This is the fifth in a series of articles by Kerra L. Bolton, on her experiences with restorative practices in the city of Detroit.
One of the things that struck me most during my visit to Detroit in June, to document citizen-led efforts to transform the Motor City into a “restorative” one, was the many ways in which restorative practices intersect with the concept of “black lives matter.”
I define “black lives matter” in the context of the full and unfettered social, economic, and political participation of blacks in America. I am not referring to specific protests in recent years to reduce the deaths of unarmed black people at the hands of the police.
My definition of “black lives matter” is integral to Building a New Reality’s (BANR) larger conversation of True Representation, which aims to improve democratic decision-making, because you can’t bring everyone to the table if you don’t acknowledge that not everyone has been allowed in the room.
The foundation of America’s democracy has never been fair or just. There have been efforts throughout American history—whether it’s a poll tax or the use of voter ID—to deny or deter some groups from voting. We must acknowledge and correct this, if decision-making will truly represent the interests of all people.
This is an inside and outside job. Affected groups must continue to empower themselves, and predominant groups must work alongside them toward shared responsibility and goals. The inherent corruption of government and the political process makes it impossible for the government or its institutions to be the arbiter of fairness.
Therefore, it’s up to citizens to create a better world, a new reality for themselves. The people of Detroit are doing just that.
Restorative practices is an emerging social science that has been credited with reducing crime, violence and bullying, improving human behavior, strengthening civil society, providing effective leadership, restoring relationships, and repairing harm. A central premise of restorative practices is that people are happier and more likely to make positive changes when authority figures do things with them, rather than to them or for them.
Detroit is a fertile ground to become America’s first “Restorative City,” because of its rich yet troubled history, population trends, diverse culture, location, and economic importance in the regional and national economies.
The city and its interconnected approaches to building social capital through restorative practices will be highlighted October 24-26, as part of an international conference, “Strengthening the Spirit of Community.” The International Institute for Restorative Practices (IIRP) will organize and Black Family Development, Inc. will host the conference.
Detroit’s population is roughly 83 percent black. Blacks, as a group—whether in Detroit or elsewhere in the United States—have a long and painful history of having things done to them or for them, but not with them.
Restorative practices, then, can give blacks in Detroit tools for greater social, political, and economic agency. These tools can be used to shift internal attitudes that limit their own personal growth, and remove external barriers that limit their full and free participation in the larger community; and, in some cases, threaten black lives.
Below are three examples of how I think restorative practices can and are saving black lives in Detroit.
Restorative Practices Hit the Streets
The Community-Police Summit in Detroit’s Fifth Precinct was not what I expected.
I anticipated witnessing grieving mothers pound on the chests of police officers, demanding justice for their dead sons. What I got was a local pastor complaining about a speeding ticket.
The day-long meeting sought to bring together local police officers with citizens, so that each side could understand the other, and together devise solutions to create a safer, more respectful community.
Through a series of interconnected role-play exercises and conversations based on the five restorative questions, citizens learned more about the dangers police officers face every day, while officers realized how the community perceives them.
One of the most illuminating moments came when a veteran black police officer—who was reviled by many of the community members attending the summit for his brusque and by-the-book manner—revealed that his insistence on keeping his word and following procedure saved a woman and her children from being murdered and burned in the house where they lived by her boyfriend, who had a history of domestic violence.
Restorative events like the Community-Police Summit can literally save black lives. When police and the community they serve recognize they are on the same side and have healthy, effective tools to mitigate conflict, it reduces the likelihood that the first response to a situation will be a deadly one.
The second example happened during a meeting among educators, community leaders, parents, and a student representative at Frederick Douglass Academy for Young Men, the only all-male public school in Michigan.
During a conversation about student-led initiatives to raise awareness about sexual health and reducing violence in the community, the student representative thanked the group for teaching him restorative practices such as affective statements and questions, which allow participants to talk about their feelings that clarify boundaries, provide feedback, and build empathy. Such practices, the young man said, helped him to pause in escalating situations, and have the potential to reduce aggression and violence in his community.
The final example of restorative practices saving black lives is something about which I wrote in an earlier blog post, “Restorative Practices Give Hope to Hope Charter School.” Specifically, school administrators credited the use of restorative circles and restorative questions with reducing out-of-school suspensions from 113 to 7 in a single school year.
Research consistently shows that black children are suspended and expelled from school at disproportionate rates, which then increases the likelihood of future involvement with the criminal justice system. Using a restorative, rather than punitive, approach to school conflict can save black lives, because it enables them to be co-creators of their own academic and social destiny.
Redressing institutional and systemic racism requires a multi-layered, integral approach. However, I believe implementing restorative practices in schools, communities, public institutions, and families is critical to ensuring that not only black lives matter, but that they have the freedom to contribute fully to the democratic experiment.