Carly Cohen: Restorative Justice: The Quiet 21st Century Lasallian Undertaking

Many of you reading this are familiar with the Lasallian mission and the history of St. John Baptist de La Salle. If you aren’t, the very short version is this: there was a man who saw that poverty-stricken young men were not being educated, and he thought that they should be in order to become literate citizens – gentlemen in society. Many weren’t happy about this, but he did it anyway. Fast forward 300 years later and you have De La Salle Christian Brothers and other lay people who continue his legacy and the mission he founded on a much larger scale.

I am serving in a particularly unique ministry, Catalyst Maria School, which is a K-12 charter school on the South Side of Chicago. Up until this point, I had only seen the Lasallian charism presented through Catholic ministries but Catalyst Maria functions in a secular manner with Lasallian roots. As a non-Catholic Lasallian this is something incredibly unique and something I am excited to be a part of. After many late-night conversations with my community members about De La Salle, his legacy and the many forms that it has taken over time, I still marvel at De La Salle himself. He was a radical man, who had unconventional and widely unpopular ideas. He drew attention to the need to educate marginalized young people when so many others had discarded their well-being as unimportant. There are many ways to accomplish that goal and one way that I have observed that being done – rather quietly – is through the work that Catalyst is doing via restorative justice. At Catalyst a key component to serving scholars in marginalized communities who have often experienced trauma and other forms of oppression (when conflicts arise) is through restorative practices. Just as De La Salle made it a goal to educate marginalized poor young men to be literate and gentlemen, Catalyst has made it a goal to educate our marginalized scholars to be literate, and socially and emotionally healthy. We aim to educate the whole person.

Restorative practices can look like peace circles used to resolve conflict before it turns into violence, or as a healing practice after violence has occurred. It can also look like restorative consequences that involve healing and growth for the person who has caused harm and others who have been harmed. For example: If one student has bullied another, a restorative consequence can be that they must create and present a PowerPoint on the effects of bullying and present it to their class. My job as a circle keeper is to create and hold a space where people can feel safe to express what they need to express and talk to one another openly and honestly.

The students I serve fall under many categorizations of marginalization, and while educating a young person is hard enough, the adversity they face as marginalized youth adds extra layers of complication. This also means that your approach to education must be radically different as well. How you would teach a student who has experienced trauma is marginally different than how you would teach a student who has not. When you work with marginalized students and with a restorative justice approach, you learn how to ask questions differently. If you’re trying to solve a conflict, the root of the answers are rarely ever in plain sight. Restorative justice mindsets cause your approach to change because that’s most likely what the student needs to process whatever is going on with them. If a student acts out, instead of asking, “What is wrong with you? Why won’t you quit doing this?” we ask, “What is going on with you? How can I help you work through what’s causing you to do this?” A student does not raise their voice and get angry for no reason, nine out of 10 times that reason they’re angry isn’t actually you or what you did, it’s something else going on behind the scenes. That reason – the way that possible trauma and whatever else is happening out of your eyesight – is just as important. Restorative justice practices are key to providing a space for someone to learn how to talk about what is on their mind and communicate with someone they may be having conflict with.

These practices are absolutely essential in the approach that must be taken while I work with students who are a part of marginalized communities and who have experienced repeated trauma, poverty, violence, various levels of oppression, and students who living with disabilities or going through the immigration process. Schools help students get closer to the school-to-prison pipeline by suspending and expelling students when they act out and disobey school policy. Restorative justice helps students take steps back from the school-to-prison pipeline because it helps teach skills of processing information, ownership of impact, and the importance of maintaining and building healthy relationships. The growth of communities that experience trauma and poverty is often stunted by continuous changes and lack of relationships being built. We work with many students who have experienced trauma and their immediate response (due to the neurological effects of reoccurring trauma) is fight or flight. Often this response is translated by those who don’t understand it as unnecessary and intentional aggression when it is often uncontrollable. This is yet another way in which Lasallian educators are doing their part in educating the whole person. It is wonderful if our students are literate but how can we not address the troubles they are facing at home and within their communities and expect them to succeed?

I call restorative justice “the quiet 21st century Lasallian undertaking.” We work with incredibly vulnerable and marginalized populations and providing restorative justice practices for those we serve is something that I find to be essential to a quality education and some of the adversities they face. Many Lasallian ministries are already on board. Perhaps in the coming years, we will see and hear that all of our Lasallian ministries have implemented restorative justice practices into their culture. Young people from marginalized communities are still not being fully educated to be functioning members of society because conflict resolution and healing is not seen as a necessity – just look at the school-to-prison pipeline. Young people from marginalized communities are not being given other options on how to solve conflict or heal in ways that don’t involve violence, and thus they not given options to build and maintain relationships with those they are having conflict with. Catalyst Maria seeks to change that through their work and for the rest of my year and career as a Lasallian educator, so do I.

Carly Cohen is a second-year LV serving at Catalyst Maria in Chicago, Illinois. She is a 2016 graduate of La Salle University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.


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