Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Restorative justice: How it's redefining what it means to be a man for Santa Ana's troubled Latino youth

Restorative justice, culturally relevant pedagogy is definitely a route out of the substance abuse, violence, difficulties with relationships, and school failure that many youth face.  I love that they work in and with "community building circles." This is indeed an indigenous way of knowing and being in the world that helps create that circle of love, protection, sense of equality, and holistic way of being in the world.  We have much to learn in education about the power of the circle.


Jesus Reyes, 15, left, can effortlessly recite his goals of "being a man of his palabra (word)."CINDY YAMANAKA, STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
BY ALEJANDRA MOLINA / STAFF WRITER SANTA ANA – It was Jesus Reyes’ turn to speak.

Reyes, 15, had been hanging out with the wrong crowd. He was tagging walls and ditching school.

He wanted something better.

“I want to leave all my mistakes, so this coming year I could be a good leader,” Reyes said on a Saturday morning at the nonprofit Latino Health Access in Santa Ana.

Reyes and about 30 others gathered in a circle to talk about substance abuse, school failure, relationships and violence.

One by one, mothers spoke anxiously about their sons’ drug problem, while the teenage boys talked about difficulties with school.
In Santa Ana – where nearly 80 percent of residents are Latino and where young men are incarcerated at higher levels than other Orange County cities – community organizers are implementing frameworks that focus on the root causes instead of punishment.

Known as restorative justice, it’s being used in schools across the state to create accountability and unity through community building circles – a model that traces its roots to indigenous societies.

The practices take different forms. In Long Beach, for example, programs have catered to second-generation Southeast Asian youth, reeling from their parents’ trauma of the Cambodian genocide.

Here in Santa Ana, coordinators are hoping to reach Latino youth by instilling a “rites of passage” curriculum, or Joven Noble, that challenges the myth that manhood is defined by physical dominance and sex. Manhood, the practice says, is about honor, generosity and respect.

For Reyes, expressing his feelings proved a struggle. He said he rebelled after his older brother died. He would bottle up his feelings and resort to “punching something and making a hole in the wall.”

After learning about Joven Noble, his outlook is different.

Reyes now believes that real men respect women, and they’re responsible. They let out their emotions. “They actually get emotional,” he said.

Reyes is an eighth-grade student at Community Day – an alternative school that serves fewer than 100 students. He enjoys math and reading. He kills time playing handball outside his house and says he’s working hard to move up to the ninth grade.


Ignacio Rios, 24, is a “circle keeper.”

Rios, from Santa Ana, works with the Santa Ana Boys and Men of Color, the California Endowment-funded group that has started the Joven Noble curriculum at Lorin Griset Academy, Community Day, Spurgeon Intermediate and Valley High.

Rios rotates his time between Lorin Griset Academy and Spurgeon Elementary and facilitates the 10-session Joven Noble curriculum: a character development program for boys and men ages 10 to 24.

The program has its roots in South Los Angeles, Compton and Watts to address Latino youth struggling and “exhibiting their pain with substance abuse and gangs.”

Jerry Tello, director of the National Latino Fatherhood and Family Institute, who developed Joven Noble, said when programs honor one’s identity and culture, “problem behaviors begin to lessen.”

Teachers and counselors at pilot schools send a list to coordinators, or circle keepers, of 15 students who have displayed behavioral problems or who would benefit from the curriculum. Enrollment would be an alternative to suspension, Rios said.

Gathered in a circle, students can vent about their weekend or highlight something positive for the week. A lot of it is storytelling, having a conversation. Within those circle discussions, Rios said, “it gives us a space to re-establish the values, traditions.”

At the core of Joven Noble is redefining what it means to be a man.

“With this curriculum, we challenge the way these young men and women look for respect, the way they look for love at home,” Rios said.

The teaching, added Rios, aims to show that “power is not in your hands, not in your fist, but in your heart and in your mind.”

“What’s important to realize is that it’s not a quick fix,” said Rios, acknowledging that the boys grow up in environments of gangs and violence.


State Department of Justice reports show that in Orange County, more Latino male juveniles come in contact with county law enforcement than any other ethnic groups.

Latino juveniles were largely arrested on misdemeanor offenses for assault and battery, marijuana related offenses, vandalism and petty theft.

For three years, the Orange County Probation Department received grant funding from the Board of State and Community Corrections to address the high numbers of young men of color who come into contact with the juvenile justice system.

Through that funding, the W. Haywood Burns Institute – a San Francisco-based nonprofit in the juvenile justice field – was hired to develop a system to monitor disparities. It has also trained the juvenile division of the Probation Department on the basics of racial and ethnic inequalities.

Ed Harrison, spokesman for the Orange County Probation Department, said when the court sends a youth to Juvenile Hall, the department makes custody decisions based on an “objective, research-supported screening instrument.”

“Demographics are not a factor in determining detention,” he said.


Restorative justice coordinators in Santa Ana are striving to prevent that contact between the youth and law enforcement.

The program thus far has been funded by the California Endowment, but that funding expires in September. Costs for a full-time employee to facilitate the curriculum and for other restorative practices are estimated at $55,000 to $75,000 per school site. Forty students have graduated from the curriculum.

Abraham Medina, with the Santa Ana Boys and Men of Color, said funding may be granted a second year through September 2016.

The goal, though, is to fund restorative justice programming through state funding that the Santa Ana Unified board in 2014 approved under the Local Control Accountability Plan.

That money, Medina said, can go a long way. He sees the district having higher graduation rates and better social and emotional development of students. In mid-February, restorative justice coordinators began a second round of the curriculum.

“The outcomes have been powerful,” Medina said. “The youth that go through the whole curriculum have exhibited changes in their behavior and mindset.”

By bringing in culturally informed curriculum, Medina said it’s not just the youth who will experience healthier outcomes, but the overall community.


Reyes, who took the curriculum, is an example a teen striving for a healthier lifestyle.

That Saturday, Reyes took part in a talking circle where both adults and youths were given the opportunity to hear each other out. It was a retreat for restorative justice coordinators in Santa Ana to “practice what they preach” with the community’s parents and youth.

One by one, participants took a piece of sage and a wooden stake imprinted with “palabra,” which translates into “word.”

With the sage and stake in hand, they expressed what they’re grateful for, talked about concerns, or spoke of goals they wanted to achieve. During the circle, Reyes talked about starting anew. He recalled that at one point he ditched school for three weeks.

Now, Reyes effortlessly recites what it means to be a man of his palabra: taking responsibility for actions, being a positive example to others, never telling a lie and always asking for help.

“I got in because I wanted to change,” he said.

His dad, Jesus Reyes, has noticed that change in his son. “His attitude is different,” his father said. He’s putting a lot of effort in school now.”

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