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Students get expert lesson in restorative practices

Kristen B. Morales

March 14, 2019

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Growing up, Maisha Winn's parents lamented that their fight for social justice, such a struggle within their own generation, continued for their daughter.

Now, as she stood before about 50 student leaders at Cedar Shoals High School, she continued the mantra—but with some extra advice thrown in. "I believe that the reason I'm in front of you right now is because I was raised to believe that my life matters, and my life is beautiful," she told members of the high school's Peer Leadership class. She urged the students to stay positive as they continued the struggle in the next generation. "I want you to imagine what you're going to create more than what you're going to take down."

Maisha Winn with Cedar Shoals students

Winn was speaking to the class as part of a larger visit centered around this year's Aralee Strange Lecture at the Georgia Museum of Art. Her talk, "I Don't Want Us to Forget the Fire: Literacy, Activism and Black Literate Lives Overview," drew from her background in Oakland, California, in the 1970s and '80s when her parents were at the forefront of the Black Arts Movement.

The lecture is made possible through an endowment by the Aralee Strange Fund for Art and Poetry at the Georgia Museum of Art and is co-sponsored by the UGA College of Education and the Willson Center for Humanities and Arts. It connects the arts with education while looking through the lens of social justice.

This social justice aspect of the lecture is what brought Winn to Cedar Shoals that afternoon, where students were eager to gain insight into their own restorative justice practices. The Aralee Strange Lecture includes an education component, and Winn provided that bridge between the arts and community activism. Winn is the co-founder and co-director of the Transformative Justice in Education Center at the University of California-Davis, where she is also the Chancellor's Leadership Professor in the School of Education.

At Cedar Shoals, the students were members of an innovative social studies class that combined building community, the study of their school's community, recognizing and ending social disparities and encouraging literacy. Winn's expertise plugged in to the leadership and peer mentorship they were cultivating at the school.

The teens wanted to know, though: What was missing from their work? What happened when the school climate seemed…just fine?

"This year, since we began restorative justice, the school came together," said one student. "At first, we had no fights or no problems."

But Winn pushed back. Just because there weren't hallway fights didn't mean restorative justice didn't still have a place. There's always room for difficult conversations, especially when all seems well—it's an opportunity for students and faculty to get to know each other even better.

One aspect of the restorative justice practices incudes engaging in "circles," or time set aside for intentional conversations. It happens, said Winn, that these circles take place after some sort of conflict—then the parties come to the table, discuss differences and agree to come together on some common ground. But even when there's no outward sign of conflict to resolve, Winn said, these circles must be an integral part of pushing conversations to new places.

"If you saw restorative justice as a pyramid, 80 percent of that foundation is building community," she said. "You should be doing circles, period. You should not be getting in circles only when there is a problem. So instead, use the circles to get to know each other instead of waiting for when there's an incident to connect."

Winn said the name of the center she founded with her husband was intentional and helps underline the point. The word "restorative" denotes there was something there before the current action, and the resolution brings the parties back to that state. But "transformative" moves the thinking to a new place—"transformative is thinking about radical overhaul and change," she said. "Everyone in a circle is a stakeholder; everyone in the circle has someone who is considered an ally because we try to expand the circle so we have more people responsible for the outcomes."

She gave the students some examples of circle exercises they could use when they are between conflicts. For example, take quotes about race, laminate them onto cards and distribute them among circle participants. Then, each person talks about what their quote means to them.

She also applauded recent efforts by the students to help with new teacher orientation. Winn suggested students conduct a research project about their school to help them learn about its context—for example, they can collect stories from the students and conduct circles with the teachers using a prompt or question that focuses on building community. Or, it could be a question that encourages new teachers to think about themselves as a student, asking who they were when they were performing at their best—or their worst—and what resources they had, or were missing, at each time.

At the Transformative Justice Education Center, Winn said they regularly bring in new teachers to go through a similar process. "We have them do a class picture project that represents the grade they will be teaching," she said. "Because we want them to get in the position of what the students are going through, who they will be teaching."

Winn's ideas excited the students. When the bell rang signaling the end of the school day, small groups hung around for an extra question or a photo. Several students were doing their own research on discipline and social justice, while others were interested in taking their peer mentorship program to the next level—several students were working with freshmen on peer leadership and conflict resolution skills.

The class itself is a social studies class, combining elements of history and social justice with real-world scenarios and context. Winn understood the importance of giving students the reins when it came to school leadership.

"There are allies and there are co-conspirators," said Winn. "Find out who your co-conspirators are and work with them."