Circles of Change: Bringing a More Compassionate Justice System to Oakland Youth

Almost 50 years ago, a notorious church bombing in Birmingham, Ala. killed two of Fania Davis's closest friends—and launched Davis, then a teenager, into a lifetime of social justice work. Today, the well-known Oakland resident directs Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth (RJOY), an innovative organization that aims to turn teenagers accused of crimes or troublemaking into responsible citizens.

"The murder of my friends was sort of an initiation," Davis recalls from the program's light-filled office in Oakland's Preservation Park. When her sister, Angela Davis, was accused of murder and conspiracy in 1970, Davis worked for her defense, following a stint as a supporter of the Black Panthers and other militant groups. After her sister was acquitted, Davis went to law school and embarked on a career as an impassioned, hard-driving—and, by her own admission, enraged—civil rights attorney. Over the years, Davis has lost none of her passion, but today it's tempered by a softer, more compassionate sensibility—one that's 100 percent in keeping with the Restorative Justice program's non-punitive approach to school discipline and juvenile justice.

"Rather than suspending a kid who gets in a fight or steals, a [Restorative Justice] facilitator organizes a 'circle' that might include allies of the youth, the parents, the youth that was harmed, and the youth causing the harm," Davis explains of the program's it- takes-a-village method of addressing rule-breaking. Following a system adapted partly from Native American traditions, the assembled members of the circle try to answer deep questions that can lead to healing: "What happened and how did it make you feel? What does the victim need to repair the harm? What does the person causing the harm need to do to make amends? And what do the youth, family, and community need to do to prevent its recurrence?"

The approach has been so successful that the program recently received a three-year, $850,000 grant from The California Endowment, a private health foundation. The money will be used not only to extend programs into Oakland's Castlemont Community of Small Schools - a group of three public high that stresses anti-violence.

Davis, a tall, lean woman with an engaging smile, says that learning about restorative justice—an ancient approach for victims and criminals that has enjoyed a worldwide revival in the last 30 years— resulted in a life-changing epiphany, one that "integrated the warrior and the healer in me."

In 2005, with the support of Oakland city councilwoman Nancy Nadel, she convened key members of Alameda County's juvenile justice system—judges, the district attorney, the director of health and human services, and representatives of organizations that serve youth —and founded Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth. In 2006, the program at Cole Middle School in Oakland was launched. Within two years, violent fights at the school stopped, and suspension rates dropped by more than 80 percent, Davis says.

Eric Butler, the site coordinator for the program at Oakland's McClymonds High School, says he relies on the circle approach daily, for everything from theft to fighting. For example, he says, "Jason," a 16-year-old boy, recently stole a classmate's cell phone. The program staff explained that he could opt for a restorative justice circle instead of punishment. Jason initially worried that the circle would be too embarrassing. But after staff explained more about the approach, he chose to accept responsibility—not simply consequences—for his actions. Personally returning the stolen phone, which contained photos of the classmate's grandmother, and seeing the classmate's reaction, he realized the pain he had caused. "He said it felt good to make it right," says Butler, adding that when young people are given a chance to repair harm instead of being punished, they begin to understand that what they do matters.

The approach is especially effective for students who have suffered years of trauma, says Hattie Tate, principal of Dewey Academy, an alternative continuation high school in the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD). "Some of our OUSD students have been either the shooter, a victim, or witnessed a shooting," she says. The restorative justice circle helps "create an environment of safety and acceptance"—a rare phenomenon for some of the academy's students, and one that requires some explanation.

"When students enter our school from the juvenile justice system," Tate says, "we start off with circles to help them understand the difference between the schoolyard, the prison yard, and the graveyard, and we talk about how to stop making choices that lead to incarceration or death."

For one traumatized 17-year-old student—known in the community, Tate says, as one of the toughest girls in Oakland—the restorative justice circle has been a tool for transformation. "She knew about every shooting incident in her neighborhood and said that she felt that death was following her," says Tate. "Whenever she was triggered, she would get hostile and start yelling at teachers." Rather than punishing the girl, the school has taken a more compassionate —and, seemingly, effective—course. "We started to allow her to leave the classroom whenever she became upset," Tate says. "After that, we have a circle that asks: 'What happened? What did you want? What can you do differently?' Sometimes we call in the [person] she is angry with, so we can work it out together."

These small, compassionate steps are crucial in breaking the "school-to-prison pipeline," Tate says. "Once our youth of color get into the criminal justice system, it is hard to get them out."


Davis was 16 years old in September 1963, when she received a call from her mother, Sallye Davis—a participant in the early Civil Rights movement—about the Birmingham church bombing. Members of the Ku Klux Klan had dynamited the building, known as a center for protesters working to end segregation. Four girls between the ages of 11 and 14 died, and 22 people were seriously injured. "The news was devastating," Davis says. "My mother described walking through the rubble of the church to be with our close family friend when she went to identify her daughter's body."

Ironically, Davis had just returned from the historic March on Washington. "I was giddy with the hope of the Civil Rights movement, but the bombing was a turning point," she recalls. "I was very angry for a long time and that is why I was attracted to the Black Panthers and the Black Nationalist movement. Then I became involved with the women's movement, the anti-apartheid movement, the socialist movement— you name it, and that was my path."

Davis has practiced civil rights law since the late 1970s, specializing in employment discrimination litigation. But in the mid-'90s, for her own peace of mind, she says, she began to feel "that I had to change. I had too much fire and too much anger." Following in the footsteps of her mother, a spiritual woman who "embodied nonviolence," Davis started meditating, becoming "interested in more than just yoga postures, but in the whole Eastern philosophy." She adds with a grin, "I had to hide this from my friends in the movement as I thought the Marxist police would come and get me!"

At this point, she says, "I could no longer pursue a vision of social transformation that didn't include spiritual transformation." Entering a Ph.D. program in indigenous knowledge, Davis shut down her law office in 1988; learned about restorative justice at a conference in 2003; and "started going to conferences all over the world and talking with the leaders of restorative justice movements from South Africa to New Zealand."

To bring restorative justice to Oakland, Davis enlisted the support of Gail Bereola, then the presiding judge of the Alameda County juvenile court. Like Davis, Bereola was impressed with the effectiveness of programs around the country and, in 2008, she launched an Alameda County Restorative Justice Task Force.


While there have been many success stories since then, Bereola acknowledges that restorative justice is not a panacea. "Some offenders are so hardened that they are not willing to take responsibility for their actions, and this program is not for them," she cautions. "But in our current system, we put almost all our resources into punishing offenders, while victims play a minimal role. Restorative justice allows the victim to come face to face with the perpetrator and tell him, 'This is how you harmed me; this was the impact you had on my children, on my spouse, on my coworkers.'"

Typically, a juvenile offender might be required not only to meet face-to-face with his victim—say, a woman whose house he has vandalized—but to cut her lawn or bring home her groceries as a way of

compensating for the damage he caused. In certain cases, those who successfully complete the Alameda County program have the charges against them dropped and wiped from their records.

Results of current studies about similar programs' effectiveness are promising: A recent study in Sonoma County found that only 10 percent of program participants returned to committing crimes, and 90 percent of the victims were satisfied with the process. In 1989, New Zealand's juvenile justice system—restorative justice comes partly from Maori traditions—adopted a nationwide, family-focused, restorative justice approach. Today, juvenile incarceration in New Zealand for crimes other than homicide is almost obsolete, according to a New Zealand government study.

And, for some, a brush with restorative justice inspires a new, more law-abiding way of life. "Many of these youth might have a parent who is strung out on drugs or incarcerated," says Bereola. "When they feel that no one cares about them, they do not care about others." That's no excuse, she says— acknowledging a lawbreaker's challenging home life "does not mean that we condone the acts they perpetrate—but restorative practices allow us to get to the root causes of crime by bringing in people who care about the victim and the perpetrator."

Over almost half a century, Davis's response to violence has evolved from one that fights fire with fire to one that meets fire with reconciliation and restoration. "Our greatest security is not in more arrests and suspensions, but in creating healthier families, schools, and communities," she says. "Harmed people harm people. Healed people heal people. If we are to interrupt the cycle of violence in Oakland and throughout Alameda County, we need a justice that heals."