators to examine barriers facing people with criminal records and those who have been incarcerated. They describe their purpose this way:
We see an urgent need to transcend the false social boundaries that divide us and to seek justice within service systems in our society as we strive for a true “Beloved Community.”

But as Duane told me about their work, it occurred to me that what he and the other clergy and lay people in CSJ are really doing is “walking the talk” of their respective faith traditions. What a powerful example!

RJ IN SCHOOLS / DISPROPORTIONATE MINORITY CONTACT: Fania Davis, Executive Director of Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth (RJOY) spoke about their projects in the Oakland (CA) Unified School District to implement restorative discipline, and to eliminate school violence, and reduce suspensions and expulsions of students from Oakland schools. They’re also working in collaboration with 60 partners within the juvenile justice system in Oakland, to implement restorative diversion and restorative re-entry projects, and to reduce disproportionate minority contact (DMC) in the juvenile justice system in Oakland.

Fania talked about how the non-violence focus of the civil rights movement was a precursor to the restorative justice movement, and she drew a parallel between Martin Luther King Jr’s dream that “. . . one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood . . .” and the restorative justice practice of victim-offender dialogue. Fania then invited about 50 of us who attended her breakout session to wrestle together with issues of racism, disproportionate minority contact and institutionalized inequality in the criminal justice system. It was one of the most eye-opening and challenging dialogues of the conference.

PRISONER RE-ENTRY: One of the most impressive people I met in Raleigh wasn’t actually attending the RJ conference (though she should have been!) Her name is Lynn Burke. A friend from Virginia happened to tell me a little about Lynn the week before the conference. When I found out that Lynn lives in Raleigh, I asked my friend to make an email introduction so I could meet Lynn while I was down there.

Lynn is 48 years old and the single mother of four adult children. She raised her children largely on her own, and she’s very proud that all of them are working professionals with college degrees. Lynn has a Bachelor’s Degree in Social Work, a Doctorate in Law (JD) and she recently passed the Bar Exam. She has over 1000 hours of volunteer experience as an intern in various public defenders’ offices around North Carolina. Her dream is to be a public defender to serve people who can’t afford to hire an attorney. But Lynn was just told last week that, because someone in a position of power is “uncomfortable” with her felony record and incarceration over 20 years ago – when she was 24 years old – she is being denied admission to the bar, and therefore won’t be allowed to actually practice law.

With all that she achieved after getting out of prison, Lynn is in demand as a motivational speaker for people who are or have been incarcerated. She told me, “When I go into the prisons to talk with people, I always tell them – you can be anything you want. You can achieve whatever you set your heart and your mind to. You don’t have to let your criminal record stop you. But now that I’ve been told I can’t practice law, I’m thinking maybe it isn’t true what I told them. I WANT to believe it – but right now it feels like it really doesn’t matter what you do. If the people who make the rules and the decisions want to stop you, they can stop you.”

She broke down then, and we just sat quietly for a while. It was hard to know what to say, in the face of such injustice. Finally, we talked a little while longer, and I asked Lynn to meet me at the conference the next morning so I could introduce her to Jon Powell, a restorative justice advocate, attorney and professor at the Campbell University Law School. I had gotten to know Jon on my cross-country tour last year and thought that with his experience and contacts there in Raleigh, he might have some ideas for Lynn about how to break through this latest barrier.

Here’s a write-up about Lynn Burke and here is a 3-minute YouTube video of Lynn speaking to the North Carolina legislature about the need for a “Second Chance Act” to remove barriers for people with criminal records to re-integrate into their communities.

Lynn has been actively involved in the Community Success Initiative in Raleigh, which offers programs, resources and support to people in prison, those transitioning from prison to community, and those who were previously incarcerated.

I pray that Lynn and the many thousands of others like her around the country who are working to rebuild their lives and become contributing citizens in their communities after incarceration will be offered that chance.

Stay tuned for stories of some of the other restorative justice advocates, practitioners and visionaries I met in Raleigh in the coming days.

Until next time….

*David sang this and many other powerful and inspiring songs throughout the conference

Posted by Melanie Tagged as: restorative justice criminal justice

Next: Two Sisters, Two Brothers - The National Conference on Restorative Justice

Previous: Standing on the Shoulders of Women Peacemakers