Austin Coming Together continues to promote restorative justice among young people and adults in Austin. This month, in partnership with Taproots, ACT is starting a youth training program that teaches teens how to participate in peace circles, an important practice in restorative justice.

A $10,000 Life Comes From It grant, awarded by the Tides Foundation earlier this spring, will support these efforts.

The grant will help ensure that youth have “space for youth to be trained in RJ as well as take ownership of the philosophy and make it their own,” said Ethan Ramsay, lead organizer at ACT.

Two groups for teenagers – one for ages 10 to 14 and the other for 14 to 18 – will meet after school once a week to learn how to become circle keepers.

“These are what you call [a] safe space, and the kids are able to talk about things and share,” said Dollie Sherman, youth engagement specialist at ACT.

Circles are designed to help build better relationships among community members by providing a safe space where every participant expresses themselves and other participants listen.

This will not be the first circle keeping and restorative justice training for Austin youth. Community leaders have been promoting restorative justice as a strategy to address violence, further reaffirmed in Austin’s Forward Together quality-of-life plan. Peace circles are an important component of their restorative justice initiative.

“Within the last two years we started working with our youth, getting them trained … to be circle keepers,” Sherman said ,”We’re making sure that we are introducing families, community residents to the RJ practice in our community.”

There are multiple types of circles – peace circles, hip hop circles, healing circles, introduction circles, community building circles – just to name a few. What all of them have in common is they help people communicate more effectively.

“You get that opportunity to share without being interrupted … being fully heard and validated,” said Ruby Taylor, executive director at Taproots.

In partnership with Taproots, 10 young people and three adults were trained as circle keepers. Several other teens participated in peace circles, but not all of them were certified.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, small groups of up to 25 teenagers attended a couple of circle meetings held every month. During the height of the pandemic, circles were held online and five participants obtained their certification as circle keepers.

Several teens who participated in the virtual training and some adults are interested in joining the upcoming circle training program, Sherman said. Circles & Ciphers, a Chicago youth organization, will return to hold hip hop-infused circles for Austin’s young people.

Circles that bring adults and young people together, also called intergenerational circles, can help bridge the communication gap between adults and youth. The impact has been profound.

There was a family that couldn’t communicate before participating, Sherman said. “Now, that family is really, really thriving, and they’re able to communicate. And now when they have a conflict, the first thing they say is, ‘Let’s do a circle.’”

Other organizations also partner with ACT to promote restorative justice initiatives related to its quality-of-life plan.

BUILD holds circles training for the youth they serve. Catholic Charities, Christ the King Jesuit College Prep, Plato Learning Academy, Nehemiah Trinity Rising and K L Morton Enterprises also promote restorative justice programming and participate in ACT’s public safety working group.

“RJ is a component of this larger approach to trying create connectivity and a sense of accountability among residents to making sure the community feels safe,” Ramsay said.

More restorative justice activities are planned for this summer, including events later this month and over Memorial Day weekend. A restorative justice summit is also being planned for August. To stay updated on future events, visit Austin Coming Together.