Since the fall of 2010, Gender JUST has been engaged with the Center on Halsted (COH) to institute a Restorative Justice (RJ) policy on its premises. . In starting this process, we hoped to work with the Center in moving away from a punitive “zero tolerance” structure to one that is more responsive to the needs of the queer youth and adults who use its services. Most importantly, we sought to ensure that the Center would develop a model of accountability which drew upon community-based systems rather than one that called upon surveillance and punishment.
Recent events and statements by the Center indicate that our good faith was misplaced. We are now taking our appeal for a full and transparent form of Restorative Justice into the community that would most benefit from such a process at the Center.
In starting this process, Gender JUST was following through on its various direct actions in the neighborhood, actions which highlighted the systemic problems of racism and harassment in a rapidly gentrifying area.
We did this with some concerns, given our issues with the Center and with non-profits in general, which tend to see themselves as answerable to wealthy donors rather than the communities they are ostensibly funded to serve.
But the Center receives funding from several sources: private, federal, and local. For better or worse, it is the largest such organization on the north side and a source of social and cultural resources for many who travel there from the south and west sides. We felt that it was important for Gender JUST to maintain a presence at the COH and ensure that a true system of RJ was instituted.
In a culture and climate of fear and outright hatred, as documented in several news reports over the past few years, we felt the need to ensure that queers of color would become a part of a process that began to change procedures for the better.
Restorative Justice practices have been theorized and implemented by several local groups, including the High H.O.P.E.S Campaign and Community Justice for Youth Institute. While Restorative Justice has become somewhat fashionable as a talking point, it is not often implemented in the spirit or form in which it was intended. The High H.O.P.E.S Campaign has been working on holding Chicago Public Schools accountable for its rates of suspensions, which have actually risen since CPS implemented Restorative Justice in name only. Project NIA has also documented and researched the predominance of the schools to prisons pipeline in CPS.
Working with the Center has been a slow and often frustrating process, and that has sometimes been due to transitions in both organizations. The Center has seen a huge staff turnover over the years, and working on a proposal for RJ meant constantly re-introducing ourselves and the purpose of the work to new staff. In Fall 2011, Gender JUST underwent significant structural changes, and that included my becoming Policy Director and Jason Tompkins heading up our COURSE (Committee on Urban Resource Sustainability & Equity) campaign. Benjamin Perry began the work with COH, and still works with us even if not always in a direct capacity. Past GJ Staff Organizer Andrés Gallegos was also part of the process.
It appeared, for a while, that both groups were working together in good faith.
By April 2012, we felt that we had reached a satisfactory place; we submitted a final proposal, which we worked on with COH interns and a revolving series of mid-level staff. We had been told that the proposal would have to go through the Center's process and would be vetoed or accepted by Modesto "Tico" Valle, CEO of the Center.
We were not entirely hopeful about the fact that so much hard work would fall or rise on the ultimate say-so of a single individual, and we were frustrated by the fact that senior management and Operations staff (those directly responsible for responding to disputes, misconduct and grievances) showed little interest in the proposal, which made us wonder about the Center's ultimate commitment to the matter. Still, we showed up nearly every Friday (I was not at every meeting, but was kept apprised by Jason and by the regular emails on the google discussion group) for regular meetings, for two years.
Imagine our surprise when, in an interview with Windy City Times, Valle, in response to a question about consequences for stealing, said, “If you are caught stealing and you're a patron of the Center, there is restorative justice. Restorative justice means you're banned; you have to come back and meet with everyone that is involved in the consequence and how are you
going to make it right. Whole Foods works really closely with us and in most cases, they let it go.” [italics mine]
Most practitioners would agree that this is not a satisfactory application of Restorative Justice principles; Valle invoked the name of the process but not the spirit of our detailed proposal or that of Restorative Justice in general, where the opportunity for dialogue and restitution is not granted through a retail agent – or through banning – but a community panel that attempts to get at the root causes of alleged or real infractions.
We were also dismayed about the claim of having Restorative Justice in place when he had clearly not even looked at the proposal or discussed implementing a process with us. Recognizing that the Center had no commitment to instituting Restorative Justice except in name only and when it seemed publicly expedient to do so, and shocked by the cavalier erasure of a two-year-long process that had gone into the proposal, we launched a petition to the public to institute a real process of Restorative Justice at the panel.
In the meantime, I was invited to speak at the first “Queer Is Community” at the Center on Halsted on May 28, designed to begin a larger dialogue to address what too many Chicago queers know will in all likelihood be yet another summer of conflict and race-baiting in Boystown. I was not happy about the location of the event, and made that clear from the start; to their credit, organizers like Nico Lang, Jamie Royce, and ellie june navidson were open to the critique I offered (one, I should add, shared by several attendees, community members and former patrons and employees – the Center has been a controversial space since its inception, in large part because of its policies toward queer youth of color). My speech at the event addressed the politics of story-telling, and touched upon the fiction of Restorative Justice at the Center. We also gathered over 50 signatures that night, and continue to gather more online. You can sign, share and embed the petition online at chn.ge/changethecenter.
In the weeks since we launched our petition, the Center has attempted to distort and manipulate the facts. In the process, it has revealed its own contradictions. A recent Windy City Times report reveals that, in its haste to cover its tracks, the Center has adopted the posture of never having seen a copy of the proposal in the first place. This is easily disproved by several emails in the google group explicitly set up to draft and complete the proposal. One staff member has declared, “We don't even use words like “banned” anymore,” contradicting the evidence of Valle's own words in April.
The Center now simultaneously claims that the proposal did not come from the Center (which is only true in the sense it came from GJ and the Center) and also acknowledges that those listed on the document “did work with Gender JUST on implementing restorative justice.” What, we might ask, was this document produced after two years of regular meetings between Gender JUST and the Center, if not something produced in collaboration? Why deny its very existence, a cavalier and dismissive move that erases the work of a community partner? Why would we, Gender JUST volunteers, COH interns,
and staff meet at the Center on Halsted for two years if not for the explicit purpose of producing a collaborative project at the end of it? I was present at meetings where a staff member held the proposal in her hands, but she now describes the meetings as as “theory-based conversations.”
Gender JUST has throughout acted in good faith. Currently, the Center is attempting to paint this as a matter of miscommunication. Gender JUST has no interest in trading accusations with the Center on Halsted on such flimsy grounds and allowing the Center to distract from the real issue: its lack of commitment to RJ at the top level and a lack of transparency. We are committed to ensuring that the Center institute a model of Restorative Justice that is transparent to the public. Transparency of process does not mean that those involved are at risk of having their private information revealed, also an issue raised by a staff member.
We have gone so far as to offer safeguards – in this mysteriously non-existent proposal that is now being erased from historical memory – to ensure confidentiality, including non-disclosure agreements. As a community grassroots group that fully understands the population that would be served best by Restorative Justice, and as the group that initiated the call for Restorative Justice in the first place, we are fully aware of what we mean by “transparent.”
Our aim is to ensure social justice for those most marginalized in and around the Center. We know too well how fragile are the networks of support for youth and adults who must negotiate a larger neighborhood environment where they are stigmatized from the start for being of colour/gender-non-conforming/a host of reasons. A recent Windy City Times report indicates that even area police, ostensibly there to maintain order on an impartial basis, have allegedly made calls where they describe gender-non-conforming people in statements like, “If you wouldn't mess with boys in dresses, this wouldn't happen.”
Such instances only form the tip of the iceberg in an area that is steeped with hostility towards queer youth and people of color and they indicate what we know too well: The work ahead of us, Gender JUST, the Center, and various community organizations in the city devoted to the betterment of the lives of queer people who need these services, is difficult and fraught. But we cannot move forward if there is not, in the spirit of Restorative Justice, first an acknowledgment that there are problems in the process so far.
There is clearly a problem with communications but it is within the Center and, as we in Gender JUST feared, the leadership has been disconnected from the intensive process engaged by its junior staff, interns, and Gender JUST members. There is clearly a disjunction between senior staff, who know little about Restorative Justice, and the many admirable interns and mid-level staff who are devoted to instituting the process but are now stymied by a public relations effort to erase and/or rewrite the history of this proposal.
We demand that the Center stop hiding behind a public relations blitz and, instead, first acknowledge the work, by Gender JUST and various interns and staff, that has gone into instituting a model of Restorative Justice at the Center. Second, We demand that the Center begin to instate Restorative Justice in an open and transparent way that structurally and fundamentally shifts the ways in which it operates. We will not be satisfied with mere tinkering to existing policies; we insist that all levels of staff understand, recognize, and work to implement the principles of RJ.
In recent emails, Center staff have reached out and attempted to restart the meetings; we have made it clear that these will only happen if senior and operational staff are present and if the Center takes this process seriously. At this point, the Center is more concerned with saving its face and yet has failed to even acknowledge the presence of a document worked on for two years by volunteers, interns, and community activists.
We wish to move forward, but only in the spirit and form of true social justice. This is not a crisis of communications, as the Center would have it; this is a crisis arising from a failure to act.
The time to act is now. Please sign the petition.
Yasmin Nair, Policy Director, Gender JUST