How do you define restorative justice? This question is commonly being asked throughout Boyle Heights, and was the inspiration for the Restorative Justice Pilot Radio Project (RJPR), which took place from October 2013 to April 2014. Students from Boyle Heights high schools, along with artist Omar Ramirez, helped launch this pilot initiative, getting to the root of Restorative Justice by asking each other and members of their community about the subject.
Roosevelt High School senior and RJPR student, Michelle Guerrero, defined it this way: "Restorative justice is having the ability to talk to a person about a certain problem or situation, in order to steer that person in the right direction and offering them better alternatives to express themselves in other ways, and hopefully making them understand why that conflict exists and help them move past it, instead of building anger or resentment for others." RJPR was a collaboration between The Alliance for California Traditional Arts (ACTA) and Building Healthy Communities Boyle Heights, and focused on bringing more awareness and support for Restorative Justice within this community.
The Restorative Justice Pilot Radio program was based out of the Radio Sombra studio, a space that houses a collective of DJs, activists, and organizers committed to creating a space for community-based radio contributors. Students convened on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons over a period of seven months to explore restorative justice principles, while exposing youth to the radio production process, under the guidance of Ramirez, the program's Creative Director. The Radio Sombra space facilitated direct interaction with professional radio equipment, while exposure to local artists and the community art complemented the radio production space.
Ramirez, through designing and leading the pilot radio program, gained a more profound understanding of the power of Restorative Justice principles, and realized that it goes beyond the school environment. "I found that restorative justice provides communities with the opportunity to bridge the gap between individuals, families, businesses, and institutions," he said. "Restorative Justice decreases the criminalization of entire generations by improving and increasing health services for communities."
Claudia Guerrero, another student participant, further elaborated on the importance of Restorative Justice in her community: "I believe restorative justice builds that environment of trust and understanding that our culture and community need. An environment where a person is not judged based on how they look, how they are, or what they have done, but instead build an environment full of understanding and free from prejudice."
In addition to exploring Restorative Justice principles themselves, students were tasked with interviewing local community organizers, educators, and organization directors who have been fighting to ensure the policy that was adopted by LAUSD in May of 2013 is supported.
Radio guests geared their efforts to ensure that alternative restorative practices are appropriately implemented at local schools through district funding sources, and also within the school disciplinary structure. The segments featured, among other guests, staff members from the Labor Community Strategy Center, The California Conference for Equality and Justice, Inner City Struggle, and Homeboy Industries.
Among the most impactful interviews was with Jose Osuna, in which he described his personal restorative transformative process at Homeboy Industries: "Restorative Justice allowed me to restore myself to the child I was before I started committing crimes, before I started thinking it was okay to hurt myself and others." Furthermore, Osuna referenced the example his mentor, Father Gregory Boyle, Homeboy Industries' founder and director, offered when explaining the need for more deepened intervention and addressing the underlying causes of behavior within the community he serves: "It's like giving someone cough medicine when they have lung cancer ... if we just look at an incident and try to resolve that one incident, that internal damage that someone has suffered that has led them to believe those actions are okay, it's still there and until we address that, we truly haven't gone into any type of restorative or transformative process." Osuna is now the Director of Employment Services at Homeboy Industries, and is leading statewide solar initiatives that the organization supports.
The collaboration between The Alliance for California Traditional Arts and Building Healthy Communities Boyle Heights was founded upon the desire to explore the connections between art, culture, and local campaign efforts spearheaded by Building Healthy Communities partner organizations. To ignite collaborative cultural organizing efforts, ACTA completed a "Cultural Assets Mapping" process, in which "cultural treasures" of the Boyle Heights community were identified by local residents. A "cultural treasure" is defined as a person, place, or thing community members find to be of cultural value and relevance. In Boyle Heights, community members identified the First Street Bridge, Son Jarocho music, and local musicians, Cesar Castro and Gloria Estrada, among others, as culturally relevant. Omar Ramirez, RJPR's Creative Director, himself, was identified as a "cultural treasure," given his vast experience in radio production, and was subsequently connected to the Restorative Justice campaign.
Furthermore, throughout the collaborative process between ACTA and BHC Boyle Heights, there was a lot consideration about the way in which art, culture, and music can serve as a foundational tool for community empowerment, personal transformation, and for engaging audiences who may not be drawn to policy discussions and traditional community meetings. "It's not necessarily about the end product that results from cultural or musical exposure, it's about the introspective artistic process community residents engage with, the personal transformation, the people they meet, the local issues they learn about while on this journey," explained Quetzal Flores, ACTA's Southern California Program Manager.
In designing Community Health projects, ACTA finds that the arts and cultural practice can serve as entry way for community members to become more aware of the existing Building Healthy Communities initiatives, while at the same time deepening the connection and preserving traditional arts within communities. Amy Kitchener, ACTA's founding Executive Director, reflects that, "We're finding that engaging the traditional arts that are a part of people's everyday experience of beauty and identity is a powerful entry point for addressing large-scale community health issues, like the spiraling dropout rates we see statewide."
Kitchener continues, "Through hands on artistic participation, community residents can engage from a place of strength and resilience, and through the process of artmaking, they focus on the deep connection on the issues that require the whole community to work to change."
Learn more about Radio Sombra at Artbound: