By Mika Dashman
In early January 2015, I organized a public forum on Restorative Justice in New York City at the New York County Lawyers Association. The event featured eight speakers from a range of non-profit organizations and one city agency that are utilizing restorative practices in their work with young men of color facing felony charges in Brooklyn criminal court, people serving long sentences in state prison, school safety officers, people on probation, youth in the Bronx and others. Nearly 120 people came out on one of the coldest nights of the year to attend the forum and they were still lined up to ask questions at 9:00PM when the bar association closed. But what was perhaps most extraordinary about the event, was that it marked the first time that many of the panelists were meeting and hearing about each other’s work.
That event cemented my resolve to create more opportunities for New Yorkers to learn about and experience restorative practices, while fostering more connection and collaboration within the local restorative practitioner community. To that end, in February 2015, I incorporated Restorative Justice Initiative and began building a web presence (www.restorativejustice.nyc). During the start-up phase, support from PISLAP’s David Lerman Memorial Fund was indispensible. In June 2015, the Fund for the City of New York invited Restorative Justice Initiative to join their highly selective non-profit incubator program.
When I began this endeavor, I had a contact list of approximately 30 restorative practitioners in the New York-metropolitan area. Over the past year we have built a network of 500 local restorative practitioners and supporters. We have begun organizing diverse groups of stakeholders—representing community groups, schools, and the criminal justice sector—in different boroughs, who meet regularly to discuss shared goals for building the restorative justice movement in New York City. We have also formed an advisory board, currently representing 12 organizations and individuals working in the fields of education, mediation, corrections, criminology, youth empowerment and advocacy, and juvenile justice policy. This group will convene two to four times annually to develop a city-wide strategy for increasing the visibility and availability of restorative practices.
Central to our community-building strategy is the email list and social media platforms through which we distribute information about upcoming events, trainings, articles of interest, plus employment and funding opportunities. We recently distributed an online survey to collect feedback on our communications strategy, to which nearly 100 people responded. These efforts have ensured excellent turnout for events, full-enrollment in trainings, and the most qualified applicants being matched with jobs in the field.
It’s clear that momentum is building around restorative practices in New York City. Over the course of this year, two different schools in the City University system hosted well-attended, restorative justice-themed conferences. In addition, two pilot projects were launched to roll out restorative practices in 19 New York City public schools. We believe that as people continue to connect and forge relationships across boroughs and across sectors, these opportunities will expand. In the meantime, Restorative Justice Initiative will continue to serve as the City’s restorative clearinghouse and connecting hub.