Letter to the Editors: Restorative Justice’s Response to Last Week’s Senate Public — The Reed College Quest

[The Reed College Quest] Letter to the Editors: Restorative Justice’s Response to Last Week’s Senate Public — The Reed College Quest

My name is Robin Hart, and I have been one of the co-chair's of Reed's Restorative Justice Coalition (RJC) for over two years. We were recently given the surprising news that the Student Body Senate had made the decision to revoke our funding for the coming semester.

I will start with a summary of our response to the recent article posted in the quest. First, Senate was not truthful about: (i) an unequal involvement with faculty and staff, (ii) the "choice [to remove funding] not coming as a shock", and (iii) being transparent about reporting multiple instances of feedback to RJ (we only heard one report over a year ago without any of the detail provided in the article outside of the appropriation piece, which we have and are still working to address). 

In addition, we DO NOT engage in indigenous practices; RJ processes involve a decentralized form of conversation that focuses on asking open-ended questions so people can share their stories, after creating values/agreements for how to engage in discussion. This non-hierarchical and community engagement piece has roots in Traditional Justice and Peacemaking practices practiced by global indigenous communities (such as the Maori in New Zealand, the Hollow Water First Nation in Canada, and the Kake Village in Alaska). Importantly, restorative justice was established in the western context to use these similar values in order to combat the prison industrial complex. What we do to live up to what indigenous communities value about harm reduction is in no way the same as the actions or practices they lead, but rather, grounded in a fundamental belief that people want to be in community with and care for one another. I recommend reading the final chapter of Are Prisons Obsolete? by Angela Davis (free PDF online), where she discusses RJ as an abolitionist alternative in the final chapter to fix the broken western systems of "justice". To this point, the RJC at Reed is part of a larger movement to push back against the prison industrial complex and other western-centric modes of addressing harm.

The RJC is one of the three accountability groups on campus, and is a student-run organization of five students. All of us are hired through AppComm, and have been paid through the Student Body Senate like the other accountability groups (though J-Board receives only 50% of their salary from the SB, and RJ has received funds from Student Life to supplement training and salaries in the past year). We facilitate community building circles, where folks come together to have intentional conversation, centered around first establishing values and agreements (such as confidentiality and compassion), then answering a set of open-ended guided questions that allow people to tell their stories. In this format, no one is required to participate, folks sit in a circle (to deconstruct any hierarchy), and a talking piece (a significant object of the facilitator's) is passed around to indicate symbolically when it is someone's turn to speak. We also take on harm cases that focus on using spaces and dialogue built during community circles to serve as a container for conflict, finding solutions for accountability that place agency directly in the hands of the person who was harmed.

Indigenous roots of RJ and how they inform our work:

Last year's Senate liaison to the Accountability Groups let us know about a concern a student brought to them regarding the indigenous roots of restorative justice. This was the only conversation we had with Senate surrounding the indigenous origins of RJ before the final conversation where they informed us they had cut off our funding; it was not in any way a culmination of "nearly two years of discussion on the matter." We had (and are still having) discussions as the full coalition to mobilize and make change based on the limited feedback we received to minimize harm, without knowledge of how many reports were made or if those who made a report had participated in an RJ process with us.

We truly believe that these practices can—and have—brought a new form of engaging with harm on campus that aims on reducing harm in the first place, and bringing people together before harm even occurs. We do not insist that everyone must participate in RJ, and invite anyone to ask us questions. I want to acknowledge that as a white person and white practitioner of RJ, I recognize my subjectivity and the legacy of white supremacy that accompanies my presence in this role. I recognize that I will and have made mistakes, not just in this work, but everywhere throughout life. I believe in education as a way forward, and RJ has provided this to me and countless others who have done harm.

To the feedback from Senate and other students during our circles about how to properly acknowledge indigenous roots, we thank you. It is from these conversations that we are able to grow and change how we honor the communities who have acknowledged the value of addressing harm through collective repair long before any of us. We always welcome folks to share parts of the process that didn't work for them, or to reach out with any questions. We take feedback very seriously and take the time to hold ourselves accountable for you. At the end of the day, we're here to support you, and allow folks to access a way to navigate harm and relationships distinct from the other processes.

Discussions around hiring and the leadership of the coalition:  

It is no secret that both myself and the other RJ co-chair are white. It is also no secret that every member of the RJC is hired by and through Senate on AppComm. I want to take a moment to validate the concerns around this leadership dynamic on the RJC, especially in comparison to J-Board and HC, where at least one of the chairs is not white. In truth, the leadership distribution was not intentional. When Tina and I were hired at the end of our freshman year, there was complete turnover of the founding coalition team due to graduation and folks studying abroad. We were the only two with the time to take on the hefty task that came with co-chairship (i.e., endless emails and meetings). Other members have come and gone, graduating or transferring to other schools, leaving Tina and I to both remain co-chairs each year with no other students to trade the role off to.

Something we would like for folks to know is that if you have any concerns with folks in a Senate-appointed position, this is something to discuss with AppComm and the group itself to reevaluate hiring practices in the future. I understand the frustration myself, and wish for RJ to make moves toward increasing diverse membership in the future, but this has ultimately been up to Senate and their application processes over the years. I entered into my first year on RJ with three other Senate-appointed white students. In short, we recognize the effect of having white leadership on the RJC, and invite future collaboration between us and Senate in the future to address the concerns around the matter.

The impact of white students taking on RJ work:  

I view my time on the RJC as some of the most important work of my life. In particular, it is heavy emotional labor to walk people through harm cases and bare so much of yourself in conversation with new people as part of your job. But this work is needed; as I wrote in the opening paragraphs, restorative justice plays a fundamental role in the traction we need to abolish prisons and other unfair systems of punitive punishment. To expect the vast majority of this labor to fall on students of color, I believe, is an unfair ask—especially when most of our harm cases involve white students. I am willing to pour my time and energy into this job for under $5 an hour because I believe in its values and the difference it causes in the world. Considering how much my ancestors have ruined the homes, materials, cultures, and lives of other people, I want to do my part to preserve what has been lost and position it as central, valuable, and important as best as I can. I do not believe Reed deserves to have this opportunity thrown away, and from our large amounts of engagement and feedback, we know students have benefited tremendously from having RJ as a free tool at their disposal. We're not claiming to be perfect, but rather that throwing out a non-western system of practice that has brought so much to this community is not the solution. Rather, it would get rid of an abolition-centric practice due to the mistakes or opinions relating to the group's current leadership. Whatever you think of me and Tina's leadership, I would urge you to consider the RJC's potential to grow in future years rather than discounting the coalition as a whole.