Evanston nonprofit tackles restorative justice

Alice Yin, Reporter

Evanston community members convened Tuesday night to learn about resolving school-related conflicts through mediated dialogue with local nonprofit Restorative Justice Evanston.

About 10 participants gathered at Curt’s Cafe, 2922 Central St., for the discussion. RJE’s director of training, Susan Trieschmann described the nonprofit’s philosophy of restorative justice, which involves bringing student victims and offenders together in discussion circles, free of charge, instead of going through judiciary proceedings.

“What they’ve said to us is it’s the first time anyone has listened to them, and adults in particular have listened to them,” Trieschmann told The Daily. “It was really beautiful.”

Started in 2007, the group’s loose forum-style discussions have helped students mutually agree on resolutions and avoid suspensions. Trieschmann, who helped found the community circle programs, said there is a 90 percent chance that participants in Evanston who go through the process will not be re-offenders. She said that too often a harsh punishment is dealt without mutual discussion of the actual crime, and that there are better solutions for youth than incarceration. Trieschmann is also the owner of Curt’s Cafe, a nonprofit that employs at-risk youth and gives them job skills.

“If there is an issue in the neighborhood, people can come to these circles as volunteers building camaraderie,” RJE’s public relations director Lohra Vogel, who attended the gathering, told The Daily in an interview.

After the overview of the program, the event conducted its own community circle. With a candle lit in the center, Trieschmann started the circle by reading an opening quote that acted as a conversation starter.

The circle of attendees passed around a rock in a clockwise direction that acted as a “talking piece,” allowing people with the rock to speak while others remained silent. Attendees discussed topics such as which people made the biggest impact in their lives and the words they would use to describe them.

“We were all restored today,” Trieschmann said after the circle concluded. “Just being here in a circle talking to each other.”

In Evanston, RJE allows restorative justice circle services for community conflicts, family group conferencing, Evanston Township High School conflicts and truancy intervention. RJE’s initiatives aim to both help the victim feel safe and to help the offender reintegrate in the community. To lead a circle, RJE volunteers need to undergo training and master how to properly listen to participants.

“We don’t judge,” Trieschmann said. “We’re not social workers; we’re here to give you space to tell your story.”

The philosophy of restorative justice has been around for thousands of years. Its most recent popular usage was in Native American communities, Vogel said.

“Eleanor Roosevelt said, ‘Never doubt what a small group of people can do to change the world,’” said Lina Cramer, an Evanston social worker who attended the event. “This is how it all started, and this is all good — people talking and stepping in to take on what they care about.”

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