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When Fania Davis Came to Brooklyn: Our Visit with the National Leader on Restorative Justice

Last month, Brooklyn Community Foundation was privileged to host the great Fania Davis on a visit to Brooklyn to meet the schools and community-based organizations partnering with us in our Brooklyn Restorative Justice Project.

Fania Davis is the Founder and Executive Director of Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth (RJOY), and led the Oakland Unified School District to aim to adopt restorative justice programs in all of its 86 schools. This movement has been credited with reducing the district’s suspensions and absentee rates, while improving graduation rates and academic results.

Fania is a leading national voice on restorative justice, a field she came to more than a decade ago after a career as a civil rights trial lawyer. Fania, and her equally noteworthy sister Angela Davis, are icons of the Black liberation, women's, prisoners', peace, anti-racial violence and anti-apartheid movements. Fania’s leadership in restorative justice is an extension of this lifetime commitment, which she frames as a “fundamental shift in the way we think about and do justice” focused on healing.

Fania’s visit to Brooklyn to council the partners in our Brooklyn Restorative Justice Project was made possible by the Sills Family Foundation, a funder of RJOY and a member of our Youth Justice Funders Collaborative.

On Thursday, September 22nd, the restorative justice coordinators from each of our four Brooklyn Restorative Justice Project schools came together with Fania to share their experiences thus far and to gain her insight and advice on their challenges and their progress. The next day, Fania joined members of our Youth Justice Funders Collaborative and Brooklyn Community Foundation staff on a visit to Ebbets Field Middle School to see the Brooklyn Restorative Justice Project up close.

Last year, Brooklyn Community Foundation selected Partnership with Children (PWC) to participate in the Brooklyn Restorative Justice Project, pairing it with Ebbets Field Middle School, located in Crown Heights near the site of the field that the Brooklyn Dodgers’ called home. Suzanne Hitchman is PWC’s full time restorative justice coordinator at Ebbets Field Middle; before coming to Brooklyn, Suzanne studied restorative practices in the Bay Area, and was inspired by Fania’s groundbreaking work in Oakland.

 

Above: Fania Davis meets with our Brooklyn Restorative Justice Project coordinators; Suzanne Hitchman, Restorative Justice Coorindator at Ebbets Field Middle School, leads our group in an opening circle.

Suzanne began our visit by leading our group in a restorative circle and sharing how restorative practices have been implemented at Ebbets Field Middle. Because the school does not have an advisory period, restorative practices are incorporated into classroom instruction – a novel way of building community among students and tackling coursework in out-of-the-box ways.

After our opening circle, our group split into two to see the school’s restorative practices in action. I was in the group that sat in on Ms. Chapman-Santiago’s 8th grade English Language Arts class. The day’s lesson focused on journalism, and Ms. Chapman-Santiago opened the class by asking each student to share one thing they would want to change about their community. Students took turns answering one at a time while holding the “talking piece,” – in this case a soft, squeezable (and easily tossed) world globe. Several students said they wanted to change racism, killings and violence in their communities, and police brutality. We were impressed with the level of trust, insight, and vulnerability that we witnessed, not often associated with middle school classrooms.

 

Above: The restorative circle guidelines in Ms. Santiago-Chapman's classroom; A student works on a journalism lesson.

The class then shifted to a journalism lesson where student worked together to report on what they observed on their way to school that morning. When they came back to share their stories in the circle, one student reported on witnessing a stabbing on his walk to school, while another shared that she had been harassed for wearing her hijab. 

The circle process enabled the students to feel that their voices were being heard and respected, and that they could share what was weighing on them in a setting that encouraged and invited their participation. I can’t image that a typical journalism lesson would have offered the same experience, and it was reassuring to know that Suzanne was in the room to support Ms. Chapman-Santiago as she responded to her students’ stories.

After the class period ended, our group rejoined the others on our visit who had sat in on a Math class taught by Ms. Mabrey, also using the circle format. This part of our visit focused on Fania lifting up and celebrating the commitment of the school’s teachers and administrators to restorative justice and building community and trust among the students and teachers: “We have to build our community in order to have something to restore back to. Community building is key to restorative justice.”

 

Above: Fania Davis and Ebbets Field Middle School teachers and restorative justice staff.

Reflecting on the school’s formal implementation of restorative justice, Ms. Mabrey said, "It affirms what we’ve being doing and provides further structures to support our work. We are committed to high support and high expectations.”

I am so grateful to Fania Davis for traveling to Brooklyn to bolster our Project’s coordinators, teachers, and staff. There is so much energy, excitement and promise for this work in our schools and it is even more encouraging to know that we are part of a national movement that’s helping schools transform away from exclusionary discipline toward holistic communities where every student is set up to succeed. 

Kaberi Banerjee-Murthy

Vice President of Programs
β€œWe have to build our community in order to have something to restore back to. Community building is key to restorative justice.” - Fania Davis