Practice What I Preach

Last week my son and I were asked to do a presentation in four sixth grade classrooms on what it means to be an abolitionist and what exactly is Restorative Justice? The staff and students were curious because they had heard me speak, very briefly, on a panel in which I stated I am an abolitionist. They wanted to know what that meant. I said to them, “Imagine if there was no punishment. Imagine no time-outs, no suspensions or expulsions from school. No revenge. No jails and no police. What if we found a different way to fix the problem when someone hurt us or if we hurt them?” This was my very simple explanation of a new and challenging concept.

Most self-identified abolitionists are trying to figure out what it means. And I am trying, at age 56, to unlearn everything I have been socialized to know about punishment. I think about it a lot – because I am trying to practice. I am trying to be aware of how many times each day I resort to some form of punishment. Perhaps I am withholding love by not answering a phone call, or waiting to respond to a text. Perhaps I am choosing to not give a child the affection and attention they are seeking from me. Maybe I didn’t move my dog off of the person’s lawn that has a sign in the window I dislike. Maybe, after all of these years, I am still hoping for and plotting revenge on those who have hurt me the most. In these small and large acts I am hoping to punish them. I have been taught that punishment is the way to get results. Those 6th grade students have already been extremely socialized to believe that the ONLY way to get justice is to lock someone up. The only thing they seemed unsure of is how many years is an acceptable sentence to fit the crime.

I know this is what I want. I have always known it. I knew when my brother and I were afraid of being spanked that I did not want to be punished. I did not want to be hurt. I never wanted him to be hurt. I did not want the dog hit with a newspaper. I did not want my classmates humiliated by the teacher. I have always known that when someone was hurting me in the worst way possible that what I really wanted was to tell them my truth. I wanted to tell them what they did to me and how it made me feel. I wanted to see some kind of understanding of my truth. I absolutely believe that fear based punishment never works.

I know that most of what I read about abolition is difficult for me to understand. I also know that the easiest part for me to understand is the tearing down/dismantling/closing of the prisons. And I understand that, here in Chicago, we could begin by reallocating the 4 million dollars a day spent on policing and instead invest in mental health centers, community centers, substance abuse programs, art and music and theater and dance and writing programs. This would be such a beginning to to heal our city.

I understand that dismantling white supremacy and “whiteness” has to be a part of that equation. And I am working on all of those pieces.

I also understand the absolute necessity of Restorative Justice Circles. My son’s involvement with Circles & Ciphers led me there. I watched from afar, participated, read, listened and ultimately became a circle-keeper myself.

But by far, the most challenging part of this work is the day to day action of trying not to hurt other people – and if I hurt them trying to admit it and fix whatever I have done. The second hardest part is telling people when they have hurt me and telling them exactly what I need to make it right.

So that is the intent of this blog. It is to document the challenging work of living my truth. Practicing what I preach. I will try and share resources – but I am going to make sure that I understand what I choose to share. I hope others will join me – because everything I am doing is uncharted. It is clumsy and sounds fluffy and spiritual but really to me it is my only hope. We must start with the interpersonal – our loved ones and neighbors and co-workers. And it also means practicing alternatives to calling the police. Anyway, those are two pretty big places I am going to start.

(Shout out to Molly Costello Art and Design for the image. She is an amazing artist and an abolitionist – )


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