Restorative Justice and the Rebirth of Chicago

Thursday, November 13th, 2014

The vision is a city interlaced with restorative justice hubs — community centers that bring hope and promise to troubled kids in a town where too many of them are dying. “It is not OK that my friends and I have already planned our funerals,” then-high school senior Keann Mays-Lenoir told a crowd of 300 people a year ago, at a rafter-shaking meeting where the idea was introduced.

It builds slowly, from the bottom up. Reclaim common sense. Reclaim community. Reclaim Chicago.

I’ve written a fair amount about restorative justice — RJ — over the last few years. It’s a movement about healing and sanity, truth, dignity, respect, wholeness. It’s catching on in Chicago, where I live: in the schools, in the juvenile justice system, in the broken ’hoods. RJ is about repairing harm, not punishing wrongdoers and, in the process, saddling them with a lifelong identity as criminals. It’s also about telling the truth, and building relationships with truth as the bedrock. It’s about connecting.

“This is about making kids irresistible forces for positive change.”

The speaker was Judge Sophia Hall, presiding judge of the Resource Section of the Juvenile Justice and Child Protection Department of the Circuit Court of Cook County, who hosts a semiannual, region-wide meeting about restorative justice, held, appropriately, at Juvenile Court. The topic was the hubs: the vision of a different kind of city, where teenagers aren’t planning their own funerals but, rather, figuring out their futures, with the help of mentoring adults, in a world in which they feel welcome.

One question, before I go on. Why don’t we have this kind of world already?

We were building it, sort of. The Great Depression wrecked much of the world as we knew it, and for the next five decades the U.S. government began funding community rebuilding efforts and addressing the scourge of poverty. Then, in 1980, with the election of Ronald Reagan to the presidency, the Great Corporate Backlash regained power, combining forces with the racist undercurrent of American society, and simultaneously we began divesting in our social infrastructure and reorganizing a Jim Crow caste system through a vastly expanded prison-industrial complex. War on drugs! Zero tolerance! Three and a half decades in, we’ve created a vast Fourth World nation within our borders.

This is the context in which restorative justice is emerging as a social force. This is not a government program. Elements of government are catching on and embracing RJ, but this is a social force as deeply grass-roots and fundamental as the civil rights movement. It’s a movement based on healing and connecting and, as such, shifts our way of thinking from dominating and punishing — and thus creating — “enemies” to respecting all people, listening to them and seeking solutions to conflict that satisfy everyone’s needs. At its core, RJ reclaims the tribal circle. We call it a peace circle: Every participant is equal and valued and safe to speak his or her truth in the peace circle. Amazing things can happen.

The vision to interlace Chicago with RJ hubs is, ultimately, a vision to create, rather than impose, peace. It’s the opposite of the fear-based, every-man-for-himself culture that’s been gnawing at our soul, and eating our young, for far too long.

One facet of the Restorative Justice Hubs movement is “recognizing that violence causes trauma and trauma causes violence; hurt people hurt people.” We know this, of course, but not at the levels where power and money congregate and big decisions are made. At those levels, all we get is more of the same. Something has to jolt our world out of its commitment to war and violence, at the cost of our children.

Supporting alienated young people, helping them realize their dreams — “this is where the idea of RJ hubs came from,” Father Dave Kelly said at the RJ meeting. “We don’t expel, banish or shun young people, even when they act up.”

As long as we continue to perpetuate a city in which so many young people, especially young African-American and Latino males, are pushed to the social margins by racism and poverty, we will lose them. But “when you feel you belong,” Kelly said, “you become co-creators” in your society. “RJ strives to build a web of relationships.”

This movement to reclaim Chicago has five pillars, or guiding principles, for the community centers it anticipates:

1. They are welcoming: places of safety and respect that nurture the spirit.

2. They are places of accompaniment: Young people who become part of the hub are no longer alone; caring adults will accompany them as they pursue their goals, often against forbidding odds. “The commitment is for the long journey,” Kelly said.

3. They are places of “relentless engagement” with young people and their families, no matter what sort of difficulties a given individual is struggling with. This engagement includes: “peacemaking circles and mentoring to promote healing, honest communication, conflict resolution, healthy relationships, connection and a sense of belonging,” according to the website.

4. They are also places of relentless engagement with the larger community of stakeholders with whom the young are dealing, including: schools, police, probation officers. The idea is to transcend adversarial relationships in all directions.

5. Finally, the hubs are all in collaboration with one another. They are connected, creating a citywide network of healthy support centers for young people. “True collaboration,” the website notes, “is a process where the collaborators continue to learn and be part of a learning community.”

The hubs are not imposed from the outside but must emerge from the heart of each community in Chicago and its surrounding suburbs. The process has begun: in Back of the Yards, North Lawndale, Little Village. These neighborhoods have community centers that welcome young people and bring restorative justice into their lives. Other community hubs are in formation. Everyone has a role to play in the rebirth of the city. The vision is growing; the birth process is underway.

Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist and nationally syndicated writer. His book, Courage Grows Strong at the Wound (Xenos Press), is still available. Contact him at or visit his website at