Advocating for Restorative Justice in Schools with the Urban Youth Collaborative
Building on our commitment to advocacy and our desire to be led by our grantees, we were thrilled when Kesi Foster, formerly the Coordinator of the Urban Youth Collaborative (UYC) and now a Lead Organizer at Make the Road New York (MRNY), called to ask if we’d like to partner with UYC and MRNY to create a site visit for New York City Council members to learn about the power and potential of Restorative Justice as they consider expanding funding and resources in New York City schools.
Supported through our Invest in Youth grant program, Urban Youth Collaborative has been organizing for over a decade to eliminate the school-to-prison pipeline in New York City. UYC’s youth leaders recognized that exclusionary discipline, suspensions, removals, summons, and arrests were grounded in the belief that some young people are disposable and the system should effectively isolate and alienate them from their community. Many were being pulled from their classrooms and their schools and pushed into suspension trials and summons hearings for normal adaptive youthful behavior.
We created the Brooklyn Restorative Justice Project to develop a model to counter this all too common narrative for Black and Brown youth. Instead of inflicting suspensions and arrests that take youth out of school and trigger a lifetime of involvement in the criminal justice system, schools could use the practices of Restorative Justice to foster understanding and respect among students, teachers, and administrators and create safe spaces for youth to learn and grow.
The project is now in three Brooklyn schools, providing full-time Restorative Justice coordinators as well as coordinated support networks and evaluation from one of the country’s top researchers on school discipline. As we head into our third year, we are seeing the profound potential of Restorative Justice in changing school culture from punitive to supportive, realized through the work of the Restorative Justice coordinators, youth and adults in school, as well as the initial findings of our project researcher.
And the opportunity of hosting the City Council site visit at one of our BRJP schools felt particularly timely and critical given the questions surrounding school safety and security that arose in the aftermath of the tragic incident between students in the Bronx last month.
We worked with Kesi to create a three-fold experience for the Council members, focused on these goals:
- Understanding the metrics and data that demonstrate the power of Restorative Justice to improve school safety and security especially for vulnerable youth
- Experiencing the transformative power of a Restorative Justice student circle
- Learning from Restorative Justice coordinators and identifying necessary supports for success
In mid-October, our BRJP partners at Ebbets Field Middle School in Crown Heights, led by Principal Jeanne Rowe, hosted the City Council site visit and provided a warm welcome to all. Helping to lead the visit was Suzanne Hitchman, the school’s Restorative Justice Director, who along with Ms. Maybery, an Ebbets Field math teacher, created an incredible cross-age leadership circle for students and City Council visitors to be in conversation together. The visit also featured a presentation by Dr. Anne Gregory, our research evaluator from Rutgers University, who shared national-level data as well as what she has learned so far from our project about the evidence of the efficacy of Restorative Justice.
Joining the visit were Council Members from multiple boroughs as well as key members of the Council’s Policy and Finance departments, and staff from local Assemblymember Walter Mosley’s office. We were especially delighted to host Education Chair Council Member Daniel Dromm, and Council Member Brad Lander, and hoped that our message resonated as they stayed on to ask questions of our practitioners.
The next week during the City Council’s widely publicized Public Hearing on Bullying, we were ecstatic to see Council Member Dromm mention our site visit, and we were overwhelmed as the UYC youth so eloquently and bravely shared their personal experiences in the testimony. Watch videos of both below.
As with any advocacy opportunity, we hoped that all the effort would lead to impact, and so we were thrilled to see a significant policy decision from the Department of Education announced in conjunction with the City Council hearing: $8M in funding for school climate reforms, all directed to Restorative Justice, social and emotional learning, and anti-bullying efforts, with no new funding to metal detectors or policing.
As we think about our levers for change, our grantmaking allows us to learn about the issues and increases our ability to engage in meaningful advocacy and policy change with our smart and savvy nonprofit leaders.
We are energized by this win and what it mean for students not just in Brooklyn, but in all five boroughs, and we look forward to having the phone ring again to continue follow our grantees’ lead on issues that will help us get to a fair and just Brooklyn.