New Clear Vision

constructive commentary for the chronically farsighted

Claiming a Better Future

October 18, 2011 By: NCVeditor Category: Community, Culture, Robert C. Koehler

Lessons on Building Community and Restoring Peace

by Robert C. Koehler

In our techno-saturated society, we have the casual capacity to capture any unfolding event on film — even an act of shocking violence — and send images of the live action around the globe just by whipping out a cell phone.

Two years ago, Chicago’s Fenger High School had its 15 minutes of horrific fame when the beating death of one of its students, an honor student named Derrion Albert — waiting for a bus after school, caught suddenly in a surge of gang violence, savagely beaten with two-by-fours and railroad ties — was recorded on someone’s cell camera and became an international spectacle.

What we lack, it would seem, is the capacity to do anything about the violence itself. We remain trapped within a context of thought that reduces our interaction with the world, and ourselves, to winning or losing, domination or defeat. The public — or perhaps what I mean is the official — imagination, reflected in and defined by our media, runs the gamut from zero tolerance to metal detectors and surveillance cameras. That’s the best we can do —“show them who’s boss” — and it accomplishes nothing except to make matters worse.

The good news is that, in certain corners of the world, especially where things are really bad — in Chicago’s public school and juvenile detention systems, for instance — the official imagination is changing. The people in charge are open to trying something new. That’s why Robert Spicer is at Fenger.

He’s the “culture and calm coordinator.” This is not a hollow title. Spicer, a long-time teacher in Chicago schools and former staffer at the Chicago Justice for Youth Institute, is trained — and a passionate believer — in an array of practices and a philosophy that are known as Restorative Justice, which is to say, justice that heals and transforms rather than punishes. It’s the opposite of “zero tolerance,” the name for the wave of get-tough authoritarianism that first attacked the country’s drug problem, then, post-Columbine, took aim, futilely, at youth violence and alienation.

“The fundamental premise of restorative practices is that people are happier, more cooperative and productive, and more likely to make positive changes when those in authority do things with them, rather than to them or for them,” Ted Wachtel and Paul McCold explain in a paper called “From Restorative Justice to Restorative Practices: Expanding the Paradigm,” at the International Institute for Restorative Practices website.

“The social science of restorative practices is an emerging field of study that enables people to restore and build community in an increasingly disconnected world.”

Restore and build community. Isn’t that what we’ve forgotten, or maybe never quite learned, how to do? This isn’t a simple — certainly it’s not a simplistic — process.

“There are stresses in a community,” Spicer said to me as we talked one morning at Fenger. “Restorative Justice holds that space. Volatile anger — all that stuff.”

He’s talking about the peace circle process — a remarkably durable social container in which people with serious animosity toward one another can sit together calmly, maintain eye contact, speak their truth, listen and be heard. This doesn’t happen quickly, but through a slow process of establishing trust. Usually a talking piece is used. You speak only when you are holding the talking piece; when you’re not, you listen.

“In the first few days after I got here, I did a peace circle” in response to a staff conflict. “I came with my rock and my rug. This is the new technology we’re bringing into the school system — not a widget, not something up on a computer screen.”

The rock was the talking piece. The rug is placed in the center of the circle, creating a center that begins, symbolically, to hold it together. The participants sit in a state of what I call vibrant equality. Everyone’s presence is crucial to the whole. The circle keeper gently maintains the structure but otherwise participates simply as a person, same as everyone else no matter his or her rank or position outside the circle.

At Fenger, circles have included not just students but teachers, staff and even police officers — who, I was told at a peace rally at Fenger I attended last spring, spoke freely, honestly, and felt safe enough to apologize for their own mistakes, sometimes in tears. This is a powerful process.

“Through the Restorative Justice process,” Spicer said, “the energy (of a community) can be diverted in a positive direction. Conflict transformation is the key…. You’ll never find me running away from conflict.”

Derrion’s murder happened a few weeks after Spicer started working at Fenger — an eruption of the old forces. Since then, through the introduction of restorative practices such as peer juries, in which student volunteers hear cases of harm-causing student behavior and recommend solutions; and a shift from detention and suspension for students who get into trouble to mandatory “personal development” training (how to ask for help, how to apologize, how to listen and other fundamental life skills), the Fenger climate has turned around.

Fenger, through the leadership of Spicer and principal Elizabeth Dozier, is recreating itself as a peace school. This is the most fitting way I can imagine honoring Derrion Albert’s memory: by showing all of us how to claim a better future.

Robert C. Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist and nationally syndicated writer. His new book, Courage Grows Strong at the Wound is now available. Contact him at [email protected] or visit his website at

0 Comments to “Claiming a Better Future”

  1. Martin Zehr says:

    The talking circle is a traditional form of interaction that is utilized in the varieties of Native American and First Nations. It is also used in a variety of therapeutic settings. I have been engaged in them in the traditional and the therapeutic settings. It is important in a therapeutic setting for mental health professionals to follow up with individuals as their comments may often reveal deeper unresolved conflicts.

    The context of the gang subculture often narrows the perspectives of members and becomes predatory towards members of other gangs. The circle provides the opportunity for them to hear from the “outside”. While there are no guarantees that individuals will grasp the consequences of their actions or the ramifications of their words, it provides the opportunity to listen to perspectives that do not re-inforce the values of the gang subculture in a setting that is non-threatening. But the individual follow-up and the consequences for the actions that are or could be life-threatening need to be incorporated with professional intervention. Otherwise, it can become a means of manipulation through which young people can avoid a real sense of personal responsibility and accountability by talking the talk but not walking the walk.

    Respect for human life and the need to directly address the behavior of young people means that authorities consistently send this message in deeds as well as words. Changing the behaviors ultimately means addressing the underlying justifications for them. Some individuals will indeed benefit from workshops, etc. Others will simply write them off and continue as before. Predatory behavior is more than just bullying. It is based on an aggressive set of values upheld by peers that condones violence against others regardless of the consequences to themselves or others.

    I am glad to hear that the talking circle has provided real improvement in the school environment discussed in the article. I do hope that the values taught become generalized by the individual students outside of the school setting. The pull of the gang subculture continues to lead to violence in our urban communities and results in the deaths and imprisonment of thousands every year.

    Gang subculture was not a characteristic of traditional indigenous societies but it has cast its shadow in contemporary Native communities. The roles of elders remains significant in mentoring the young people in Native cultures than exist in urban communities. This is something that could be integrated into such programs. The talking circle can open the door to more comprehensive interventions and the awareness of this is demonstrated in the article.


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