I have a standing collaboration with the Palante Youth Leadership and Organizing Project (Holyoke, MA) that seeks to engage young people in the art of hosting circles as a way to support them in the process of leading problem solving efforts in their city. Young people who have participated in this partnership have designed and held circle processes involving their families, friends, and other community members to talk about and generate solutions for pervasive racism and oppression in their community.
PYLOP is based out of Holyoke High School. There, teachers, students, and community members implement restorative justice circles. An evaluation of the impact of circles on the lives of students reveals that:
- Students report that the RJ process (meaning circle process) gives them the opportunities to connect with their peers and teachers. Being able to connect with peers and adults provided participants the sense that people cared about them at school. The feelings of being cared for made students feel more connected to school as a whole. Students expressed that because of their RJ experience they felt more positive about school.
- The RJ program provides a physical space that is safe and supportive. The circle structure, which involves many members of the community, supported students with reflecting on the impact of their behavior and being part of a plan for becoming accountable to people they harmed. Each student that participated in a conflict circle reported feeling that the circle led to a resolution of the conflict. Reducing the threat of physical harm, students reported, made them feel less stressed overall.
- The RJ circle structure provides students with the opportunity to engage in personal sharing with their peers and teachers and allowed them to feel that they have a voice that is valued by adults in the school. Having a voice gave students a sense of ownership over their actions and involved them in finding solutions to address root causes of problems.
Some comments students and teachers made are as follows:
"It supports me because I actually get to learn now, and have a good relationship with my teacher. And with everyone in the talking circle. I feel safer - I had people that supported me." -11th grade student
"The honesty that (the RJ circle) allows when all participants have a sense of trust with each other; the chance to be honest with the students on a level that I may not have been able to give them previously, a chance to meet the parents and a chance to further build relationships." - A teacher
"It's like a group of people talking to one another, having trust in one another. And it's like if someone talks you just gotta listen to what they are saying. If you talk they have to listen to what you're saying." -12th grade student
It is truly a privilege and an honor to support the wonderful work being done in Holyoke. Luke Woodward and and his team provide beautiful and ethically sound adult support to these young people and to the adults in their lives.