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Building Community through Restorative Justice

There are times when studying peace and conflict resolution is theoretical. But at George Mason University’s Carter School for Peace and Conflict Resolution, students also put their knowledge into action to benefit the local community.

Since January 2020, the school has partnered with Restorative Arlington, a new initiative aimed at incorporating restorative justice practices into Arlington County’s public schools, legal system, and community. The partnership was formalized in July 2020 when Carter School dean Alpaslan Özerdem and Arlington County manager Mark Schwartz signed a joint letter of intent.

Restorative justice is an alternative approach to punitive discipline. It centers around community building and repairing not only the harm done, but also the relationships.

Connecting to the Community

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Mason alumni Michael Brown and Kimiko Lighty work for Restorative Arlington. Photo by Ron Aira/Creative Services

“The Restorative Arlington partnership opens a kind of door between us and many other organizations across Arlington,” says Carter School professor Susan Hirsch, who is on the initiative’s steering committee. “In working with them, we become more connected to a whole gamut of things that are going on in the community that surrounds this campus. I really value that.”

The Carter School partnership offers engagement on multiple levels, says Liane Rozzell, a senior associate from the Annie E. Casey Foundation who was on loan to Arlington County to help build this initiative. “We have students who are helping us grow the initiative while they’re learning themselves. There are faculty who are knowledgeable, excited, and can contribute their expertise to this process.”

Some of the ways the Carter School is and will continue to be involved include training teachers and community members on how to facilitate restorative justice practices, developing curriculum, organizing dialogues, conducting research, and evaluating how the initiative is going.

“All of this is very needed, and it gives us a tremendous boost that we couldn’t do on our own,” Rozzell says.

What would incorporating restorative justice look like in action?

“We would have way fewer, if any, students suspended,” Rozzell says. “We’d have way more connection and folks thriving in schools.”

“My hope is that a number of different cases that might have gone to the criminal legal system might find their way to be handled outside that system,” says Hirsch, who taught a conflict course this past spring in which students could directly support the initiative. “I would also hope that community members would embrace a restorative ethic and feel empowered to resolve other conflicts using approaches that are restorative and not punitive.”

Taking the Lead

When Mason alumna Kimiko Lighty, MAIS ’10, heard that Rozzell was working to bring restorative justice to Arlington County, where she lives, she was excited. As the parent of a special needs child, Lighty has been active in the Arlington Public Schools and its Special Education Parent Teacher Association (SEPTA), and she approached Rozzell to find out more about the plans.

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Carter School professor Susan Hirsch meets with the team of her Transitioning Justice Peace Lab over Zoom.

“I was not just reaching out to [Rozzell] as [a restorative justice] practitioner, but as a SEPTA mom who wanted to make sure that the needs of special education students and families were represented and considered in the way that these programs were developing,” says Lighty, who has worked as a restorative justice practitioner in Fairfax County and Washington, D.C. “One of the things that’s important to us is how discipline affects students with disabilities.”

When the coronavirus pandemic shutdown began in March 2020, Lighty found herself unable to continue her practice, so she volunteered with Restorative Arlington, helping to create the group’s strategic plan and facilitate healing circles, which during this time were held over Zoom.

In October, she was hired as the full-time coordinator of Restorative Arlington. Lighty says that, now that they have a strategic plan in place, her role is to begin implementing those plans. She has focused her efforts on creating pathways and trainings to introduce restorative justice to the county’s legal system and public schools, and to provide them with the tools they need to make real systemic change.

“I think we have a disposability crisis in our civilization, where we have so much disposable stuff that it leads us to start thinking about people as disposable,” she says. “Restorative justice honors the fact that we’re all connected—it gives us a way to see people as whole people who we live in relation with, and do the work to prevent harm before it even happens.”

Getting Students Involved

Graduate students in Hirsch’s online CONF 625 Engaging Conflict course started out the spring semester learning about restorative justice and then broke into groups to work on Restorative Arlington-specific projects. The project-based class is designed to provide students with an opportunity to put the theories that they’ve studied into practice.

“[This partnership] really is an opportunity for students to be on the ground floor as a major community-driven initiative is built,” says Hirsch, who was recognized with one of Mason’s 2021 Teaching Excellence Awards earlier this year. “It’s the best of experiential learning.”

One group chose to work on researching and mapping out youth-related services in Arlington County that might benefit from restorative justice, while another worked on Arlington’s faith-based groups. With the support of Restorative Arlington, the students developed materials for the nonprofit to use for outreach and education to these groups.

The third group created a curriculum for a summer camp on restorative justice geared toward fifth- and sixth-graders.

“The group really thought about what young people who were about to go to a new school would need, with an emphasis on social and emotional learning and giving them skills for resolving conflicts and engaging with others,” says Hirsch.

“Until I took this class, I did not truly understand what restorative justice was or what it offered as an approach to justice,” says Carter School graduate student Aleksander Kusik, who attended the class virtually from Boston, Massachusetts, where he works full-time and attends school full-time.

Kusik described the experience as transformative. “This class opened my eyes to an approach that prioritizes relationships, community, collaboration, and healing. As someone who studies conflict resolution and peacebuilding, restorative justice was a beacon of hope to all the concernss I have with the traditional criminal justice system.”

Peace Circles

As a part of their restorative justice training, the graduate students took basic circle training with an undergraduate conflict resolution class and several Arlington community members.

These circles, often called healing circles, originated in the practices of Native Americans, First Nations, and Indigenous peoples, and bring together people to have open exchanges about difficult issues.

The training was led by Hirsch and Carter School PhD student Najla Mangoush and had to be adapted for a virtual environment. Outside of the pandemic, circle members would sit in a circle and pass a talking piece from person to person.

The circles are Lighty’s favorite part of the training. “That was the most powerful part of the [restorative justice] training for me, and everything I know and everything I do as a circle keeper comes from that initial training,” Lighty says. “It’s a really powerful exercise, and it has been challenging to adapt it to a virtual environment. We’ve had some success in being able to do that.”

After the training, the graduate students were asked to facilitate circles of students on topics related to the Carter School and restorative justice as an opportunity to put their new skills to work.

“Facilitating a circle was one of those experiences where the practical experience is much different than reading about them,” says Kusik, who will complete his MS in conflict analysis and resolution this summer. “I began to find where my strengths and weaknesses were by facilitating a group with Mason undergraduates. But most important, I got to experience firsthand the power circles practices have in building relationships and understanding through shared experiences.”

Next Steps

This summer Hirsch is continuing the restorative justice work with students, interns, and volunteers, including Kusik, in one of the new Peace Labs at the Carter School.

“To do real engagement with the community, we can’t just offer courses,” Hirsch says. “We need to conduct research that we’re doing with and/or for the community.”

Hirsch’s lab is called Transitioning Justice, and the team will take the materials created for Restorative Arlington and begin outreach efforts. They will also design, deliver, and evaluate restorative justice trainings titled Restorative Foundations and Basic Circle Process.

And there will be more circles. Lighty says Restorative Arlington is working with the Arlington Office of Race and Equity to create a series of virtual circles focused on race and equity in Arlington County government, and Mason alumni and students will be involved.

“There’s a lot of excitement among the students, some of whom were in the courses, but also other students who have been working on these issues and want a chance to be part of an engaged team,” says Hirsch.

Mariam Aburdeineh, BA ’13, and Colleen Kearney Rich, MFA ’95