When Kimiko Lighty hears Arlington residents commiserating on a listserv about how many cars had been vandalized and no one was doing anything about it; or how a woman was harassed by a group of maskless teens who coughed in her face, implying they were spreading COVID, and sped away laughing; then hears how these teens should be punished instead of “going through a restorative justice process,” it suggests to her that what we are doing now isn’t working.
“But what they are complaining about,” she notes, “is not Restorative Justice, because Restorative Justice hasn’t even been implemented yet in Arlington.” In fact, “what I am hearing is their need for fairness, safety, and feeling connected to where they live — and this is exactly the need RJ addresses in a very direct way.”
Restorative Justice was still in the planning phase through the Fall, and will just be entering the implementation phase now after the approval by the Arlington County Board of its strategic plan in November 2020. The Strategic Plan provides a framework for the County to adopt restorative justice practices in its public schools, legal system, and community settings.
Arlington expects to receive a $75,000 grant award from the Annie E. Casey Foundation to help implement the plan. “But,” says Lighty, “Even the conversations we are having now are making a difference.” It’s a very slow process. “In an ideal world, we’d have people available to address a harm done now, but people are not yet available. Restorative Justice doesn’t happen overnight. When I hear people saying ‘why hasn’t it come to Arlington yet?’ I tell them, “It’s like asking ‘when are you going to learn to read?’ You have to learn the alphabet first.”
COVID-19 did slow the Restorative Justice plan in Arlington to a degree, but the concept has slowly come to fruition: Liane Rozzell, the first Restorative Justice coordinator for Arlington, on loan to the County from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, worked hard to get people started on that alphabet.
“Most people tend to focus on targeted interventions to crime and conflict, but that’s not the first step. There are parts that we are able to implement now; other parts come later. One of the ‘letters of the alphabet’ we have in place now is the creation of VCircles or Virtual Circles to create community. We are working closely with partners at George Mason University’s Carter School for Peace and Conflict Resolution on basic circle training. We are also going to start this month on implementation team meetings for a program which is geared towards youth and young adults. This program will offer the option of a restorative conference to someone who has been harmed by a young person or young adult.”
For that implementation team Restorative Justice leaders have gathered people who are legal system actors and members of the community. GMU has been a key partner in Restorative Arlington, along with members of the working groups who explored how to adopt restorative justice practices in Arlington and contributed to the strategic plan.
The Restorative Arlington initiative has informed and educated hundreds of community members about restorative justice practices, and has built community and connection among people from all parts of the County through online restorative circles. It is a feather in Rozzell’s cap that she could do this under the constraints of COVID-19.
“We are particularly interested in having on the teams community people who have been harmed — we are in the final stages of recruiting for that — we want it to be representative. It’s basic: when you are seeking to address an issue, the people who are affected are the people you need to have engaged in the process.”
There’s a form called the ‘interest form,’ sent directly to Kimiko Lighty, who was named the new RJ Project Coordinator taking over from Rozzell this January. Prospective team members can share what they are interested in doing. Lighty reads every form submitted. (Forms are at: https://is.gd/RAform.)
Lighty and Rozzell are patient with newcomers to the Restorative Justice concept, particularly those who are impatient for change or such fans of Restorative Justice they want it done sooner. One can see why Lighty is a good choice for this next stage of RJ implementation. She has over a decade of experience as a Nonviolent Communications (NVC) practitioner, a communication method founded by Marshall Rosenberg. Lighty studied under Jane Connor, one of his students, to hone her skills. She carefully explains how Restorative Justice can’t be forced; trust must be built. “Restorative justice only works when it’s voluntary, when residents want to address a harm they have experienced. No one will force them to choose RJ.” While there is a tremendous need and desire for these services there is also ignorance about the concept and a lack of trust that it will satisfy the offended party.
Rozzell agreed. “It’s not profitable to argue with people to change the frame that they are working from; it only works if you find common ground. Everyone wants safety, and fairness, so if people feel their problems aren’t currently being addressed in a way that meets their needs — that’s not an RJ issue, it’s something else. But where RJ can come into play is where someone is identified as committing that crime, then the harm caused can be addressed in circles for people who have been traumatized and harmed. Just having a circle is part of RJ.”
To really help them understand what would happen in a restorative justice process, people need to visualize what happens. “The person who was harmed and the person who was responsible for the harm are put in a room with a trained facilitator, everyone is brought together, to express what the harm meant. Then the facilitator and participants work through the five aspects of accountability: first, acknowledge the harm; then, take responsibility for your own actions; then express remorse; then make the apology tangible by making amends. And lastly, making sure the offender walks out of the room as a person who won’t repeat that harm. These five aspects aren’t easy, but they represent TRUE accountability.”
Take the scenario on the listserve about the coughing teenagers who drove off in their jeep laughing and left a family feeling assaulted. The woman who felt injured had been wearing a Pride T-shirt. She felt that was one of the reasons the teenagers went after her as she walked along the road. She didn’t feel safe. If those teenagers were caught and charged, and as some suggested, “spent a week in the slammer” would they understand why what they did was harmful? Would they make amends to the injured woman? Or would they, arrested, be forever marked by a “crime” that was careless, immature, impulsive behavior? Would they do it again? The RJ approach attempts to turn the incident into an opportunity to cultivate empathy and build community between community members so they can see and leave both parties better for it. There are benefits to the people who have been harmed: they can understand why it happened, and see young people do something constructive to “make amends.” There are benefits to the offenders: they are held accountable, but not in a way that damages their lives; they learn from the experience, find ways to make it up to the offended party, and because of the process, stop the behavior.
Lighty is adamant about making sure Arlington residents understand this is not some middle ground that avoids jail or punishment nor is it about letting people off easy.
“No,” she explains. “It’s an alternative, not a compromise. Some people call it a middle ground because they don’t want a zero-sum game.”
So where is Restorative Justice headed? Lighty said, “Initially it will be used to deal with cases of bullying, on-line unwanted engagement, assault, things that are out of the realm of sexual harm, will be addressed first.” Why? “Because you want an experienced practitioner to address more serious offenses, and we will need to build capacity to address those harder things. We will start with cases that require less expertise.”
Rozzell nodded. “I’ve experienced, in the year that I’ve been working on this, that it’s easy to scare people when we are talking about those hot buttons, like sexual assault. We want to tread carefully. Building capacity is critical. And we would underscore that the needs of the person harmed are central. Building trust is a huge priority.”
Has Restorative Justice played a role in any offense this year? “There was the case of the Yorktown banner,” said Rozzell. “We got an outreach from Chief Equity Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Officer at APS, Arron Gregory, who let us know about this situation. (See sidebar. A school banner that showed a mosaic of photos of its students with all the photos of students of color in the darkly shaded parts of the lettering. It looked like a deliberately racist distinction.) “The new principal at YHS, Dr. Kevin Clark, was interested,” Rozzell continued. “He had heard about RJ and wanted a restorative process. We knew it would have to be as inclusive as possible, even though COVID-19 would make it hard to bring in as many members of the community as we would have liked. We were able to engage two nearby practitioners who work in nearby Alexandria schools. Students who were affected by the banner incident attended as well as YHS administration.” Rozzell demurred on discussing the outcomes of the restorative effort at Yorktown since the content of a restorative process is confidential. “We wish we had been able to meet in person - we were somewhat limited by COVID-19 in having more members of the community involved, but it did open up the conversation.”
Both Rozzell and Lighty are grateful for the mix of public and private funds which have made it possible to get this far in the process and will ensure the project gets implemented. “Human resources in the form of experts is being donated to the RJ program from all over the country, without which we would not be as far along as we are now. We have every intention of honoring those gifts of time and money,” said both women. They do still need fellow Arlingtonians who are trusted members of the community and who will reflect the needs of their neighbors, as volunteers or willing to be trained to be facilitators.
Lighty is interested in learning more about what interests and ideas people have about what the youth diversion program would look like: Community Voice form or https://is.gd/RAYYAPCommunityVoice This form is specific to the Youth and Young Adult Diversion Program Unlike the Interest Form which is more general about getting involved with Restorative Arlington.
For more about RJ in Arlington: see https://arlingtonva.s3.amazonaws.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/21/2020/11/RA-Strategic-Plan.pdf and https://topics.arlingtonva.us/restorative-arlington/
Or firstname.lastname@example.org/restorative-arlington) as well as: https://is.gd/ra_email
And to learn more about Restorative Justice practices: https://is.gd/learnrp
Kimiko Lighty is new Restorative Justice Coordinator in Arlington
Kimiko Lighty describes herself as the daughter of a local “rocket scientist” who worked at Goddard Space Center in Maryland. As she was growing up, she thought “you could build something to fix just about any problem.” Her father is half-Japanese, her mother Trinidadian, and she studied Science, Technology, and International Relations at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. How did she end up leading the Restorative Justice movement in Arlington?
Her interests were in nuclear-chemical-biological “risky technology” and in technocratic solutions to conflict resolution. She probably would have been at the table this year for any number of sensitive international negotiations had it not been for the last course she took at Georgetown, from Dr. Francesco Cho, called “Religion and Aesthetics,” about the ways people seek meaning. A light bulb went on for her: the way people make meaning of things is more important than resource distribution and innovations — or literally anything else.
And as she learned more about risky technologies, agro-bio-technology, and cellular technology, air traffic control, etc. she said, “What I found fascinating was that there was more conflict, not less, the more technology was introduced in any given situation.” She also realized there is not a conflict anywhere that is not based on how people make meaning — whether religion or ideology — and most strategies for conflict resolution ignore that.
So Lighty got a Masters Degree at GMU in Interdisciplinary Studies in Conflict Analysis and Resolution where the majority of her courses were in what is now the Carter School of Peace and Conflict Resolution.
Lighty came to the RJ role from a non-violent communications (NVC) background, and has been an innovator in the development of new techniques for conflict mitigation and resolution. What was funny was that one of her professors said she would be a really great conflict resolution mediator, but Lighty was focused on theory, not praxis, and wanted to keep studying. She was intending to do a doctoral degree in her field, but life intervened, including parenthood, and after some difficult years managing conflict in places she never expected to spend so much time — doctor’s offices, hospitals, and schools — she honed her skills in a less academic, but perhaps more practical, fashion.
Right after the 2016 election she realized she wanted to get more involved in her community; Lighty often served a moderating function and mediating function, and got formally trained in mediation. She had been a non-violent communication practitioner for about a decade, working on RJ in Prince George’s County, as well as with Restorative DC, and Northern Virginia Mediation Services (NVMS) Conflict Center. She worked specifically on the alternative accountability program run by NVMS in the Fairfax County Juvenile Courts, doing a lot of virtual work before Covid-19 had ever become a household word. Thus, when Liane Rozzell came to Arlington, Lighty was excited to be able to work where she lived, in a community that was important to her, and so she asked Rozzell what she could do to help. She joined the RJ team, collaborating with experts in restorative practices to develop and implement Restorative Arlington’s VCircle program, an online forum for community building and engagement even during physical distancing due to the Covid-19 pandemic. As an Arlington resident and the parent of an APS student, she is personally invested in the success of Restorative Justice practices.
Restorative Justice Helped Heal Yorktown After Banner Controversy
The senior class of 2020 at Yorktown found itself in the midst of a controversy about how minority students were represented on a class banner. The photos of students of color were obscured in shaded areas, less visible than the faces of white students.
Hannah Knittig, YHS Class of 2021, and Galilee Ambellu, Class of 2020, commented on the Restorative Justice efforts at Yorktown. Dr. Kevin Clark, principal, also discussed the effort.
“The restorative conference was held over the summer, after the incident with the banner in May 2020. The banner had been very hurtful. I first heard about it on Instagram and I couldn’t believe it. A lot of my friends were really upset about how something like that could happen. Although to me, and the friends I talked to, the banner itself wasn’t the end of the world, considering how Yorktown has had a lot of issues with discrimination in the past, it just added fuel to the fire. We didn’t think it was deliberate, but it was a white company that made the banner; it was reviewed by a white school administration; no one realized how it looked?”
“Was the Restorative Conference helpful? Yes. I attended the conference and really appreciated it. I thought it was a good decision to bring in experts to discuss the damage that was done by the banner. It could have been better attended; I don’t think it was publicized well enough. The people who were hurt the most by the banner weren’t at the conference. But the good news is: the administration tried. They apologized that the conference was so incomplete. And the outcome of all this has been positive. We have gotten our first ever school-wide assembly for Black History Month. Even though Shari Benites, the head of the Sister Circle at school [and Coordinator of Restorative Practices], has been pushing for a Black History Month celebration for years, it never happened — it seems — until the students let the administration know how they felt at the restorative conference.”
Dr. Kevin Clark, who came to Yorktown as principal last year, agreed. “We approached the RJ [restorative justice] folks to try to undo the harm that the banner had done. Our students were concerned,” he said. “We have a staff member who has been very involved with Restorative Justice at Yorktown as well as involved in RJ’s debut in Arlington, Shari Benitez, and so she and I reached out to Restorative Arlington, and got the process started. She and Arron Gregory and the RJ folks, the Chief Equity Officer, were able to provide support in organizing the conference. The facilitators from Alexandria public schools were impartial, objective and experienced. I can’t divulge the details because an RJ Conference is confidential, but I can tell you it was a powerful experience to hear from the students, as well as good way to come up with constructive ideas.
“As a result of the RJ conference, we are a community that is more able to recognize potential harm and more likely to have the skills to address it right away. We came up with an agreement at the end of it that serves as sort of a guideline for things to do to address the harm.”
“For us, generally addressing the culture at Yorktown is a long term process” Clark said. “APS is doing it district wide — developing an equity team and a restorative justice team. Our whole staff has had a general training in RJ but a few have a deeper training of three days or more to really put RJ in practice. We will employ RJ principles in areas like discipline, where we can make it more responsive to the harm. It doesn’t do a lot of good to expel a student if the harm remains unaddressed.”
“Arlington is now developing that internal capacity to use these practices in a more comprehensive way; they are hoping to hire RJ staff in the schools. Shari Benites cannot do it all. We want to have people in our building to address these things quickly and with follow up. We hope there is money in the budget for that….let’s see. It’s a really powerful philosophy. ...
“Since coming to Yorktown last year, knowing its reputation and the concerns of students, I have made an effort to reach out. I have gone to the John Langston Citizens Association to introduce myself, and set up an equity team with 40 students and community members. We have developed a great relationship and have connected with the part of Arlington history that so many people don’t know or understand, and we are going to bring that local history to students in the school-wide assembly on Friday, Feb. 26, an assembly that we believe will have a restorative effect on some of that history. The RJ conference really helped come up with a to-do list that will add to what we had already started.”