Marissa Williams has seen the power of storytelling firsthand. In her everyday life, she’s constantly telling stories about growing up in Brooklyn, New York, in the hopes that she might earn a laugh or share a positive memory.
But some stories are more painful to tell: When Williams was in high school, a gang-related incident resulted in the killing of one of her best friends. Compounding her grief, she and her friend were in the middle of a falling out and weren’t on speaking terms at the time of her death.
Williams doesn’t like to share that painful memory — let alone in front of a group of strangers. But when she was sitting with two young girls in the middle of a heated fight, she knew it was the most powerful lesson she could share on the importance of reconciliation.
With stomachs full of cheeseburgers and Pepsi, the two young girls listened to Williams’ story. They cried. They hugged. And eventually, they forgave each other.
That was a few years ago. These days, Williams says she still runs into the two young women. Their enduring friendship is a testament to the power of the Red Hook Peacemaking Program, a promising restorative justice initiative out of the Red Hook Community Justice Center, a courthouse that offers unconventional approaches to justice. The two girls found themselves in the program, which takes place in the basement of a bustling courthouse, in order to work through the hiccups in their friendship. Williams, who is by profession a housing resource specialist at the center, was volunteering as a peacemaker, the program’s version of a moderator.
The Peacemaking Program is a restorative justice program with roots in Native American tradition. It seeks to recenter our approach to justice away from punishment and towards reconciliation and rehabilitation. Storytelling is a key component of that restoration, and trained peacemakers sit with these defendants to do more than just moderate their discussion — they’re active participants in the peacemaking process, sharing their own stories and perspectives at opportune moments.
“It’s different from a therapy session, where you’re talking to a therapist and it’s all about you,” Coleta Walker, the associate director of the Peacemaking Program, said. “This is more like, ‘Yes, we all go through things and this is my story.’ We feel like everyone has a story to tell.”
The peacemaking process is simple: Sessions are held where everyone involved in the case, peacemakers, friends and family gather to share a meal and discuss the incident. The session lasts about two hours. So that no one is speaking over one another, facilitators pass around a talking stick to ensure that only one person is saying their part at a given time. After a series of sessions that differ in frequency depending on the needs of each specific case, the offender and victim will write a consensus together.
The consensus is read in court and typically results in dropped charges.
Though this brings the case to a close, Walker told NationSwell that their “door is never closed” to those who participated in the program. The Peacemaking Program has a personal advancement session for the individuals involved with these cases. At these private meetings, they’ll receive support and resources for any challenges they continue to face. For example, the program might help an individual build a resume and apply for jobs, or find mental health resources or addiction treatment.
Having family and friends present is a key element to the circles, explained Viviana Gordon, the deputy director of Red Hook Community Justice Center.
“It brings a lot of different perspectives to the circle about how this conflict is really having an effect on kids in the home or you know someone’s partner,” she told NationSwell.
The program currently has over 170 community peacemakers and works on more than a hundred cases each year. It receives cases from a variety of streams. Anyone in the community can ask for a peacemaking session and it’s referred cases from different court systems.
Program heads originally prioritized cases where there’s an ongoing relationship between those involved — whether it be an argument between siblings, spouses or neighbors. However, the program has extended to other minor criminal cases of graffiti, assault, shoplifting, harassment, resist and arrest and petty larceny.
The circles, which started in 2012, have been a success. They’ve helped neighbors resolve conflicts over loud music and families reunited after years of fighting.
Walker said it’s a chance for individuals to learn how their actions impact others. For example, when a young man stole a woman’s iPod and headphones, the act of stealing went beyond monetary value.
“She really wanted to tell him what happened and why it affected her so much,” Walker recalled. “It was because her father, who had passed away, had made the music that she was listening to on the iPod. And when he snatched that, that was something she could never get back.”
The Peacemaking Program gave the young man a chance to apologize and the woman a chance to forgive — something that the current criminal system doesn’t emphasize.
Beyond anecdotal success, the program hopes to track recidivism rates. Walker said the team is in need of grant funding to track recidivism specifically for the Peacemaking Program. It’s a challenge, she explained, when family and friends are all touched by the process. The Red Hook Community Justice Center, as a whole, however, saw recidivism rates 10% lower than offenders in a typical courthouse. Red Hook has experienced sustained decreases in crime in the police precincts served by the Justice Center. Finally, these changes all add up to money saved. In a 2013 independent evaluation, it found that taxpayers saved nearly $7 million.
“It showed a two to one cost savings,” Gordon said. “There is a lot of upfront investment, but it shows that it does reduce recidivism.”
That success has also been seen in other parts of New York. The Peacemaking Program was adopted in Syracuse, New York, in a neighborhood that experiences some of the highest concentrations of poverty. During its first year, it worked with over 75 members of the community.
South Brooklyn High School, a “second-chance” transfer school where students may have fallen behind or been expelled, now trains students to become peer peacemakers as part of a civic engagement class. The 22 peer peacemakers work with their classmates to solve issues and minor incidents, like cell phone usage, disrespecting a teacher or dress code violations.
Before peacemaking, the school had a zero-tolerance policy. If someone broke a rule, they were automatically suspended.
“And to me, it was just feeding that whole school to prison pipeline,” Walker explained. With peacemaking, the students have the chance to understand how their mistakes impacted others. “Having that support in the school and giving that to them is what has helped change the school culture.”.
Williams said she wishes it was something she could have had when she was fighting with her friend years ago. She said she’s happy to see it’s impact in Red Hook and hopes other neighborhoods pick up on restorative justice.
“There’s a lot of young kids that make stupid mistakes, and if they could get a second chance at fixing their wrongs, this is a great thing to do,” she said. “Let’s give more second chances.”