Over the last several years, UW faculty, students, alumni, and community members have worked together to implement programs based on principles of restorative and transformative justice in Washington state. Alongside incarcerated people, survivors of violence, and others, Prof. Katherine Beckett and Martina Kartman of the UWCHR and LSJ’s Rethinking Punishment project began work that has evolved into Collective Justice (CJ), an organization “harnessing the collective power of communities to build new pathways of accountability and healing.”
Prior to 2017, there were no long-term, in-depth restorative or transformative justice programs available to incarcerated people or crime victims in the Pacific Northwest. Restorative justice processes “involve, to the extent possible, those who have a stake in a specific offense to collectively identify and address harms, needs and obligations, in order to heal and put things as right as possible” (Zehr 2002, cited in Beckett and Kartman, 2016). Transformative justice extends these principles to call for changes in the material and social conditions that perpetuate harm. These processes can look very different in practice, but most involve bringing people together to tell their stories and work towards accountability and repair, with the support of trained facilitators. Research has shown that such programs have many benefits, both for people who have experienced harm, and for people who have caused it.
With an institutional home at the Public Defender Association in Seattle, Collective Justice now provides an organizational framework for restorative and transformative justice programs involving incarcerated people, survivors of harm, and communities. These include Healing Education and Accountability for Liberation (HEAL) Circles for people incarcerated at Washington State Reformatory at Monroe Correctional Complex; Survivor Circles for community members impacted by violence; Dialogue and Accountability Processes for people addressing interpersonal conflict and harm in their communities; and a Heal2Action Leadership Academy to equip survivors to lead policy change and advocate for community-centered approaches to safety and justice.
To learn more about Collective Justice’s work, we met up (virtually!) with staff and collective members for a conversation about their vision, values, and goals. We spoke with CJ staff members co-founder and Strategy and Capacity Coordinator Martina Kartman, Operations Coordinator Metasabia Rigby, and DAP Coordinator Devon Adams; and collective member Teddy McGlynn-Wright. In a year in which the coronavirus pandemic and nationwide uprisings for Black lives have brought new urgency to discussions of mass incarceration, state violence, and community-centered approaches to safety and justice, their experience and insights could not be more relevant.
Martina Kartman: My name’s Martina, I’ve been with CJ from the beginning and helped to get it started, and I don’t know my new role now, my new title! We haven’t figured it out yet. We just rearranged our workload and titles. I work on supporting the capacity development of the organization. And I’ll pass it to Sabibi!
Metasabia Rigby: Hi, I am Sabia. How did I come to CJ? I was one of the first facilitators that got trained up for the Healing Education for Accountability and Liberation (HEAL) program that went to Monroe Correctional Complex. My current role is as operations and development coordinator. That’s about me, I’ll pass it to Devon.
Devon Adams: Hi y’all, I’m Devon Adams, I came through CJ last week, I was hired on to work on the Dialogue and Accountability Process with the rest of the folks. Prior to this I was incarcerated—I’m still incarcerated technically. I was at Washington State Reformatory when they had the first HEAL process, and I got to learn a lot about restorative and transformative work, and was given the opportunity to come and work with the organization. I thought it would be a great idea, so here I am! There’s only one person left, the great Teddy!
Teddy McGlynn-Wright: Hilarious, thanks Devon! My name is Teddy McGlynn-Wright, and I came on early on. So after the facilitators were chosen for this project, I got to step in in a supportive role to that facilitator crew. My role was to do some trauma stewardship work with that group. As we hear folks’ stories of trauma and whatnot, it accumulates, so part of my role was to help them kind of discharge that, and then to skill up. I have a background as a facilitator, so a lot of it was about, what are some really specific facilitative skills that people need to be practiced in? And that role continues in different angles and capacities at this point.
On HEAL circles and the beginnings of Collective Justice
Martina: We have three central programs that function as an integrated whole. And we leverage our lessons from what we’re learning on the ground for broader structural and policy change, for organizing. The first is the HEAL program of circles for currently incarcerated people, which meets every week for 12-15 months. Part of what we wanted to do there, and why it’s so long, is that a lot of us as facilitators reflected on being in spaces where we get tools, like “here’s a tool for this, here’s a thing for that”, but not a lot of space to be in it, to actually practice and embody those tools in relationship with each other, and so we really wanted to make that possible. In, I think 2016, it might have been ‘15, the Black Prisoners’ Caucus and the Concerned Lifers Organization at Monroe Correctional Complex were already discussing restorative justice, and starting to do some of your own work there, and also thinking about how you could have more support in that work.
Devon: Yeah, there was a strong desire from a lot of the members of the organizations to have a restorative process with the people they had harmed. But there was nothing in place for that to happen. So Martina and Dr. Katherine Beckett, who was a sponsor for the CLO and BPC, started to shop around the idea of having a restorative process potentially introduced to the prison. That’s how the ball started to roll. When folks from the Insight Prison Project came up around the end of 2016 or early 2017, that was really when everyone really got interested in this idea, they saw that it was working, and individuals really wanted to pursue that process.
Martina: And at the same time in community, API Chaya and the NW Network and other anti-violence organizations were really leading the way on restorative and transformative justice. So these two things were happening in community and the prison at the same time, starting to think critically about criminalization as a front-line approach to violence, and what else we could do. So then we went and met, like Devon was saying, with Insight Prison Project and Ahimsa Collective, which are two organizations in California that do work that is similar to ours, they do RJ work with folks who are incarcerated and in the community. They started training us up and skilling us up. And then we launched HEAL in…
Metasabia, Devon: December 2017.
Martina: That’s crazy! December 2017 at Washington State Reformatory at Monroe Correctional Complex. I think we started with 45 participants, 13 per circle and 6 facilitators, based off the work of Ahimsa, Insight, the NW Network’s relationship skills class, and some of our own work that we brought in. And then we launched our first survivors’ circle in 2018. So now we’re at a natural outgrowth of those two programs which is to do some more direct dialogues, which Devon is going to be leading for us. So that’s the arc of how we got started. And because the Department of Corrections (DOC) is not allowing anyone in now due to coronavirus we’re in the middle of conversation about shifting that programming so that we can offer it in community.
Devon: From a person who was in prison, the role that I saw that CJ was playing was teaching individuals about accountability, what that is for them. Learning to understand what harms or experiences caused a lot of us to think and believe a certain way, and how that played out in our lives, and how we actually harmed others. That perpetual cycle of violence. Learning to separate the things we did from who we actually are, and doing that in a setting that was really supportive. One of the things that made that process so effective, I know for myself, were the relationships we had with the facilitators, nothing compared to other programs. You don’t have relations with DOC staff, they’re not equipped to support you through that process of unpacking a lot of the things that have happened in a person’s life. What I noticed was that we began to take the skills that we were learning outside of the circles and applying it in the community that we lived in. When you’re experiencing conflict or tension, even with administration, with the skills that we had, with communication, holding ourselves accountable for our behavior and trying to do that with one another, we saw a strengthening in the community and the work that we were doing outside of HEAL, whether that was in the Black Prisoners’ Caucus or the Concerned Lifers Organization.
On community circles for survivors
Martina: Our second program is providing circles of healing and support for people impacted by violence in the community. It really uses a lot of the same curriculum as the HEAL circles, a lot of the same work. Initially we thought we should develop a whole different thing, and the reality is that healing work is healing work, and both are necessary for accountability as well. It ends up being really similar. Those two programs also involve an opportunity to meet. So for people in the survivor circle, many of whom will never have the opportunity to talk directly to the person that’s harmed them, they’re able to go in, they went in last year to the prison and we were able to be in circle together, and able to be in community and share our stories with each other. I think one of the most profound characteristics of our penal system, but also of experiencing trauma and violence, is isolation, so part of the work is about breaking isolation and being in community. And if we understand violence as something that happens in isolation, then healing is something that happens in relationship. We’re really trying to do that in the work, and that’s part of bringing folks together. So both of those programs we’re having to reimagine right now under the conditions that we’re in due to the coronavirus pandemic. The community circles for survivors were held first by Calvin Burnap, Stacy Torres and Teddy for our Survivor Advisory Board, which is a group of incredibly powerful individuals who have survived profound violence and are coming together to heal and imagine new possibilities. We now have a community circles team that includes two of the survivors we first worked with, Kathei McCoy and DeVitta Briscoe, who are co-facilitating our circles now. One of our foundational values is bringing folks into the work to hold it themselves.
Metasabia: I think what we are continuously trying to do is to get communities that are most impacted to actually have a conversation about how violence and harm has played out, and to understand the intricacies of that, of the machine, of the state. To understand that when you bring together survivors that have survived multiple forms of violence, being like, “Wait, it didn’t work for you? That system didn’t work for anybody here? So what are we doing?!” And also to see one another and realize that the communities that are always discarded, and disposable, and that are behind bars, are not getting services; are the ones even on the outside that are not getting services. A lot of times people are like, “No no no, the people who are sent away are the bad people, and the survivors are the good people.” And we are continuously having to live with that tension, and having to be in constant practice with people who do want some simplicity and answers, and then we have to be like, “we’re gonna complicate things, because even you said that you weren’t given answers, you weren’t even able to get services to counselling, let alone to speak with someone that caused the harm.”
On dialog and accountability processes
Martina: Our third program is our Dialog and Accountability Processes, which are an opportunity for individuals in the community to do a restorative justice process when they ask for it. We’ve had a lot of requests for those and a lack of capacity to respond to all of them, but now with Devon here we’re building up that program more, and that’s really exciting. We are facilitating a few processes right now, but we’ll be able to do more.
Devon: What I would like to see is continuing to educate people on how to address harm in a way that is teachable, that doesn’t require folks to keep coming back to CJ, but to pass that on within their families, within their communities, and spread organically. So people have a new skill set, they have a new way of thinking. Empowering people to understand the power that they have when it comes to addressing harm, and sharing those skills with those in their communities, so they’re not required to go into the criminal legal system at all. So seeing that happen in a prison context, I believe that is replicable out here in the community, it just takes a lot more time and a lot more effort. But seeing it, in one of the most violent places that you can exist, actually take root and begin to see those seeds, see things grow, was really the main factor that made me believe in the process and want to come work for CJ. I saw something in this organization that was different, that was promising, that involved everybody. I think it’s more intentional about that, to continue to take that and share that with other folks in the community and hopefully have a real impact when it comes to violence and harm.
From healing to action
Martina: And then the last piece is leveraging what we learn from that to start thinking about how we can elevate the work to shift the conditions that lead us to where we are right now. So Dashni Amin, one of our colleagues, is working on a HEAL2Action program to support survivors to build shared political analysis and tools to start engaging in that. We’re thinking about healing responses to harm both on an interpersonal level but also as a political framework, to respond to violence without more violence. A real understanding that the way that we’re currently responding to interpersonal violence is with state violence, and that does both nothing to create the conditions for accountability, or healing, or to make things as right as possible; but it also doesn’t address the underlying conditions that lead to violence to begin with. So part of what we’re doing on an interpersonal level is starting to build the skill and the capacities in our communities to respond to harm with something different; and in doing so hoping to be not just responding in the aftermath of harm, but building skills so that people can start intervening and preventing harm to begin with.
Teddy: I think for folks on the outside, just to echo what Sabia is saying, and something that Martina had said earlier, is this piece around—if we know that interpersonal violence happens in the context of structural violence, and never happens without the context of structural violence, then having structural and state violence as a response to interpersonal violence is the thing that is most likely to continue that cycle and the thing that is least likely to reduce harm. So part of what happens for the folks for the outside, for survivors, for community circles, is that they have to reckon with the desire for, as Sabia was saying, simple answers. And I think really explicitly, folks want punishment and resolution. And having to reckon with, even the most extreme version of punishment doesn’t give me resolution, doesn’t leave me feeling more whole, doesn’t bring my son back—none of that shit happens. So folks have to grieve that, grieve that narrative that “I’m a survivor, or I’m a victim, or I was harmed,” etcetera, and “here’s what I deserve, and here’s how I need to fit into that story”, and instead say, “Oh, I am on multiple sides of harm, the folks who have harmed me are on multiple sides of harm, and what we need to find is the actual way through, that leaves us more whole,” rather than, “what’s the most egregious, intense, exemplary punishment that we can bring from the state.” And that’s not to say that everyone walks away from that circle being like, “I’m all for restorative and transformative justice and I’m going to fight for it all my life,” but people do walk out of that space going like, “Oh damn, I actually have to encounter this experience differently.”
On structure and values
Martina: Our structure is that we have five full-time staff on Collective Justice. We just shifted our model a bit to be flatter in structure. Those five staff really help bottom-line the projects, but so much of the work that we’re able to do is possible because we have a much larger community that’s engaging with us. We have teams that hold the work: we have a facilitation team for the community circles, we have a facilitation team for the HEAL work, we’re starting to build the capacity for Devon’s DAPs work, we have a Survivor Advisory Board. Teddy’s a good example of people who have been incredible resources, that have allowed our work to grow in alignment with our values, and really help shape the work. It’s very much not a project that’s held by staff alone. Some of those folks who are supporting are paid, some are unpaid, some are stipended and some people are volunteering, and we intend to maintain that model so that we can grow the capacity to meet the need and not build a giant non-profit, that’s not our plan. And part of that is because of our understanding of RJ work as work that’s meant to be done in community. Some of that’s formal, or informal, but trying not to replicate the institutionalized and social-service model of providing support to people. We don’t want to be a hotline that you call and then we show up and we facilitate, and you feel better on the other side, but you leave and don’t know what happened. Our goal is around planning for empowerment, our goal is building up skill and capacity in community. That means that we want to grow internally, organizationally, to match that value. So just in terms of how we do our work, those are the programs, and it’s done with a lot of support from a lot of people who are not on CJ staff but that I want to elevate and lift up too. And to be replicable. We get the question a lot about scale up, and our answer is always that we’re not trying to scale up CJ’s work, we’re trying to replicate and scale up the work for people to do in their own communities.
Teddy: The other piece that Martina was naming around the way that the political commitment lives within the organization is to say, we’re going to stay about this side, we’re going to really focus on folks’ skill and well-being. We’re going to say that we could not do this without this level of resource from community, keep that accountability piece really on lock. Because of the way that we chose to be in an accountable relationship, the resources can flow differently. When we’re thinking about what are the responses to a carceral logic that pits people against each other for resources, we have to say, we can let this go, or here’s what I can do or what I can’t do given the commitments that I have inside of a capitalist state. The same for our Survivor Advisory Board, for all of our volunteers, we’re really playing with this model of what’s compensated and stipended and what’s not and how do we balance that. That has to stay a relevant conversation or you end up in that non-profit industrial complex zone where we value people who we pay, and we undervalue people who we don’t pay, whatever. That’s not the commitment. It keeps it in the transformation lane and not the transactional lane.
Metasabia: Teddy, one of the things that you always say is that we have a belief in people’s worth, around disposability and how that’s not something that we even entertain. And also we know that people grapple with that. But you say that a lot more eloquently, and help us to believe that is true about ourselves! [laughs] I believe that about other people, and I sometimes struggle about myself!
Teddy: Thanks for that Sabia. This is part of what Martina was talking about: it’s not just an interpersonal process, it’s also a political stance, this foundational belief that no one is disposable. Part of the role—prisons obviously play lots of roles, right?—but one of the roles is as a place where we can throw people away. So for us as an organization and as a set of individuals, we say, as sujatha baliga talks about, “there is no away.” So if we go to the places where we have thrown people away and say, “Hey, y’all still have worth and value here”, even in this place that’s going to consistently tell you that’s not true, part of what we’re doing is making that political stance a reality through our interpersonal actions. The other piece that I talk about is against a politics of disposability, that is to say, even for folks in my own personal life who I am most wanting to distance myself from and say, “No, not you, I’m going to throw you away, I need to not have any kind of relationship”; that the practice is to recognize that even when I want to throw someone away that we are actually still in relationship, and what I am doing is being in denial of that fact. And if I return to the reality, which is, even for the folks who I am most in opposition to, most loathsome of, most want to get away from—I’m still in relationship with that person, so what does it mean for me to be in right relationship with that person? And how do we model that, as a program or a practice? And how do we live it? The role of the facilitator is to have that belief be so axiomatic, so foundational, that it disrupts and disturbs whatever of that narrative or notion they’re coming in with.
Martina: Can I add to that, Teddy? Part of the framework that got us there, also, is the framing of, if we are building something different—so much of the work that people are in is about fighting harmful systems, the destructive work, the work of trying to get in the way of harmful systems and harm that’s happening. And then there’s the work of building up, of dreaming and building something different and living into that. I think that’s part of the work that we’re in, and part of that is about shifting in our own minds and relationships with each other and community, the ways in which we mirror the logic of the state. Trying to think about how we can have presence of values and being that looks different than that. How are we actually getting that out of our bodies and our mind and building new ways to be in relationship with each other?
Devon: I really feel that with the values that we have here in the organization that we can be accountable to ourselves and one another and the community, which is going to help us as we move forward. I think that as long as that remains intact, then whatever the outcome is when you’re dealing with outside organizations or state agencies, I really feel confident in the work that we’re going to do, that we’ll stay true to who we are and still have an impact in the community.
On the pitfalls and possibilities of the current moment
Martina: Some of the pitfalls are co-optation, institutionalization, non-profit industrial complex stuff. Some of the state actors that might be seen as adversarial are really interested in restorative justice, really wanting to think about ways that they can offer restorative justice in their offices, and stay relevant in order to do so. It’s been a real challenge to stay on purpose, and clear about our lane, and practice saying no to some of the requests that we’re getting that I think are not aligned with our long-term vision, and to leave room to say yes to the things that we have been doing. In some ways, we’ve been doing a thing, and we need to keep doing it, and continue to deepen it.
Devon: I’m in a process of transition, trying to figure out the landscape. In a few meetings that I’ve sat in on, a lot of these things resemble the issues that we faced in prison. Dealing with administration in prison seems to be like dealing with some of these state or county agencies. When I see it, it’s just, now you’re dealing with more resources. You have instead of Black Prisoners’ Caucus, Concerned Lifers’ Organization, Latino Development Organization, certain other cultural groups, there’s these resources that it seems like the system pits people against each other to get these resources. It really stops the work. But it’s not different from what we experienced in prison, where there are certain benefits afforded to certain groups over others. And we have to find a way to work through those things and understand that it’s designed to do this on purpose, so that when they find really good ideas, they take them and turn them into what they want them to be.
Teddy: I want to really name what Devon was just sharing about the carceral logic—it’s real! If the idea is, keep people isolated, like Martina said; keep folks down, keep folks from being in a collective and having collective responses; then the carceral logic says to keep people split, make them compete over resources.
Martina: I think some of the possibilities are that there’s momentum, and a thing that people didn’t know at all what it meant a couple years ago, people are talking about it now. That can be a way in to start the work. For us it has also meant that people who are directly impacted who really do have specific requests for dialog and accountability processes are requesting it more, which is a positive.
Metasabia: For me, at this moment, it’s a lot about—there are so many possibilities that we can live into, so, so, so, so many, and we’re seeing people’s possibilities being just… assaulting all of us. I think it’s just a time to continue practicing what CJ does best, and that’s practicing to continue to be in right relationship with one another and with ourselves. I just think that asks for a lot, actually, and it does excite me to be like, yeah, everywhere is your field of practice. But that does mean you have to know what you’re practicing. And you have to be knowing who you are bringing with you. And that every day is not going to be peachy. Knowing that we’re going to be in conflict, but also understanding that in this moment, where there are so many agendas being thrown at us…we always have to come back to ourselves and our values and our truth. And our truth is that all of us are worthy of dignity, that’s not up for discussion; and that all of us are incredibly different, and are experts of our own lived experience, and we have to be in that tension with one another to share the lessons and the wisdom and the struggles and the pitfalls. We have to be in practice—especially in corona time—how to be in deep relationship virtually, and in distance. I see us having to practice, and being more creative, and being more curious. Speaking to the grief—being in better relationship with grief, and how present that is for all of our lives, and how it impacts people all of the time. So this is a time for an incredible reckoning, and being honest and clear about what our orientation is, will help us move forward in a way that is aligned and be able to see more meaningful transformation.