Excerpts From an Interview With Teiahsha Bankhead, a Social Work Professor and Co-executive Director of Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth

Conducted by Philip Hellmich, Director of Peace for The Shift Network

Hello everyone, and welcome back to another session here of Inspiring Positive Social Change, cutting-edge insights from spirituality, neuroscience, and peace building. I'm thrilled to be hosting Teiahsha Bankhead, who I had the pleasure of meeting recently at a gathering in the Washington DC area called Innovating in Challenging Times. I was so impressed with Teiahsha that we invited her to be a part of Inspiring Positive Social Change.

Teiahsha Bankhead, PhD, is an Associate Professor in the Division of Social Work at California State University, Sacramento and co-executive director of Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth. She recently served as co-chair of the National Association of Community and Restorative Justice’s sixth national conference.

Teiahsha, you are such a wealth of experience, expertise, passion, and heart. I know that you personally bridge these areas of peace building and spirituality. How did you personally come into this work of restorative justice?

It’s been a part of me all my life. I was raised by a kind of '60s radical mother, I think, who was interested and passionate about peace building. Every piece of my upbringing had involvement in the radical social justice movement. I became a social work professor, got a masters and PhD in social work, and was a professor teaching research methods in the social work department when I really became aware of this sort of justice. I was also and am a licensed clinical social worker, so I had an open therapy practice, and was doing consultation with progressive social justice organizations mostly around fundraising and program development.

Teiahsha Bankhead

Anyway, I was teaching an advanced research methods class at California State University Sacramento. The students, as a part of their culminating experience, go out into community organizations looking for research projects. There was a restorative justice program in San Quentin that worked with people, most of whom had been in custody for decades and were serving life sentences.

The organization was interested in determining the efficacy of the restorative justice process that they were delivering. They wanted us to quantitatively analyze and assess it. That was really my first entrée into restorative justice. My students took several years actually to advise the organization on how to create surveys and instruments that would adequately assess the impact in a quantitative way. We did that, and we found really amazing results. Things like compassion were increased, and impulsivity and aggression were reduced after exposure to about a year of a weekly intensive restorative justice program. For me, that really touched my heart and made me want to dedicate more of my time and energy to restorative justice.

Then I was consulting with RJOY, Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth, mostly around fund development and individual event production, and I was then asked to do an evaluation of the youth at a juvenile hall and juvenile camp to determine if the program was impacting significantly in some of the youth. What we found was a reduction in anger. I worked closely with the lovely and dynamic Fania Davis who's the founder and co-executive director of RJOY, and worked really beautifully with her and started to supervise staff. Fania planned to retire soon, and so we formed a collaboration around ushering in our new direction in restorative justice for that organization.

Beautiful. I just love how you said this touched your heart and that you dedicated more and more of your time to it, and saw the impact it's having. Teiahsha, we'll have some people listening who might be new to restorative justice. Just briefly before we talk about the impact of the recent conference, can you explain a restorative justice approach?

A restorative justice approach is counter to a punitive approach to resolving harm. It looks at harm not as something that we need to punish people for engaging in, but in harm as something that harms all people, those people who are seen as the actors and those who are seen as the recipients of harm. Where there's harm that's done, everyone is harmed. The solution has to be one that restores harmony and balance to the entire community. There's accountability certainly, but all voices are heard in that process, and there's equity in terms of the resolution of that harm. We're not trying to harm others.

A philosophy of restorative justice is that hurt people hurt people. If you're hurt, you may hurt someone else. Getting to the root cause of that pain, trying to resolve that so the entire community or system isn't enduring pain and radiating that pain and harm to others. Even in extreme cases of harm like homicide or child sexual abuse, there are hurt people throughout that system, people who are typically seen as the perpetrators and the victims.

As you say this, I'm moved just to imagine the many different cases you've been working with directly and that it's having positive impact and, as you say, awakening compassion in very grounded, practical ways. I've looked a little bit at the RJOY website. You've documented the impact, and it's saving money for schools and reducing quite a bit of problems. Please briefly touch upon the positive impact of restorative justice.

Restorative justice right now is absolutely on the rise in terms of a burgeoning area throughout the nation. Eleven years ago or so when Fania began RJOY, that was not the case. Not much was known about this movement, and it was very difficult to get funders and school districts, for example, to open their eyes and pay attention to this model as a possibility. We began with demonstrating the efficacy of this work in whole-school restorative justice in a few schools in Oakland. We were interested in the schools that had the most difficult statistics, if you will, the most expulsions, the most suspensions, the lowest GPA scores, the lowest test scores, and the most conflict, the schools that had police officers called to the schools most often.

We went in and implemented full whole-school restorative justice, so training the teachers, training the providers working with students so that they could facilitate their own restorative justice circles so that both small conflicts and larger ones, or small questions and bigger ones, or even just this goal to build community, that all of that could be done utilizing a restorative justice practice and restorative justice principles. In implementing whole-school restorative justice, it begs the question of basically pausing when thinking about what is the response to harm when it occurs for the administrators and for the people who have that authority, the adults in the system. It also begs the question of pausing for a youth who might be about to engage in an act that may be thought of as causing harm to others.

What that resulted in just quantitatively and statistically is significant reductions in suspensions. In many of our schools, there was the complete elimination of expulsions, as well as increases in test scores and GPA. When we found these positive results all around the school district, Oakland Unified School District paid attention to that. Today, a decade later, Oakland has adopted restorative justice as its official school policy as opposed to the punitive policy district-wide. It now has a $3 million budget and 30 full-time staff providing restorative justice intervention throughout the district.

That's incredible. Congratulations to you, and the whole RJOY team, and the many restorative justice practitioners around the world. You can see how this disrupts the prison pipeline.

Yes, it certainly disrupts the school-to-prison pipeline. What we know is that with one contact, one school suspension, and certainly one arrest increases the likelihood of non-completion of an education for youth and the likelihood that they’ll enter into the adult criminal justice system. We try passionately to never let that first arrest happen, to never let that first suspension or expulsion happen because it opens a door to a road that we don't want any of our youth to pass through. It really is interrupting the possibility of a broken life as we see it. We work really hard to not have that happen at all.

Many of the youth that we employ and that we work with have stories that are dramatic. We have one youth who was suspended over 100 times from about 19 schools during his 12 years in public school education. It wasn't just in one county or one school district, but multiple school districts. It's hard for folks to imagine that these things are happening currently in the cities in which we live, but they really are. It's a shadow existence if you are not aware of it. If you have no knowledge of it, you feel like, "This can't be happening in 2017. This doesn't happen to anyone," and that's really not true.

Oh my god, and just the fact that you're able to work in really grounded, practical ways. I love that you talk about awakening compassion. We've partnered with Stanford looking at the science behind compassion in previous summits. This is such a relevant question for today because right now there seems to be so much polarization in the United States, so much tension, so much division, and yet there's this positive movement.

Yes, I’d like to speak directly about compassion. I'm a long-term, Buddhist practitioner of Vipassana meditation. I believe in the power of the present moment, just really being present in the moment, practicing non-attachment and cultivating compassion. Most restorative justice work is done in circles. We use a talking piece that symbolizes and allows for equity among the members. When we come to a restorative justice process, someone who's the director, or the principal, or a doctor has no more or less power than someone who has be incarcerated, or someone who has been expelled from school, or someone who's been the victim or the perpetrator of violence.

All of these people sit in the circle, as has been done for thousands of years across the planet, to come up with a resolution to the harm. In that, we see each other, truly see them, see the humanity of each human being in that circle. That process alone, if done intentionally and authentically, cultivates compassion. It cultivates a connection with one another where we see each other fully and truly as human beings, and we don't see ourselves as puffed up because of titles, or history, or whatever it is that we have that makes some people feel more powerful or stronger than others. People sometimes act out or shy away because their voices haven't been heard. They haven't been given the space to express themselves.

The circle process itself and restorative justice principles and practices in and of themselves cultivate compassion. They're just a really beautiful and wonderful way of being, of living, not just practicing when there's conflict, but of living one's life. We as an organization are interested in restorative justice fidelity, so ensuring that these ancient practices that are natural and available to us all don't become commodified.

I am just so moved. You mentioned bringing your own meditation practice, this Buddhist practice, this deep fundamental awareness of compassion being a part of every human potential, and then creating this safe space for people to experience themselves in new ways and to awaken compassion. That is profoundly beautiful. I just really honor you and your family, and the whole RJOY and RJ community. Again, thank you so much for being with us.

Thank you. It's a pleasure.

Philip's interview with Teiahsha Bankhead in its entirety is part of the free online summit, Inspiring Positive Social Change: Cutting-edge Insights from Spirituality, Neuroscience and Peacebuilding.

To register for free, click here.


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This article appears in: 2017 Catalyst, Issue 16: The Psychology of True Happiness