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COSI talk: Restorative Justice session

On February 27th, a talk in the Conversations on Social Issues (COSI) series about restorative justice was held in Room A at the Seattle Central Library. The event featured Community and Youth Organizer of Washington Building Leaders of Change (WA-BLOC), Jerrell Davis,aka Rell Be Free.  The talk focused on the importance of the trauma-informed approach and restorative justice practices and its various communicative techniques and proactive community-building activities. 

Rell opened up the discussion by prompting the attendees to define the word “trauma”. Answers such as “abuse” and “sustained pain” came back at him, as well as a more specific definition: something that stops you from doing other things. Rell then clarified the phrase “trauma-informed care”, which is a restorative practice centered around the understanding of and reaction to the effects of trauma. He explained how this kind of care concentrates on the emotional and psychological safety of survivors. The next phrase he asked the attendees to define was “restorative”. Answers the attendees contributed were: rebuild, to put something back into something, and understanding what something was before and what it is now. Rell emphasized the importance of knowing the state of something as it was ‘before’ for us to be able to restore it. He also explained how this was extremely relevant to trauma-informed practices. 

Rell shared his experience with the traditional education systems, which he defined as “the opposite of trauma-informed”. He described how he had witnessed students who weren’t fluent enough in English being told that they needed to take remedial classes, despite the fact that they were on par with their peers academically. He explained how he had watched kids get suspended without a clear reason and that situations like these were where restorative practices could come in. He expressed his frustrations with people in positions of power using social justice terms like “equity” but not actually applying them. 

He emphasized that educators are very important and that they should also put more focus on students’ feelings. It was made clear that a number of young people nowadays are so traumatized that they don’t remember how they were before. “Trying to put a bandaid on a broken arm won’t fix the problem,” said Rell, while criticizing the traditional education system’s practices.

In describing the way he works, Rell said that adults are not his top priority; young people are. He explained that it is our duty to teach them how to communicate and articulate what they’re feeling so that when they get triggered because of past trauma when they are older, they can clearly verbalize why it happened and how they’re feeling. 

Rell was angry at the fact that young people specifically were being incarcerated. He hammered home the point that we need to be actively tearing down the current systems and incorporating restorative practices. Rell also said, “There’s no point in talking about abolition if we don’t know what’s going to be in the place of the building that’s going down.”

A video on Social Action by WA-BLOC Freedom Schools was played during the talk. It focused on the youth jail being rebuilt in Seattle at 12th and Alder, and some of the subsequent protests. It featured a rap about the erroneousness of putting public funds into a jail for young people. The lyrics emphasized that education is the key and not solitary confinement. It is estimated that 245 million dollars was put into funding and building the youth jail.

After, there was an interactive session in which participants were divided into groups of five and six and were asked to decide what kinds of practices a budget of 245 million dollars would go into and how we would incorporate trauma-informed and restorative practices into education. The attendees pitched several ideas including more counseling in schools, smaller class sizes, nutrition and exercise centers, financial literacy classes, late-night child care, more scholarships for people of color, community centers, transitional housing, and booklets on recommendations on how to treat international students, immigrants, and refugees. Rell highlighted the importance of piquing people’s imagination about how things can be different. 

The discussion ended with Rell elaborating on other organizations promoting trauma-informed and restorative practices. He mentioned the Creative Justice corporation, where they work to divert young people from going to jail. Young people are encouraged to visit their center to process the trauma that they’ve experienced and navigate through those experiences. Community Passageways diverts young people from felony crimes and the possession of drugs and guns. Rell answered a few more questions from the attendees about his work before thanking everyone for coming to the talk.

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