The third day of Kwanzaa is dedicated to the principal of Ujima, which is a commitment to the virtue of collective work and responsibility. During an intimate Dec. 28 gathering, around 20 community members converged inside of St. Agatha’s Church, 3147 W. Douglas Blvd., in North Lawndale to commemorate that principal.
“We have to work together to share our resources,” said Vincent Guider, executive director of the North Lawndale Kinship Initiative. “I’m my brother’s and my sister’s keeper.”
The event was more than ceremonial. In addition to celebrating Kwanzaa, community members were essentially participating in a dry run of sorts for a concept that anchors a recently established Restorative Justice Community Court.
It’s called a peace circle and it’s a major aspect of the new court, which is part of a U.S Department of Justice pilot program designed to provide alternatives to the current justice system for people ages 18 to 26 who commit non-violent crimes.
David Castro-Harris, outreach coordinator for the Lawndale Christian Legal Center, said that each peace circle will be made up of the perpetrator, the victim and their respective families and individuals that make up their support systems. Community members will also sit in the circle in order to provide perspectives on how the perpetrator’s action affected the community. Everyone will have their say and they will work together to figure out the best way to address whatever the perpetrator did. The exact details, Castro-Harris said, would vary depending on the specifics of the situation.
“[For example] if someone stole a TV, they’d work to pay it off, or do something to replace it,” he said.
Once the incident is addressed, there is another meeting, where the circle helps to connect both the perpetrator and the victim to whatever resources they need.
In Wednesday’s peace circle, the facilitator asked questions and each person in the circle took turn answering them. There are three basic rules — everyone must be respectful of each other, everything that’s said within the circle is confidential and only the person who holds on object (in this case, a rock) can speak. While everyone was encouraged to speak, nobody was required to.
In 2015, LCLC teamed up with a number of North Lawndale community organizations to create the North Lawndale Community Restorative Justice Hub. The entities that take part in it include the North Lawndale Employment Network, Deer Rehabilitation Services, North Lawndale Community Coordinating Council, North Lawndale Kinship Initiative, Hope House Recovery Home and the offices of Ald. Michael Scott (24th) and Cook County Commissioner Robert Steele (2nd).
The hub helps provide employment training, counseling, GED or high school diploma, legal assistance and conflict intervention.
The ultimate goal, Castro-Harris said, is to help all parties involved and get them to a better place.
Over the past few months, Castro-Harris and others tried to spread the word about the court and recruit North Lawndale residents.
The court is a partnership between the Circuit Court of Cook County, the LCLC, local elected officials and a number of other area non-profits. The court will be presided over by Cook County Circuit Judge Colleen F. Sheehan, with peace circles and conferences handling much of the decision making.
Audrey Dunford, a community member who participated in the event, found the circle ‘different’, but not in a bad way.
“I think it will be good for the community it if makes an impact, if it helps curb the number of people going to jail, getting incarcerated” she reflected.
Clifton Henry said that St. Agatha helped him find short-term housing and he’s been attending events and trying to help out ever since.
“I came for Kwanzaa,” he said. “I wasn’t prepared to speak, or express myself.”
While Henry hesitated to speak at first, he did end up participating and he said that he didn’t regret it.
“It’s great,” he said. “It’s always good to socialize and communicate in a positive manner.”
LCLC will hold several town halls to give residents a better look at the court. The first town hall will be held on Jan. 12 from 6:30 pm. to 8 p.m at UCAN Chicago (3605 W. Filmore St).