By Addison Tucker
As the graduate assistant for the Zehr Institute, one of my tasks is to use research to assist in local movements that relate to restorative justice. Admittedly I am not someone who, prior to this experience, would have claimed research as a passion or even an interest for a career. This worried me some but I figured that I could use it as an opportunity to grow. My supervisor and the director of the Zehr Institute for Restorative Justice, Dr. Johonna Turner, asked me if I would be interested in creating fact sheets that detail alternatives to incarceration. This was to assist the local movement in Harrisonburg, VA to stop the expansion of a regional jail, and the Zehr Institute was poised to connect restorative justice to solutions for this movement. Because I consider myself an advocate for restorative and transformational justice, I was willing to step into new territory and try my hand at researching and creating six, one-page fact sheets for people to pass around to the general public as well as local officials. To my surprise, it changed the way I saw research and opened my eyes to more creative avenues for its use in justice movements in general. This blog will explore a few things that I learned from this experience around using research to dismantle systems and spread understanding of restorative justice processes.
The first takeaway I had from this research experience was that it helped me grow as a practitioner. The process of putting myself in someone else’s shoes, someone who does not know any accurate information around terms such as “restorative justice” “low-barrier shelters” or even “oppression”, helped me work through how I could break down those barriers and decrease the information gap. In academic spaces, we are all so used to using verbiage that is not commonly understood by people outside of that realm, and I have seen myself struggle to articulate these concepts in accessible language. This process of taking a complex concept, like community housing collectives, and reducing it to its simplest form helped me build that muscle and practice how to accessibly talk about justice-related solutions.
The second takeaway from this experience was that research is not only for those who have the time and resources to read long complicated journals, or for students in school alone. It can be a way to connect people in all types of social and career settings to information that can better their community. I learned that often, people in city council or in positions of power have so much on their plate that they don’t have time to find the answers to the questions they have. I attended a city council meeting in which the mayor actually asked for alternatives to a jail in their region, she asked for pathways to community safety that did not involve punishment in the form of incarceration. I realized how powerful it would have been if I could have handed her that fact sheet right then and there, and show that there are real tangible solutions that are proven to work and work well. Taking time to create those sheets could result in helping to change an entire community.
Lastly, I took away from this experience that research and organization of that research is an opportunity for people with those skills to be a part of justice movements. It is my experience that when people hear “activist” or “disruption” or “dismantling” connotatively they associate that work with someone who is outgoing, protesting in a group of people, and generally socially involved. I have allowed it to sink in that researching and disseminating information is activism, is disruption, and is a part of dismantling systems of oppression. Culture cannot change without cultural exchange, and giving access to information is one of the most important pieces to building a community that can participate ethically. We need more people to do this work, more people with access to information, with passions for learning and organizing data to see that it is activism by way of research. We have an opportunity to expand our network as restorative justice advocates and find allies in fields that involve data design, research analysts, and social media specialists.
In summary, before doing this work I would have told someone that “research isn’t my thing, that’s someone else’s job”. I left feeling wholeheartedly that if I am going to claim activism, to claim restorative justice, and acknowledge my privilege as someone with access, I must also claim research. I have seen its utility as a way to harness my own communication and understanding of a cause, as a way to increase access to information, and an opportunity for involvement in justice movements. Part of being a restorative justice practitioner is to work toward equity in all that we do, and one way to do that is by closing the information gap around restorative justice processes. Access to the language and information around restorative or transformational justice alternatives should not be reserved for either those who are born into cultures that claim it or those who have the privilege of accessing higher education. Justice should be something all people can practice and research is an avenue we cannot ignore in meeting that goal.