Sam Wilson: Creating a Safe Space in a Virtual World

I practice restorative justice at Catalyst Maria High School in Chicago at the Maria Kaupas Center. My job consists of regular check-ins with students who have behavioral and/or social-emotional concerns and accompanying them on their individual journeys through high school. When I began my second year as a Lasallian Volunteer, I knew that I would be working remotely, and, as is commonplace these days, had an overwhelming sense of uncertainty as to how that would work.

A few weeks ago, I participated in Circle Process training. Circle Process is a way of living based on the Indigenous tradition of Talking Circles. It asks us to put aside societally engrained ideas of “retribution” and “deterrence” in favor of community-building, relationship reparation and addressing harm. At Catalyst Maria, when students are involved in a behavioral incident, rather than simply suspend or even expel them, a restorative Circle can be requested with those who were involved in the incident, staff, and the community at-large. Once gathered in Circle, participants then discuss what happened, why it happened, what the impact was and what can be done to restore the relationships harmed. It is a process that emphasizes collective empowerment. This is easier said than done, but as I have witnessed firsthand, it is possible, and it works. When students feel that their voice will be heard, they feel safe in speaking their truth. And with this comes mutual understanding, restoration, healing and ultimately a better learning environment and academic outcome.

To those unfamiliar with the practice, the idea of restorative justice and Circle Keeping often sounds like some abstract and utopian ideal. For this reason, I previously found it very difficult to sum up exactly what I do in my position. That was until the wonderful women who trained me to become a Circle Keeper, Ms. Pamela and Ms. Cheryl, told me this: if people ask you what you do, simply tell them that you are a creator of safe space.

But my main concern—the question I have been asking myself since the beginning of the school year—is how do I help the students I serve feel safe when we cannot be physically together? This is the most important and most challenging aspect of my service this year. I recognize that I may never come up with a concrete answer to this question, but restorative justice and Circle Process have given me some much-needed clarity.

Restorative justice asks us to consider the person as a whole and to address the root causes of certain actions by acknowledging factors such as one’s home environment, history of trauma, cultural background, etc. Using principles of both restorative justice and Circle Process during check-ins with my students has helped me begin to curate a safe space in a virtual setting. I’ve come to learn that creating a safe space is not just about the physical location or what is in the room. Though those things are important, they are not essential. What I have found is essential to creating a safe space is approaching each conversation with respect, accountability, understanding and celebration.

Respect looks like a lot of different things. As a white woman, respect looks like immersing myself into the cultural identities of my students without appropriating them. It is learning Spanish and understanding African-American Vernacular English (AAVE). It is acknowledging that the land I serve on is Native land, not just on Indigenous Peoples Day, but every day. It looks like holding my students to high expectations because I deeply believe in their ability to succeed. In addition, I want my students to know that in holding them accountable to these expectations, they should hold me accountable as well. In Circle Process, every person in the Circle is equally a giver and a receiver of wisdom. As much as I am a giver of critical feedback, I also seek to receive feedback from my students, to apologize when (and not if) I am wrong, when I have said or done something insensitive. Accountability is anti-racist, and it is a gift.

Understanding means listening first to understand, not to be understood. Oftentimes, whether it is between adolescents, between adults, or between adolescents and adults, the root cause of communicative issues stems from ineffective listening. We listen with one ear, but the other ear is hearing the response we are about to give before fully contemplating what is being said. I’ve learned to be comfortable with silence, with letting words hang in the air, with saying “give me a moment to think over what you have said before I can respond.”

Finally, celebration is an aspect of restorative justice that cannot be neglected. When we spend so much time focusing on negative things, a phenomenon with actual psychological backing, any achievement can get overlooked. A safe space should hold as much hurt, as much stress and sadness, as it does love, joy and laughter. When I celebrate my students’ accomplishments, no matter how big or small, my hope is that they internalize positive messages about themselves in a lasting way.

With these things in mind, it has become clear to me that those who create safe space do so through words and actions, not just through the physical environment. That knowledge is what will help me and the relationships I form with my students throughout this virtual service year.



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