Restoring Justice Through Dialogue and Critical Hope: The Urban Scholar Compadres

Just Talk - Voices of Education and Justice

In this week’s Just Talk, John Rogers sits down with three students at Roosevelt High School who are members of “Urban Scholar Compadres” to discuss restorative justice. Teacher Eddie Lopez began the Compadres program in 2010 to provide a space for Latino young men to explore topics such as male identity, critical literacy, social movement activism, and college preparation. Over the last year, members of Compadres have conducted research on dismantling the School-to-Prison Pipeline by building community through restorative justice.


John Rogers: I’d like to start by asking each of you to introduce yourselves, and to say a few words about what led you to become a participant in the Urban Scholars Compadres program here at Roosevelt High School.

Tony: My name is Tony, and I’m a senior. I was chosen to be in the program during the second semester of my freshman year by a teacher. I decided to stay in the program because I really like the work that we’re doing here; I think it’s a good thing to find social disparities in the community, and to be able to expand on them, in part by giving presentations. I love being in front of crowds—that’s my thing. But the process that we utilize in our work is a big part too. I love that. Over the past few years we’ve been focusing a lot on the school-to-prison pipeline, which is something that, at first, I didn’t really understand a whole lot about. But after the past couple years of reading about it and studying it, it’s something I understand enough to know why we need to change it.

Abraham: My name is Abraham, and I’m a junior here at Roosevelt. I joined this program my freshman year of high school. My brother came to Roosevelt before me, and he was part of Mr. Lopez’s first class as a teacher. Knowing my brother, Mr. Lopez said to me, “Hey, you should join the program.” At first I didn’t really know anything about it, so I thought I’d just join for the fun of it. After a while I began to love it, and to love the work, because it’s transformational work. The restorative justice research that we did in particular was really fun, interviewing teachers and students. That was, and is still, very attractive to me.

Leon: My name is Leon, and I’m a junior here. I joined the program my freshman year. I had Mr. Lopez for first period, which was Ethnic Studies class—a topic that is similar to what we focus on with the Urban Scholar Compadres. After having him for my first period class, he said to me one day, “You would be a good asset to my Urban Scholar Compadre group.” Going into the program, I didn’t really know much about it. There were more kids at that time than there is right now. He introduced the curriculum and the whole point of the program, and for the past three years we’ve been working on the school-to-prison pipeline as well as restorative justice here at our school. I just feel like it’s crucially important for us to spread the word and let other people know about these problems in our community, and to serve as advocates to spread restorative justice and help solve these problems.

JR: I know you’ve done a lot of research and thinking about the topic of restorative justice. How do you define restorative justice, and what do you feel like restorative justice accomplishes when it’s done right?

Tony: I think that when it’s done right, restorative justice can accomplish a lot of different things. What it usually does here at Roosevelt is help to build a sense of community. A lot of the time kids, especially in Latino communities such as ours, tend not to be super open about our emotions. In part, that’s just how the culture is. Restorative justice is a way for us to get people to open up to each other. It helps build community, it helps people forgive one another, and it helps people understand one another.

Leon: It’s a way to build community, but it also serves as a replacement to a very old-fashioned way of conducting discipline—that is, disciplining students with suspensions or expulsions. Once restorative justice practices are implemented, it gives those whose first instinct might be to expel any student a reason and a way not to, right? One of the ways we do this is through activities such as “circle.” So our focus on building relationships and fostering a sense of community really disrupts the old way of thinking, of just resorting to suspensions or expulsions.

JR: I’m guessing that a lot of folks won’t necessarily know what you mean by “circles.” Can you describe what circles look like?

Leon: We literally set up the classroom in a circle with the chairs we have available. The students sit in those chairs, and there are core guidelines that are followed when a “circle” is in session. Some of these core guidelines involve honoring the privacy of those who speak. There’s what we think of as a talking piece: if you are holding the mic, you are entitled to talk, and no one else is entitled to talk. This is how we respect the talking piece, because it can be really personal to that person who brought it into a circle.

So it’s all based on, and built upon, practices of respect. Once everyone is in their seats, the speaker that starts off with the talking piece can begin with an ice-breaker. Something as simple as, “How is everyone feeling today? If you were to describe today with one word, what would it be?” That person speaks first, and the mic is always passed to the left-hand side, because that’s where your heart’s at, the left-hand side. From there, everyone has a chance to speak and describe their day with one word.

The whole point of a restorative justice circle is to see everyone’s differences, but to see the similarities that you share with people in the circle as well. And if you see that you have similarities with some other people in that circle, it is usually easier to build relationships with those people. This is one of the fundamental ways of looking at restorative justice—the connections we make through community-building circles.

JR: So, restorative justice practices stand in contrast to zero-tolerance policies that effectively say, “If you make one error, you’ll be punished and excluded.” I’m wondering if you can explain how restorative justice works?

Abraham: First and foremost, I would say that restorative justice is a way to connect emotionally.

Tony: I actually had to explain restorative justice this past Saturday during a job interview. On my resume, I mentioned that I know a lot of restorative justice stuff. I said it was something along the lines of taking zero-tolerance policies and kind of pushing them to the side, because we have to understand each other if we’re going to be a community. If we want everyone to be individuals to the extent that nobody cares about each other, sure—you make a mistake, you’re out. But in a community like Boyle Heights that is underprivileged, with gangs roaming around and is lower-income, we need to be a community, you know? It’s how we are going to grow and prosper. And it’s hard to do that when any time somebody slips up they get kicked out.

JR: Because you’re pushing them out of the community.

Tony: Exactly. And restorative justice is a way for us to not only try to keep people in the community, but it strengthens the bonds that are already there.

JR: The question remains, though, how does it work? People from the outside are going to say that if the teacher in the classroom or the principal of the school is not punishing students, all hell is going to break loose, right? What you’re suggesting, however, is a different sort of response, one that builds something positive. So, how does that work?

Leon: There are three R’s of restorative justice: respect, relationships, and responsibilities. It’s like a staircase: if I have respect for my teacher, eventually that respect will lead to a relationship with that teacher. And through that relationship I feel responsible—or if not responsible, then perhaps accountable—to do things such as my homework, to get to class on time, to show respect to the teacher, and so forth. And I feel responsible to do those things.

It’s not only that, though. Our principal, Mr. Gertner, talked with us about an incident when a student threw something at another student, and the student got cut. Mr. Gertner explained that restorative justice didn’t excuse what the student did. But, Mr. Gertner said it helped him understand why the student did it, because that student had been bullied. In an example like this, sometimes restorative justice helps us get to the root of a problem, and that’s what zero-tolerance policy does not do. It just takes out the surface problems, and it only touches the tip of the iceberg. But really, we don’t get what’s underneath, to the very root.

JR: That’s really helpful. Can you help us understand further how restorative justice gets at these problems at their root? What are the processes that help to build relationships, or help to build trust? Clearly it’s something more than teachers and administrators not punishing students, so what happens that makes this work?

Tony: Well, in restorative justice there are three tiers that we like to go by. The first tier is building community through circle and environments in the classroom, which helps build relationships between students and students, students and teachers, and even between teachers and teachers. The second tier is on a more personal level, with people like our restorative justice coordinator, Ms. Ferrer. And the third tier, which is what we’re really trying to push here at Roosevelt, is bringing people back into the community. Almost like a community-wide healing from the old type of disciplinary system. That’s what we’re trying to do with the three tiers, ultimately: to build community and help to fix the emotional problems that people have with each other. And, in the end, to bring people back into the community.

JR: I’m wondering how restorative justice circles promote understanding and healing.

Abraham: I think back to when we first got to school, like quite literally the first day of school: it’s really awkward, you don’t know anybody, and even if you know people in the class, it’s still the most awkward day of the year, right? This is where the community building circles come into play, by helping people get to know each other beyond just knowing their names, because you get to know what they like. Once those circles are established along with those levels of comfort, there’s a point where you feel comfortable sharing something, and I think it all starts with just one person that shares something personal and deep. And once that person shares something, then somebody else will feel comfortable enough. And when circles get deep, it moves me, because it shows you a different perspective from what you think people might be going through and you might not even notice it. What makes them deep though are the types of questions that come up. I remember, what was that question that was asked?

Tony: It was two years ago—there was a question about a teacher from grade school that influenced you the most in your life.

Leon: Right. And you know, that’s a question that could normally be answered surface-level, like “Oh there was one teacher who did this and this…”

Abraham: But in this case there were multiple answers that were just really deep; one person talked about a teacher who helped them because they were being bullied, and they really helped this child get out of a really dark place, and stuff like that.

Leon: You can really see the impact that such a simple question can have on a person. And many people will answer the question really on a basic level. But then you can see the really personal level that some people were comfortable enough to share these personal experiences, such as the example that people have given of one of the students who shared that they were bullied, and the teacher that inspired them helped them get through such a tough situation. It really brings us back to the whole point of restorative justice, the circles, and what they do, which is ultimately to help us build relationships and bring us closer as a community.

Tony: A lot of the time when we do a circle, we have a general idea of what we’re going for; sometimes there’s “harm circles,” which follows when something bad has happened to some people, and we need to talk about it and expand on it a bit more. But sometimes there’s a sweet spot between what we think of as “checking-in” circles that also aim to get something done, and at that point the circle itself is just like a living, breathing thing. We start off talking about something, and that progresses, and the questions expand on something that was mentioned earlier, and it goes from there. And that, I think, is really where it becomes magical, because that’s where people start to open up more, and it starts to become an authentic conversation between people. That’s when people start to really open up, because it expands past “Who’s your favorite teacher?” to “What is happening in your life? We want to know, because you are important in this space.”

JR: It’s amazing to hear you describe it that way, because that is so much of what I try to accomplish in my graduate seminars, with Ph.D. students or Masters students. I want folks to come in, engage with one another, hear insights that they hadn’t previously understood about each other, and develop a deeper sense not just of themselves but their place in the world around them. So, what you’re saying suggests that restorative justice is a process of learning. I’m wondering if you feel like the restorative justice circles cross over in some ways with the sort of learning you would do in an English, or History, or even a Science class? I’m thinking specifically of the kind of rich classroom discussions you’ve described. Do they blend at all, or do they seem like totally different spaces?

Leon: They don’t necessarily blend—I mean, you can definitely implement this into a regular curriculum; in my U.S. history class for example, sometimes we are presented with certain historical figures. The way I’m imagining it would be, we’re sitting in the circle and discussing whether you agree with specific actions these historical figures are known for, what they did to contribute to history, and things like that. I definitely see restorative justice as something that could be used in multiple ways, as a way of learning and a different approach to the curriculum. To do this right, restorative justice coordinators and teachers would have to be taught and trained well enough to do this. It’s an ongoing process, clearly; people have to be committed to it, including the teachers, staff, parents, and students, because it’s really about community. So, it takes the community to cooperate with principles and practices of restorative justice in order for it to work.

Tony: As far as putting restorative justice into a classroom, I think certain subjects could be very easy—like Leon was mentioning, history may be the easiest because you could be studying controversial figures like Emma Goldman, Malcolm X, or Christopher Columbus, you know, and students could share whether they think these people did truly good things in history. Some subjects might be a little more difficult, like math. “How do you feel about math?” would be a little harder. But I could imagine a scenario in which some kids aren’t doing super well in their math class: those students could have a circle, and be asked, “What can you do to keep your grade where it is, or even to make it better? Why haven’t you been doing that? Or, why have you been doing that?” In this sense, it doesn’t always have to be centered on the direct subject, but more about the ideas surrounding it.

JR: I’m hoping that you can talk a little bit about the harm circles. Do you feel like those make a difference in reducing harm, and thereby creating a safer environment overall for young people at this school? If so, can you tell us a bit about how it works?

Leon: I witnessed a fight during my freshman year, between two girls. Being a freshman and being new to restorative justice, my first thought was, Oh, they’re going to be expelled, or at the very least suspended. I mean, that’s the thing everyone thinks of when they see a fight. But then I saw Ms. Ferrer—our restorative justice coordinator who everyone calls “Ms. RJ”—walk into our class and pick out those two students, and she took them with her. Later, I found out that both of them sat in a circle together with Ms. RJ, and they were talking about why they got into this fight, and basically they were getting to the root of the problem. The next day, both girls were in the same classroom, and they had solved the issue by building understanding and a relationship. Seeing that example really inspired me to become an advocate for restorative justice. So, that’s my understanding of the fundamental process and result of a harm circle.

Abraham: I’ve actually been in a harm circle. I didn’t get in a fight or anything like that, but it was along those lines; I had a teacher when I was a Freshman, and from the beginning of the year, I would walk into class and he would just ignore me, straight up. He’d go to the door and shake everybody’s hand except mine. I would raise my hand, he wouldn’t pay attention, and he would walk right by me. So, I was just constantly being ignored. The level of disrespect that I had toward that teacher at that point was like, “If you’re going to ignore me, I’m going to do whatever I want in this class.” I disrespected him so much, and I started getting kicked out of class on a daily basis. And then I had a harm circle with an administrator, and we talked about why he was ignoring me and why I disrespected him. It turned out that he thought that I said something to him that was super offensive, which I didn’t. And so once that was cleared up—that tiny misunderstanding—I actually moved out of that class because we just didn’t want anything else to start up. But now I always see that teacher around the school, and we say good afternoon, and good morning.

JR: So it offers a way to start over.

Abraham: Exactly. It’s a way to start over and reconnect, and in this case, I feel no animosity towards that teacher. If the circumstances would’ve been different—let’s say the teacher reported me—I would’ve been suspended and put out of the class, and then I would’ve come back and kept doing the same thing. Every time I would’ve seen that teacher it definitely would’ve been hostile. But now, for both of us, it’s “good morning” or “good afternoon.” And this is absolutely because of us coming to an understanding through the harm circle. We could definitely see the difference.

JR: I saw the terrific PowerPoint you all did on restorative justice. One of the slides said restorative justice is more than a strategy; it’s a way of life. What do you mean by that?

Leon: Since restorative justice is a fairly new way of approaching problems at this school, many people simply ask what it is. That’s the main question. I always try to emphasize that it’s a way of being, a way of doing.

Tony: It’s not something you can do half-heartedly. You can’t just have a circle in the classroom and assume all is good: it has to be internalized. It has to be something that you live with to the point that it is something that you do subconsciously.

Leon: Cooperation is a big part of it, and beyond that, you really have to take initiative to want to build relationships with one another. It’s a paradigm shift that aims to change the way people think about discipline. In that sense it’s not an alternative; it’s replacing the zero-tolerance policies that almost every school is used to.

JR: Because this is something that you can’t do half-heartedly, and because it has become such a part of who you are, do you find yourselves doing it in the world outside of school?

Abraham: When I give presentations to other students, my recommendation is to not be afraid to have restorative justice at your home. I give an example about a time I was in my apartment: we were having dinner and my dad was yelling at my sister, my sister was yelling at my mom, and my mom was yelling at my dad. Because they were talking over each other, no one could understand anything. So I was like, “Okay, everyone’s gotta relax.” We sat down in the living room, and it took me a long time, in part because when I told them to sit down, they were like, “Why are we going to sit down? We’re arguing.” After I got them to sit down, I got each one to talk about what happened, and what they were feeling. When my sister was speaking and my dad tried to interrupt, I was like, “Dad, let her talk, you’ll have your chance.”

Leon: Just to add a bit to that—restorative justice has actually been part of the indigenous Maori people in New Zealand for hundreds of years. So this is not new, it’s just something that has been brought to our attention recently. This has been the fundamental way of living for the Maori people of New Zealand, and we have been in contact with Anne Milne, the principal at Kia Aroha College in New Zealand. We did a video chat interview with students at that school last year.

Abraham: And they were discussing how restorative justice has been a part of their way of living for many years. It’s not something that’s being taught, because it’s a way of living.

JR: It’s wonderful that you had this chance to hear from Maori students who’ve been engaged with this for years, and who see this as part of a deeply embedded cultural experience. Why does that matter to you here in Boyle Heights?

Tony: I think it’s important because we get to hear from the experts. We talked to them about some of the struggles they have, and they face a lot of the same struggles we do. There’s racism in their communities, there’s teen pregnancy, there’s poverty. We have similar struggles. We really felt like they get where we’re coming from, and it helps us understand where they’re coming from at the same time.

JR: Part of what I’ve heard you speak to is that the restorative justice process enables you to understand your connectedness to one another in ways that may not have been apparent before. In this case, it happened across 5,000 miles, give or take.

Tony: Yeah, and we didn’t need a circle for it!

JR: I’d like to shift and talk about our present moment; it’s been two months, roughly, since Trump took office, and that has unleashed a great deal of stress, fear, anxiety, and so much more. This is particularly true, of course, in certain communities, and I think East L.A. is one of those communities that have been feeling that. I’m wondering if you feel like restorative justice offers a way to either make sense of, or understand, or perhaps resist the dynamics that have been playing out?

Leon: Trump’s election certainly came as a shock, and overwhelmingly my thoughts turned to fearing for the lives of the people I love—like many of my friends and family. At Roosevelt, in the days following his election, we felt this silence. Many teachers and students were shocked at the fact that he got elected, but right after we got past the shock, we went into this healing mode; in many of my classes we were having circles and discussions. Teachers were asking us about how we felt we could be resilient. And many people were very open and very strong about their opinions. I felt like we were all there for each other, to support each other through a hard time, and I definitely feel like restorative justice had an immense impact in our healing.

Tony: I remember the day after the election, kids were crying in the hallways. It was a big hit to the community, you know; for Boyle Heights and other Latino communities, this felt like it was aimed towards us. And this is precisely the kind of time when we need restorative justice. For the community to take a hit like that, we need something to bounce back with, because we can’t just stand in the sun and heal from things that he has said about us and our communities. We needed something to help us heal, and restorative justice is something that’s been helping.

JR: Does restorative justice offer ways of thinking about how to take action, to push back against the policies and rhetoric that Trump is putting forward?

Leon: In some of the discussions we have in our Urban Compadres program, we bring in critical theories, and it’s a kind of healing. I was just reading [Tara Yasso’s article on community cultural wealth that talks] about “aspirational capital.” My connection to it was thinking about people I know who are undocumented, but hold on to hopes and aspirations. There’s a refusal to let this status hold people and communities back from being successful in life. It doesn’t take away our community’s aspiration to succeed in an environment that is socially toxic.

JR: As you’ve mentioned, Trump has degraded various communities in the U.S., and immigrant communities generally. Focusing on the cultural wealth of Boyle Heights frames the strengths of this community in a very different way, and somebody who is viewing Boyle Heights through that lens would describe it very differently than what we hear from Trump. I’m just wondering if any of you want to speak to that.

Tony: Well, if you were to drive through Boyle Heights, there are certain things you don’t see. You’ll see some graffiti on the walls, some kids walking around at one o’clock and not in school, sure. But you don’t see what really goes on inside the school. You don’t see what’s going on in this classroom. All you see are roads that need renovation and some street signs that have been tagged on. From an outsiders’ point of view, we don’t look like the most inviting neighborhood. I’m not from anywhere around here—I was born and raised in Nevada. I moved here and at first I saw things differently, and I had preconceived notions about the place. But I’ve lived here for a couple years, and now I can see through all of that. I see this as a place where children grow up. I see this as a place where families start. This is a place where dreams are founded, and then they go off and grow. I see this as a place with potential. We’re the urban scholars—to borrow from Jeff Duncan Andrade—trying to be the rose garden growing out of concrete.

JR: So, let me ask you about my friend Jeff Duncan Andrade’s work, and his idea of critical hope. I’ve been asking folks what keeps them hopeful at this moment, because it’s a difficult time, and there is so much stress in the environment. So, what makes you hopeful right now?

Leon: What makes me hopeful is my ability to inspire others, and to serve as a voice for others. That’s what gives me hope. The ability to be a voice for the community.

Abraham: What keeps me hopeful is the light at the end of the tunnel: knowing that if I keep going, if I put one foot in front of the other, even in a dark place where there’s no light, I might not know what I’m stepping into, but I do know where I’m going. Being able to help my family out, giving back to my community. That’s the light at the end of the tunnel for me. That’s what gives me hope.

Tony: I think what gives me hope at times like this is something that Jimi Hendrix once said: “When the power of love outweighs the love of power, the world will know peace.” And I think that what we’re doing here with restorative justice is really kind of spreading love. We don’t exactly go into a room and promise, “Hey, you’re going to love this person and they’re going to love you back.” We just open the door for it to happen. If you walk into a room with ten strangers and you walk out and they’re still ten strangers, you’re not spreading love the way that I think is what the world needs. But if you walk in, and you get to know these people, there’s potential there. There’s potential for people to love one another. That’s something that can be self-sustaining in the world, and that’s something that keeps me hopeful.

Urban Scholar Compadres

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