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This conversation is the second in the series, Trench Democracy: Participatory Innovation in Unlikely Places. Innovative democratic professionals are recreating some of our most fundamental institutions, shaping new democratic practices, and struggling against the sometimes profoundly counter-democratic tendencies of contemporary American institutions. While their work is always in progress, their experiences hold value for anyone interested in democracy’s future.
Lauren Abramson is the founder of the Community Conferencing Center in Baltimore, an organization that aims to divert people from the criminal justice system before they enter it by providing “a highly participatory community-based process for people to transform their conflicts into cooperation, take collective and personal responsibility for action, and improve their quality of life.” Lauren’s center has helped thousands of people address problems in their communities before they become formally designated as crimes to be handled by the justice system. We talked recently about how communities can handle tensions on their own and what kinds of democratic practices have evolved to facilitate this. Before we begin the interview, though, we should talk a little about football.
All was not well on Streeper Street in Southeast Baltimore. Kids played football in the road late into the night, bumping into cars, setting off alarms, even breaking mirrors and windows. Why couldn’t they play in the park just two blocks away? Were they selling drugs in the street rather than just playing football? Tensions between adult residents and the players escalated into arguments, hundreds of calls to the police, and petty retaliations such as putting sugar in gas tanks. Finally, when police interventions didn’t succeed and the conflict threatened to get more serious than minor property damage, a neighborhood organization contacted the Community Conferencing Center to arrange a meeting with those affected.
One of the Center’s facilitators, Misty, canvassed the neighborhood for three weeks, going door-to-door inviting everyone to participate in a conference where they could articulate concerns and contribute to a desirable and workable solution. Remaining neutral, she encouraged attendance by showing them a list of those who had already agreed to participate. In all, forty-four people attended, with a mix of adults and youth.
The conference began with angry comments. Parents defended their children against what they felt was unfair treatment by neighbors. In turn, the adult residents expressed their frustration over the late night noise created by the football games: was this really the best place to play football at night? The children explained that the park two blocks away that the adults thought was much safer than the street was actually fouled by dog waste at one end and inhabited by drug dealers and older bullies at the other—problems that the adults had not heard before. From that point on, the neighbors started brainstorming possible solutions. They shifted focus from what to do about a bunch of noisy young people to how to find a safe place for the neighborhood children to play. Misty asked people how they might put their solutions into practice and in less than half an hour the group had come to an agreement on a list of actions, such as adults volunteering to chaperone kids in the park and kids helping clean up the neighborhood.
The next day, in fact, Don Ferges chaperoned twenty-two kids in the park. By the end of three weeks, the number had grown to sixty-four, and by the end of the summer there was a thriving football league. What started out as a public nuisance warranting police action developed into neighborhood-wide recognition of common interests and action to improve the shared space. The residents had the power to make these changes, but it took a well-structured conference to deliberate and act together.
Albert Dzur: On your website and elsewhere you talk about providing a highly participatory community-based process. Can you say a little bit more about how the community is involved in your work?
Lauren Abramson: We define “community” as the community of people who have been affected by and involved in the conflict or the crime. Everybody who’s involved in or affected by the situation, and their respective supporters, is included. We make the circle as wide as possible. Thus, conferences usually include between ten and forty people. The Streeper Street neighborhood conflict had been going on for two years and forty-four people attended. Conferences are always about engaging the entire community of people affected by whatever’s going on and giving them the power to try to fix it.
AD: When forty-four people gather together do you have certain expectations for participation?
LA: Well, transparency is a principle behind what we do. People always know what they are coming into. And they know, first of all, that this is a meeting for people who are interested in trying to make the situation better. So if they’re not really interested in trying to make the situation better, then the conference is probably not the place for them.
AD: Do you have any people exit at that point?
LA: Not often. People know that when they come, they’re going to sit in a circle with no table and talk about three things. First, they’ll hear what has been going on—what’s happened—and hear it from the people directly involved. Second, everybody in the circle will have a chance to say how they were affected. Third, once everyone has spoken and had a chance to listen, then the group will talk about what can be done to repair the harm and prevent this from happening again.
AD: When you say, “after everyone has spoken,” do you mean the people who are primary to a given conflict or everybody in the room?
LA: Everybody in the circle has an equal chance to participate.
AD: And so you brought up the case of forty-four people. All forty-four are in the circle?
AD: So if they come into that room they need to be prepared to say something.
LA: They know that they are going to have the opportunity to speak if they wish to.
AD: Have you been in a group where somebody keeps their arms crossed and doesn’t say anything?
LA: The emotional piece of the conference is important. And a lot of times people come so angry and disgusted and terrified that they will sit with their arms crossed and with their backs turned and all sorts of things. Throughout the Community Conference, though, there are many opportunities to speak and to listen. If they don’t want to speak in the initial discussion, when the group starts to come up with an agreement and we still see somebody whose arms are crossed, we’ll say, “Before we fill this out, is there anything else anyone would like to say?” Or we would say to that person, “Is there something you’d like to see happen that would help you feel better about this?” So at a number of points during the conversation, the facilitator gives everybody an opportunity, but we don’t make anybody do anything.
AD: This seems to be as much emotional work as cognitive work. Dialogue is important in restorative justice but reading through your descriptions of the conferences I wonder if something even more basic is involved—namely, proximity: just getting people who wouldn’t normally sit next to each other to do that.
LA: I think that’s a big part of it. That’s the difference between what we do and, say, study circles. Study circles typically engage people in dialogue but participants tend to have similar value systems already. And what I love about this work is that you do get people together who normally would not be sitting in the same room with each other, let alone talking with each other.
AD: And that’s the price of admission to the conference: you’ve got to come into the room and sit next to people you may not like. Have you seen changes in disposition because people come together?
LA: Many times. Hundreds and hundreds of times. Not just because they come together, though. In schools, principals try to have what they call a conference or a meeting and bring together kids and parents and it blows up into a huge melee. We know so many principals who will not bring together families anymore. So I don’t think proximity is the only factor. A well-designed structure is also crucial for good communication.
Conferencing is elegant. There are three questions that the group’s going to talk about. And they can talk in whatever way they want. We don’t go in saying, “You can’t make racist comments,” because if you do that then the person who is racist is never going to get a chance to change. We let the group decide. So once something offensive comes up, the facilitator will say to the participants, there is a request to not say these kinds of things, is this something everyone can agree to?” It lets people be who they are and then lets that group decide for itself the norms for their behavior from this time forward.
AD: Why do you think it is important for people other than criminal justice professionals to be involved in resolving these issues?
LA: In a participatory democracy it is important for people to make decisions for themselves. And I’m not talking about a representative democracy, either.
It’s like in the seventies when medical researchers made a breakthrough in managing postsurgical pain. They realized that if they gave people this little clicker that let them administer their own morphine, people used less morphine and got more pain relief. Patients knew best what they needed; emotionally and psychologically having control over pain relief was huge.
AD: I love that example from the Streeper Street neighborhood conference. You have said that if you told Don Ferges, “Hey, why don’t you start a football league,” he probably wouldn’t do it!
LA: He would have said, “Get the heck out of here!” Every action has an equal and opposite reaction; people typically don’t like being told what to do, and will react against it. So we’re being inclusive and encouraging collective decision. What we see over and over and over again is that communities get much more creative and lasting solutions when they decide for themselves how to resolve these situations.
AD: This theme of recognizing that people are capable of resolving their own conflicts is really interesting. But in some ways, these are neighborhoods where they are not capable of resolving their own conflicts without the Community Conferencing Center.
LA: That is not quite right. It’s not just about these neighborhoods. It’s not about where you live, how much money you make, what color your skin is. I mean, think about it, we don’t resolve conflicts very well in our workplaces either.
AD: But that’s my point. We don’t have participatory social control. We turn an awful lot of problems over to the criminal justice system.
LA: Well, conferencing recognizes that we all have a larger capacity to resolve complicated conflicts and crimes than we are allowed to. But people also need to have an appropriate structure to do it. I think it was Winston Churchill who said, “We’re shaped by the institutions that govern us.” So if our institutions are top-down—if we need a judge in a black robe telling people how they should be punished—then we’re going to get one set of outcomes. But if we engage people with this alternative structure—in a circle where they acknowledge what happened, share how they’ve been affected, and then decide how to make it better—then we will get a whole different set of outcomes. This could happen in a workplace or in any number of places in our society where we don’t manage conflicts well.
Because urban areas with high concentrations of poverty have more violence than other communities, many assume that the people who live in them are different. And that is not true. We need to look at what structures we offer people in our society to resolve conflict and crime, because they determine the outcomes. The fact that people in highly distressed neighborhoods can negotiate solutions within the structure provided by Community Conferencing only emphasizes the fact that we are all capable of safely and effectively resolving many of our own conflicts. Maybe we could really prove this point if we could get the U.S. Congress to sit in circle and address some of their conflicts!
AD: You’ve been doing this since 1998. Do you feel that in that time the communities you’ve been active in have come to own the process more?
LA: It’s varied. Some neighborhoods have used the conferences consistently. Sometimes people move and attendance drops off. You know. I would say that the Streeper Street neighborhood was significantly changed. Many schools have embraced this, too, and they have significantly changed. But one thing I’ve learned is that this work does not just implement a new program; it changes our culture, which takes a long time and a lot of exposure.
AD: A nagging question about restorative justice programs in the U.S. is whether and how much they have actually impacted the larger system.
LA: I feel that they have. Restorative justice programs bring about reform from both the bottom up and the top down. In Baltimore, our juvenile courts are diverting felony and misdemeanor cases from their system to Community Conferencing. Could they refer more cases than they do? Absolutely. But for them to take a felony case and say, “We think these people can resolve it better through Community Conferencing than through our system,” that’s a significant change. And every year around 1,400 people in Baltimore participate in a Community Conference.
Has it completely changed our criminal justice system? No. But when judges call us and ask us how they can use Community Conferencing more, I know that we are making progress.
AD: That’s what I’m getting at. Do we incarcerate the largest percentage of our citizens of any country in the world? The answer is “yes.” So if that’s your metric of success, then restorative justice hasn’t done a whole lot.
LA: Well, cultural change doesn’t happen overnight. Kay Pranis, who is a leader in this country on restorative justice, says restorative justice is like groundwater. Most people don’t see groundwater but it nourishes a lot of things. Eventually, it’s going to bust through. So has restorative justice fixed everything? No. Is it incrementally making steps toward a tipping point? I would say, most definitely, yes.
It’s really starting to happen in education. A lot of school systems are talking about restorative practices. But it’s going to take a long time to change our cowboy-puritan culture of individuals to begin to look at things as relationships and accountability instead of punishment.
AD: So we are returning to where we started, the importance of community participation.
LA: In our facilitator training, we explain the four main features of participatory democracy, as my colleague David Moore defined them: Participation—inclusion; Equality—that everyone has an equal voice; Deliberation—that everything that is brought up is discussed and not swept under the rug; Non-tyranny—no one is allowed to dominate the conversation. I don’t know if you would agree with those four key points of participatory democracy.
AD: Those sound pretty good. Restorative justice holds that the public ought to own its conflicts, that we can’t give these problems over to professionals or state actors without a moral remainder left over for which we still need to be accountable. A broad swath of the public has a complacent attitude to the criminal justice system.
LA: Because most people affected and involved in a conflict do not get to participate in a court hearing. It is owned by other people and a whole other set of players who are very expensive.
AD:Community conferencing, as an especially participatory form of restorative justice, does attempt to broaden public responsibility for criminal justice.
LA: I think the more people you involve in the justice process the more potential there is for community building. Imagine justice that builds a sense of community. If only two people are involved, the potential for building community is very limited. That’s why we use the process we do. I love the fact that nobody talks on behalf of anybody else. Inclusion has a ripple effect and we include all the ripples.
Research on this project was done in partnership with the Kettering Foundation. More from this interview can be found at the Good Society Journal. Images provided by Albert Dzur and Lauren Abramson.
Albert W. Dzur is Professor of Political Science and Philosophy at Bowling Green State University. His recent books include Democracy Inside: Participatory Innovation in Unlikely Places and Rebuilding Public Institutions Together: Professionals and Citizens in a Participatory Democracy.
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