Skip to content

Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth

Restorative Justice for Oakland YouthInspired by the dramatic success of restorative justice practices in South Africa and New Zealand, Dr. Fania Davis began exploring the possibility of an Oakland initiative. In 2005, with a small grant from Oakland-based Measure Y, Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth (RJOY) was born! We spoke with Co-executive Director Teiahsha Bankhead about making broken bonds whole, experimenting with creative fundraising, working your way out of a job, and looking to your left and to your right for inspiration.

How do you define restorative justice?

Restorative justice is a way of life. A way of being. It’s an approach to community building and problem solving that doesn’t punish others for any harms that they’ve caused, but instead seeks to make a broken bond whole, or a broken system whole, by addressing the wrongdoing and finding a resolution that involves all stakeholders and community members. The idea is that whenever there is harm, everyone in the community is harmed in some way. There isn’t only one victim of a crime, everyone in the community is harmed when a crime takes place because the bonds that hold community members together have been compromised.

It’s an ancient indigenous tradition that when something happens, there needs to be a collective response and not just finger pointing at the person who did something wrong. Typically as a restorative justice practice or process, all the people in the conflicted community gather together to sit in a circle around a calming center piece that may be a plant or a candle, and seek resolution through community building activities and communication. It is a humanizing approach where people see each other as equals and not as wrongdoers or as victims, because every human is capable of being either one. In our work, we have seen that this restorative approach yields more positive long term results.

What’s ONE thing you wish other people knew about your project and its cause?

As a systems change organization, we work beyond public schools and towards movement building in the community as a whole. People know us primarily for our work in schools; we have national recognition for restoring justice in Oakland schools. That’s one part of our work and we are shifting towards other systems, like the juvenile justice system. When Fania Davis founded the organization about 11 years ago, restorative justice, as a response to conflict and community building, was a new concept in Oakland. Over the years we worked with multiple schools and with the Oakland Unified School District to shift away from a punitive approach, towards a policy of restorative justice as the official disciplinary policy of the school district. We trained restorative justice practitioners and the schools budgeted $3,000,000 for restorative justice programs! We demonstrated a statistically significant reduction in suspensions and expulsions and an increase in GPA in the schools where we worked.

With this success pushing us onward, we’re bringing our expertise to the juvenile justice system. Our focus will be on ways to allow youth to see the harm they have caused, so that they can learn and grow. We work with multiple stakeholders: juvenile hall, juvenile court judges, elected officials, and the mayor’s office, etc. We’re working on multiple levels to change the system and introduce restorative practices and principles.

What compelling trends do you see in the restorative justice movement?

It’s growing dramatically! There are many funders and government agencies at the county level, state, and federal level who see these practices as critical and as worth investing in. Community foundations and corporate foundations approach us because they want to support this work not only in underrepresented and low income communities, but also for major corporations that want to resolve conflict among employees.

The National Association of Community and Restorative Justice just had its sixth national conference in June. It happens every two years, so the Association is just a bit older than RJOY. Fania Davis and I, the co-executive directors of RJOY, were the co-chairs of the conference. Held here in Oakland, which is seen as a national hub of restorative justice, the conference had the largest attendance ever with approximately 1,400 participants, which was over twice the number in attendance in 2015! In previous years we had $10,000 in funding and this year we had $150,000! We were also able to prioritize our theme, which was Moving Restorative Justice from the Margins to Center. Two of our passionate funders were interested in getting formerly incarcerated activists to the conference, so a part of our budget was flying in over 100 activists from all over the country to attend the conference and meet with leaders to discuss movement building in restorative justice. We also had attendees from the Chicago police department, who are practicing restorative justice in their city. And we flew in 80 youth from around the country and held a youth conference within the conference. Most of these are examples of new elements in the conference.

What do you hope your project will look like in 5 years?

We have four major goals and initiatives:

  1. In harmony with our mission of systems change, we would love to end youth incarceration as we know it in Oakland. We need to teach our youth how to resolve conflict in a pro-social and healthy way instead of punishing them. This would mean a radical change in how our juvenile justice system operates and with Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf interested in making Oakland a Restorative City, we are optimistic! There are about five cities worldwide that have become Restorative Cities and we are working with partners to move Oakland towards that goal. Our programs at RJOY are all aligned with this bigger goal.
  2. We would like restorative justice to be infused throughout the city, to be common language and practice, and the first strategy that people turn to, in all of Oakland’s communities.
  3. We are also focused on a re-entry program for incarcerated youth. Our program has a 25% recidivism rate vs. a 75% rate for programs that don’t incorporate restorative justice!
  4. We are engaged in a mapping project that allows us to map the truth telling and racial healing that is happening across the nation following the conflicts with police and the rise in killing of unarmed black men across the nation. A lot of people are focused on punishing the police officers, but we are trying to lift up the examples of healing stories in a book, in narrative and photos, and identify solutions to harm.

Tell us about a business or nonprofit leader who inspires you.

I look to people who are close to me. I’m inspired by Dr. Fania Davis, the founder at RJOY. She is a civil rights attorney and the sister of political activist Angela Davis–each sister is a thought leader and civil rights icon. And I look to the passion for social and racial justice among other contemporaries locally who were founders and leaders of the Black Panther party. I believe it’s important not to look up, but to look out, to my left and my right for inspiration. I find inspiration all around me, in everyday people who are passionate about equity building for the most marginalized among us.

What partnerships have been key to RJOY’s success?

Other restorative justice organizations locally like Impact Justice and Community Works West, CircleUp LLC, The Ella Baker Center for Human Rights and their Restore Oakland project, The Oakland Unified School District, The National Association of Community Restorative Justice, Eastern Mennonite University in Virginia, which is seen as the restorative justice teaching and intellectual hub, many of our staff teach in their Summer Peacebuilding Institute. It’s a mix of nonprofits, for profits, and some city government.

We have a wonderful relationship with the City of Oakland and Mayor Libby Schaaf. Mayor Schaaf, in her first hundred days in office, sat in a circle with a hundred youth that we facilitated–ten youth in ten different circles. She was passionate about going into juvenile hall and juvenile camp and low income neighborhoods and schools that were not high performing to hear from youth about what they felt she needed to focus on. She didn’t have cameras rolling, the media didn’t know about this, but it was because of her deep commitment to restorative practice and listening to the people who are most affected by trauma in their communities. She’s an ally.

And then there are our partnerships with funders. We are fortunate to have funding from a range of forward thinking and progressive foundation partners, both local and national. The Novo Foundation, The East Bay Community Foundation, the Akonadi Foundation, and many more who believe in our work, share our social justice vision, AND who are our thought partners.

What fundraising tactics do you recommend to the CI Community?

Authenticity and building relationships with individuals at foundations is key to success, along with finding funders who are the best match for your mission. It’s also important to do different kinds of fundraising, as I learned over 25 years as a development director. Individual donor cultivation creates linkages to foundation grants, donor advised funds, and to corporate foundations because some of your smaller level donors may have connections that lead to bigger relationships. At RJOY we’ve had two ticketed donor cultivation events that we call garden parties. One was at Angela Davis’s home and we auctioned off lunch with her, as well as memorabilia. These were successful fundraisers, but also a way to make connections. We invited our community and corporate foundation project managers and they got to meet our youth and see our work. We’ve also connected with celebrities like Danny Glover, who was a guest at a luncheon where he sat in circle with some of our formerly incarcerated youth and we auctioned off dinner with him at his home for about 10 people at $2,000 a plate. This summer we’re having an event with Alice Walker and guests will include foundation board members and formerly incarcerated people as well as city officials. These are fun events and they’re a way to elevate the thinking about nonprofit fundraising. The uncertainty of how the events will go can be scary, but it’s important to think not only about the amount of money raised, but about the connections that may yield future opportunities.

How has fiscal sponsorship helped you achieve your goals?

Fiscal sponsorship is an efficient way of delivering services to a pool of organizations. It’s ideal for us at our size and stage of development, and maybe longer! We love not having to worry about many operational challenges, like human resources and payroll and insurance, or being able to consult an attorney about language in sub-contractual agreements.

What words of wisdom would you like to share with the CI community?

Be authentic! Be authentic to your mission and keep reworking your mission if necessary. Over time nonprofits can become obsessed with their own survival and may need to revisit why they exist in the first place. At RJOY, we seek to equip the school system with a restorative justice approach, philosophy, and tools, so that the system develops an internal capacity for this approach and our services are no longer needed. Now the schools have their own budget and we are moving our focus to the juvenile justice system. Nonprofits should not be established to ensure that they continue, they should be established to effect community transformation. We have to believe that our goal is possible and truly be working towards it. If we do this, we are much more successful in fundraising because our passion for the mission is apparent.

Learn More:

RJOY’s Website
RJOY on Facebook