A Closer Look at Our Brooklyn Restorative Justice Project: Visiting the School for Democracy and Leadership
Last week, we led our Youth Justice Funders Collaborative on a site visit to the School for Democracy and Leadership (SDL)—one of the four schools partnering in our Brooklyn Restorative Justice Project. It was a valuable opportunity for our group of fellow grantmakers to see restorative practices first-hand, talk with school leaders, and experience the transformational power of Restorative Justice.
Located on the Wingate Campus in East Flatbush, SDL serves just 300 students in 6th-12th grade but had one of the highest suspension rates in the city. Realizing a critical transformation in school culture and disciplinary response was needed, the school’s Principal and Assistant Principal participated in an intensive 5-day Restorative Justice training at the Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility—and nearly all school staff attended a similar 3-day training at the school.
SDL’s commitment to Restorative Justice has only deepened since becoming a member of the Foundation’s Brooklyn Restorative Justice Project. Our support enabled the school to have a full time Restorative Justice Coordinator through a four-year grant to Good Shepherd Services, which is also overseeing a holistic implementation plan, setting benchmarks and goals, and participating in a learning community with the three other schools in the project and their restorative justice providers.
“Artifacts” symbolizing students’ collective commitment to the restorative circle
Each day, SDL’s Restorative Justice Coordinator Ashley Ellis and her Good Shepherd Restorative Justice team, which also includes Rachel Hollis, LCSW, and Restorative Counselor Michael Pierce, host a restorative circle during first period in the school’s dedicated Peace Room—a time to solely focus on the goals of restorative justice. Additionally, they facilitate school-wide town hall meetings, weekly staff circles on Mondays, and a parents circle—all in thoughtful partnership with the school’s administration and teachers.
During the site visit, Ashley facilitated the daily morning restorative circle for our group alongside eight 12th graders who are learning restorative practices as an elective class. They spoke about the power of Restorative Justice, admitting that they originally showed up for the free pizza and the potential of a class that required "no work," but they quickly created community within the group, deepening their understanding of themselves and their skills to respond differently in challenging situations, and becoming support for their classmates. Many spoke specifically about Ashley and the way she pulled them in and helped them—we saw several students in the halls stop to hug her and chat with her. She is a passionate, visionary, and hope-filled powerhouse, who is clearly a deeply valued member of the school community.
Members of our Youth Funders Collaborative participating in a restorative circle
Building a new school culture around restorative justice takes time, but the rewards are incredible. At the end of our circle, Ashley shared a quote that best describes our challenge and our charge:
"If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”