Category: Transformative Justice

Sep 09 2014

Upcoming Event Series: Creative Resistance in a Prison Nation

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A monthly forum on Chicago-based cultural projects that confront, agitate, and work to dismantle the prison nation.

In the last decade, a growing number of artists, organizations and activists in the Chicago area have created artwork and developed responses to what is now termed a prison nation The U.S. locks up more people than any other nation in the world and exhausts more resources on confinement and punishment each year. One in 99 adults in the US is incarcerated; the financial and social costs to tax payers and communities is staggering. Conservatives, liberals and members of the left have all called for policy changes, yet when violence and poverty rage in Chicago neighborhoods, the common response is a call to lock more people away for longer prison terms.

Creative culture has been at the forefront of changing the public perception about the realities of social segregation, poverty, violence, and incarceration. Chicago-area artists have staged performances and exhibitions, created organizations and developed long-term projects to alter entrenched thinking and unsettle business-as-usual.

What kinds of projects are happening that create a culture of change? Can art decarcerate? Change the law? Liberate communities from violence? Envision and enact new futures?

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Jun 29 2014

Restorative Justice is about ‘Being Seen’

I spent a good chunk of my week at a gathering of local restorative justice practitioners. There were nearly 100 of us in attendance at this three day event. There’s a lot to say about the gathering but unfortunately I don’t have time to say it all. It was re-invigorating, challenging, and affirming.

My journey toward restorative and then transformative justice was organic. In fact, I was a restorative justice practitioner even before I read about the idea and became trained in the philosophy. One aspect of restorative practice that sustains me is that in circle, for example, we are all “seen.”

I correspond regularly with several prisoners. I’ve been doing this for nearly 20 years. Recently, I mailed a blog post to one of my newest pen pals Tristan. I met Tristan when I taught a class at Stateville Prison last month. He told me that he appreciated my writing and so I started sending him some posts that I thought might be of interest.

In commenting on the recent post that I sent, Tristan wrote:

“You mentioned something that caught my attention though and I related to it so well. It was the scene where you asked the brother that was with you on the EL to keep his voice down and he basically said something to the effect of: ‘they need to know that I was here.’

Oh sister… This spoke volumes to me! A lot of us in our madness out there in those city streets strive to leave a memory if not a legacy that’ll proceed us long after we’re gone. Because in reality, most of us will never become a Malcolm or Martin or Maya but we still feel this sense of letting the world know that we once walked this earth too. And with this, coupled with the fact that we try to out shine the ones who did it before us, we do a lot of ignorant an devilish things. So sister as you can see it’s not a certain type of person that we need to target and lock out of society but a mindset that we need to rid our people of. We must create an atmosphere where our people are in love with information and education because without it, we are being destroyed!”

I think a lot about our need to ‘be seen’ and I think it’s mostly a desire to be acknowledged and validated as human. ‘Look at me, see me, I’m here and deserving of your care.’ This is an unspoken plea from many of the young people with whom I work. I wrote about this a bit in a post about a circle that I facilitated with a teacher-friend and her student. Here’s a relevant passage about 14 year old Jamal* addressing his teacher:

“Jamal’s eyes were dry until he responded to the question of what he was thinking when he pushed his teacher. “I was thinking that from the first day of school,” he said, “you looked at me like you know I ain’t shit.” You could hear a pin drop after he expressed these sentiments. He had the talking piece in hand so he had the floor. He continued by telling us that he believes that Ms. P is afraid of him. “In my head, I said if she already be thinkin’ I’m a scary black man, then I’m gonna be that – a scary black man,” he continued.”

During the 3-day gathering that I attended, we discussed race, trauma, oppression and healing. I think all of these play out in restorative justice. But as I’ve kept circles (in particular) over the years, I’ve been most struck by the ability of those participating to listen, to hear, and to “see.” Circles are not a panacea and I don’t think that they are for everyone. I do think, however, that we can all do better at “seeing” others as human.

Until this spring, my organization incubated a program called “Circles & Ciphers.” Now the group is standing on its own as an independent intergenerational project. I could not be more proud of the excellent work that all of the members and the co-founders of Circles & Ciphers have done. I can’t wait to see what’s in store for the future.

One of the young leaders of Circles, Ethan Viets VanLear, discussed the value of restorative justice at a forum earlier this year. In under four minutes, he explains why I find restorative justice to be a powerful philosophy and approach for addressing harm. The first step is about ‘being seen’ and respected. The rest flows from there…

Jun 01 2014

Transforming Justice… Brief Notes

On Thursday, I was privileged to participate on a panel titled “What is the 21st Century Landscape of Injustice? Carceral States: Surveillance, Prisons, Police, and Immigration Detention” which was part of the Freedom Dreams Freedom Now conference organized by UIC’s Social Justice Institute (and co-sponsored by my organization among many others).

My charge was to share some concrete examples of how we are transforming justice (particularly Illinois). I didn’t write a speech but I did jot down some notes. I was asked by some conference participants if I could post those notes here. I am doing so today with a caveat. These are just notes and I didn’t even share all of them during my talk. At a later date, I might try to write something more coherent to share.

Notes for Thursday’s Plenary…

I’m interested in the relationship and intersections between surveillance, prisons & policing. I came to prison abolition and transformative justice through my work to end racialized and gender-based violence in particular. I recognized that prison normalizes violence rather than challenging or ending it.

We are in the era of mass criminalization and not merely mass incarceration. This is an important distinction because while it’s imperative to center the prison in our work; our resistance must be broader.

As Beth (Richie) and Liat (Ben Moshe) have said, the carceral state extends from drug testing of welfare recipients to questions about arrests on college applications to the criminalization of mental illness to the punishment and policing of the child welfare system.

These are systemic & structural issues that require change at a broad societal level. This means investing in both communities and individuals to ensure that everyone has housing, healthcare, education, employment, and is free from violence.

The evidence is in and it shows that the rise of the prison nation is the result of policy rather than a spike in crime rates. Imprisonment and criminalization disproportionately affect communities that experience systemic oppressions.

Here in Illinois we have nearly 50,000 people in our adult prisons and about 800 in our juvenile prisons on any given day (excluding our jail population). While making up about 15% of adults in Illinois, blacks are 56% of our prison and jail population. In the juvenile system, black youth are about 20% of the state pop and 65% of those incarcerated in youth prisons. Just as an example.


Real community safety (everyone having access to housing, food, employment, education and freedom from violence) is not created by increasing criminalization. We need to consider transformative changes, and investing resources in communities.

All of us can work to build communities based on gender, racial, and economic justice and work towards the long-term abolition of prisons and the end of the PIC.

Critical Resistance, an abolitionist grassroots national organization, offers a framework for ending the PIC centered on: 1. Dismantling; 2. Changing; and 3. Building.

We are doing all three in Illinois. I’d like to offer a few of my own ideas and also share some of the ways that we are working to end the PIC in this state.

● Stop calling the police. Just stop. [Our Chain Reaction project here in Chicago is addressing itself to just this issue.] We need to get the cops off our streets.
● Shut down existing prisons and jails. [We’ve done this in IL; TAMMS, Dwight, 2 Youth Prisons in the last 3 years. Our challenge is/will be to keep them closed].
● Prevent the expansion of new prisons and jails [Once again we've done that in Illinois in Crete/Joliet/Champaign].
● Reduce levels of surveillance [These are campaigns that need to emerge and be inclusive]
● Interrupt and resist the criminalization of spaces like schools, parks etc…
● Ensure that our organizations (and/or organizations you work with and make referrals to) do not set up any barriers or discrimination to people who have been criminalized [support/start Ban the Box initiatives, sealing and expungement efforts, etc…]
● Distinguish between what Ruthie Gilmore and others have called reformist reforms and non-reformist reforms. Refuse to participate in the expansion and further entrenchment of the PIC.

● We must understand the symbiotic relationships of social issues such as housing, immigration, mental health care, education, jobs. Working on any of these issues is ultimately working toward abolishing the PIC.
● Reject the idea that everyone who uses drugs is an addict and therefore needs treatment. This is creating a new containment industry that has extended the reach of the PIC.
● Ensure that prisons are not positioned as a solution to complex and vexing social problems.
● Use different language (returning citizens vs ex-offenders, mass criminalization vs mass incarceration, etc…)

● Educate yourself and others. Intellectual work and analysis are important.
● Work in community with people who have been imprisoned and criminalized, value the knowledge and expertise that people with the lived experience of imprisonment or criminalization bring.
● Actively imagine a world without prisons and criminalization. Think about what actually generates safety in our communities
● Start building the world that we want to live in. Try out many things. Use restorative practices where warranted.
● Create alternatives to policing, surveillance, and imprisonment. Recognize that this takes time. But we know how to do it because as Danielle Sered of Common Justice has said: the biggest and most successful alternative to incarceration program in the United States is whiteness…

May 19 2014

#NoYouthInPrison: Kicking Off National Week of Action Against Incarcerating Youth

If you’ve read this blog even once, you know that I am against prisons. I am particularly against incarcerating children. Today kicks off the National Week of Action Against Incarcerating Youth.


I write a lot about the prison industrial complex (including the juvenile punishment system) and last year I published a paper with my friend Dr. Michelle VanNatta about alternatives to youth incarceration in Chicago. In the paper, we provided a brief literature review about juvenile detention and incarceration. I am republishing that part here to buttress the case against incarcerating young people.

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Dec 21 2013

Community Safety Looks Like…Imagining Justice

A few months ago, I saw Morris Justice’s community safety wall project. I loved the idea and decided that it would be great to replicate it in Chicago. Then time got away from me; I got busy doing other things. A month ago, I posted a link to the project on Facebook and asked if any of my friends wanted to create our own community safety wall in Chicago. I got a terrific response and my friend, movement photographer Sarah Jane Rhee offered to help.

So over the past couple of weeks, we collaborated to run a photobooth at the Hull House Museum’s Practicing Peace event and then Sarah continued to ask people to share their thoughts about what community safety would look like at some other events. I’ve uploaded the photos that Sarah has taken to date on Tumblr.

I love this project because it opens space for us to consider the world that we’d like to see and build. It gives us an opportunity to imagine what justice might look like in our communities.

Below are a few photographs. If you live in Chicago, you can participate by sending your own photo to

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (12/19/13)

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (12/19/13)

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (12/14/13)

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (12/14/13)

photo by Sarah Jane Rhe (12/10/13)

photo by Sarah Jane Rhe (12/10/13)

See the other photographs HERE.

Nov 18 2013

On ‘Justice’ & Renisha McBride

It turns out that Renisha McBride was actually shot in the face.

renisha When I read the words, they didn’t compute. I read them again. They still didn’t penetrate. Early reports suggested that she’d been shot in the back of the head. I had taken a perverse solace in believing that she was walking away from the stranger’s house when he shot her. I imagined that she didn’t know what hit her when the bullet tore through her skull. I convinced myself that she didn’t know what was coming. I’m sure that fear and perhaps disorientation led her to knock on several strangers’ doors that night. But I wanted to believe that in her final moments, she was taken by surprise & maybe even died instantly. No pain; just darkness. But this likely didn’t happen. Instead she was shot in the face through a closed screen door. Her parents had to have a closed casket funeral. She was probably terrified in those final moments before her assailant pulled the trigger. I am haunted by this image.

After Renisha’s death, we performed our well-rehearsed ritual of how to respond to the cold-blooded killing of black youth. Second degree murder and manslaughter charges were brought against her assailant on Friday, nearly two weeks after her tragic death. The charges came after calls by her family and community members for the Dearborn Heights police to arrest, for the prosecutor to file charges and bring the case to trial, and for a jury to convict. Amidst this organizing, the family repeatedly called for ‘justice’ and according to their attorney: “Only a conviction will result in justice for Renisha McBride, not just charges.”

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Sep 16 2013

Guest Post: Strategies for Cultivating Community Accountability by Ann Russo

I am thrilled today to publish this essay by my friend, Dr. Ann Russo. Ann is a professor in the gender and women’s studies program at Depaul University. She was formerly the director of that program and has now founded a new project called “Building Communities, Ending Violence” at Depaul. “Building Communities” uses peacemaking circles and safety labs to address violence. I’ve been lucky to publish another essay by Ann titled “Violence, Healing and Justice here. Ann is currently writing a book about community accountability and transformative justice. I am so excited about it that I can barely hold it in. Stay tuned for that book when it is done!

10 Strategies for Cultivating Community Accountability
by Ann Russo

My commitment to prison abolition grows daily in part because I see the possibilities for responding to abuse and violence without relying on punishment, shame, and more violence.  The possibilities lie in building communities where community members – be they friends, family members, coworkers, or neighbors – rely on one another  to heal, intervene, to take accountability, and to transform abuse and violence.  That’s the essence of community accountability as envisioned by Incite! Women of Color Against Violence and Creative Interventions.

Community accountability can be creating communal support for those impacted, and/or collectively interrupting, challenging, stopping, and shifting abusive behavior and the underlying systems that support it.  The key is working collectively in community rather than relying on external authorities and systems of oppression.  It is not a formulaic set of responses, but grows organically in relation to the specific people and relationships involved.  And like transformative justice, it seeks to address the underlying power systems that ultimately form the root causes of violence.

I work with the Building Communities, Ending Violence project based at DePaul University.  We create spaces to build skills and expand our imaginations for community accountability and transformative justice.  We engage in peace circles to build community, share stories of resilience and resistance, and create support and accountability.  We create strategy sessions to brainstorm, imagine, and practice communal responses to everyday violations.  And we use creative arts for communal healing and transformation.  Here are 10 strategies we use to build skills and capacity for community accountability: 

1. Shift from “what can I do” to  “what can we do?” When faced with abuse and/or violence, people often are not sure what to do.  Instead of feeling the burden of responding solely on our own, gather with others connected to the situation – family members, friends, neighbors, coworkers, peers, etc.  Recognize that each of us is impacted by the abuse/violence whether we are directly involved or not and that collectively our experience, knowledge, and skills could shift the situation.  Together we can commiserate, analyze, strategize, and take action.

With a “we”, energy shifts and possibilities multiply – more support, ideas, and capacity.  Each person has a unique role to play to shift any situation – some might be in a good position to support the person harmed, whereas others might be in a better position to cultivate accountability with the person causing the harm.  Some might have material resources to offer, others might organize community support, and still others might offer perspectives on the underlying roots of the violence.  With more people, any situation can shift toward healing, accountability, and transformation.

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Aug 30 2013

When ‘Chiraq’ Comes Home to Roost…

Regular readers know that I’ve begun to explore the meanings of the term “Chiraq” on this blog. I promised to return to this topic but have been sidetracked. In the meantime, Dr. Nancy Heitzeg wrote an excellent post considering how the term “Chiraq” is linked to militarization and war on terror tactics in our cities.

Last night, I read an extraordinary report by journalist Natalie Moore about Senator Mark Kirk and Congressman Bobby Rush’s visit to Englewood. Back in May, Kirk made headlines for proposing to seek millions of dollars in federal funds to arrest 18,000 members of the Gangster Disciples. Bobby Rush immediately criticized Kirk suggesting that the mass gang arrest plan was an “upper-middle-class, elitist white boy solution to a problem he knows nothing about.”

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Aug 27 2013

Guest Post: The Future of Mass Incarceration: Punishment in the Proposed Era of Decarceration

The Future of Mass Incarceration: Punishment in the Proposed Era of Decarceration

by Chez Rumpf, PhD Candidate in Sociology, Loyola University Chicago

Two weeks ago in a speech to the American Bar Association, Attorney General Eric Holder openly critiqued the United States’ “War on Drugs,” admitting it has been a failure and that its unintended consequences have severely harmed individuals, families, and entire communities. Specifically, Holder took issue with mandatory minimum sentencing policies that have contributed greatly to the build-up of the United States’ prison nation. He went so far as to instruct federal prosecutors throughout the United States to no longer pursue mandatory minimum sentences for low-level, nonviolent federal drug charges.

An End to the “War on Drugs” and Mass Incarceration?

Holder’s comments carry a great deal of symbolic importance. It is undeniably noteworthy for the country’s Attorney General to openly challenge and call for a reversal of U.S. crime policies and to acknowledge publicly that mass incarceration is a grave social injustice, in part because of the severe racial disparities that permeate the criminal legal system. It remains to be seen, however, whether the symbolic importance of Holder’s speech will translate to changes in policy and practice. As Kara Dansky recently noted on the ACLU’s blog, federal prosecutors may resist Holder’s instructions based on their own racist beliefs and adherence to “tough on crime” ideology.

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Aug 11 2013

Some Things End: Reflections on Love, Struggle, and YWEP

For over a decade, I have been privileged to be in community with youth and adult members of a unique and transformative organization called The Young Women’s Empowerment Project (YWEP). I served as a board member, adviser (when called upon), supporter, cheerleader, booster, funder, and just an unabashed fan.

Yesterday evening, I gathered with dozens of YWEP members and supporters to celebrate the organization’s accomplishments and contributions. We were also together to mark an end to YWEP as an organization. The work of YWEP will obviously live on in new and different ways but the organization will soon officially close its doors. There are myriad reasons for YWEP’s decision to end its operations. Someday in the future, I’ll have some comments about these.

I was interviewed yesterday and asked to reflect on the organization’s history and work. It gave me a chance to discuss the ways that I’ve been influenced by YWEP as a youth worker and person. Quite simply, YWEP taught me about love, humanity, and struggle.

The young people who joined YWEP over the years are among the most marginalized youth in Chicago. There are black & brown girls (for the most part), trans* youth, poor kids, youth who trade sex for money and survival needs, people in the street economy, and substance using & sometimes abusing teenagers. And here’s the thing: at YWEP none of these identities or behaviors are defining. YWEP youth are treated simply as HUMAN and they are offered unconditional love and support.

They are considered leaders and experts in their own lives. I saw first hand how previously insecure young people slowly gained confidence and voice. I marveled at the metamorphosis of youth (who were previously seen as talentless) into brilliant artists (poets, visual artists, musicians). No one is disposable at YWEP. Every single one of us is “priceless.”

It is primarily through YWEP’s work that I learned the importance of centering healing in youth organizing. I learned from watching them how to put Audre Lorde’s words (not just the pithily cited ones) into PRACTICE.


YWEP is the embodiment of radical love and self-determination. Those two things made the organization a threat and a constant target of those who cannot abide people of color and the marginalized loving ourselves and each other, especially in public. I remember the consistent death threats and the persistent danger in doing the work. Yet those who moved the work forward have kept their integrity, compassion, and most importantly humor throughout.

Years ago, I read an essay by June Jordan titled “Where is the love?” It was transformative for me.

And it is here — in the extreme coincidence of my status as someone twice stigmatized, my status as someone twice kin to the despised majority — it is here, in this extremity, that I stand in a struggle against demoralization and suicide and toward self-love and self-determination. And it is here, in this extremity, that as a Black feminist I ask myself and anyone who would call me sister, Where is the love?

And it seems to me that the strength that should come from Black feminism means that I can, without fear, love and respect all men who are willing and able, without fear, to love and respect me… this means that as a Black feminist I cannot be expected to respect what somebody else calls self-love if that concept of self-love requires my self-destruction.

I can say that the love for YWEP was manifest at last night’s celebration and so too was YWEP’s love for all of us. It IS truly radical as oppressed people to love ourselves in spite of all of the ways that this is precluded. YWEP is a space where our humanity was consistently affirmed and where we were reminded of where love resides (in ourselves and between each other). It made it possible for so many of us to stay in the struggle. I am forever grateful.

Today is the last day to make a donation to support YWEP as it moves to close its doors. I hope that you’ll consider making a contribution as a way to say thank you to the amazing people who have been involved in YWEP’s work over all of these years.