A child is murdered and we thrash about once more in the spectacle of tragedy.
“With outrage over Hadiya Pendleton’s slaying spreading from City Hall to the White House,” the Chicago Tribune reported last week, “the 15-year-old became a symbol Wednesday of escalating violence in Chicago while fueling the national debate over guns and crime.”
The media, trapped in their Chicken Little outfits, report the death in detail, make sure we understand how deeply parents and friends are grieving. They interview the neighbors, kick-start the political debate. They demand some sort of superficial or fragmentary change that will get American violence under control. And then the news cycle moves on.
No one “in charge” has a commitment to actual, holistic change — you know, to the creation of a lasting peace — because, whatever that might mean, it would be asking too much. The best we’re going to get from the political system and the mainstream media — from the heart of the status quo — after every high-profile violent tragedy, is a ritual of impotent outrage followed by a shrug of regret.
What we need is transformation.
“The root of violence in our community is unmet needs. When these needs are unaddressed, people feel alone. No one cares. Their only recourse is to lash out violently, whether it’s cursing you out, grabbing you . . . or at the end of a gun.
“The only way people will see who I am is if I have a gun.”
The speaker is Robert Spicer, the Culture and Climate coordinator at Chicago’s Fenger High School. He facilitates the school’s peer jury program, which is part of a phenomenon known as restorative justice — a healing- rather than punishment-based system of order that’s gaining a foothold in Chicago area schools and the Cook County Juvenile Court system, as well as in schools around the country and around the world. And while it may not present the sort of obvious drama the news is used to feeding us, it’s where we should look if we’re serious about learning how to end violence. Doing so is not a pipedream.
“The root of violence in our community is unmet needs.” Let’s begin here. While Spicer is referring to the basic sort of needs that exist in poor and struggling neighborhoods — “I’m hungry! My mom put me out. I’m homeless!” — he also refers to a need just as basic that is far more easily overlooked and systemically ignored. This is the need to have a voice and be heard.
Giving people their own voice is at the core of restorative justice. The primary means of doing this is through the peace circle, which I have written about a great deal in the last few years. Participants sit in a state of vital equality with one another; in a school setting, that means teachers and administrators sit in equality with students. Participants are safe to say what’s on their minds. They speak when they hold the talking piece; otherwise they listen.
While peace circles can be held for any reason, a peer jury, which is run by students trained in the process, is held to deal with a dispute or the commission of harm; it’s an alternative to suspension or other form of traditional punishment, which never deals with underlying causes. Peer jury circles give all sides a chance to listen, a chance to apologize and a chance to forgive.
Sometimes all that matters is the listening. In a recent post at the Illinois Balanced and Restorative Justice website, Spicer wrote of an incident at Fenger that could have blown up into headline-grabbing violence. One morning, two boys in the lunchroom were trying out a new kind of handshake, which another student took offense to. He challenged them, they felt disrespected — and suddenly eight students were involved and ready to fight.
School security guards broke it up and, later that day, all the participants were part of a peer jury circle. They could have been suspended, but the anger would have continued to smoulder and could easily have erupted into violence at some point, at school or in the neighborhood.
Instead, as Spicer wrote, “all the students, when they received the talking piece, agreed that the situation was a big misunderstanding. Some began to share stories about situations they were dealing with and others in the circle were able to relate by sharing their stories. . . .
“After the closing ceremony, each of the students shook hands and even hugged each other as they were preparing to leave my office. They did this without any adults prompting them to do this, which showed their sincerity. Once we concluded the circle, the adults decided to allow them to blow off some steam and play basketball. And the students who were the main ones in conflict were on the same team!”
This is a glimpse at what it means to build lasting peace: to transform the volatility of hopelessness into deep and real connection between people. I visited Fenger recently and talked to five of the student peer jurors — who have become ambassadors of peace in the classrooms and hallways — and I will write more about this in future columns.
“We are family,” said Ana, one of the peer jurors. “Right here. All these people are here for me. We understand — we go through the same stuff.”
And this is the beginning of lasting peace.