The Possible Future

By Bob Koehler

I sit here in a deep sort of writer’s block. Writer’s void. The black hole.

I want to write about restorative justice (and I refrain from capitalizing it just now because that deifies it and right now I can’t cope with something so big, so important; I have to bring it down to my size) … I want to write about restorative justice because I can’t think of anything bigger or better to do with my life than, well, save the world, or at least save my city, Chicago.

But I’m afraid. I won’t get it right. I won’t get all of it.


OK, let’s call it RJ. That has a rah-rah sound to it, the generation of instant enthusiasm, like turning on a blender. It’s not that simple, of course, but this is less intimidating – RJ! It turns complexity into hope. It opens a door. No, it creates the door. Reach for it. Open that door, if you dare.


By Margaret Wheatley

There is no power greater than a community discovering what it cares about.

Ask: “What’s possible?” not “What’s wrong?” Keep asking.

Notice what you care about. Assume that many others share your dreams.

Be brave enough to start a conversation that matters. Talk to people you know. Talk to people you don’t know. Talk to people you never talk to.

Be intrigued by the differences you hear. Expect to be surprised. Treasure curiosity more than certainty.

Invite in everybody who cares to work on what’s possible. Acknowledge that everyone is an expert about something. Know that creative solutions come from new connections.

Remember, you don’t fear people whose story you know. Real listening always brings people closer together.

Trust that meaningful conversations can change your world.

Rely on human goodness. Stay together

So I start here. Word by word.

I start here because at the last peace circle I participated in, the circle keeper, Shedrick Sanders, read this to open things up.

Peace circle? My god, what’s a peace circle? People sit together in complete equality – what I have called “vibrant equality.” Sometimes they are people who, otherwise, live with one another in nothing that resembles equality: teachers and students, bosses and workers, cops and kids, neighbors who can’t stand each other. They talk. They listen. Mostly, they listen. There are rituals, protocols. I’ll say more about this. For now, simply know that a peace circle is a circle of willing participants, often enough speaking from the heart, addressing difficult matters. Such behavior is not idealistic. It’s the core and soul of pragmatism. This is crucial to know.

A peace circle is an incubator for positive change, among much else. It’s an incubator of possibility: the possible future.

“There is no power greater than a community discovering what it cares about.”

Words get cloudy, dull, emotionally minimized, stripped of meaning. Too often, words are the tools of liars. Because of this, their use can be a terrible struggle when one doesn’t want to lie.

The word “community.” So easy, so bland.

I take it for granted. Community. A bunch of people, a bounded area. Perhaps the ties are sheerly geographical: we shop at the same grocery store, the same hardware store. That Dunkin’ Donuts on the corner. The McDonald’s with the Gaia clothing donation bin in the parking lot. We hit the same potholes heading north on Ashland.

Perhaps the ties are economic. Middle class. White homeowners.

Does a community require outsiders – not us, them – in order to cohere into an entity, something real?

RJ as a philosophy begs to differ. This was my initial pull toward it. Peace circles create community out of our shared anxieties and secrets. Our humanity . . . whatever that might mean. RJ rises from the deepest sense of that word, from a knowing that our commonality is more powerful than our alienation, indeed, that human separateness is fragmentary nonsense: an obsession about skin color, income level, nationality. Or anything else. The school you attend, the neighborhood you live in. All of these “differences” break down to irrelevance when people talk with serious honesty. This is what RJ makes possible.

Sometimes it’s a matter of life or death. When emotions are uncontrolled – when they are uncontrolled and armed – the fragmentary nonsense has lethal potential. This is the case in so many broken ’hoods, in Chicago, around the country, across the planet. RJ is emerging in these communities for good reason.

Connection saves lives.

Connection heals. It heals and reclaims the lives of vulnerable young people too often abandoned by the de facto racism of poverty, marginalized by the legal and educational bureaucracies.

Consider: “The murder rate has gone up in the city by 38%, but what is significant is the impact on our children and young adults. In this environment, our youth are growing up. Some of them believe that it is only a matter of time before they or a community member is shot or killed.”

So wrote Robert Spicer several years ago, at the Illinois Balanced and Restorative Justice website. Spicer was then the Culture and Climate coordinator at Chicago’s Fenger High School. He was the peace guy.

“The hopelessness,” he continued, “unlocks the door for conflicts to arise from something as small as a stare or as large as an old hurt that has not been forgiven but has just been allowed to fester and grow like a weed.”

Unlocks the door . . .

But we guard our doors! When kids go to school these days, they have to pass through a metal detector before they’re admitted to the premises. Security is as American as apple pie, all natural and normal and unquestioned. Cameras, buzzers. Beep!

Step over here, please.

But security doesn’t beep for hopelessness.

Two boys are standing together in the school cafeteria. It’s morning. The kids have breakfast here, then wait for the first bell to ring. Some of them wait, perhaps, with hopelessness. Quietly, secretly.

“It is in this environment that restorative practices like peace circles can make a difference in the lives of our youth,” Spicer writes.

He tells a brief story about the boys. As they wait for first period to begin, they try out a new handshake. Amid the talk and laughter in the cafeteria, “another student noticed them doing their handshake and began to question them about what they were doing. Feeling disrespected, the students started to have words and then other students gathered around to see what was going on.”

And suddenly, whoa, the first two boys, he writes, “postured themselves to fight.”

But Fenger is a high school that knows about something beyond fighting – beyond the unleashing of righteous anger, the subduing of an enemy. Fenger, like other schools that have opened their doors to RJ, have peace ambassadors roaming their hallways. These are young people trained in restorative practices, like listening, like keeping calm, like refusing to surrender to hopelessness. Sometimes they’re called peer jurors: students who help run conflict-resolution circles, circles that address disputes and attempt to undo – that is, heal – harm that has been done.

And there were peace ambassadors in the cafeteria that morning.

“As I was preparing for my day, some of my peer jurors who were in the lunch room approached me and told me about the situation and who was involved. One of my peer jurors said, ‘You going to have a big peace circle today. Let me know if you need my help.’ Quite frankly, because this situation happened in the lunchroom, I knew that all of the eight male students involved were not going to end up in my office but be sent home on a suspension. But was I in for a surprise that day!

“Both the dean and the principal had conducted their interviews with the students and it was decided that there needs to be a restorative response to this situation. Once the decision was made, all eight of the students, the dean and the principal were in my office. As we sat down and we opened up the circle, all the students, when they received the talking piece, agreed that the situation was a big misunderstanding. Some began to share stories about situations they were dealing with and others in the circle were able to relate by sharing their stories. They realized where they went wrong and how their behavior could have resulted in serious consequences. Because of the circle, these young men were able to face each other and see that they are all TITANS! After the closing ceremony each of the students shook hands and even hugged each other as they were preparing to leave my office. They did this without any adults prompting them to do this which showed their sincerity. Once we concluded the circle, the adults decided to allow them to blow off some steam and play basketball. And the students who were the main ones in conflict were on the same team. They played for about 25 minutes and afterwards were sent to class skipping and excited about the school day.”

“Ask: ‘What’s possible?’ not ‘What’s wrong?’ Keep asking.”

This isn’t easy. The “what’s wrong?” thing pops up wherever you plop yourself politically. But asking “what’s possible?” gets immediately to the heart of RJ. Kids can get along; they can learn serious and surprising truths about one another. So can the rest of us.

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