Restorative Justice and the Educator

This post explores the idea that Somatic Living and Restorative Justice are intertwined. For those of you new to this way of thinking about resolving relational harm, Restorative Justice began in the 1970’s as a broad concept about crime, injury to the victims of crime, and alternative ideas about repair and reform. It has been expanding in recent years as an important curricular development in education. This framing of Restorative Justice as a tool in education can be extended toward many areas, including community repair,relational support and individual healing. RJ presents what I think is a revolutionary framework for the care of self and others. This blogpost makes a first step into how RJ can be integrated into social and community settings.

As an educator, I consider myself a member of community in a leadership role, but firmly believe the educator (read: teacher, professor, tutor, artist-in-residence etc.) is not the expert, or even the only leader in education.

Rather, students learn from each other, in peer relationship, and are the living examples of growth and development for each other, and yes, even for the instructor. As such, I was the leader, for example in ballet, tap and compositional instruction, and my students were leaders in Hip Hop Dance, including Beat-Boy/Girl, Pop-n-Lock, Classic Footwork from Jit and House Dance, and so on. When we dance together, I can learn from student dancers, and they can learn from me. We are engaged in a Teaching and Learning relationship and I have carried this value of Relational Learning into every facet of my life.

I first encountered Restorative Justice when I was the Director of Dance at Everett High School in Lansing MI. As a caveat, I would like to preface this post with complete self-disclosure: this time in my life was intensely stressful, and I was at a vulnerable stage in my personal life.

However, being able to function quite well while under intense stress is one of my super-powers.

Teaching 6th-12th graders dance at Everett High School held enormous challenges and I did need to engage my super-powers to succeed! I learned so much from the position. It was during my Fifth Hour Class/Community that I first experienced a Restorative Justice Circle. My Fifth Hour class was unique. In it, I had several special needs students with significant unique needs, a cadre of talented hip-hop dancers with strong personalities, and a few who dancers who really wanted to branch out into Ballet, Modern and other dance forms. I organized the semesters into Units of Study, but Fifth hour, in particular, had a bumpy adjustment between different styles of dance and lesson plans. Perhaps this was due to the time of day, right after lunch- more on that later!- or in-group rivalries. However, I was able to accomplish a fair bit of creative dance and assist the students into tapping into movement to release excess anxiety and stress. This is one of the class communities that captured my heart. It is special to me that this group asked me to join a Restorative Justice circle.

Learn more about the program I developed and taught at Everett in this short film Why I Dance by Chandler Keyes. Chandler was my ballet student at Eastern Michigan University, Winter Semester 2017, and graciously served as a mentor and Guest Speaker after our college semester ended. Travelling with me up to Lansing’s former “magnet school for the performing arts,” Chandler spent a full day with the dance students at Everett. I chose Chandler as a mentor because she was an excellent student in the EMU Dance Program, and was an Early College Alliance student. She was about two years younger than the senior, so right in the middle of the age range at Everett.

In introducing Chandler to my talented dancers at Everett, I felt her excitement about a life in the arts would be contagious. As a Youtube Creator and well-rounded entrepreneur, Chandler’s achievements both on-screen and off filled the students with positivity and enthusiasm. They were impressed the Chandler had built a budding career in style and personal fashion through branded Youtube video content.

Chandler visited Everett as a Guest Artist left a lasting impression on the students, many of whom have now graduated. I am grateful to Chandler for investing in the youth of Lansing, and going above and beyond as a Peer mentor.

I use Logos, Rhetoric and Analysis in my day-to-day life, so I like to ground my writing with this recognition: Logos is a super power, too. After over 20 years as a teacher, I always like to examine facts and best practices.

So, let’s fact-check: what is Restorative Justice today?

Consider this excellent definition, which I excerpt from Author David Yusem:
“Restorative justice views “harm” as a fracturing of relationships, rather than something that demands punishment. A restorative justice process is a way to uncover true needs and heal relationships via meaningful accountability.”

How might restorative justice apply to a conflict? Restorative justice allows the impacted parties to talk about what happened, how they are feeling about it now, the impact it had on everyone, and ultimately what can be done to make it as right as possible. Restorative approach can help school communities avoid the need for exclusionary discipline and reduce repeated offenses. People who have been harmed often have questions that only the person that harmed them can answer. Often time these questions are simple like “why me?” or “what led you to do this to me?” The process allows for these and other questions to be answered and these answers can facilitate the healing process.

Restorative justice originates from an indigenous paradigm, instead of a patriarchal capitalist paradigm: it is community based, relational, and inclusive. The process creates equity by giving everyone a space to talk and be heard and by addressing the root cause of harm. We often say harmed people harm people, so it is important to uncover and address “original” harm too.

“The restorative talking circle process is often implemented to start this conversation.” (Yusem, David, published by Mindfulschools.org.)

At Everett High School and New Tech, Fifth hour was after lunch, and frequently, this class, in a nutshell, was pissed off and stressed. Remember, I promised we’d return to lunchtime. Lunchtime at physical synchronous school is extremely social, multifaceted and loud. At Everett, as well as many other high schools, this was a time when students leave campus, are marginally supervised, if at all, and are mingling with preferred peers. There are in-groups and out-groups and for many of my Fifth Hour students, lunch time was stressful. At least one of my Fifth Hour students used lunch time as an opportunity to settle a beef, by setting up a physical fight/challenge with another young lady. When this student asked for a bathroom pass, she was really using the pass as an excuse to meet and fight with a classmate. This and other concerns were impeding our progress as a Learning Community. Thus, we needed to able address concerns calmly through A Restorative Justice Talking Circle. While this Circle was my first, I had attempted to do this process several times in the past, with Everett classes and with other groups of folks. We were able, with the help of a RJ Staffer to itemize and examine grievances from Fifth Hour community members.

Student Concerns

  • Own Choreography? Students only wanted to work on their own ideas.
  • In fighting, peer to peer disfluencies, personality conflicts.
  • Schedules changed? Principal would frequently change students’ schedules. This would only aggravate the students and set back our class progress.
  • New students coming in all the time? Difficult to maintain status quo.
  • My style of hip-hop? I’m a white mid-westerner. Students were concerned about my ability to lead and direct their dances due to my race and ethnicity.
  • Personal Memories of this first RJ Talking Circle:
  • How I was nervous! As a conflict-avoidant person, I thought something scary or negative might happen. This was not the case!
  • I remember the sense of relief, a kind of group exhale: everyone stayed calm.
  • How students really only wanted to be heard.
  • How each student needed time and space to share.
  • Students needed to be heard by each other.
  • Once members got started, the whole process really flowed.
  • In this case, I was floored at how one circle pretty much cleared everything up, for example, at the end of the 45-minute Talking Circle, when asked if we should schedule another circle, students were pretty much: “Naw, we’re good.”
  • My permission and acceptance of their need to stop and dedicate a class period to just talking feelings, thoughts, and beliefs out respectfully meant so much to these young people.

Achievements

What we achieved, ultimately, in this class and in the program:

  • Four concerts of dance (between October 2016 and May 2017)
  • Over sixty pieces of Students’ own choreography (performed in the studio or on the stage.) Many are documented in the Why I Dance film. Filmed and edited by Chandler Keyes, pictured below.
  • Somatic/Emotional explorations of movement (particularly in Fifth Hour)
  • Artists created our own costumes (Fifth Hour) or selected their own from the Costume Closet.
  • Mentored and included special needs students, in full. The kindness and support these teens could offer each other often astounded me.
  • Created a safe space for everyone to grow artistically, intellectual, physically, socially and emotionally.
Peer Mentor, Filmmaker, Student and Youtube and Instagram Sensation and Influencer, Chandler Keyes.

Everett Dance Program Photos: Why I Dance

Personal Photos captured by CM Sears, 2016-2017. All Dancers signed waivers.

In summary, my experiences thus far in Restorative Justice have been positive, even though they can be a bit uncomfortable. These experiences have led me to believe and advocate for a greater expansion of RJ techniques into interpersonal disputes and relationships. It is a helpful tool for educators to remember that mindfulness and impeccable communication enrich the learning environment, the students and the educator’s experiences.

Works Cited:

  1. WeAreTeachers Staff on January 15, 2019 .contest-social .share-links svg. (2019, January 17). What Teachers Need to Know About Restorative Justice. Retrieved November 4, 2019, from https://www.weareteachers.com/restorative-justice/.
  2. Yusem, D. (2019, October 23). Restorative Justice in Schools: SEL in Action. Retrieved November 4, 2019, from https://www.mindfulschools.org/inspiration/restorative-justice-in-schools-sel-in-action/.
  3. Everett High School. (n.d.). Retrieved November 4, 2019, from https://www.facebook.com/pages/Everett-High-School/108610615830071.

If you enjoyed this post, please like, subscribe and follow to support the arts!

  1. Follow Chandler Keyes here.
  2. Follow Christina-Marie Sears, former Director of Dance at Everett High School/ Lansing Public Schools/People Dancing Artistic Director here.

Early Years

Circa 3/1987- 9/1989

A normal heart breaks when humans are dying.

When I moved with my family from Piedmont North Carolina, where tobacco still hung in the open air storehouses next to a sunny but spookily quiet downtown, to the Upstate Erie-canal town of Pittsford, NY, I was in a state of culture shock.

I felt like a first-time bungee jumper. Rochester’s suburbs of ethnic division house every kind of people, but in their own neighborhoods. Pittsford was built around lush green spaces and quiet streets with private large homes  that were solidly built. There were few if any African American kids in Pittsford Sutherland High School, very different from the diverse schools in the South. My middle and high-school friends in the South were largely comprised of African-American or mixed kids, or choir kids. I also had friends in the neighborhood. But when I moved up North, I was a skinny blonde kid who had a weird accent and walked strangely. Because I was a serious young artist, my walk really stood out. Plus I was a dreamer. I spent all day waiting for creative-time, down-time, dance-time.

I loved the theatre. A child performer, I was gearing up for a lifetime career as a triple-threat. I was lucky enough to have private voice lessons at the Eastman School of Music with a private teacher, Nancy Kennedy. There I sang in German, French and Italian. My accent wasn’t a problem. Controlling vibrato was another thing. I was in the State honors choir. I read plays for fun, and haunted the bookstores and cafes on Monroe Street. Of course I auditioned for drama clubs and show choir. I both loved and hated high school. 

I got high and missed rehearsal for school plays periodically. I sang in the hallways. My Jimmy-Dean inspired rebellion, during which I excelled and rebelled simultaneously, really mixed people up. Hell, it mixed me up. I was mixed up.  Young, broke, and just dumb enough to think I was an adult, because I was political.

disenchantment with American government had already hit me hard.  In the late 1980’s, coming off Reagan’s pointed policies of “Trickle Down Economics” I was finishing up high school in a complicated town just South of Lake Ontario, best known for Xerox, Bausch and Lomb and Eastman Kodak; the town was hopping due to these three industries, which are for the most part, are obsolete today. I completed an internship with Rep. Louise Slaughter, who had me answer constituent correspondence.


I was smoking half-a-pack of Marlboro Reds a day so I could feel my cowboy machismo. I was also doing breathing exercises and dance training. I was dancing at four different studios so I could learn jazz from Joe, tap from Val, ballet from the Russians, and Modern from Garth Fagan’s Bucket Dance Theatre.

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 Drivers’ Education was in a trailer/out-building AKA as a “portable.” We grasped plastic simulated steering wheels then took to the streets. We went to teen clubs like the “747,” to city parks, AP classes; the nurse’s office. (There was one then.) The resident nurse could administer ibuprofen, water, an ice pack for menstrual cramps.

We students formed in our own cell groups, not so unlike “The Breakfast Club.” Football and Lacrosse were more popular than soccer, which was on the rise among passionate athletes. Along the forgotten Erie Canal, Upstate, in the secluded historic yet cushy high school setting, AIDS was a whispered threat.

 I got a part in JCC’s Center Stage show and met Tom Gargana. I auditioned for that show because one of my dance teachers, Meg Kelley, choreographed it. (Meg was an enigmatic blonde with a classic chorus line frame who operated a modest studio. I had occasional private lessons with her because no one else would show up for jazz class. I was happy to bop and funk out with Meg to Aretha tunes, Chaka Kahn, and Bruce Springsteen’s Pink Cadillac. 

Ford Theatre’s Production of “110 in the Shade.”

 Meg Kelley and Ron, the JCC’s resident Theatre Director, exchanged droll flirts, “I need something to suck on besides Ron,” Meg would sign plaintively, I am so dry.” 

I was barely sixteen but I was home in the city; confident in the theatre. I never considered the language, the vibe, the scene, or the cast inappropriate. This was prior to helicopter parenting and “PC” movements. Think the feminist movement 1.5. We were real in a gritty way. I’d been to NYC. I knew my people.

The theatre and dressing room buzzed with veiled sexual tension and a welcoming camaraderie. With Tom’s hands in my hair, we fell into an innocent sweet enmeshment. “Ooooh you have such thick hair. You should let me fix it all the time for you.” 

Tom, tall dark and gauntly handsome, was a dramatically expressive. My mother and I adored Tom. He split off from the salon he’d been at, “for years” and went into business for himself. We made double appointments with Tom, just kind of hanging out in his salon while he did one head of hair, then another. Tom’s salon was super chic, he had a carousel horse –with a pole–yes on a pole!- in the corner. Like many artistic entrepreneurs in the downtown “Business district” Tom probably lived in his salon space when he wasn’t staying with his boyfriend.

Tom was marvelous, so our time together was just my cup of tea. In the dressing room, in the theatre, in the dance studio, in Tom’s salon, I was home. Then I would go home. Code-switching became like camouflage.

With regards to AIDS, my dad and brother were silent, my mother and I were worried about our gay friends, and asked small questions. So when AIDS was breaking in the news, we worried a bit about our friend and stylist Tom, but, of course, we were largely, unaffected.

I decided to accept University of Michigan’s offer of undergraduate study in Music and Literature, Science and the Arts. In those days, an undergrad applied to both. There was grant money for students in those days!

I was thrilled to be accepted as a Mezzo-Soprano. I transferred to the Department of Dance.

I sang show tunes from the 1940’s like Oklahoma, and was a huge geek over Stephen Sondheim. Bob Fosse moves spun out of my body, a spider on mesclun, spinnerets grinding, making gossamer patterns in the air. In a parking lot, I tried to come out as Bi to my mother and it was as if I hadn’t spoken.

 Alongside Shakespeare and Dance History readings, selected by the brilliant Professor Jessica Kimlat Fogel, we undergrads read Toni Morrison, Augusto Boal,and Larry Kramer.I had never heard of Larry Kramer or ACT-UP. But ACT-UP was forming because the AIDS crisis was decimating gay men.

Playwright, Screenwriter, Gay man, Civil Rights Organizer, hardscrabble Larry Kramer published, wrote The Normal Heart, and made waves in ACT UP. Even though I lived in the State of New York when I finished high school, it was miles away from the City, and it seemed, miles away from AIDS.

The HIV virus strain, known in small scientific communities since the 1940’s, but unknown to common citizens, was striking gay men, in metropolitan centers and both East and West coasts, hard, since 1981. 

Keith Haring, from the Art of Protest from Vietnam to AIDS.

Can you remember, or imagine, the shock, the terror? A horrendous disease that seemed to follow few patterns known in epidemiology. It seemed to mutate and morph. The range of symptoms was baffling. People were in the throes of panic, fear and rage, and HIV became an excuse for gay people to be targeted. Also, at first, there was a great deal of ignorance about the cause of AIDS, the HIV, and how it was transmitted, so it became a bigger excuse to beat and murder gay people. Kissing was implicated. Water fountains were suspect.

https://www.granfury.org/kissing-doesnt-kill

The police and government were completely inert, and the outbreak was entirely marginalized. In the film United in Anger: A History of ACT-UP, footage from infomercials showed couples of all stripes playfully kissing in an effort to counteract hateful misinformation.
It is shocking what the mind forgets.

Fast forward to Ann Arbor MI, where I read “The Normal Heart” and cried. Under the gray skies, I trudged from class to rehearsal to class, and felt completely isolated. My roommate, who was my bestie and incidentally, lesbian, had an extreme mental health crisis, and emotionally flatlined. Day after day, I would “come home” from class and she was still entombed in the covers, at 2:00 pm. My bright and beautiful roomie was completely paralyzed, and the land-line phone bolted to the wall of our South Quad dormitory room rang. “She hasn’t been out of bed in two weeks,” I whispered to her mother.

Her family flew in, scooped her up, and whisked her away. She disappeared from my life. Was it the stock market crash? Politics? Internalized homophobia? Fear for her health? Just depression? I never knew.

During Sarah Schulman’s September visit to campus, and the screening of United in Anger, I started to remember my life during the early years chronicled in the film. In the darkness, I wondered about all my theatre friends, my musical theatre friends, my dance partners, mainly gay men. Many of whom I had lost touch with, either through business, lifestyle changes, my own personal crises (there were many!) or multiple moves. Dancers, particularly, are known to be somewhat interant. We follow the muse, we follow the jobs, we follow the opportunities like hunters.

Early Years, NYC

During the screening this fall, I sat in the Auditorium and wondered about my friends, and how they fared, did they survive this epidemic? How could I just have let these brilliant special people go? My whiteness, my privilege and my ability to “pass” protected me. I know many more people in that screening suffered much greater losses.

Getty images. March on Washington as I remember it. 4.23.93.
Educational use only.
March on Washington DIe In at the White House
Washington, DC. 4-25-1993 ACT UP joins a million lesbians and gay men at the March on Washington. ACT UP/NY stages a demonstration with more than 1,000 activists from across the country at the headquarters of the Pharmaceutical Manufacturer’s Association, accusing the pharmaceutical industry of adhering to profit-driven research, price gouging, corporate secrecy and inaction while allowing people with AIDS to die…
(Photo by Mark Reinstein/Corbis via Getty Images)

The beautiful end to this post is my friend Thomas J. Gargana, is alive and well. I have found him, and reached out to rekindle our friendship. His career and life have progressed, and according to Tom’s facebook, he is ‘in a long-term relationship with a wonderful man.”

And while my part in ACT-UP was modest, slim as a crescent moon, I met amazing people through the actions we put on together.

My small part in it all, is nothing like the dedication of the heroes who made this film, who lived this mission out in weekly meetings, actions and gatherings, who marched literally, for years. People who suffered devastating losses, and mourned, then ultimately survived them.

As a survivor of many tough breaks, including sexual assault, volatile relationships, and cancer, I know that sometimes it seems we survive in pieces. But in community, we can find solidarity. When we stand together: we stand for life, liberty, diversity, inclusion and justice.

Nothing could be more important.

What’s New? Introduction to Reflections on Artistic Practice and Social Justice

This post is one of several reflective articles exploring artistic practice, the contemporary Social Justice Movement, and my early start with its related elder cousin, activism. Please consider following, commenting and re-blogging items my blog series, Reflections on Artistic Practice and Social Justice.

Activism, according to my favorite dictionary Merriam-Webster, is defined as  “doctrine or practice that emphasizes direct vigorous action especially in support of or opposition to one side of a controversial issue.” The relationship between activism, social justice, civics and artistic practice is intriguing to me. As I am a performance artist, educator and student, somatic practitioner and writer, this topic is key not only in artistic and professional processes, but also informs my life processes and lived experience.

The topic of this reflection is an introductory contextualization, and celebration of the work of Sarah Schulman. (This post will lead into my next blog “Early Years.” ) Motivated by my intense personal response to the September 26, 2019 screening of United in Anger, a film by Jim Hubbard, presented by Sarah Schulman and Jim Hubbard. On September 4th, I began a new job: Full-time Graduate Student at EMU.

My excitement is doubled because Creative Writing and Campus Life at Eastern Michigan University of Ypsilanti recently had the pleasure of hosting AIDS historian, screenwriter and award-winning author Sarah Schulman for a three-day visit. The action-packed visit began with a non-fiction reading of Conflict is Not Abuse and closed with a screening of United in Anger. More information about the film can be found here. According to the website, “The film is United in Anger: A History of ACT UP is an inspiring documentary about the birth and life of the AIDS activist movement from the perspective of the people in the trenches fighting the epidemic.”

I was a high school junior in UpState New York at the early stages of the AIDS epidemic, and later became a student activist at University of Michigan. Schulman’s entire visit this fall made a huge impact on me, as a writer, scholar, activist and human being. This visit led me to remember what my life was like during the late 1980’s and early 1990’s and therefore I wrote this article, which interestingly highlights not Sarah Schulman, but Larry Kramer, an author whom we studied at U of M, and a key figure in ACT-UP, and my friend Tom Gargana, who was a Hair and Make-Up stylist for Center Stage‘s professional-caliber musical theatre program. Housed in a vibrant Jewish Community Center in Rochester, NY, the company is still thriving. Through my personal journey, I began to identify AIDS and the way in which we dealt with it as a country, and the federal and local government’s neglect of care, as a Human Rights Crisis. I got involved in ACT-UP actions, participating in die-in’s, local actions and marches on Washington DC. United in Anger should be valued content in any US History course.

Having a chance to be personally involved in Sarah Schulman’s visit, is a game-changer and brought my past to me in many meaningful waves. I had no idea what to expect from this award-winning author of over 20 books. A native New Yorker and astoundingly gifted fiction writer, Distinguished Professor of Humanities at City University of New York, Staten Island Campus, Schulman possess so much critical brilliance, multi-dimensionality, warmth, grace and personal power. As a Graduate Student in Creative Writing, and the GA Coordinator of the BathHouse Event Series, I was fortunate to be able to assist in details of Schulman’s visit, oversee sound checks, transportation arrangements and the like. I was floored by the film, and by Schulman herself. Without further ado, I am pleased to celebrate both Schulman’s Work and visit, and welcome you, dear reader, to Part Two of my reflection, motivated by two questions: Will I ever be able to meet the talented and tenacious Larry Kramer? and What happened to my friend Tom Gargana?